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These three cookbooks went viral before the Internet existed – and they still hold up today

By Charlotte Druckman

Special to The Washington Post

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.

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.

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.”

It was Stewart’s first cookbook. In it, 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. 

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,” Rosso says, who has run a bed-and-breakfast in Saugatuck, Mich., since 1991.

“We weren’t very sophisticated about food, and we liked things that shout,” she says. (Lukins died in 2009.) 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 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 and clocking in at more than 800 recipes, the “Victory Garden” book has instructions for growing, harvesting, storing, buying and cooking each vegetable. Multiple preparations are detailed, and suggested adaptations provided.

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. My own mother’s copy is scrawled with commentary; she noted her own feedback — “yummy,” “do not repeat,” “too sweet,” “I liked,” “no good” — as well as that of her peers.

And when I reached Morash at her summer house in Nantucket, Mass., 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 those other two books, but it’s 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.”

This is a slightly richer, possibly more elegant take on a frittata. Its crowning glory is a crust of Muenster cheese, which has mozzarella’s melting powers with a sharper, nuttier flavor to recommend it.

Consider putting mushrooms, spinach or broccoli in here for an alternate take. Serve as a light lunch or supper. 4 servings

Adapted from “The Victory Garden Cookbook,” by Marian Morash (Alfred A. Knopf, 1982).

Oven Asparagus Puff

12 ounces to 1 pound asparagus

4 Tbsp. (1/2 stick) unsalted butter

2 Tbsp. chopped onion

1/2 tsp. sugar

1 tsp. salt

2 Tbsp. 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 (to taste; see note) into 1-inch pieces. You should have 2 cups.

Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a saute pan over medium heat. Stir in the onion and cook for 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. (This step should brighten the color of the vegetable.) 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 of butter in an ovenproof baking dish (10 inches square) set inside a larger skillet on the stove top, 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 the dish 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 this creates will lend more texture to the dish.)

Chicken salad is timeless; chicken salad flavored with tarragon — or sometimes dill — and studded with nuts and fruit was a 1980s special. In this old recipe, Martha Stewart doubles down on the sweet-and-savory combination by serving her chicken salad on slices of nutty, cinnamon-spiced carrot bread. It was popular at parties, as an hors d’oeuvre.

She suggests grapes or apples as possible mix-ins and notes that cucumber or baguette rounds would make fine bases; endive boats or lettuce wraps would also work.

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.

Adapted from “Entertaining,” by Martha Stewart (Clarkson Potter, 1982). 4 to 6 servings (makes 4 cups)

Tarragon Chicken Salad

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

Freshly ground black pepper

1 1/2 Tbsp. chopped fresh tarragon (may substitute 1 1/2 tsp. dried tarragon)

1 1/2 Tbsp. sour cream, or more as needed

1 1/2 Tbsp. 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 incorporate.

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.

This is quite moist and not too sweet; plus it’s a lovely color.

It goes nicely with Tarragon Chicken Salad (see related recipe).

Make ahead: The bread is best when eaten within a day, but leftovers can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 4 days. Reheat in the oven or toaster oven.

Adapted from “Entertaining,” by Martha Stewart (Clarkson Potter, 1982). 12 servings (makes one 9-by-5-inch loaf)

Carrot Bread

16 Tbsp. (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for the pan

2 cups flour

1 tsp. baking powder

1 tsp. baking soda

1 tsp. kosher salt

2 tsp. ground cinnamon

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar

3 large eggs

3 cups grated carrots (from 6 large carrots)

1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Use some butter to grease a 9-by-5-inch loaf pan.

Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and cinnamon into a mixing bowl.

Combine the 16 tablespoons of butter and both sugars in the bowl of a stand mixer or handheld electric mixer; beat on medium speed for several minutes, until fluffy. Stop to scrape down the bowl.

Add the eggs one at a time, beating to incorporate after each addition.

Add the flour mixture to the bowl; beat on low speed until incorporated. Fold in the carrots and walnuts (by hand) until evenly distributed, to form a fairly smooth batter.

Pour into the loaf pan, spreading the batter evenly. Bake (middle rack) for about 1 hour, or until a tester inserted into the center comes out clean.

Transfer the pan to a wire rack to cool for 15 minutes, then dislodge the loaf from the pan and cool completely before serving or storing.

This is a quintessential slow-cooked, cold-weather comfort dish; it tastes like Sunday Roast. Once you’ve assembled all the ingredients and quickly seared off your meat, there’s little left to do. It practically cooks itself. 6 servings

Adapted from “The Silver Palate Cookbook,” by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins (Workman, 1982).

Braised Short Ribs of Beef

4 pounds boneless beef short ribs, cut into 2-inch lengths (can use bone-in)

1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper, plus more as needed

5 Tbsp. 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 Tbsp. tomato paste

2 Tbsp. light brown sugar

2 tsp. kosher salt, or more as needed

1/4 tsp. 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.

8 to 10 servings (makes one 10-inch tube pan cake)

When Julee Rosso learned this cake was on the agenda, she suggested the raisins be macerated, which wasn’t part of the original recipe’s plan. She consented to adding salt to the batter, which may be standard baking practice now, but wasn’t something you did back in 1982. Although the authors specified a “chunk-style” applesauce and pureed it, we took a shortcut and used smooth applesauce. If you prefer a few small apple pieces, you can substitute chunky applesauce.

Make ahead: The raisins need to macerate for 30 minutes.

Adapted from “The Silver Palate Cookbook,” by Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins (Workman, 1982).

Applesauce Raisin Cake

For the cake

1 cup raisins

1/2 cup fresh orange juice

1/4 cup apple brandy or Calvados

3 cups flour, plus more for the pan

1 tsp. ground cinnamon

1 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg

2 tsp. baking soda

1/2 tsp. kosher salt

16 Tbsp. (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for the pan

2 cups granulated sugar

2 large eggs

2 cups homemade or best-quality store-bought plain, no-sugar-added, smooth applesauce (may substitute chunky applesauce; see headnote)

1 tsp. vanilla extract

For the icing

1 cup confectioners’ sugar

1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon

1 1/2 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice

1 1/2 Tbsp. fresh orange juice

For the cake: Combine the raisins, orange juice and brandy in a small saucepan over medium-low heat; cook until the liquid begins to bubble slowly. Turn off the heat and let sit for 30 minutes. Drain and discard the liquid from the raisins.

Meanwhile, combine the flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, baking soda and salt in a mixing bowl.

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Use some butter to grease a 10-inch tube pan, then add enough flour to coat, shaking out any excess.

Combine the butter and granulated sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer or handheld electric mixer; beat on medium speed for 3 or 4 minutes, until light and fluffy.

Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Stir in the applesauce and vanilla extract. Stop to scrape down the bowl.

Sift the flour mixture over the wet batter, then add the raisins, stirring gently until evenly distributed.

Pour the batter into tube pan; bake (middle rack) for about 70 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted into the cake comes out clean. Cool in the pan for 15 minutes, then turn out onto a wire rack to cool completely.

Meanwhile, make the icing: Sift together the confectioners’ sugar and cinnamon into a small bowl. Dribble in the citrus juices, stirring constantly to form a smooth icing.

Drizzle the cake with icing. Let it set before serving or storing.

Druckman is a New York food writer and cookbook author.

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