By Yotam Ottolenghi
Yotam Ottolenghi’s beloved late mother-in-law always made four types of meat and six carbs for festive family meals. He honors her memory — but serves salmon instead.
My mother-in-law passed away suddenly over the summer. Greta Allen, my husband Karl’s mum, was Irish through and through. Warm and unapologetically herself, she was wise and funny, and she could take a joke just as happily as she could dish it out.
“You cook your broccoli like it was brisket,” I remember mocking her once after noticing the pot simmering away for a good 45 minutes.
“Yoti,” she retorted at once, using her nickname for me with a blend of great affection and snappy humor, that way she had of putting across a serious point not so seriously. “You mind your own business, young man, and don’t you go around messing with my Christmas. Or else, I’ll have to get out my wooden spoon and chase you around the house.”
I loved Greta, and I miss her. I miss her for her dinner table — be it Christmas, or any other family gathering — with four types of meat and at least six carbs and vegetables.
Many of these were wonderfully delicious, despite my banter. My understanding of the power of lots and lots of butter to lift a mash of carrots and parsnips to heavenly realms I owe to her. In the meat department, maybe less so. Greta was able to describe a piece of cooked meat as “lovely and dry” without a wee bit of irony. Her vegetable soup, on the other hand, was everything you want a soup to be: simple, wholesome and good.
Regardless of what she placed on the table, though, what I learned from Greta was a particular way of celebrating with family and loved ones, her unique gift for just being there. The food at the center of the table — always important, no doubt, and the subject of long conversations — was almost secondary. It was about bringing us around that table, chatting, reminiscing and laughing. Laughing a lot. Laughing all the time, really.
Greta is actually probably laughing her head off right now, seeing what I have here for a family gathering: a side of salmon, seasoned with seaweed, ginger and Thai basil, served with a salad of roasted sunchokes, radishes and green onions. A far cry from her beloved overcooked turkey. There are also potatoes, which she would naturally appreciate, and lots of butter, which she would welcome even more, but the rest Greta would classify as my “funny food.”
I would happily defend my variations — the side of salmon, with its intense flavors and bold presence on the table as a festive centerpiece, or the fish cakes, a starter variation on a similar flavor theme — but I’d rather just leave it at seeing Greta, bewildered and slightly tickled at how I finally managed to mess with tradition.
Image Credits: Salmon with browned butter and wakame seaweed, served alongside potatoes and sunchokes, can be a centerpiece for when you don’t feel like serving meat. Credit Andrew Scrivani for The New York Times
This salmon cake can be an appetizer or, if you serve two per person, a main course. Credit Andrew Scrivani for The New York Times