6: Smoked Salmon

6: Smoked Salmon

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Food and Love

Smoked Salmon

I’m not saying my wife’s a bad cook, but she uses a smoke alarm as a timer.

~Bob Monkhouse

The day after I moved into my first apartment, my mother called. “Do you want me to bring over some cooked meals? I don’t want you living on toast and cheese.”

Staring at the remains of my toasted cheese sandwich, I wondered if mothers really did have X-ray vision. I shook off the thought. “I’m a grown woman. You don’t have to feed me.” A sigh followed by silence on the other end of the phone told me my mother disagreed. As I imagined her showing up on my doorstep, arms laden with food, my gaze fell upon my calendar. September fourth was just a few days away. “To prove I can manage, I’ll make you and dad an anniversary dinner. How does Saturday at seven p.m. sound?”

“It sounds like a lovely idea. Can I bring anything?”

“Nope, just yourselves.” I kept my voice cheery, but even before I hung up I was having second, third and fourth thoughts. Since my cooking skills were limited to boiling water and making toast, my kettle, toaster oven and can opener were my best friends. Not exactly a great basis for a gourmet meal. Maybe I could get takeout and pretend I had cooked. As long as I hid the containers, I’d be okay.

But that was silly. How hard could it be to make dinner? I was a university graduate. I knew how to read. I even had a cookbook, a gift from my mother, along with a set of pots and pans. With four days to prepare, I’d ace my first dinner party the same way I’d aced my courses.

I sat down to plan a simple meal, with the emphasis on simple.

Tomato juice for starters. A salad with bottled dressing. But what about the main course? Roast beef was too ambitious for me. I couldn’t stand the look of raw chicken. Salmon, on the other hand, was possible. Even better, my father liked it. Salmon it was. I flipped through my cookbook until I found a recipe even a domestically challenged diva like me could handle.

I added rice and canned peas to the dinner menu, as my father’s taste in vegetables was limited. For dessert, I would definitely buy something — maybe a fruit flan.

On Friday morning, my mother called again. “Are you sure you don’t need anything? If making an entire meal is too much, we could always go out for dinner instead.”

“Come on, Mom, have a little faith in me.”

“Of course I do, but your father is very fussy about his food. Everything has to be cooked just right. No sauces. No broccoli. No Brussels sprouts. And absolutely no liver.”

I sighed. “Trust me, he’ll eat everything on the menu. Gotta go. See you tomorrow night.”

Early the next morning I was at the grocery store, complete with a detailed shopping list. Returning home, I put the food away, checked my cookbook again, wrote out a battle plan for each step of that night’s dinner, including prep and cooking time, and taped it to the fridge. Then I set all the pots, bowls, pans and utensils I’d need on the kitchen counter, like a general lining up her troops.

Satisfied that I had everything I needed, I rechecked my schedule — six hours before I’d have to start the prep. Easy. I spent the rest of the morning and afternoon reading and watching TV.

When it was time to start Operation Anniversary Dinner, I marched into the kitchen and got to work. I assembled the ingredients for the salad, prepared the glaze for the salmon, measured out the rice and water in one pot, and put the canned peas in another. Twenty minutes later I had ticked off everything I needed to do before my parents showed up.

By the time they arrived, the rice was simmering, the peas were heating, the tomato juice was poured, with a lemon slice for each glass, and the salad was dressed. As they sat down to dinner, I looked at my watch, calculating five to ten minutes for the juice and salad course, maybe a bit longer. My one-inch salmon steaks would need eight to ten minutes. “Be back in a second,” I said, dashing to the fridge to get the main course and put it in the oven.

Since my cookbook had warned me that every oven cooks a bit differently, halfway through our salad course I got up to check the salmon. When I opened the oven door, there was no rush of hot air. I glanced at the oven controls to make sure I had turned it on. I had.

“Anything wrong?” my mother asked.

I stared at the raw fish, unable to speak. When the lump in my throat dissolved enough for me to talk, the only thing I could think of saying was “Anyone for sushi?”


“The oven isn’t working.” My gaze darted around the kitchen as I wondered what else I could serve. All I had was cereal, eggs, cheese and toast. Toast. Of course. The other half of toaster oven is oven. I breathed a long sigh of relief that dinner could still be saved. “Give me ten minutes and I’ll be ready.” I crammed the salmon in the toaster oven and cranked it up to its highest setting.

Eleven minutes later, after I opened the windows to let the smoke dissipate, my parents and I dined on “blackened” salmon that was more blackened than salmon. Accompanying the main course was hard, dry rice that I scraped off the bottom of the pot, and soft, mushy peas. My oven might not have worked, but the burners did.

“I’m really sorry,” I said, pushing peas around my plate. “I’ve ruined your anniversary dinner.”

My parents smiled. “No, you didn’t,” they said in unison. “It was a lovely thought and really, the food was...” my mother paused, “surprisingly good for your first attempt.”

My father winked at me as he slowly chewed on a piece of burnt salmon.

I winked back. “The good news is I bought the dessert, so it should be fine. Now a toast,” I said, raising my glass. “Happy anniversary. May your lives be filled with love, happiness and good food — preferably not cooked by me.”

~Harriet Cooper

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