Much More than Marbella

“If fresh basil is not available, substitute 1 cup fresh parsley leaves and 2 teaspoons dried basil”
The Silver Palate Cookbook, by Julee Rosso & Sheila Lukins, 1982
(from the recipe for Tapenade Dip, p. 22)

Can you imagine fresh basil not being available?

Me neither.  But I can remember it.  When I was a kid in Queens, NY, unless you grew up in an Italian family and had a house with a garden, you probably never had fresh basil and you sure as hell had never heard of arugula.  Oh, we had dozens of little urban produce stands, but unless you ventured over to Little Italy or Chinatown or various other ethnic enclaves, you’d probably never seen a mushroom that wasn’t a bland white cap or greens that weren’t iceberg lettuce or spinach.  Concord grapes weren’t a real thing, only something invented by the people who made jelly.  I’d never heard of a mango, no less seen one, until my Senior Year of High School when Thalia Gross brought one to school and shared it around our French class.   And please don’t get me started about cheese!

Julia Child and Mastering the Art of French Cooking may have opened the door to fine cuisine in America, but it took another 20 years to open America’s palates to the possibilities of simple preparations of fresh local ingredients, and the excitement of cuisines that weren’t French.  No doubt people will argue with me on this, but I think that American culinary  openness and fluidity may turn out to be one of the greatest lasting legacies of the Boomer generations.

At the close of a summer where so many eras seem to be coming to an end, in the wake of Sheila Lukins’ passing, I pulled out my copy and started thumbing through.  [and here I must give kudos to Workman’s Press for the quality of the paper and binding; apart from the waterspots and underlinings of my own making, my 1982 first printing still looks beautiful]  A lot of people have recently been moved to set down grateful remembrances of what The Silver Palate meant to them.  Most of these focus on “Chicken Marbella”, which seems to be the madeleine for memories of early 1980’s dinner parties.  Whether I’m a couple of years younger than these people, or because I was a struggling actor at that time and had different kinds of dinner parties, “Chicken Marbella” is not what The Silver Palate means to me.

While looking back at early days of The Great American Food Revolution, memories of the Alice Waters cabal may hold sway over the West Coast, but in New York City, we had our own leaders and touchstones.  Ten years after I tasted my first mango, The Silver Palate Cookbook was published. I already knew the store, a tiny place about the size of a NYC apartment kitchen-dinette, on a half-abandoned street called Columbus Avenue that was just beginning to show green shoots of life. The same way that I would go downtown to buy sleek tins of cardamom and such from that new Dean and Deluca place in Soho, I would sometimes go uptown and treat myself to the Silver Palate mustards and chutneys.  I never bought their prepared foods –it would have been too much of a splurge for my pocket — but the minute I heard about the cookbook, I ran to get one.

At the time, all the food presented by Lukins and Rosso was simply exciting. It was young and hip. It was worldly, in both its simple sophistication and its nods to unfamiliar or under-familiar cuisines.  It was modern and it was New York.  I look through the book now and marvel because, in retrospect, I’m holding the blueprint for the way I eat and cook today.

What’s in this book?  What’s not!  The book is a “survey” as we used to say in college; in other words, the scope is wide and shallow rather than narrow and deep.  Starting with the starters — hors d’oeuvres, nibbles,  whatever you want to call them — recipes glide by in various categories of soups, entrees, vegetables, etc., with only a few choice dishes representing each.

The catering (and take-out) sensibility of Lukins and Rosso is evident throughout.  For example, salads have a high profile, with sub-categories for “Significant Salads”, “Summer Salads”, “All-American Salads”, “Salads From the Sea” and “Salads on the Green”.  There is a Breads chapter, which includes a smattering of yeast and “quick” from challah to soda bread, to skillet cornbread and zucchini bread.  There are also instructions on how to make “The Big Bread Sandwich” for a party.  As for Desserts, well, they cover all the necessities:  chocolate and lemon; gooey cakes and pumpkin pie; even a few recipes for mousses and (yay!) a sabayon.

Throughout the book, there are helpful definitions of such exotic foods as prosciutto, carpaccio and pancetta; smoked salmon and gravlax; and, peppercorns (including pink pepper berries).  Are you amazed that we needed these notes?  A few years BSP  (Before Silver Palate), I brought some friends from college home with me for the weekend and took them out to brunch.  (And for those who think brunch started in the 80’s, please note that this was 1974).  We ate in one of the “Days” restaurants (back then, the city boasted a Tuesdays, a Thursdays, a Fridays…).  I can’t remember which it was, but it was  in the upper 50’s on the West side (I think) and very famous for it’s brunch, which was a multi-course NYC culinary jumble including both bagels and lox, and stuffed french toast, as courses in the same meal (and yes, I cringe to remember this).  When the bagels came with, not only lox, but herring in cream sauce — I had two panicked Southerners poking with their forks, wondering if it such things were edible and if there was a polite Southern way to avoid finding out.  By the way, speaking of brunch, the book includes an entire chapter on this local trend, which was starting to spread across the country.  “The Brunch Bunch” section even includes several appropriate beverages.

The Silver Palate Cookbook’s coverage of innovations doesn’t stop with  brunch, or with a description of the new instant read thermometer, or the cooking technique of baking in foil.  With fascination, I read about how to prepare exciting new things like pesto and flavored butters, both of which soon after became ubiquitous in NY restaurants.  There are informative sidebars about varieties of mushrooms and pastas, and a whole section called “The Cheese Board”, which includes recipes for “Brie Baked in Phyllo” and “Marinated Chevres”, thereby correcting my memory of these preparations backwards by a couple of years.  The chapters on vegetables included some that many of us had only eaten once or twice in a “special occasion” restaurant, where they would have been liberally covered with some sort of butter sauce.  I’m not just talking artichokes.  My book has a heavy pink highlighter line under the recipe for “Green Beans with Tomatoes”.  These were probably the first fresh green beans I had ever cooked, just as “Peas A La Venitienne” (with baby shrimp), prepared according to Perla Meyers’ recipe in The Seasonal Kitchen, had been my very first fresh peas a few years before.

Looking for the recipe for “Chicken Marbella”, I came upon the “Blueberry Chicken”, which I actually remember more.  The recipe includes blueberry chutney which is noted as being “available in specialty food stores”, though the only store I recall having that particular chutney was The Silver Palate itself.  Chutney looms large in my memory of The Silver Palate, and in the book.  There’s a discussion of the condiment on p. 90.  And the introduction to the section on Meats (p. 97) notes that  “At the Silver Palate, we have always seasoned entrees with fruit”, going on to gently instruct America that “sweet and savory meals have an ancient and worldwide tradition. Dishes of the Orient, the Middle East and Africa…often [use] fruit as much for color and texture as for their natural sweetness….In much the same way, mustards, vinegars and chutneys enliven meat dishes, and we use them freely in our cookery.”  These days, who doesn’t?  But back then, it was an epiphany.  I remember taking my mom down to the Soho Charcuterie for a Mother’s Day Brunch (now that’s a time capsule image for you!), and her omelet came with a dab of chutney on the side.  We didn’t know what to make of such a thing; then we ran to find a store where we could get some.

So much was new to us back then.  Imagine having to be told that “swordfish is deliciously meaty; when cooked with a little care, it need not be dry.” (p. 115) Now we’ve overfished it to endangerment.  The recipe for “Green Lasagna” (p. 76) is described as “an intriguing departure from the usual lasagna and yet respects the traditions of freshness and lightness that permeate the best Italian cooking.  The combination of soft, fresh goat cheese and fresh basil is one we find especially exciting…”  Yes! there was a time when a goat cheese salad did not appear on the menu of every single restaurant in the USA!

And how about this news flash from p. 186?: “Garlic lovers are in luck these days.  The hot and spicy flavors of Szechuan cooking, and the intriguing combinations of Italian cuisine, both relying heavily on garlic, are currently in vogue.”  It’s hard to believe, when every take-out place in the country ranks its dishes with a sliding scale of chile pepper graphics, but there was a time when spice was new and daring.  My Dad took me to my first Szechuan restaurants, all located near the UN, in 1979, where he stunned the waiters by pulling the bird peppers out of the sauce and downing them whole.  A couple of years before that, my family was early to make the move to beyond-Brooklyn-Italian thanks to the opening of a new restaurant in our neighborhood.  Buonovia was in risky competition with some local stalwarts, but they had food like nothing we’d ever eaten before, including their anchovy-and-garlic-soaked Spiedini alla Romano, which I can taste in my mind to this very day.  It took a few years, but owner got some traction with this kind of cooking.  You may have heard of her — Lidia Bastianich?

A lot has happened to American food in the last 30 years and The Silver Palate was in at the start. Browsing the pages of The Silver Palate Cookbook is a trip down memory lane, but with nothing old or dusty about it.  I could still today cook my way from cover to cover and be happy with every bite. No, I’m not going to do a Julie/Julia Project, but the point is, I could.  There are lots of salvos in a revolution, but most turn out to be little more than fireworks, and quickly fade.  In 1982, Rosso and Lukins fired a shot that hit the mark.  That’s a pretty good legacy, I think.