“The Silver Palate Cookbook” looked different when it arrived on the cookbook scene in 1979. There were no step-by-step glossy photos a la “McCall’s Cooking School.” It wasn’t textbook style, like “The Joy of Cooking,” hausfrau-ish like “The Fannie Farmer Cookbook” or a paean to hippiedom and vegetarianism like “The Moosewood Cookbook.” Instead, inside the red-and-white checked cover (featuring the cookbook’s lone photo, which is of the gourmet food shop for which the book was named), hand-drawn pictures of lamb chops, mustard pots, shrimp— and even a few bunnies— accompanied by tiny hearts or stars, decorated the pages. The table of contents was divided into 10 chapters with titles such as “To Begin a Great Evening” and subtitles like “Dazzlers” and “Chicken Every Way” and “Mousse Magic” that suggested something slightly sexy, maybe even naughty, and hinted of a glamorous life of cocktail parties and brunches that might be attained simply by attempting recipes for caviar éclairs or lemon chicken. When Sheila Lukins and her co-author, Julee Rosso, placed Brillat-Savarin’s quote, “The discovery of a new dish does more for the happiness of mankind than the discovery of a star” in the book’s preface, you believed that there could be nothing more exciting.
I broke out my three, well-used Lukins and Rosso cookbooks (“The Silver Palate Cookbook,” “The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook,” and “The New Basics Cookbook”) after reading of Sheila Lukins’ death, of brain cancer, at age 66, on Aug. 30. At the time of her death, she had been the food editor of Parade magazine for more than 30 years, introducing Sunday readers to accessible, gourmet recipes for ginger spiced cranberry sauce or white chicken chili. Other generations of cooks may have learned from Julia or Jacques, but I realized as I leafed through the cookbooks’ pages stained with brownish smears and droplets that, as much as anyone else, my mentor was Sheila.
Under her tutelage, I started cooking with ingredients such as hazelnuts and fennel, discovered fiddlehead ferns and Arborio rice. I added white wine to my yellow cake batter, and learned to make vinaigrette. My main course repertoire expanded from pasta and hamburgers to chicken (every way) and salmon. “The New Basics’” endless explanatory charts taught me to pair tarragon with carrots and prompted me to buy a bottle of Meursault to serve with salmon long before I knew what white burgundy was.
The funny quotes about food and friendship pulled from song lyrics and literature inspired me to scrawl my own discoveries taken from newspapers and daily conversations into the margins of the cookbook (I can never decide which of my found quotations is my favorite. It’s either “There are hidden depths to chickens” or “Some of my best friends are cows.”). And while I never set a table with an antique quilt, created an all-asparagus dinner or hosted a clambake on a local beach, as Lukins suggested, I credit her for letting me know that it would be fabulous to do so.
Lukins’ cooking personality seemed as exuberant as her frizzy, long brown hair, which she wore caught up in a towering brioche-like topknot. She was no Martha fussing with perfection. Nor was she Julia touting technique, though she didn’t stint on butter and was prone to hyperbole a la Ms. Child. Ellen’s Apple Tart was “the best apple tart we have ever eaten,” Lukins declares. Julee Rosso’s family recipe for Butterball cookies was “the best we know,” and Chocolate Hazelnut Cake was “the best chocolate cake in the universe.”
I know for sure that Lukins was right about the Chocolate Hazelnut Cake, which was the first “complicated” cake I ever made. Published in “The Silver Palate Cookbook” (not to be confused with the chocolate hazelnut cake, “the ultimate cake for any chocolate lover’s occasion,” in “The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook”), the cake features a hazelnut butter cream made with toasted hazelnuts ground to a paste mixed with corn syrup, brandy and butter. The butter cream filling is sandwiched between the nutty chocolate cake and a sheen of dark chocolate glaze, yielding chocolate-sweet-salty-nutty in each bite, a caked-up version of a peanut butter cup, only with hazelnuts. Each time I bake it, I wonder why I don’t make it more often.
That said, so many of Lukins’ recipes have worked their way into my repertoire. If there is leftover chicken, I make Cozy Turkey (Chicken) Hash with potatoes, mushrooms and a little curry powder. No summer is complete without a version of her Tart Nicoise or the lemon peel spiked marinade for London broil in the Grilled Mixed Grill. I make Roquefort Meatloaf and Potatoes Fontecchio. And like thousands of hostesses, I’ve often made Chicken Marbella, Lukins’ classic dinner party dish of chicken marinated with olives, prunes, capers and generous amounts of garlic.
Chicken Marbella had its 15 minutes of fame and then was promptly forgotten like other 1980s food fads (I’m looking at you raspberry vinegar), but I brought it out not long ago when I was wracking my brain for something simple to serve friends for dinner. It was as I remembered it— the chicken tender and redolent of garlic, the prunes melting into the wine-based drippings, the capers and green olives giving the dish a savory punch. When my friend asked for the recipe and I told her what it was, she laughed. “I knew this was familiar,” she said. “My mom used to make this all the time for parties.” I have a feeling that for Lukins, this would have been the highest compliment.