One in a collection of essays celebrating the cooking of our mothers.
Back in the day when my dear departed mother wore white gloves to High Holiday services in Jacksonville, Fla., women gave luncheons. Even the working moms, of which she was one, took pride in marking special achievements with a conference-table soiree.
Her go-to contribution began with a can of pink salmon and ended with the thwuck of a chilled mousse decanting from its mold. It was shaped like a fish and curved like a snoozing cat. The dish delighted me, as did most foods that were poured in and set up firm, Jell-O and tomato aspic at the top of the list.
This was 3-D art you could eat! She mostly decorated around it with overlapping slices of cucumber, leaving the mold’s topography unadorned to show how creamy smooth the mousse was. (Or so I thought.) Upon closer inspection, one could discern specks of dried dill and onion. Triscuit was the accompanying cracker of choice, lined up in a paper-napkin-lined gold-colored wire basket.
Thing was, it was not her recipe. The 5-by-7-inch card was written in her hand, all right — straight-up-and-down lettering, curlicues at the start and finish of the capitals, arrow indicating more on the flip side. But it was from Aunt Sally, my mother’s oldest sister and Russian first-born of the Canadian family Fages.
Sally ruled her five siblings way into adulthood. She remained the only one who could get away with calling my mother by her first name decades after “R. Laurie Benwick” appeared on Mom’s calling cards. At some point, after Aunt Sally became a bubbe, she proclaimed her own culinary prowess, as in “Recipes From the Famous Kitchen of Sally Malt,” the subtitle of her stapled Xeroxed booklet.
Dutifully, my mother would make the recipes that came by mail: blueberry muffins, the Jewish cookies called “nothings.” She was never one to free-wheel it on her glass cutting board. If it came out right and was sanctioned by Sally, that was good enough for her.
And so the few recipes I have from her are keepsakes with an asterisk. She got dinner on the table on most nights with help from her canned-food pantry and me, once I was old enough to follow the prep directions she delivered by phone from work. Meat, veg, starch. Box-mix angel food cake. Nothing else so memorable that I would re-create it today, I’m sad to admit. As my older and wiser brother says, nursing — not cooking — was Mom’s passion.
How I wish I could cook for her now.
More Mother’s Day essays:
8 to 12 servings
Boiling water is about the only cooking that this pale-coral-colored retro spread requires.
For this rendition, we like to use salmon packed in tuna-size cans, because it doesn’t contain the cartilage and bones that come in big cans. You’ll need a mold with a volume of 4 to 6 cups, preferably shaped like a fish.
Serve with crackers or lightly dressed salad greens — or, if you’re in a retro mood, with tomato aspic.
MAKE AHEAD: The mousse needs to be covered and refrigerated in its mold for at least 2 hours and preferably overnight, or up to 1 day in advance.
Adapted from a recipe by the late Sally Fages Malt of Toronto, Canada.
15 ounces drained canned pink salmon (from 3 small cans; see headnote)
1 teaspoon celery seed
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
2 to 3 tablespoons chopped fresh dill, plus a small frond for optional garnish
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup boiling water
4 1/2 to 5 teaspoons (2 packets) Knox unflavored gelatin
1 shallot (about 1 1/2 ounces), finely chopped
1/2 cup regular or low-fat mayonnaise
1 cup chilled heavy cream
1 slice pimento-stuffed olive, for garnish
1 mini cucumber, thinly sliced (preferably on a mandoline), for garnish (optional)
1 celery rib, cut crosswise into thin half-moons, for garnish (optional)
1/4 cup grape tomatoes, cut into thin slices, for garnish (optional)
Place the salmon in a mixing bowl, breaking it up into small chunks; add the celery seed, paprika, dill (to taste) and lemon juice; toss to combine. Let sit for 10 minutes.
Stir the boiling water and gelatin together in a small bowl until the gelatin powder has dissolved.
Remove the center knob from the lid of a blender. You may need to work in two batches, depending on the size of your blender jar. Combine the seasoned salmon and the gelatin mixture in the blender jar and place a towel over the opening. Pulse several times, stopping to move things around with a spatula as needed. Then add the shallot and the mayonnaise. Puree on medium-high speed until fairly smooth.
On high speed, gradually stream in the heavy cream through the hole in the lid. Puree for a few minutes, until the mixture is smooth and thick.
Generously grease the inside of the mold with cooking oil spray. Place the olive slice in the mold’s eye indentation (or where the eye of the fish might be situated).
Carefully scrape the salmon mousse mixture into the mold, leveling the surface and giving the mold a good rap on the counter to make sure the mousse is fully settled. (If you have any extra mousse, grease a small ramekin and fill it with the leftovers.) Cover with plastic wrap placed directly on the surface. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours and preferably overnight, so it firms up.
When ready to serve, fill a shallow baking dish with warm (not hot) water. Uncover the mold and dip the underside into the water for 15 seconds or so; use a round-edged knife to loosen the mousse around the edges. Invert a platter over the mold, then hold platter and mold together as you invert again so the mold sits on the platter.
Depending on the mold you’ve used, use the cucumber, celery, tomato and dill frond, if desired, to embellish the fish design. Serve chilled.
Nutrition | Per serving (based on 12, using low-fat mayonnaise): 150 calories, 8 g protein, 2 g carbohydrates, 13 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 40 mg cholesterol, 110 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 0 g sugar
Recipe tested by Bonnie S. Benwick; email questions to email@example.com