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Dirty, dog-eared — A tour through time-tested recipe books 

Quick. What recipe is on the dirtiest, most dog-eared page of your favorite cookbook? And how old is that book?

I've been thinking recently about cookbooks, old and new. A few weeks ago the San Francisco Chronicle published an article on the 25th anniversary of The Silver Palate Cookbook , a collection of recipes, menus and thoughts on cooking that took its name from the wildly successful upscale New York deli started in 1977 by Julee Rosso, a marketing genius, and Sheila Lukins, a caterer.

My Silver Palate is now spineless and easily falls into 10 or more sections. It requires a heavy rubber band to hold it together when I finish using it. It's a good thing the book has just been updated — with photos! — and reissued. Yes, I'll buy it again. My husband and I have a life-long love of cookbooks that began more than 40 years ago. Are they expensive? Well, we figure once we get a single fantastic meal out of a new cookbook, it's paid for itself, and each time we use it thereafter is a bonus.

On one of the most trashed pages in my Silver Palate is the recipe for Chicken Liver Pate with Green Peppercorns that my husband still makes once in a while. In even worse shape are the first pages of "The Cookie Basket" chapter, with my all-time favorite pecan squares.

What's the appeal of this book? The Chronicle says, "Reliable is the word that pops up in any conversation with Silver Palate devotees. Even if your kitchen skills are limited, you can't go wrong with the recipes from this book."

Last month my husband had one of those significant decade birthdays and he didn't really want a party. He also insists his favorite restaurant is our kitchen, so I started searching for a special recipe from one of our vintage cookbooks.

The first book I pulled out was Vincent Price's ATreasury of Great Recipes published in 1965. (Yes, the same Vincent Price of ghoulish movie fame.) He and his wife Mary had traveled all over collecting recipes from some of the world's most famous restaurants and had adapted them for the American kitchen. The photos are gorgeous and the actual menus of the restaurants are included often with prices. You'll be happy to discover, for instance, that at Sardi's in New York one could enjoy a Roast Half a Long Island Duckling Bigarade with Lima Beans for $4 and Baked Alaska for two for $3.50. On that book's grubbiest page is one of our most beloved recipes, something from the restaurant Tour D'Argent in Paris called " Noisettes Des Tournelles ," lamb chops in a classic onion sauce (soubise) served with a second sauce made by deglazing the pan with Madeira. (This is a great time of year to make soubise sauce, with all the sweet, juicy onions at the farmers' markets.)

I also found a second cookbook we bought the year we were married, 1966. Don't laugh. It's called ThePlayboy Gourmet and it's illustrated with sketches of tiny women in black stockings lounging about in martini glasses. Again, the appeal of this book is that these are recipes anyone can follow since the target market was obviously guys who didn't necessarily know how to cook but wanted to impress their date with a fancy meal and get lucky.

On one tattered page are recipes for two of our favorite dishes: Supreme of Chicken with Béarnaise Sauce (chicken breasts, lightly coated with breadcrumbs and coriander, topped with a fail-proof blender version of the classic sauce). My choice for the birthday meal, however, was Tournedos with Foie Gras.

For the tournedos I used local grass-fed filet mignon. I pan seared them and finished the cooking in a hot oven since they were so thick. While the steaks finished, I deglazed the pan with lots of red wine, adding fine-diced shallots, fresh tarragon and parsley and — gasp! — a small amount of canned beef gravy. The steaks are served on a crostini (bread fried in olive oil) and topped with foie gras. Of course you are supposed to top all this with a thin shaving of truffle. I tried to find truffles at our local supermarkets, but discovered there is not one to be had in good old Humboldt. I found instead a very good truffle/olive tapenade at the Co-op. It was pricy, but this stuff is so fragrant you only need a small dollop on top.

(A word about foie gras: 40 years ago we had no knowledge of how it is actually made — by force-feeding geese several times a day, which causes their livers to enlarge grotesquely and does who-knows-what to their psyches. Foie gras produced in this manner is now banned in Chicago and there is plenty of sentiment to do so in California as well. You will occasionally find foie gras in some of our high-end restaurants, but I was unable to find it in the grocery store. I substituted a good pâté for the birthday dinner but it was definitely not the same. Is there an entrepreneur out there who can solve this short of legislation?)

Do we always eat like this? Of course not. But now that our lives are slowing down (post-children, slipping into retirement), our interest in cooking more creatively has been revived. And we still occasionally buy cookbooks. The most recent additions to our collection are Making Your Own Biscotti and Dunking Delights by Dona Z. Meilach, Bruschetta: Crostini and Other Italian Snacks by Maxine Clark and Gus Filgate (fantastic photos), and Chez Jacques: Traditions and Rituals of a Cook by Jacques Pepin.

Years ago the great Jacques Pepin was in Humboldt County to teach a class (late 1970s? Does anyone remember?). I enrolled my husband, the only male in the class. It was one of those gifts that was more a gift for me since I have been the beneficiary of his Duck Breast with Green Peppercorns ever since.

What about your house? E-mail me (or the Journal 's Table Talk editor Bob Doran, a former chef) and tell us the story of your favorite cookbook. As for our grown children, they are all pretty good cooks, but not necessarily book collectors. Daughter No. 1 recently remodeled her kitchen and I asked where she was going to store her cookbooks. She looked at me, rolled her eyes and said, "Mom, have you even heard of I don't have cookbooks. I have wi-fi and a laptop!"

I guess laptops are easier to keep clean.

Event note: You may remember that Ron and Beverley of Avalon were on the verge of opening a wine and cheese shop called Taste! across the street from their Old Town restaurant when the building burned to the ground and their dream went up in smoke. Since then Avalon customers have been asking if and when Beverley might find a new spot, or at least offer some of those cheeses she discovered in some sort of retail setting.

While she's still looking for the perfect location to resurrect the shop, Beverley decided to try an experiment — thus the Wine and Cheese Tasting Gala this Sunday, June 24, a dual purpose event that celebrates Avalon's receipt of a couple of honors: a Wine Spectator "Award of Excellence" (their fifth) and a new one, Wine Enthusiast 's "Restaurant Recognition Award," silver level.

Expect fine wines and winemakers, including John and Kimberly Cabot with their latest, Kimberly's Klamath River, Humboldt County Syrah 2004; Don Bremm from Moonstone Crossing; and Thomas Meagher of Riverbend Cellars. The wines will be paired with great cheeses, both international and local like Cypress Grove Chevre's new Truffle Tremor. Also in attendance, some not-so-cheesy guests, like Henry Robertson with his famous olives and Wendy McCall of Sierra Madre Mushrooms with wild and cultivated mushrooms and fiddlehead ferns. Tickets for the Gala are $40. Advance reservations are suggested (445-0500).

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Judy Hodgson

Judy Hodgson is a co-founder of the North Coast Journal.

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