Successful shop started small but with expensive taste
''Sheer energy made it happen,'' explain Sheila Lukins and Julee Rosso, co-owners of The Silver Palate and the main protagonists of an only-in-America-style success story.
Their tiny gourmet take-out shop, which expanded almost overnight, now sells its products nationwide, and has a catering staff of 27.
It all began on a hot summer evening in July of 1977. So small that no more than four customers could fit inside at one tim%, the shop was nevertheless sold out within a matter of hours.
True, it was a night that the Philharmonic was performing for free in nearby Central Park, but what about the next night and the night after?
Their spinach pasta with salmon and cream sauce, bluefish baked with apples and mustard, and orange and onion salad were selling out as fast as the women could bring them up from the kitchen.
The Silver Palate quickly became as much a part of the Columbus Avenue scene as the roller skaters weaving down the street to the tunes of their Sony Walkmen.
In fact, part of the initial success must be credited to its location, a prime spot near 73rd Street in the he rt of what's been called the ''Columbus Avenue ren!issance.''
Windows of the many faddish and elegant boutiques, restaurants, antique, and gourmet shops along the avenue north of Lincoln Center seem to sing out like sirens to passersby: ''Look at me, try me on, buy me, eat me.''
A stroller with a week's salary in his pocket at 65th Street is likely to find himself reduced to counting pennies by 79th.
On Columbus Avenue, the restaurants are all full, the boutiques thriving. Even in this depressed economy, or perhaps because of it, people are cheering themselves up with purchases of 32-ounces of beautifully bottled blueberry vinegar, $16.50; 14-ounces of attractively labeled plum chutney, $9; or a one-pound jar of raspberry-fudge sauce, $10.
All of these Silver Palate products are now distributed nationwide through specialty shops and gourmet-food catalogs.
The tiny shop stands as a reminder of its modest beginnings, but belies the growing enterprise of its owners, who last year alone carefully watched over the preparation of 300,000 jars of preserves, chutneys, and pickled fruits.
They are both perfectionists, both admittedly unwilling to compromise, and both forever wanting to make their foods look and taste just a little bit better.
Ms. Lukins spends her days tasting the 50-gallon batches of whatever is cooking, adding a bit more mint or cinnamon, customizing the flavor of the product so it will ''burst forth'' when the preserve hits the tongue.
She creates an added dimension by adding an extra dollop of herb or spice at the very end, allowing just enough time for the fresh flavor to be infused, but not get lost in other ingredients.
Both owners, typical of people who spend a great deal of time together, tend to have an ongoing dialogue, one picking up where the other left off.
Ms. Rosso is quick to point out that no matter what the cook's skill with spices, finished dishes will not reach great heights unless the ingredients are selected with the utmost care.
''Everything must be the best and the freshest,'' she states emphatically.
But what of the cook whose local supermarket doesn't customari y carry shallots or watercress?
''Don't be afraid to ask your local merchants to stock new things for you,'' Ms. Rosso advises.
''Or, you can even ask a local farmer to grow something special for you. Of course, you can also try to grow it yourself.''
Because they have been unwilling to take ''no'' for an answer, these two women have learned a rather inspiring lesson in life.
''One cherry grower was so jubilant at having an audience who appreciated his fine crop that he sent us an extra hundred pounds,'' Ms. Lukins says.
From that experience, they learned that ''many farmers want to be challenged, like everyone else,'' she adds.
''The wisest thing a cook can do,'' Ms. Rosso says, ''is to establish a good relationship with her local market or greengrocer. Most everyone enjoys rising to the occasion when presented with the opportunity.''
The Silver Palate philosophy is to put supreme effort into locating fine quality ingredients, and then to combine them into dishes that are simple to prepare but intensely flavorful.
This philosophy is the touchstone of their friendly new cookbook, ''The Silver Palate Cookbook,'' (written with Michael McLaughlin, Peter Workman Publishing, $16.95 hardcover, $9.95 paperback).
None of the recipes is long or complex, but most have an imaginative twist that separates just plain good cooking from food with special flavors.
Gingered carrots are sprinkled with caraway seeds; potatoes are baked with cheese and chilies; blueberry soup is garnished with grated fresh orange rind.
The book has been imaginatively designed by Wendy Palitz so that gems of culinary wisdom appear on the margins in red, perfect amusement for the cook stirring the sauce.
When the two women first opened their shop, conservative onlookers warned, ''You're crazy. No one will ever pay what you'll have to charge to make this business work and to put out food of the quality you insist upon.''
But Lukins and Rosso have found a receptive public quite willing to pay the price.
''Our customers often started out by buying our jams and chutneys for gifts and then, after a taste, came back to stock up for their own larders,'' says Rosso, who minds the store and the adminstrative end of things, while Lukins poaches the fish.
''This is an exciting time for American cuisine,'' says Lukins.
''Many of us have gone to Europe, been good students, and learned what they had to teach us. But now it's time to inject some American ingenuity. We're no longer always going to do exactly as we've been told.''
When blueberries are available in the summertime, try this Blueberry-Lemon Tart for a refreshing dessert.
Other fruits can be substituted, such as a combination of green and red seedless grapes, blueberries and peaches, or lightly sauteed apple slices sprinkled with plumped raisins. Blueberry-Lemon Tart 1 cup lemon juice, about 6 lemons 5 tablespoons grated lemon zest 1/2 cup (1 stick) melted sweet butter 6 eggs, slightly beaten 1 cup granulated sugar 9-inch partially baked Sweet Buttery Tart Crust (recipe follows) 1 1/2 cups blueberries, rinsed, sorted and dried Confectioners' sugar
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Whisk lemon juice, grated zest, and melted butter in medium-size bowl. Beat in eggs and sugar; mix well. Pour into partially baked tart shell and bake about 20 minutes or until golden brown.
Arrange blueberies (or other fresh fruit) over the warm filling, pressing lightly. When cool, dust with confectioners' sugar. Serves 8. Sweet Buttery Tart Crust 1 2/3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour 1/4 cup very fine granulated sugar 1/2 teaspoon salt 10 tablespoons (11/4 sticks) sweet butter, chilled 2 egg yolks 1 teaspoon vanilla extract 2 teaspoons cold water
Sift flour, sugar, and salt into mixing bowl. Cut chilled butter into pieces into bowl. Using fingertips, rapidly rub butter and dry ingredients together until mixture resembles coarse meal.
Stir egg yolks, vanilla, and water together and add to flour-butter mixture and blend in, using a fork. Shape dough into a ball.
Place ball of dough on pastry board. With heel of hand, smear 1/4 cup of dough away from you into a 6- to 8-inch smear; repeat until all dough has been dealt with. Scrape dough together; reform into ball, wrap in waxed paper and chill 2 to 3 hours.
Roll out dough between 2 sheets of wax paper into round large enough to line pan. Line pan with dough, fitting it loosely into pan and pressing to fit sides. Trim edges 3/4-inch outside top of pan, and fold this edge over to inside, and press into place with fingers. Chill.
Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Line dough in tart pan with piece of aluminum foil or wax paper and weight with rice or beans. Bake for 8 minutes. Remove foil and beans. Prick bottom of dough with fork in several places. Return to oven for 3 or 4 minutes longer for a partially baked shell. Continue with recipe above.