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
Prep: 25 minutes
Rest: 2 hours
Cooks: 20 minutes
Servings: 4 to 6
Note: 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