The cover of the June 14, 2021 issue of The New Yorker shows a woman hanging up a jacket in a closet. The living room is filled with a small party with unmasked guests holding drinks, chatting. But the inside of the closet are shelves of hand sanitizer, masks, toilet paper and bags of flour — representing everything about the pandemic.
The living room filled with maskless friends seems to illustrate the new now. The cover illustrates so perfectly the conflict many of us feel these days between the old — COVID, fear, precautions — and the new — friends, family, indoors and parties.
Many people have been vaccinated. Mask restrictions are being lifted in dozens of states and people are slowly getting back to a “new normal.” How do we let go of our pandemic fears and reenter the world? What does it mean for home entertaining and sharing meals with family and friends both outdoors and indoors?
I put out a call on Facebook to see if folks were entertaining and how they felt about it. There were certain themes that emerged among the responses about what it means to have friends over and share food at one table once again.
Making Up For Lost Time
Leslie writes: “We recently had a super party to celebrate all the missed holidays of the past year and a half. We had gravlax for New Years, latkes for Hanukkah, lamb chops for Greek Easter, and matzah ball soup and orange cake for Passover. It was about love and food and reconnecting.”
Keep It Simple And Worry Less
Donnajean wrote: “Our entertainment has taken a more simplistic path. Two years ago I would host dinners of 15 to 30 people. We just kept on inviting whomever we ran into. This year, (we invite) two to three people at a time, and it’s so relaxing. Our conversations are more interesting and I’m having a much better time.”
Emily wrote that she is entertaining outdoors only at this point: “The idea that you can entertain without worrying about tidying up your house is incredibly liberating. I hope to keep that low-key approach going moving forward.”
Susan writes: “We recently got together with our closest friends and each of us ordered takeout from our favorite local place and the host provided drinks. It was low stress and we focused more on being together than the angst of preparing food.”
Nan wrote to say that her dining room table has become her work desk and “office” during the pandemic and she has nowhere to put people.
My Kids Aren’t Vaccinated And Neither Are Some Of My Friends
Others who have young children wrote about how difficult it is to entertain because the kids are not yet vaccinated. Susan wrote: “When the littlest ones who are not yet vaccinated are in the mix we still keep it outside.”
And then there is the issue of unvaccinated friends and family. “I’m not entertaining yet,” wrote Michelle, “because I don’t want anyone coming over yet who isn’t vaccinated. And I know a surprising number of people who have not gotten shots. I’m kind of flummoxed by it, to be honest.”
Summer 2021 presents a whole new set of challenges.
I have also spent more time than I’m willing to admit trying to figure out what’s safe and what is not. I am now at the point where I share meals at home with vaccinated family members and friends indoors and outdoors.
Ultimately we all have to do what makes us comfortable. But keeping the food fresh and simple seems to be a solution everyone agrees with. As one friend wrote: “Now is more about being together again and not so much about showing off with fancy food.”
With that sentiment in mind, here are three easy summer dishes: a cold sesame noodle salad with sauteed peas and shrimp; a grilled vegetable sandwich; and a thoroughly refreshing watermelon, cherry and lime drink.
All these dishes can all be made ahead of time and can easily be doubled depending on how large your gathering might be.
Watermelon, Cherry, Lime And Mint Agua Fresca
Agua fresca is a popular fruit-based drink throughout Mexico. This drink couldn’t be simpler or more refreshing. Blend chunks of seedless watermelon together with pitted cherries (which are coming into season), lime juice, lime zest and mint. You only need a touch of sugar, depending on how sweet your melon is. The fruit is then strained and mixed with cold water and served with fresh mint leaves.
You can always substitute honeydew or cantaloupe melon or fresh juicy peaches for the watermelon. And feel free to add a splash of light rum, tequila or vodka!
Serves 4 or 6 small portions.
- 5 cups watermelon cubes, seedless
- 1 to 1 ½ cups pitted cherries
- The juice from 1 large lime
- 1 ½ tablespoon fresh mint leaves, plus leaves for garnish
- About ½ to 1 ½ tablespoon sugar or honey, depending on the sweetness of the melon
- In a blender mix the watermelon, cherries, lime juice, mint and a touch of sugar.
- Serve in tall glasses with or without ice cubes, with a few mint leaves on the side of the glass.
Cold Sesame Noodles With Sauteed Snap Peas And Shrimp
Make the sauce ahead of time and then saute the shrimp and peas and boil the noodles at the last minute and toss just before serving. You don’t want the noodles to sit around in the sauce for too long or they will drink up the sauce and become gloppy. Serve at room temperature or chilled.
Serves 4 as a side dish or 2 as a main course.
The sauce and noodles:
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
- 2 scallions, finely chopped, white and green sections
- 1 tablespoon miso paste
- ⅓ cup plus 1 tablespoon peanut butter, smooth or chunky
- ¼ cup soy sauce or tamari
- 1 ½ teaspoon chile crisp*, chile paste, or hot pepper sauce
- 1 ½ tablespoon rice wine vinegar
- 1 tablespoon sesame oil
- About ¼ to ⅓ cup boiling water
- 6 ounces udon noodles, or ramen noodles or linguini
The shrimp and peas:
- 1 tablespoon canola, peanut, or olive oil
- 1 tablespoon minced ginger
- 1 tablespoon chopped scallion, white and green
- 4 large or 6 medium shrimp, shelled, deveined with tail still on, if you like
- 4 ounces snap peas
- 1 tablespoon soy sauce
*Chile crisp is a thick, spicy, Sichuan condiment. One of the best is made by Fly by Jing.
- In a medium bowl, mix together the garlic, ginger, scallions, miso and peanut butter. Stir in the soy sauce, chile, rice wine vinegar and sesame oil. Add enough boiling water to make a sauce that is thick, but spoonable. The sauce can be covered and refrigerated up to 24 hours ahead of time.
- When ready to serve: Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook noodles 5 minutes in salted boiling water or until almost soft. Drain; run under cold running water and drain again.
- Set a large skillet over high heat. Add the oil and heat for 30 seconds. Add the ginger and scallions and cook for 30 seconds. Add the shrimp and cook for 2 minutes. Flip shrimp over and add the peas to the skillet. Cook for 1 minute. Add the soy sauce and cook for another minute until soy thickens and glazes peas and shrimp.
- Just before serving (or up to an hour ahead of time) toss the cooked, room temperature noodles with the sauce. Place on a serving plate or bowl. Arrange the sauteed peas along the outside of the noodles and top with the shrimp. Serve at room temperature or chilled up to an hour ahead.
Grilled Vegetable And Mozzarella Sandwiches
One of the lingering issues with entertaining is sharing plates and bowls of food. These ample sandwiches solve that issue. You grill a variety of summer vegetables and pile them on a lightly grilled baguette or crunchy bread brushed with herbed oil.
The baguette is layered with creamy mozzarella cheese and cut into fourths. Everyone gets their own sandwich. I use mushrooms, leeks, eggplant, sweet peppers and asparagus. You could add or substitute zucchini, summer squash, thin strips of broccoli or any seasonal vegetables. And you can top the sandwich with tomato slices and buttery lettuce.
Serves 2 to 4.
The herb oil:
- ⅓ cup plus 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh thyme
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh rosemary
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil
- Black pepper to taste
The vegetables, cheese and bread:
- 1 small eggplant, very thinly sliced
- 5 asparagus, ends trimmed
- 4 ounces shiitake mushrooms, ends trimmed and left whole; cut in half if very large
- 1 leek, dark green section removed, and white and pale green sections cut lengthwise in half and washed
- 1 red, yellow, or green sweet pepper, cored, deribbed, and cut into thick strips
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 baguette, about 20 inches long, cut in half lengthwise
- 2 1/2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
- 6 ounces mozzarella cheese, thinly sliced
- 3 radishes, very thinly sliced
- In a bowl mix the oil, herbs, and pepper and set aside.
- Preheat a gas, charcoal or wood grill until hot, about 400 degrees. Place a vegetable tray on the grill and make sure it’s clean. Place the eggplant slices, asparagus, mushrooms, leeks, and pepper strips on the tray and season with salt and pepper. Using a pastry brush, lightly brush the herb oil over all the vegetables, saving about 2 tablespoons for the bread. Grill the vegetables for 4 minutes. Gently flip them over and grill the vegetables for about 7 to 10 minutes, or until tender and soft. Use a small, sharp knife to test for doneness. Remove to a plate. The vegetables can be grilled several hours ahead of time.
- Brush the inside (doughy part) of the bread with the remaining oil and grill the inside part down for 2 minutes or until golden brown.
- To assemble the sandwich: Layer the cheese on one piece of the bread (the bottom half of the baguette). Place the asparagus, leeks, eggplant, mushrooms and peppers on top. Top with the radishes. Drizzle the balsamic vinegar on the other (top) half of the sandwich, and place the two halves together pressing down gently. Carefully cut into 4 sandwiches.
The idea here is to arrange a portable picnic — whether it’s in your backyard or the beach — and add all kinds of fresh seasonal foods.
- On a large cutting board or serving tray arrange several cheeses.
- Add bowls or jars of pickles, cherries, fresh peaches or berries. Bring along bread, crackers, crudite (raw carrot, celery, fennel slices, cherry tomatoes), dried figs and apricots, jams or chutney, a cluster of fresh herbs to sprinkle on cheese, salami or cured meats, smoked fish, sea salt and pepper, and anything else that is seasonal, colorful and would add a bright touch to the picnic board.