'Silver Palate' struck gold for cookbook author Sheila Lukins

Chicago TribuneSeptember 17, 2013 

Sheila Lukins was a person who could be introduced successfully to strangers with just two words: chicken Marbella. This dish, from 1982’s “The Silver Palate Cookbook,” became a go-to recipe for two generations of home cooks. It epitomized her food philosophy: bold flavors, accessible ingredients, easy cooking.

Lukins would go on to author or co-author seven more popular cookbooks and serve for 23 years as food editor of Parade, a Sunday magazine distributed in many of the nation’s newspapers, before her death in 2009 at age 66 from brain cancer.

“She changed the way everyday Americans cooked every day,” wrote Dorie Greenspan, the baker and cookbook author, in an email from Paris. “I think of ‘The Silver Palate Cookbook’ as the first cookbook that helped home cooks use the ingredients that chefs were using, ingredients that today seem commonplace, but that were then new and exciting. The book put balsamic vinegar in kitchen cupboards, pesto in weekday pastas and chicken Marbella in every pot.”

Before “The Silver Palate Cookbook,” co-authored with Julee Rosso (and with Michael McLaughlin), there was The Silver Palate, a gourmet takeout shop launched by the women in 1977 on New York’s Upper West Side. And before that? “Two women’s personal desperation,” recalled Lukins and Rosso in their foreword to the book.

Trying to be all a woman could be in the 1970s – and that definition grew exponentially through the decade – and do that while preparing “creative, well-balanced meals daily and an occasional dinner party at home” was proving too much for them – and Lukins was a caterer. If this was happening to them, they reasoned, it had to be happening to others. That insight was confirmed when customers mobbed The Silver Palate on opening day.

“We knew we were doing exactly what we wanted to do, and people liked it,” Lukins and Rosso recalled in “The Silver Palate Cookbook,” which itself proved that their “big ideas” – and flavors – could translate to a national scale.

“The Silver Palate Cookbook” became one of the best-selling cookbooks of all time. Some 2.7 million copies are now in print, according to Suzanne Rafer, executive editor, director of cookbooks for Workman Publishing in New York City.

“It was a cookbook you wanted to read,” Rafer says. “They made a lot of people happy – and well fed.”

Lukins and Rosso followed up with 1985’s “The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook” and “The New Basics Cookbook” in 1989. Both sold millions of copies.

The Silver Palate was an estimated $10 million-a-year business by 1985, the Los Angeles Times recalled in Lukins’ obituary. The pair sold the business in 1988 and began to pursue solo projects. A few years later, there was a widely publicized falling out. But by the time Lukins and Rosso teamed up in 2007 to launch the spiffed-up 25th anniversary edition of “The Silver Palate Cookbook” (”Yes, Chicken Marbella in full color!” exclaimed the back cover), the feud was apparently forgotten.

Lukins kept creating recipes and writing cookbooks. Not even a near-fatal cerebral hemorrhage, suffered in 1991, could stop her.

“She was back on a plane three months later doing work on a book,” says her daughter, Annabel Lukins Stelling, a music festival producer living in Boulder, Colo. “God never took the ability to create away from her. She wanted to continue her research and she did four books after the brain hemorrhage.”

There was also her work at Parade. “Simply Delicious” began in April 1986 as a co-authored column by Lukins and Rosso. Lukins took lone credit beginning in 1993 and kept the column going until her death. Lukins’ “reach was enormous,” wrote Greenspan, once a Parade columnist herself. “As food editor of Parade, she created recipes that were simple but modern for millions of people each week.”

Linguine with Tomatoes and Basil Annabel Lukins Stelling immediately chose this dish from the 25th-anniversary edition of “The Silver Palate Cookbook” when asked to pick a favorite from the recipes of her mother, Sheila Lukins. “When we had our country house in Kent, Conn., we’d grow fresh tomatoes and fresh basil. This sauce is so delicious and so great,” says Stelling. The recipe includes a good deal of olive oil. You can reduce the oil to 1/4 cup for the sauce, if you like. 4 large ripe tomatoes, cut into 1/2-inch cubes 1 pound brie, rind removed, torn into irregular pieces 1 cup fresh basil leaves, cut into strips 3 garlic cloves, peeled, finely minced 1 cup plus 1 tablespoon best-quality olive oil 1/2 teaspoon salt, plus additional to taste 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper 1 1/2 pounds linguine Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, optional

COMBINE tomatoes, brie, basil, garlic, 1 cup olive oil and 1/2 teaspoon each salt and pepper in a large serving bowl at least 2 hours before serving.

BRING 6 quarts well-salted water to a boil in a large pot. Add 1 tablespoon olive oil and the linguine; boil until tender but still firm, 8-10 minutes.

DRAIN pasta; immediately toss with the tomato sauce. Serve at once, passing the pepper mill and the grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, if you like.

Per serving (for 6 servings): 1,054 calories, 62 g fat, 19 g saturated fat, 76 mg cholesterol, 91 g carbohydrates, 33 g protein, 679 mg sodium, 7 g fiber. Yield: 4 to 6 servings. Chicken Marbella “This was the first main-course dish to be offered at The Silver Palate shop, and the distinctive colors and flavors of the prunes, olives and capers have kept it a favorite for years,” wrote Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins in “The Silver Palate Cookbook, 25th Anniversary Edition.” “The overnight marination is essential to the moistness of the finished product: The chicken keeps and even improves over several days of refrigeration; it travels well and makes excellent picnic fare.” The Good Eating section last published this recipe in 2007 to accompany a story about the 25th-anniversary edition. When preparing the recipe in the Tribune test kitchen, we marinated the chicken in a large, plastic food storage bag. We also skimmed off the fat before serving the sauce over the chicken. 1/2 cup olive oil 1/2 cup red wine vinegar 1 cup pitted prunes 1/2 cup pitted Spanish green olives 1/2 cup capers with a bit of juice 6 bay leaves 1 head of garlic, peeled, finely pureed 1/4 cup dried oregano 1/2 teaspoon salt Pepper 4 chickens, 2 1/2 pounds each, quartered 1 cup brown sugar 1 cup dry white wine 1/4 cup flat-leaf parsley or fresh cilantro, finely chopped

COMBINE olive oil, vinegar, prunes, olives, capers and juice, bay leaves, garlic, oregano, salt and pepper in a large bowl. Add chicken and stir to coat. Cover bowl and refrigerate overnight.

HEAT oven to 350 degrees. Arrange chicken in a single layer in one or two large, shallow baking pans, and spoon marinade over chicken evenly. Sprinkle chicken with brown sugar and pour white wine over chicken.

BAKE, basting frequently with pan juices, until thigh pieces yield clear yellow juice when pricked with a fork, 50-60 minutes. With a slotted spoon, transfer chicken, prunes, olives and capers to a serving platter. Moisten with a few spoonfuls of the pan juices; sprinkle generously with parsley or cilantro. Pass remaining pan juices in a sauce boat.

Per serving: 478 calories, 27 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 112 mg cholesterol, 22 g carbohydrates, 36 g protein, 406 mg sodium, 1 g fiber. Yield: 16 servings

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