Return of the Salmon Mousse

The Silver Palate Cookbook (25th Anniversary Edition)
By Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins
Workman Publishing Company, 2007; $29.95

Twenty-five years ago, Sheila Lukins and Julee Rosso released their Silver Palate Cookbook, full of recipes from their gourmet shop on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It became one of the most influential cookbooks of the century, selling millions of copies. It’s recently been rereleased, this time with color photography, and as Lukins and Rosso tour the country—together!—the nostalgia is flowing freely. I recently went to a press event for the book (read my interview with the authors), and the room was full of bobbed-hair women in their 50s, their old sauce-spattered copies of the original in tow.

For such a popular volume, today The Silver Palate Cookbook seems unassuming—antiencyclopedic in its organization, illustrated with Lukins’s cute drawings, quotes littering the margins of the book. It promulgated ideas that would become 1980s food clichés, but that at their core were good ideas: flourless chocolate cake, miniquiches, baked Brie, and pesto, pesto, pesto!

Lukins and Rosso’s great achievement was taking the snobbery out of gourmet food. They made good food seem like a party, and they sensed the kinds of parties people would actually want to throw in a working woman’s world: easy brunches, stewy suppers, and unfancy desserts. Some of the recipes—like the Big Bread Sandwich, their giant sandwich made from a whole loaf of bread—seemed like showy gestures to entice traditionalists into the gourmet shop. But for a while there, Lukins and Rosso had a bead on just how far Americans wanted to experiment with new things, and they toed the line between safe and truly experimental. The Silver Palate was the ultimate middlebrow cookbook.

It and the pair’s subsequent books, The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook and the ever helpful The New Basics Cookbook, were vastly influential on me—as a child I was given a lot of liberties in the kitchen, and the Silver Palate books seemed like just the right way to modernize our family meals. (I made a lot of mousse and pesto and hummus, and still use the Silver Palate recipe, long ago memorized, for chocolate chip cookies.)

In some ways the authors were too successful: All across the country little gourmet/catering shops opened serving tarragon chicken salad and blueberry soup and selling Silver Palate mustards, vinaigrettes, and sauces. “Gourmet” began to taste the same no matter where you went in the country. The French-country cute look eventually seemed dated, but not until many millions of cookbooks had been sold. And then in 1993, after they had sold the Silver Palate brand, the girls broke up—suddenly and decidedly.

Sometimes it’s hard to resist a reunion tour, even when the blood has been bad in the past (see the Police and the Stooges). For the 25th anniversary issue of their first cookbook together, Rosso and Lukins decided to get the band back together. The rereleased book has the familiar checkerboard cover, though the shot of the shop’s storefront (the one with the geraniums that I pored over as a child) is reduced to an inset photo. Inside, there is that strange format: a whole chapter for vegetable purées, for fork suppers, for mousses (such gummable food—makes you wonder if there were any dental issues afoot). In 25 years a lot more artisanal food has come onto the market, so the new edition includes notes on cheeses, salamis, and pastas. The recipes have been retested, and some added: a new barbecue sauce, a new turkey.

The most striking change is the photographs—some inset, replacing Lukins’s sketches; some full-page plates of chicken Marbella or linguine with tomatoes and basil. They are heavy-handed photos, many with a yellowish cast, and they are not particularly appealing: The image of two stiff, chocolate-shellacked poached pears is one of the least inviting food photographs I’ve ever seen.

Most recipes, though, hold up well. Airy and verdant, the asparagus-Parmesan soufflé reminded me how nice it is to sometimes make a fancy side, and not just toss the stalks on the grill. Lemon cake with lemon glaze—absolutely plain and absolutely delicious—is a breakfast cake of the first order that would displease no one if it were served at dinnertime, especially if it were served with berries. And as overrepresented as the tarragon chicken salad was, I still love it, especially when garnished with green grapes—although unlike the existing recipe, I’d toast the walnuts and use fresh tarragon instead of dried. Only the raspberry chicken seemed truly out of time to me, even a little bit tragic, since the sauce was rather grayish, not cheery and pink as you’d imagine.

I might be a grouch about the raspberry chicken, but I’m still bowled over by the book in context, the very gameness of it all: Why not put fruit and meats together in the same dish, why not make your fruit salads by color, why not try rabbit, or escabèche, or put prunes in your chicken? Even if we’d later strive for authenticity in our cooking, the Silver Palate girls gave Americans, including me, the courage to be playful, and I’m ever grateful for the guidance.

Salmon Mousse

1 envelope unflavored gelatin

1/4 cup cold water

1/2 cup boiling water

1/2 cup mayonnaise, preferably Hellmann’s {Actually, preferably homemade.}

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice {Fresh not naturally a given in 1982.}

1 tablespoon finely grated onion {Grated onion is rarely seen in recipes that postdate 1985, but it’s a nice way to add a little raw-onion oomph without chunking up the texture.}

Dash of Tabasco

1/4 teaspoon sweet paprika {This tiny bit of sweet paprika doesn’t do much flavorwise—might want to change to smoked or cut back a bit and use cayenne.}

1 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh dill {Every salmon recipe in the book calls for dill—funny that salmon has found other companion herbs these days.}

2 cups finely flaked poached fresh salmon or canned salmon, skin and bones removed {Canned salmon! That’s something I haven’t had to think about in a couple of decades.}

1 cup heavy cream

Watercress, for garnish

Toast, pumpernickel, or crackers, for serving

1. Soften the gelatin in the cold water in a large mixing bowl. Stir in the boiling water and whisk the mixture slowly until the gelatin dissolves. Cool to room temperature.

2. Whisk in the mayonnaise, lemon juice, grated onion, Tabasco, paprika, salt, and dill. Stir to blend completely and refrigerate until the mixture begins to thicken slightly, about 20 minutes.

3. Fold in the finely flaked salmon. In a separate bowl, whip the cream until it is thickened to soft peaks and fluffy. Fold gently into the salmon mixture.

4. Transfer the mixture to a 6- to 8-cup bowl or decorative mold. {Where is a copper fish mold when you need one! I would have gained serious retro-cred for serving my mousse in the form of a salmon.} Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours.

5. Garnish with watercress and serve with toasts, pumpernickel, or crackers.

At least 12 portions

{In this day of raw-fish ceviches, this recipe, with all its cream and mayo, almost a salmon Bavarian, is interesting because it seems to hearken back to a time when salmon needed to be a little diluted, and also a little stretched. I found it gentle and tasty, but if I redid it, I would be inclined to push the flavors a little harder—use smoked salmon perhaps, maybe a few capers, too, or simply up the quantity of fish. That said, I took it to a party, and the crowd went nuts for the spread; obviously Rosso and Lukins are still tapped into the zeitgeist in a way I can only dream of.}