Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

Low-grade terror of spills, stains and general culinary chaos aside, I decided to cook for company in my new kitchen.

That’s a normal thing to do, right? Yet I hesitated. I still struggle with the layout of my renovated kitchen, which has had me incessantly wiping counters, cabinets and floors for a month. My silverware, my cups, my garlic press, my food processor – it takes three tries to find each item because nothing is where it had been for 13 years. I go for a fork and discover oven mitts. I aim for the citrus squeezer and reap sandwich bags. But I can pull off a simple dinner, surely. What could go wrong?


I did think of pushing the date back to Sunday afternoon so I could serve brunch instead. I’d pick up some bagels, buy smoked salmon and cream cheese, brew a pot of Zabar’s coffee – almost no need to tackle the intimidating cocina.

But no. People have friends over for casual dinners. I can do this, I decided.

So I tried to keep it simple … and failed. Instead of throwing together the standard appetizer, entrée and dessert, I put together an ambitious menu and then spent a large part of the day shopping and chopping. Chicken fricassee with lemons plucked from the backyard tree. Red potatoes browned and roasted with rosemary. A garlicky white bean puree. Salad, to increase the workload (all that rinsing, tearing, blotting!), with a simple mustard vinaigrette. Vidalia onions roasted and topped with a gentle splash of balsamic vinegar. And here’s where the trouble came in: salmon.

I have this cast iron reversible grill/griddle contraption that’s flat on one side and ribbed on the other. It weighs as much as my 14-year-old and is just as challenging to get clean. Moreover, grease splatters  all over the stove when I dare place meat on its red-hot surface. Yet the recipe called for grilling salmon on the barbie and this gadget is generally an apt substitute.


To make the “sauce,” I spent a wedge of the afternoon grating lemon rind and mincing green olives, anchovies and parsley. Once the goods were all in miniscule pieces and combined, I set them aside. When the company arrived and we sat down for salad,  I turned on the burners under the grill, waited until it the metal got hot, lovingly placed a side of bright red Alaskan salmon skin-side down and covered the fish loosely with foil, my workaround for closing the lid of a traditional outdoor barbecue, as the recipe suggested.


No big deal, you think? Me too. Except that the kitchen started getting smoky. “Don’t think about it,” I responded to everyone in the room. “It’ll pass when the fish is ready.” Then the adjacent family room got so smoky that a 4-year-old’s father, looking a bit panicked, insisted the kid sit with us in the dining room until the air cleared; we were closer to the exit. The air was nearly an opaque white, I admit, but by this time we’d opened the patio and front doors and turned on a vent and a fan, so it seemed safe to dig into dinner while the smog subsided. The battery-operated smoke alarm started beeping intermittently. “No worries,” I advised. Then the wired smoked alarm chimed in.


I heard the phone ring and hollered to my husband to pick up. He’d stepped outside, it turns out, and I was in the middle of transferring this lovely filet onto a platter, determined to keep it whole -- so no one took the call. Once I got all the food on the table, including the salmon with olive sauce, I thought to see if the security company had checked in on us. It had. I called back and said, “There’s no fire here. Tell the firemen not to come.” I hung up and immediately saw a very large man in a big bulky coat with a shiny black and red hat stroll through my front door. Yup, the rescue team had responded in record time. “You can leave,” I told him. “There was just a little smoke from cooking dinner.”


With a confident smile, this heroic public servant refused to budge until he cleared the air with a very effective megafan. As one room after another lost its milky sheen, other firefighters stepped in. I tried repeatedly to shoo these nice men away, afraid the food would soon be too cold to taste good. I even invited them to stay and join us. As long as we could eat. “Do you want me to make you a plate?” I offered. “We have plenty.” They said they’d just downed dinner yet they lingered, inexplicably.


My only frustration at that point was that we couldn’t yet sample that pseudo-tapenade.  “Rona, I’m surprised you’re so calm considering what’s going on,” one guest observed. I was perplexed. Why wouldn’t I be calm -- and then realized that most people’s Friday night dinners have no drama. At all.


“Oh, this is typical for around here,” I shrugged. “Things like this happen all the time.”


We don’t generally have fan-wielding superheroes stomping through the dining room, but pandemonium is rote.


The firemen  did, eventually, say their farewells. And I did, in end, serve my guests smoked salmon.




P.S. As it turns out, I was right to fear using my kitchen. The smoke left a stubborn brown stain on my brand new Silestone quartz countertop. I chose Silestone because I’d read that “quartz” products are nearly indestructible. That’s not true. Rona’s fancy-schmancy kitchen is marred.


P.S. 2. I do not blame Zeljko the Kitchen Guru for this mess. He urged us strongly to get granite with a busy pattern.