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Entertaining Fish

(by Leslie Dannin Rosenthal)

“In the dishwasher?”


“Yes, in the top rack.”


“I don’t get it. Even if you wrap it really well, won’t the salmon get soapy?”


“You just run the rinse cycle, silly, no soap!”


My mother was making a farewell party for a colleague—a full-blown cocktail party and buffet dinner for 40. The honoree was a young woman who’d served as the director of the Jewish Community Relations Council for the Rhode Island Jewish Federation, and Mom was the chair of the Council. The food had to be kosher (the Federation’s rule, not my mother’s; we had the farthest thing possible from a kosher kitchen) and worth the travel to our home, almost an hour from where most of the guests lived.


In 1983, poached salmon with a dill cream sauce was considered fancy food. My mother’s beautiful copper fish poacher wasn’t wide enough to accommodate the amount of fish needed. But she’d read somewhere that it was possible to poach an entire side of salmon in the dishwasher, well wrapped in tin foil.


Entertaining for a crowd was something my mother did with great enthusiasm. Every summer weekend, friends and family flocked to our pool—a rarity in our little island town—and our house was a great place to stop by for a meal after swimming, just up the hill from one of the most beautiful and popular beaches in the state. Mom would make huge bowls of pasta salad with pesto, red potato salad with dill, and tomato salad sharp with red wine vinegar. There were platters of hamburgers and hot dogs, usually a few thick steaks, and always her chicken wings marinated in soy sauce and garlic powder. She never knew how many people were coming, but she didn’t mind. And the food never ran out.


I was Mom’s semi-devoted sous-chef for all of this. She would start cooking early on a weekend morning. I’ve always been a morning person, so i was happy to help until the sun rose far enough in the sky that it was time to tan. All of Mom’s cooking began with a recipe, either from a friend, a cookbook, or Bon Appetit or Gourmet, but she always felt free to improvise. If you don’t have pine nuts for the pesto, use walnuts. Too many people to serve a steak to everyone? Slice what you have and serve it over the Caesar salad. Once I was out of college, Mom trusted me to make the various components of recipes, like the pesto sauce or the salad dressing. I never liked using her blender (too hard to clean), so I convinced her that her brand new Cuisinart (which still works, 45 years later) would do the job just as well.


The kitchen was always the safest place to talk to Mom. Even as a little girl, this was the case. Mom in the kitchen was relaxed and curious, a born instructor, sharing little tips, explaining why she was using brown paper bags to drain fried food, and offering tastes of everything from chopped liver to her meatloaf mixture (salmonella risk be damned). As a young adult, the kitchen was still a haven. It was easy to talk there; our hands were busy, and I didn’t have to look her in the eye if we were discussing my latest boyfriend or any other difficult topic, like my grandparents’ declining health. In the next breath, we would discuss how to platter the food so the casual buffet at the pool would be easy to transport and look appealing. “Color on the plate!” was sacrosanct.


Just watching my mother move through her kitchen taught me to clean up after every recipe (of course, I was the one doing the dishes—I washed the Cuisinart five times one Thanksgiving morning), wipe down the counters regularly (my job) and to pull out all the ingredients for any dish prior to starting a recipe. I fell into rhythm next to her, each of us anticipating the other’s moves. Gradually, Mom began to ask my opinion on what to serve, and I began to share the recipes I was finding on my own, as I discovered cookbooks like The Silver Palate and authors like Ina Garten. Mom loved them because they reflected the wide-open, relaxed style of entertaining she’d been doing for years.

After years of entertaining, I think Mom may have been attracted to the dishwasher salmon as a new challenge, and she was convinced that only a KitchenAid (like her new baby blue model, the first dishwasher in the family) was key to the success of the recipe. From my apartment in New York City, I followed along, although still unconvinced of this unorthodox method. Mom’s confidence about the strange recipe was impressive, but a few days before the party, I was still asking questions.


“Are you going to tell anyone that you used the dishwasher to make dinner?”


“Only if it works!”


And it did. As soon as the salmon was unwrapped, my mother called me.


“It’s perfect! I can’t wait to show you the pictures.” And after sending off a roll of film to be developed (SOP during the early 1980s), I had visual proof of Mom’s triumph, laid out on a bed of ruffled lettuce, lemon wedges around the perimeter. Dishwasher Salmon was the hit of the buffet line.


Forty years later, I’m giving it a try myself. I’ve purchased two beautiful filets of salmon and folded them inside a tight oiled package. I lay the package next to the water glasses in the top rack, put the little soap pod in the dispenser, and close the door. Yes, soap. The dishwasher is full of dirty dishes, and one of the articles I read said soap was okay. If I’m wrong, I’ll just order in pizza—I’m only feeding my husband and myself. I sit down to wait until the wash cycle has run its course and find…perfectly cooked salmon—no hint of detergent.


I call Mom, who is thrilled that her party trick still works. “But how did you do it with your dishwasher?” she asks. “I thought you could only use a KitchenAid.” Still proud of her first dishwasher.


I’ve taken inspiration from my mother in many areas of life: how to run a meeting, how to mentor younger people, how to pull an outfit together with the right scarf, how to face illness and loss. Her approach to cooking has come in especially handy, and not just in the kitchen: Never be afraid to try something new, never be afraid to improvise, never be afraid of failure, and never be afraid to share your secret for success, even if it’s a weird one.


Leslie Dannin Rosenthal is a writer and full-time volunteer who lives in South Orange, New Jersey.


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