NEW YORK — If you cook for company, chances are good that sometime in the last decade you turned to "The Silver Palate."
Its authors, Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins, had the gift of perfect timing.
Their first book became a friendly lab instructor for home cooks willing to experiment with blueberry vinegar or arugula or shallot mustard when they could find--and afford--them.
Rosso and Lukins seemed to be in perfect step with the way the baby boom generation was eating when they opened their gourmet takeout shop in 1977, when they began a line of gourmet products, and when they published "The Silver Palate Cookbook" in 1982.
Professionals cooked from "The Silver Palate Cookbook" and were served food from it. But it also gave amateurs with curious palates but few skills the confidence to go forth into the kitchen. "People were ready to become stars in the kitchen," Lukins said.
"I think what Sheila and I had as a sense innately was that cooking had always been this secret, precious, mystifying thing," Rosso said. "We were so excited every time we learned something we wanted to share it."
And share they did: More than 2 million copies of "The Silver Palate" are in print.
"It was first book that I could cook from for other people without a rehearsal," said Jo Brans of New York City, who is writing a book about her personal culinary development. "It is imaginative, reliable. It's fun. It's not terribly formidable. I just love it."
Like many people, she can list her favorites: the pureed vegetables, the stews, and the chicken marbella, which was a popular item in their shop, the source of recipes for "The Silver Palate Cookbook."
"A lot of my friends have it. It's one of those staples people have. Their mothers had 'Joy of Cooking' and they have 'The Silver Palate,' " said Lindsey Crittenden of New York, who remembers being "very impressed" when a boyfriend cooked her a chicken recipe from the book.
Jackie Weissman, who writes books and music for children in Overland Park, Kan., has over the years made notes on her recipes. Of the hummus on page 346, "delicious--and I left out the oil." The strawberry ice cream, page 276, is "fantastic." The toffee bars, on 257, were "very yummy and very easy." But she found the beef carbonnade on page 126 "nice but not worth the preparation time."
Part of what makes "The Silver Palate Cookbook" inviting is its design: simply written recipes with Lukins' charming line drawings and wide margins. In the margins are small doses of information on selecting olives, planning a menu, decorating a table, or the history of a dish, along with plenty of reassurances, and even quotes from Shakespeare and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
The recipes are bold, relying on lots of herbs and the intense flavors that Lukins and Rosso have admired on their various trips abroad. Many of their readers also have traveled abroad, and the foods they tasted are increasingly available at home.
The women also keyed in on unusual combinations of familiar ingredients.
Blueberries appear in a vinaigrette, raspberries with chicken, garlic everywhere. Chicken marbella, for example, calls for a whole head of garlic--and a quarter cup of dried oregano--to serve 10 to 12 people.
The food was a little daring, but not too outlandish.
"I was always a good home cook, so I made dishes people could relate to, feel familiar with: chicken salad, tomato soup--and they don't have salsify in it," Lukins said. "Short of arugula, you could get almost everything in the supermarket."
"They had kind of upscale, kind of hip things," said Marion Cunningham, who revised "The Fannie Farmer Cookbook." "Some of the ingredients were ingredients you would find in restaurant dishes. They were able to add that flair of a certain in-style, today kind of feeling."
When Lukins and Rosso met, Rosso was an executive, thinking about other ways to make a living. Lukins was a mother and a caterer working from home. Soon after Rosso hired her to provide a business breakfast, the Silver Palate was born.
In the early days, the shop was run on the run. Lukins cooked at home and sent the food to the 165-square-foot store that Rosso operated. They finally rented an apartment upstairs for cooking, "not realizing how illegal we were and getting more illegal all the time," Rosso said.
The shop was becoming an Upper West Side staple for people too busy or lazy to cook for themselves, and the partners expanded by manufacturing food still sold in gourmet shops around the country.
One day, they lunched with a magazine editor, who suggested they write a cookbook.
"I said, 'Well, we are.' But we were not. Sheila kicked me under the table," Rosso said. The editor happened to work at Workman Publishing three days a week and requested an outline.
"I don't even drink scotch, but we took a bottle of scotch and went to Sheila's house," Rosso said.
They set to work compiling ideas from the food in the shop. Michael McLaughlin, an employee, worked on recipes.