Not long ago, an editor reminded me, “A cookbook can't be everything to everyone.” Has this always been true?
My mind immediately flashed back to 1982’s “The Silver Palate Cookbook,” by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins. It was a comprehensive source for a generation of home cooks in America. More than three decades after it was published, I wondered whether it, and a few other influential cookbooks of that same year, would hold up in a drastically different culinary era.
According to the owner of New York's Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks, where she sells rare and vintage titles, a lot of people still use “The Silver Palate” as a basic cookbook.
“They don't have Fannie Farmer, ‘Joy of Cooking’ or Betty Crocker,” Slotnick says. “Not only do people continue raving about it, but they continue to buy copies to replace the ones they've worn out, and they're buying it for their children.” The first printing of “The Silver Palate Cookbook” was 37,000 copies; that tally now stands at 2.7 million and includes the 25th anniversary edition.
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Named for the gourmet takeout and catering shop the authors opened in 1977 on Manhattan's Upper West Side, the cookbook combined recipes with Lukins's whimsical drawings, select quotes from notable figures, proposed menus and stand-alone technical notes. Looking at chapter headings such as “The Charcuterie Board,” “Chicken Every Which Way,” “Soup's On” and “Piping Hot Pasta,” which has a pasta glossary to help you choose the best noodle to suit your purposes, an entire cookbook could be built from any one of those concepts.
“It's a nice range of things – it’s not all chicken or Italian,” Slotnick says. “Books like that are harder to find; books today are more specialized.”
Another one I remember seeing on the kitchen counter as a kid was also published in '82. It featured a smiling blonde on the cover who looked like a cross between a Disney princess and a Stepford wife. She stood at the end of a long, beautifully set table, and near her head, it read “Entertaining: Martha Stewart.”
In her first cookbook, the ex-model and chic Connecticut caterer delivered a guide to hosting and cooking for parties of all sizes. The gig panned out nicely for her, and it all seems to have come full circle. Her latest television project, “Martha & Snoop’s Potluck Dinner Party,” is now in its second season on VH1. “Entertaining” left no stone or place card unturned; an aspiring host could find themed menus and inspiration to make even a dinner for two a little more festive.
While Stewart's cookbook was all about creating for special occasions, “The Silver Palate” was informal and more everyday. Big, clean flavors were “very understandable to the American palate,” says Rosso, who has run a bed-and-breakfast in Saugatuck, Michigan, since 1991. (Lukins, who went on to write several more successful books, died in 2009).
“We weren't very sophisticated about food, and we liked things that shout,” Russo says. But unlike later gastronomy tomes that fetishized chefs and restaurants, both books offered recipes that home cooks could make – as long as they could locate and afford the watercress (”exotic!” Rosso recalls), raspberry vinegar and Belgian endive as a serving vessel; we have Martha Stewart to thank for that.
Vegetable cookery and the hundreds of titles it has generated in the past few years would appear to address a uniquely modern interest, but “The Victory Garden Cookbook” of '82 proves otherwise. With it, author Marian Morash made a breakthrough. Her husband, Russell Morash, produced public television programs in Boston and she had worked on Julia Child's show. When “The Victory Garden,” one of Russell's projects, aired in 1975, viewers tuned in to learn about how and what to plant from host Jim Crockett. And then they phoned in to the station because once he had taught them how to grow leeks, they didn't know what to do with them.
Russell asked Marian whether she could provide such culinary advice. So, in 1979, she became a regular correspondent on the show and was then approached by Knopf editor Judith Jones, who had published Child's books along with those by Madhur Jaffrey, Edna Lewis and Claudia Roden.
Arranged alphabetically from asparagus to zucchini - “See, Squash (Summer)” - and clocking in at more than 800 recipes, the “Victory Garden” book has instructions for growing, harvesting, storing, buying and cooking each vegetable. This is not a vegetarian tome, however. Salsify is simmered with veal for a hearty ragout or, when left over, pan-fried with turkey for a fast hash. It's not just that Morash dared to go where others didn't by featuring turnips and rutabaga, it's that she also put her star material into creative, resourceful situations.
Before online recipe-sharing communities existed, these three cookbooks were social connectors.
“"We all know people who served Chicken Marbella for every party they ever had,” Slotnick says of “The Silver Palate’s” best-known dish.
When I reached Morash at her summer house in Nantucket, Massachusetts, she had just put up a batch of tomato freezer sauce from “The Victory Garden Cookbook.” She says fans stop her on the street to tell her they still cook from it. There have been 315,834 copies sold – not as many as the other two books, but not small potatoes.
When asked whether, in hindsight, Morash would make any changes, she replied, “The only thing I would do if I was going to do it again now is to reduce the amount of butter. We'd go to olive oil instead.”
Oven Asparagus Puff
Adapted from "The Victory Garden Cookbook," by Marian Morash (Alfred A. Knopf, 1982). This is a slightly richer, possibly more elegant take on a frittata. You could swap the asparagus for mushrooms, spinach or broccoli.
12 ounces to 1 pound asparagus
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, divided
2 tablespoons chopped onion
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons water
6 large eggs
1/3 cup heavy cream
Freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 cups grated Muenster cheese
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
Peel and roll-cut asparagus (see note below) into 1-inch pieces. You should have 2 cups.
Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a saute pan over medium heat. Stir in the onion and cook about 5 minutes, until softened.
Add the asparagus, sprinkle with the sugar and 1/2 teaspoon of the salt; stir-fry for 1 minute, then add the water, cover and cook for 1 to 2 minutes, moving the pan to keep the asparagus from sticking. Uncover and cook for a few minutes, until the pan liquid has evaporated. Remove from the heat to cool slightly.
Whisk together the eggs, cream, the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and the pepper (to taste) in a mixing bowl.
Melt the remaining 2 tablespoons butter in an ovenproof baking dish (10 inches square) set inside a larger skillet on the stove, or in a 10-inch ovenproof skillet. Pour in the egg mixture and cook for about 3 minutes over medium heat until just the bottom has set.
Arrange the asparagus and onions in a single layer on top of the egg mixture. Transfer to the oven (if you used the baking dish, you can leave the skillet behind). Bake (middle rack) for 5 minutes, then remove from the oven to top with the grated cheese. Return to the oven and bake for 15 to 25 minutes, until puffed and the cheese has lightly browned.
Serve right away.
Note: To roll-cut asparagus, give each spear a one-quarter turn as you cut it on the diagonal each time, into 1-inch sections. (The facets will lend more texture to the dish.)
Per serving: 450 calories, 22 g protein, 6 g carbohydrates, 39 g fat, 22 g saturated fat, 375 mg cholesterol, 970 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 4 g sugar
Yield: 4 servings.
Braised Short Ribs of Beef
Adapted from "The Silver Palate Cookbook," by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins (Workman, 1982). This is a quintessential slow-cooked, cold-weather comfort dish. Once you've assembled the ingredients and seared the meat, it practically cooks itself.
4 pounds boneless beef short ribs, cut into 2-inch lengths (can use bone-in)
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more as needed
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
8 cloves garlic
1 1/2 cups canned Italian plum tomatoes, with their juices, preferably no-salt-added or low-sodium
2 medium-to-large carrots, cut crosswise into very thin coins (2 cups)
2 large yellow onions, thinly sliced (3 cups)
8 whole cloves
1/2 packed cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
3/4 cup red wine vinegar
3 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tablespoons light brown sugar
2 teaspoons kosher salt, or more as needed
1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
3 to 6 cups low-sodium beef broth
Season the short ribs generously with black pepper. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Heat the oil in a Dutch oven or heavy pot with a lid over medium heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the short ribs and brown them, 3 or 4 at a time, on all sides. Transfer them to a paper-towel-lined platter to drain as you work.
Return half of the ribs to the pot (off the heat). Scatter with half the garlic cloves, then layer half of each vegetable (the tomatoes and their juices, carrots and onions), in order, over the meat. Add 4 whole cloves and sprinkle with half the parsley. Repeat with remaining meat and other ingredients, ending with a layer of chopped parsley.
Stir together the vinegar, tomato paste, brown sugar, salt, the 1 teaspoon of black pepper and the cayenne pepper in a liquid measuring cup. Pour over the meat and vegetables and then add enough of the broth to cover.
Place over medium heat. Once the liquid starts to bubble, cover with the lid and transfer to the oven. Bake/cook (middle rack) for 1 to 1 1/2 hours, or until meat is very tender.
Taste; add salt and/or pepper, as needed. Serve warm.
Per serving (using no-salt-added tomatoes): 680 calories, 66 g protein, 20 g carbohydrates, 39 g fat, 14 g saturated fat, 240 mg cholesterol, 1,180 mg sodium, 4 g dietary fiber, 12 g sugar
Yield: 6 servings.
Tarragon Chicken Salad
Adapted from “Entertaining,” by Martha Stewart (Clarkson Potter, 1982). Chicken salad is timeless; chicken salad flavored with tarragon – or sometimes dill – and studded with nuts and fruit was a 1980s special. For a party, serve on thin rounds of French bread or cucumber slices.
Unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/4 medium onion, thinly sliced
Leaves of fresh herbs, such as parsley, thyme and basil
2 bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts (about 10 ounces each)
Juice of 1/4 lemon
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh tarragon (may substitute 1 1/2 teaspoons dried tarragon)
1 1/2 tablespoons sour cream, or more as needed
1 1/2 tablespoons mayonnaise, or more as needed
1/2 cup finely chopped celery
1/2 cup chopped pecans (optional)
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Use some butter to generously grease one or two baking sheets.
Scatter the onion slices and a generous amount of herbs in the pan(s), then lay the chicken breast halves on top, skin side up, in a single layer. Sprinkle with lemon juice, then season lightly with salt and pepper. Roast (middle rack) for 30 to 40 minutes, or just barely done; the meat's juices should run clear). Do not overcook. Let cool.
Shred the cooled chicken meat or cut into cubes or slivers and place in a mixing bowl, discarding the skin and bones. Add the tarragon and season lightly with salt and pepper, tossing to mix.
Stir together the sour cream and mayonnaise in a separate bowl, then add to the chicken a bit at a time to produce a salad that is creamy but not wet. Mix in more sour cream and mayonnaise, as needed.
Taste for seasoning, adding salt and/or pepper. Stir in the celery and the pecans, if using.
Make ahead: The chicken can be roasted, cooled and refrigerated 2 days in advance. The chicken salad can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 3 days.
Per serving (based on 6): 140 calories, 21 g protein, 0 g carbohydrates, 6 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 60 mg cholesterol, 180 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar
Yield: 4 to 6 servings (makes 4 cups).