It wasn't my first cookbook. I had the big red Betty Crocker binder and of course

Joy of Cooking

and my mother's tattered Fanny Farmer with her recipes for Sloppy Joes and Tuna Casserole With Potato Chips written in her familiar script in blank pages in the back.

But The Silver Palate Cookbook was the first cookbook I truly grew to love. Its pages elevated my cooking from mashed potatoes and meat loaf with ketchup sauce to Beef Carbonnade and chicken liver pate with green peppercorns.

I wasn't the only one: There are 2.3 million copies in print and next month, on the occasion of its 25th birthday, it will be reissued, this time with the dishes photographed in living color.

The Silver Palate was the cookbook on my counter as a newlywed in the mid-'80s, walking me through my first creme brulee, encouraging me to try pesto and gazpacho. And the recipes were doable - I won't say easy, because many were labor-intensive. But they never failed me or failed to impress, as we invited other couples over to dinner. After years as a ground-ball hitter, it felt good to knock one or two out of the park.

The dishes managed to be somehow sophisticated and earthy at the same time, spiced with a dash of novelty, but not a hint of fussiness. And they came to stay in my repertoire: The Tarragon Chicken Salad became a staple at every family baby shower. The gussied-up Pot Roast was perfectly respectable for Christmas Eve dinner before we could afford filet. One neighbor confessed that he looked forward all year to the Lentil and Walnut Salad I toted to the Memorial Day block party.

And Chicken Marbella, the runaway greatest Silver Palate hit, was the go-to dinner-party entree that I served time and time again.

Of course, I was not alone on that, either. Half of my friends were making Chicken Marbella, the sweet and savory chicken dish with apricots and prunes and capers and olives that had a Mediterranean beat. (See accompanying story). And they were making Lamb with Peppercorn Crust, too, and Decadent Chocolate Cake, and the crowd-pleasing Chili for a Crowd.

The work of Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins, The Silver Palate gave away the secrets of the best-selling dishes at their Upper West Side market (the awning of which adorns the book cover). And it was a home run itself, selling more than 250,000 copies in its first year.

"It was the voice of a new generation of cooks," said food writer Molly O'Neill. "It was hip, well-traveled and sexy. It wasn't Julia Child," she said. "It was more like your best friend happens to be a really great cook and you are hanging out in her kitchen and she is saying, 'If you really want to cook for your boyfriend, I can help. Here is what you do.' "

The book tiptoed onto the wild side: It was filled with "a new range of very vibrant flavors and combinations that seemed daring to people in the early '80s," said Darra Goldstein, editor-in-chief of Gastronomica, a quarterly journal about food and culture.

It spoke to women - many of them new to the workforce - who didn't have hours to spend in the kitchen, but who wanted "dishes that would dazzle." And they were pushing fresh ingredients, long before fresh became a buzzword, Goldstein said.

Its layout and design were also groundbreaking, said cookbook historian Barbara Haber: the large print, the charming drawings, the stylish feel, the airy white space on the page, most of the recipes on a single page, without an endless list of ingredients.

Without condescension, it offered margin notes on new ingredients (fresh figs and balsamic vinegar), advice on technique (how to stuff an artichoke or make lemon butter). And it was sprinkled with quotations, this one included, credited simply as graffiti on a kitchen wall: "Cooking is like love - it should be entered into with abandon or not at all."

The authors had no clue the book would take off. "No, no, no, we never dreamed it would sell like it did," Lukins said in a phone interview.

Rosso and Lukins would go on to collaborate on two more best-sellers, The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook and The New Basics Cookbook. Their La Cuisine des Americains, a combination of The Silver Palate and the Good Times Cookbook, became the first American cookbook ever translated into French.

And then things went sour. The split was played up as an entertaining catfight in the press, even as each went on to publish books on her own.

"Oh, I think the press made more out of that than there was," said Lukins. "I have always loved Julee. We had a great 11-year partnership."

They've patched things up and, indeed, they are touring the country together to celebrate the cookbook that put them on the culinary map. (Sheila Lukins will be in Philadelphia - albeit alone - at the Four Seasons May 10.)

They tinkered just a bit with the anniversary edition, Lukins said: They've added notes on many more cheeses and charcuterie, and tweaked the timing on some of the recipes.

But Lukins said that's about the extent of it. She acknowledged that the cookbook is of a different era, and that many of the recipes are heavy on the butter and cream. The publisher was pushing a low-fat version, a Silver Palate Light. But she refused: "It wouldn't be the Silver Palate if we did that."

I still reach for the book when we're having people over, and I've learned to simplify many of the recipes. I replace butter with olive oil, when possible. I make the chicken salad with a store-bought rotisserie chicken and mayonnaise, skip the creme fraiche and sour cream.

The immersion blender speeds up the Curried Cream of Chicken Soup and Quick Tomato Sauce; no need to transfer the scalding-hot ingredients to the Cuisinart as the recipe suggests, then back again to the pot.

My friend Julie still makes the Bismarcks - light and wonderful pancakes - every Father's Day, the beef filet every Christmas, and she usually has a jar of "My Favorite Vinaigrette" in the fridge, another Silver Palate winner.

Like many of its brethren, her copy is in four pieces and held together with a rubber band. "The pages have handwritten notes on the side and are covered in stains," she told me. "We couldn't live without it."

After 25 years, even the most familiar of dishes haven't lost their constituency. Just a few weeks ago, when it was my turn to cook for our supper group, my friend Michelle asked me for "that great chicken dish with the apricots and prunes."

I was happy to comply. I know the recipe by heart; it practically makes itself. And I love it still.

Chicken Marbella

Makes about 10 servings

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4 chickens, 2 1/2 pounds each, quartered, or 16 pieces, breasts, thighs, drumsticks

1 head of garlic, peeled and finely pureed

1/4 cup dried oregano

coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1/2 cup red wine vinegar

1/2 cup olive oil

1 cup pitted prunes

1 cup of dried apricots (optional)

1/2 cup pitted Spanish green olives

1/2 cup capers with a bit of juice

6 bay leaves

1 cup brown sugar

1 cup white wine

1/4 cup Italian parsley or fresh coriander (cilantro), finely chopped

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1. In a large bowl combine chicken quarters, garlic, oregano, pepper and coarse salt to taste, vinegar, olive oil, prunes, olives, capers and juice and bay leaves. Cover and let marinate, refrigerated, overnight.

2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

3. Arrange chicken in a single layer in one or two large shallow baking pans and spoon marinade over it evenly. Sprinkle chicken pieces with brown sugar and pour white wine around them.

4. Bake for 50 minutes to 1 hour, basting frequently with pan juices. Chicken is done when thigh pieces, pricked with a fork at their thickest, yield clear yellow (rather than pink) juice.

5. With a slotted spoon, transfer chicken, prunes, olives and capers to a serving platter. Moisten with a few spoonfuls of pan juices and sprinkle generously with parsley or cilantro. Pass remaining juices in a sauceboat.

6. To serve Chicken Marbella cold, cool to room temperature in cooking juices before transferring to a serving platter. If chicken has been covered and refrigerated, allow it to return to room temperature before serving. Spoon some of the reserved juice over chicken.

- From The Silver Palate (Workman, 1982)
 

Note:

For the Crock-Pot version from Loretta Comfort: Put about 10 pieces of chicken in a gallon Ziploc bag along with all other ingredients except brown sugar and parsley. (Cut back vinegar and oil to 1/3 cup.) In the morning, empty contents into the Crock-Pot. Start it on high for 20 minutes, then reduce to low for 8 to 10 hours. Thirty minutes before you want to eat, stir and sprinkle 1/4 cup brown sugar into the pot and stir it around. Let the brown sugar melt into the chicken. The consistency will be more of a stew than the original version, but just as tasty.

 

Per serving:

615 calories, 32 grams protein, 29 grams carbohydrates, 20 grams sugar, 40 grams fat, 132 milligrams cholesterol, 409 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber

 

Bismarcks

Makes one large pancake

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8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter

1/2 cup milk

1/2 cup unbleached, all-purpose flour

2 eggs

Fresh lemon juice to taste

Confectioners sugar for dusting

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1. Put butter in heavy frying pan or a shallow casserole. Place in an oven set at 475 degrees.

2. Meanwhile, mix milk, flour and eggs lightly to make a batter.

3. When the butter has melted, add batter to the pan and bake for 12 minutes. Remove from the oven and place Bismarck on a plate.

4. Pour a little of the melted butter on the pancake, and squeeze on a little lemon juice to taste. Roll it up like a loose jelly roll and sprinkle with confectioners sugar.

Variations:

Sprinkle with brown sugar.

Forget the sugar and use a fruit or maple-flavored syrup.

Spread with a favorite fruit preserve or fresh berries.

Lightly sprinkle with Grand Marnier

Fill with chestnut cream

Top with cooked link sausages after 4 minutes of cooking.

- From The Silver Palate Cookbook (Workman, 1982)

Per serving (based on 4): 335 calories, 6 grams protein, 15 grams carbohydrates, 4 grams sugar, 28 grams fat, 173 milligrams cholesterol, 51 milligrams sodium, 0.5 gram dietary fiber EndText

Roast Lamb With Peppercorn Crust

6 to 8 portions

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3 tablespoons crushed dried peppercorns, an equal mix of black, white and green

1 tablespoon fresh rosemary leaves or 1 1/2 tablespoons dried

1/2 cup fresh mint leaves

5 garlic cloves, crushed

1/2 cup raspberry vinegar

1/4 cup soy sauce

1/2 cup dry red wine

1 boned but untied leg of lamb, about 5 pounds (weight after boning)

2 tablespoons prepared

Dijon-style mustard

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1. Combine 1 tablespoon of the crushed peppercorns, the rosemary, mint, garlic, vinegar, soy sauce and red wine in a shallow bowl. Marinate the lamb in the mixture for eight hours, turning occasionally.

2. Remove the roast from the marinade and drain: reserve marinade. Roll the roast, tying it with kitchen twine.

3. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

4. Spread mustard over meat and pat 2 tablespoons of crushed peppercorns into the mustard. Set the roast in a shallow roasting pan just large enough to hold it comfortably and pour reserved marinade carefully around but not over roast.

5. Bake for 1 1/2 hours or 18 minutes per pound, basting occasionally. Roast will be medium rare. Bake for another 10 to 15 minutes for well-done meat. Let roast stand for 20 minutes before carving. Serve pan juices in gravy boat along with lamb.

- From The Silver Palate Cookbook (Workman, 1982)

Per serving (based on 8):

408 calories, 60 grams protein, 4 grams carbohydrates, 0.6 gram sugar, 15 grams fat, 181 milligrams cholesterol, 952 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber

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Contact food editor Maureen Fitzgerald at 215-854-5744 or at mfitzgerald@phillynews.com.