The Cookbooks that Define Us

Plated Tomato Arugula Provencal

Tomato Arugula Provençal

When family was visiting us recently, my niece and I eventually got around to talking about recipes (as is my wont). I believe we were talking about a Middle Eastern dish and I naturally asked her if she had any of the Ottolenghi cookbooks. “Oh no,” she replied. “I get most of my recipes from the internet.”

I have heard that refrain from other home cooks of the Millennial generation. As someone who reviews cookbooks, as someone who cherishes a handful of her own well-worn cookbooks, and as someone whose mother amassed a large collection of cookbooks during her lifetime, I can’t help feeling that my niece and her ilk are missing out.

Like recipe cards that will soon be extinct, a person’s cookbook collection tells a story about the cook’s life. Embedded in their pages are handwritten notes that sometimes include dates, minor adjustments to the recipe, and often splatters. The more notes and grease spots, the more valuable the cookbook is to both its owner and her progeny. Taken together, cookbook collections also serve as guideposts offering clues as to a person’s age, where they might have lived or traveled and even certain personality traits.

One of my greatest regrets is that my mother let my father donate nearly all her cookbooks before I had a chance to go through them. It irritates me still, six years later. The one I wanted the most was her falling-apart copy of the Joy of Cooking that she probably received as a wedding or bridal shower gift. Anyone lucky enough to have her mother’s copy of Joy of Cooking knows what I am talking about. I have searched high and low for the exact edition my mother once had, but haven’t yet found it. Even if I did, it wouldn’t be the same. My mother was embodied in that cookbook and without her notes and splatters, it would be an empty vessel.

Recently, I attended a small dinner party where one of the guests brought a lovely tomato-based spread for little rounds of toasted baguette. It seemed so fresh and different and everyone gobbled it up. I turned to my friend and asked her where she got the recipe. “Oh, one of the Silver Palate cookbooks—maybe The New Basics,” she replied. “It’s on page 8. “

Lucy is a new friend, having moved here about a year ago, but the connection I felt to her through a recipe from a Silver Palate cookbook made me feel as if I had known her forever. I think I may have squealed a little in delight.

Once in a blue moon there are cookbooks that seem to define a generation—or at least a decade. The Silver Palate cookbooks (The Silver Palate Cookbook, The Silver Palate Good Times Cookbook, The New Basics Cookbook and All Around the World Cookbook) defined the 1980s—at least for those of us on the East Coast.

Long before the Food Network and celebrity chefs, Julee Rosso and Sheila Lukins undertook to change the way a new generation cooked. From their tiny food shop on the Upper West Side that opened in 1977, they introduced New Yorkers to bold new flavors and a way of entertaining that was unfussy and (largely) non-French.

It is not a stretch to say that The Silver Palate Cookbook (first published in 1979) was for many of us the cookbook that separated us from our mother’s generation. When I moved to New York in 1981 I had two cookbooks: Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking and the revised 1980 edition of The Fannie Farmer Cookbook. Both felt like they came straight from my mother’s kitchen. The Silver Palate Cookbook, on the other hand, belonged to me and my generation.

I had a wonderful group of close-knit friends during my early years in New York. There were eight of us and at the core were four who had known each other since high school in upstate New York.  The rest of us were there as add-ons from college.

Back then, as newly minted adults with the untraveled road before us we did not yet know who among us would move into the fast lane and who would get stuck in traffic. It was a level playing field and we all enjoyed gathering at each other’s apartments on the weekends to cook big, elaborate meals that were nothing like the food we grew up with. We learned to make pesto and Raspberry Chicken and Pasta Carbonara. Together with the Dining section of the Times, The Silver Palate pushed us along to become the adventurous cooks we are today.

Thumbing through The Silver Palate Cookbook is like taking a walk down memory lane. This was the cookbook that gave us Cheese Straws and Layered Mozzarella and Tomato Salad (an early version of the perennial favorite, Caprese Salad). And there on page 93 is Lemon Chicken—who can forget how ubiquitous that dish became? (Lemon Chicken was trotted out dozens of times on the popular sitcom, Everybody Loves Raymond as the only company-worthy dish Debra was capable of making—and that was a couple of decades after the publication of The Silver Palate Cookbook.) And who hasn’t heard of Chicken Marbella, the dish for which the book is best known.

I have a very distinct memory from my early years in New York when the eight of us were together at someone’s apartment howling with laughter (at the expense of our mothers) at the dishes we grew up with. With all the smugness of youth, we took turns rattling off all the Campbell’s soup-based casseroles, Jell-O molds and meatloaves of our childhood. I suggested we write a tongue-in-cheek cookbook that included all the atrocities we were served as children. We must have thought of it in a final fit of cutting the apron strings and asserting our grown-up independence.

When we all shared a house together on Cape Cod in those early days, we did still more cooking and eating together. Most of the cooking we did was casual but competitive in a way that New Yorkers tend to make everything. I remember making potato salad dressed in vinaigrette with bits of crispy bacon and shallots to go with some barbecued ribs that someone else prepared. It was a recipe I learned in my French cooking classes and it felt so sophisticated to be eating French potato salad with all-American barbecued ribs.

Those were the halcyon days before adulthood took a firmer hold on all of us and we became frazzled by careers and children and mortgages.

The eight of us are all dispersed now. Half of us have moved from the city entirely and those that remain commute from the suburbs. In my case at least, the ties that once bound me to the others over meals and vacations have been broken. I went my separate way for reasons I can’t explain. I guess it was mutual. Friendship is a two-way street after all. Still, propinquity has a lot to do with it. Friendships need shared experiences on a regular basis to thrive.

So when my new friend, Lucy, showed up at the dinner party with an appetizer out of a Silver Palate cookbook I felt a rush of nostalgia for when I was still unformed and everything seemed new. I can’t help thinking that Lucy would have been my friend if she had lived in New York back in the 1980s and we might have cooked together from one of the Silver Palate cookbooks.

After the dinner, I rushed home and pulled out my copy of The New Basics Cookbook, turned to page eight and there it was, Tomato Arugula Provençal. It was so reassuring to me to know that the Silver Palate cookbooks had stood the test of time, even if some of my friendships have not.

Finished Tomato Arugula in pan

Tomato Arugula Provençal

Adapted from The New Basics Cookbook by Julee Rosso & Sheila Lukins

The title of the recipe doesn’t seem to mean much other than it comes from Provence (which in my book means it must be something good).  Calling it Provençal Tomato and Arugula Spread would be more descriptive since it is a fondue of garlicky, plum tomatoes to which is added arugula, sun-dried tomatoes and freshly grated Parmesan cheese. Spread it on grilled bread with a drizzle of good olive oil and serve it as an appetizer or use it as a topping for grilled or toasted good bread smeared with fresh goat cheese and call it lunch. As it turns out, it also makes a mean topping for a burger in lieu of ketchup.

Burger topped with tomato arugula

This is one of those dishes where the quality of the ingredients makes all the difference. It is best made when fresh arugula is in season (spring and early summer or fall when the weather is cooler). I imagine this dish being made in Provence when the first green garlic starts to show up at the markets. To me, that infuses the dish with an authentic Provençal taste. Green garlic is slightly less pungent than the drier garlic later in the season. It is probably also why you add the garlic to the tomato mixture after the tomatoes have cooked down. I thought about sautéeing the garlic in olive oil before adding the tomatoes, but then I realized, no, in Provence it would undoubtedly be made with raw green garlic as is used in pistou and aioli. The taste is altogether different so if you can find green garlic at your farmer’s market, use it.  If you don’t have fresh plum tomatoes available, use canned, San Marzano plum tomatoes—they are more expensive but the taste is worth it. As for the sun-dried tomatoes, buy the ones in extra-virgin olive oil rather than just ordinary olive oil. And of course, use freshly grated Parmesan cheese.


Yield:  4 Cups

May be made up to two days in advance of serving.


20 ripe plum tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced or 2, 28 oz. cans San Marzano plum tomatoes, drained and diced.

¼ Cup extra virgin olive oil

10-12 cloves fresh, green garlic or 8-10 cloves ordinary garlic, finely minced

4 Cups roughly chopped arugula, stems removed

16 sun-dried tomatoes packed in extra virgin olive oil, roughly chopped

¼ Cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

salt and freshly ground pepper to taste


If using fresh plum tomatoes, plunge the tomatoes in boiling water for 30 seconds. Drain, let cool and then peel the skin and remove the seeds. Cut into dice.

If using canned tomatoes, drain thoroughly and chop into dice (or use diced tomatoes and chop them up a bit more).

Heat the oil in a large, heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high and add the tomatoes. Cook, stirring occasionally for about fifteen minutes or until most of the liquid has evaporated. Add the raw, minced garlic and continue cooking for five more minutes.

cooked tomatoes

Remove the pan from the heat and add the chopped arugula, sun-dried tomatoes and Parmesan cheese. Stir and let cool in the pan.

Finished Tomato Arugula in pan

Once cooled, store in an airtight container the refrigerator for at least 4 hours and up to two days. Remove from fridge and allow the tomato spread to come back to room temperature before serving.

Tomato Arugula Provençal Recipe Printable Version





















4 thoughts on “The Cookbooks that Define Us

  1. I can relate regarding those early cookbooks. My Silver Palates are stained and well loved, and the recipes, like a familiar song, evoke vivid memories.
    Still, today, I too get most of my recipes on the internet. I guess there is less time to go through a book, though interesting to note, I don’t generally read electronically.


    • Hi Rhonda! Thanks for reading my post. I get recipes from the internet too but I have a few cookbooks I return to over and over. I do think it’s amazing how well the Silver Palate has stood up. The recipes are terrific.


  2. I was just having a conversation the other day about the Silver Palate cookbooks. Chicken Marbella, Potato Cheese soup, the list goes on. Thanks for reminding me to get them out again soon.


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