I recently played the most ridiculous game of telephone. It started when I called my grandmother to cook her dinner.
I know, it sounds all wrong, doesn’t it? You can’t cook for someone over the phone. I didn’t think so either. I’d planned a trip to Portland to do it in person. My grandmother, June, called her sister, and a friend, and molded an entire day around a trip to the grocery store for about ten ingredients. They scrummed around the produce department guy, battering him with questions about fennel and kale. Then they hit the fish counter, where, June told me, she knew not to order the wild salmon because it’s bad for the environment, and knew she could have told the fish guy where to cut, but didn’t have to. I smiled over the phone, not caring what she bought, because she was going to cook. (This woman eats, but she does not, in contemporary lexicon, cook.)
Then my cat got attacked by a raccoon. He was oozy and insulted and very much upset about being left alone indoors, so at the very last minute, I cancelled on my grandmother. She was devastated. She used that word – devastated – and I could hear the truth of it in her voice, weighing her down like an age. (She’s not usually dramatic.)
So we made a phone date. She’d invite her friends back over, and I’d call “on the cellular phone,” and we’d do it all that way, ear to ear. I’d talk, and she’d chop, and it would be like I was right there in the kitchen.
Of course, there was a little catch. The point of cooking for her, that night, was to demonstrate for her a holiday entertaining menu that even she could master – a whole dinner that would take me a heaping ten minutes to put in the oven. There would be roasted salmon with a lemon-cumin raita (she loves yogurt sauces), Dijon potatoes (she’s a mustard fiend), roasted fennel with sherry, and creamed kale – just the right balance of familiarity and foreignness. I figured ten minutes for me meant 20 or so for us together. But on the telephone?
But they’d already purchased the food.
Dinner at Grandma June’s house is a five o’clock affair. I called at 4:15, and June answered on the first ring.
“We’re here,” she sang. “Mary’s had her cigarette, and Verna has the knife.” Taken out of context, I might have been worried, but in this case, I knew that meant they were ready.
“I’m just going to hand the phone to Verna, and you can tell her what to do, okay?” said June.
“Not so fast,” I said. June will do almost anything to not cook. “How about you hold the phone while she chops?” I figured processing the instructions counted for at least half.
And so it began. My dinner plan echoed from Seattle to Portland, from me, to June, then invariably Verna and Mary:
Jess: Okay, let’s start by turning on the oven.
June: Verna, turn on the oven.
Verna: How do you turn on the oven?
June: Push in the dial.
Verna: Okay, how hot do you want it?
June: How hot do we want it?
Jess: 400 degrees.
June: 400 degrees.
Mary: How long is this going to take?
And on we went. I learned, over the next (honestly) 40 minutes, to give extremely specific instructions. We started with potatoes, then fennel, then kale, then salmon. But we started everything slowly:
Jess: Is your white square ceramic pan nearby?
June: Yes, right here.
Jess: Okay, I’m going to tell you how to cut the fennel, then you’re going to put the fennel slices in, drizzle them with olive oil and roll them around a bit. Ready?
June: (To Verna, excited) We’re going to get the fennel ready now. (To Jess) Okay, what do we do?
Jess: Okay. Pretend the fennel is a hand. You see it, with the fingers sticking up?
June: Verna: Pretend the fennel is a hand, with the fingers sticking up.
Verna: I don’t see it. A hand?
June: We don’t see it. What do you mean?
Jess: Can you pretend that the white part is your palm and the green sticky-uppity parts are fingers?
June: Oh, yes.
Verna: What. What? (June explains.)
Jess: (Hems, haws, then decides not to trim the bottom.) Okay. You can eat all of it, but for tonight, we’re going to cut the tops off. Cut the long green stalks off where the rings would be, if the fennel was a hand.
June: Cut the long green stalks off where the rings would be . . . what?
Jess: If the fennel was a hand.
June: If the fennel was a hand. Isn’t it were a hand?
Jess: Okay, now cut it into slices through the core.
June: Now cut it into slices through the core.
Verna: I have to talk to her about the center.
Verna washed her hands, and June handed her the phone. I explained how to cut the fennel bulb into wedges right through the center core, so the layers of vegetable stick together, and promised her that it would roast up nice and soft. She handed the phone back to June, and got to work. And on we went, for potatoes, kale, salmon, and the sauce.
Overall, though, it worked quite well. Since it took us (collectively) longer than it took me alone to prepare the ingredients, I had them cut their salmon into smaller filets, instead of roasting it in a big slab, and unless they were lying, it came out perfectly.
From my end, it was sort of a grueling half hour or so. But it also made my heart melt, they same way it does when a kid says something so entirely wrong it’s cute. I’d say, “Squeeze the lemon over the fish,” and June would say, “How do you squeeze a lemon again?” and Verna would say, “June, I know how to squeeze a lemon,” and Mary, more kitchencaster than participant, would say, “What’s the lemon for? Why aren’t we putting it on the fish later?” And since I was there, they’d ask me, to make sure, and we’d spend 25 seconds – watch the clock, it’s a long time – talking lemon-squeezing.
But my goodness, they giggled. There were three of them, but even so, sometimes they were so overwhelmed by the collective energy it took to, say, find the cumin, that they’d abandon me on the counter, and I could hear them twittering, one to the next. It was like listening to a recording of a pack of teenagers in 1939.
And after they’d called back to report that yes, dinner was sensational, I imagined them gathered in front of her giant new television, watching the World Series, picking kale out of their teeth, and wished I wasn’t such a sucker for Whiney McWhiskers. But if anyone understands coddling a cat, it’s June.
Over Thanksgiving, she told me again how much fun she’d had. “But fennel,” she said. “I wouldn’t be too sad if I never saw fennel again. I’m a carrots-onions-potatoes kind of gal.”
Fair enough. I’ll cook the fennel here.
The holidays are a time to put the shine on your best silver, if that’s what suits you, but it doesn’t suit everyone. Me? I didn’t always save the pasta-making, reduction-simmering, and bread baking for other times of the year. It used to make sense to stand in the kitchen for hours, talking and stirring. But these days, with an 8-month-old, I’m lucky if I can boil water in one try at 6 p.m. So this year, having guests over will mean simplicity, so there’s a chance – even the slightest, skinniest chance – that I’ll get to talk to the people hanging out with us in our home.
The following simple menu was designed with a 4-person dinner party in mind, to be prepared in a bit over 10 minutes (with dinner about 20 minutes afterward). It doubles easily, but if you do double it, keep in mind that it will take you longer to cut the vegetables, so the salmon might go in later. Luckily, it’s hard to overcook the potatoes, fennel, and kale, so let the salmon determine dinnertime – just add the sherry to the fennel right when you start taking things out of the oven, so it has a minute or two to sizzle.
If you can’t find Olsen Farms’ “Spud Nuts,” which are basically ridiculously small potatoes, quarter golf ball-sized potatoes and use them instead. Potatoes simply halved (per the photos above) don’t quite cook enough in the time allotted.
And, as always, please READ THROUGH the directions before beginning. The directions assume all produce is washed.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
MAKE THE POTATOES: Grease a shallow roasting pan with a teaspoon of olive oil. Toss 1 1/2 pounds Spud Nuts (or quartered small potatoes) with 2 heaping tablespoons Dijon mustard, transfer them to the pan, and put them in the oven on the bottom rack.
MAKE THE FENNEL: Cut the long green stalks off a 1 1/2 pound fennel bulb and save to slice into a salad. Cut the fennel in half vertically (with the stripes), then cut each half into 6 or 8 wedges, so the core keeps each wedge intact. Pile the wedges in an ovenproof pan big enough to fit them in one layer, drizzle with 2 teaspoons of olive oil, season with salt and pepper, and mix with your hands until all the fennel is coated. Add to the oven’s bottom rack.
START THE KALE: Cut 2 small bunches (about 3/4 pound) lacinato (also called dinosaur) kale crosswise into thin ribbons. Heat 1/2 tablespoon olive oil in a large, deep pan over medium heat. Add a crushed, chopped garlic clove, stir for a few seconds, then add the kale, and cook, stirring occasionally while you continue.
MAKE THE SAUCE: Stir together the contents of an 8-ounce container full-fat Greek yogurt, the zest and juice of a lemon, 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin, salt and pepper to taste, and if you want, a chopped clove of garlic. Set aside to let the flavors marry, as they say.
MAKE THE SALMON: Center a 1 1/2 pound (roughly 1 1/2” thick) salmon filet on a parchment- or baking mat-lined baking sheet. Smear with 1 teaspoon olive oil, and season with salt and pepper. Bake for 15 minutes or so, or roughly 10 minutes per inch of thickness, until the salmon just begins to exude small white beads of fat (but really not much longer, please).
UPKEEP: Add 1 cup heavy cream and a quick grate of nutmeg to the kale, stir, and walk away. Come back in 10 minutes, stir the kale, pour yourself more wine, and sit back down. (The kale is done when the cream’s gone, but it’s very happy to sit on low heat until you’re ready to eat.)
WHEN THE SALMON IS DONE: Add a big splash – about 1 1/2 tablespoons – sherry vinegar to the fennel pan, and return to the oven without breathing in too deeply (watch those vinegar fumes). Take the salmon out, and transfer it to a serving platter, along with the sauce. Transfer the kale to a serving bowl. Snuggle the potatoes in next to the salmon. Shake the fennel pan to release the wedges, and add them to the platter, too.