Here's a maxim for entertaining in the age of covid-19: The only way to bring people together is to figure out how to keep them apart.
So on a recent blue-skied afternoon, I stretched a tape measure to 6 feet while my husband, Daniel, arranged chairs and folding TV tables in our narrow Brooklyn backyard. We had just enough room for seven people in a distanced oval: four guests, plus our family of three. I was positively giddy at the prospect of cooking for friends for the first time since the pandemic began.
Back in rainy March, as New York entered lockdown and we huddled in place, my family and I tried to become self-sufficient by stocking up on beans and pasta and what we thought were far too many cases of wine. (It wasn't.) We felt uncertain about grocery shopping and receiving packages, and were becoming anxious about what lurked in every human interaction. But after a few weeks, we realized it was human interaction we craved the most. Not beans, not wine.
Every Zoom cocktail hour with friends and family had an edge of sadness, and each virtual "quarantini" seemed to intensify the pangs of disconnection as much as quell them.
We were determined to find a way to entertain safely — and in person.
Depending on where you live, guidance from your local authorities and your comfort level, it may be possible to get together outside in small, physically distanced groups where guests can remain at least 6 feet away from one another. Even as we texted our invitations, we knew there was no way to have people over that was 100% safe. But there were ways to reduce the risks.
Our goals were to be as careful as we could, given our knowledge of the virus, and to use the comfort threshold of the most anxious person in the group as our guide. Because while pandemic etiquette was new to all of us, making guests feel at ease and welcome in our home is not.
Although most experts agree that the chances of catching the coronavirus from touching objects is low, studies have shown that, under ideal conditions, the virus can live on a surface for up to 72 hours. Quarantining the items for three days and unpacking them with gloved hands would lower the risk to a point acceptable to everyone in attendance.
The first step was to quarantine the tableware.
I put a set of plates, silverware, glasses and napkins on a separate tray for each group, then wrapped each tray in a bag. I also wrapped up cans of seltzer and individual bags of fancy potato chips.
We also had the slightly awkward experience of sending out pre-party group emails to strategize about the bathroom.
All involved agreed that they felt fine about sharing it — as long as only one masked person went into the house at a time, and as long as everyone promised to close the lid before flushing. (What's normally TMI becomes essential knowledge during a pandemic.) We left paper towels and plenty of hand soap on the sink, along with disinfecting wipes and a spray bottle filled with 70% isopropyl alcohol for misting handles and knobs.
The day of the party, Daniel and I snapped on gloves and packed an ice-filled cooler with the seltzer cans, spaced apart for easy grabbing. (We also set disinfecting wipes next to the cooler.) Each group had a separate folding TV table next to carefully spaced chairs, and on the table, we set bags of potato chips next to a canape-size hand sanitizer. This wasn't the abundant hors d'oeuvres spread I was used to, but chips and Purell is surely the snack combo of 2020.
After all the planning and logistical arrangements, cooking itself was a snap. We served the food directly off the grill, and each guest pulled a piping-hot serving off the fire with his or her own utensils. Minimal risk, minimal fuss.
Grilled chicken thighs were an easy choice. I could marinate them in a gingery balsamic glaze ahead of time. And unlike a big, thick steak or leg of lamb, they didn't need to be carved or handled after cooking. Fish filets, hot dogs and burgers (made with ground beef or vegan meat), and individual chops are also suitable choices.
Just be wary of garnishes and condiments; the fewer, the better. If you can't imagine grilling without ketchup, mustard or Sriracha, give each group its own bottle or jar or ask people to bring their own condiments. This holds true for things such as olive oil, salt and pepper, too. At the very least, be sure to have plenty of serving spoons at the ready, one for each group, as well as paper towels and wipes on hand, so everyone can clean as needed.
A few menu items could be made in advance, and, for those items, we again followed the three-day quarantine rule, leaving everything covered in the fridge and pulling out items with gloved hands only just before serving.
As a seasoning for grilled corn, I made jalapeno-feta butter, wrapping individual portions in parchment paper and twisting the ends as if each held a giant, chile-studded confection. The butter would also work equally well sliced on top of other grilled vegetables — peppers, eggplant, mushrooms, zucchini — melting into a creamy, salty, lightly spicy sauce.
I whipped up personal ramekins of no-bake butterscotch custards three days ahead. They were dense and ultracreamy, with a dash of molasses to accentuate the bittersweet brown sugar.
And finally, when it came to pouring wine and batched cocktails, we instructed our guests to leave a glass on a table, then take a few steps back while Daniel or I refilled it without touching.
The planning took a lot more thought than parties before this new normal, and we all needed to stick to a conscious choreography to make sure we kept our distance.
When our friends showed up, it was hard at first to remember every rule, and it felt downright strange not to hug and kiss hello.
But as everyone settled in, 6 feet apart, wine glasses in hand, we gradually eased out of the awkwardness and remembered what it was like to eat and drink with loved ones on a warm summer night. That feeling, it turns out, hadn't changed a bit.
Grilled Corn With Jalapeno-Feta Butter
½ cup unsalted butter (1 stick), softened
1 jalapeno, seeded and finely chopped
¼ cup crumbled feta
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro, basil or dill
1 large clove garlic, finely grated or mashed to a paste
½ teaspoon fresh lime or lemon juice
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon ground coriander
6 ears corn, shucked
Olive oil, for grilling
To prepare the jalapeno-feta butter, in a small bowl, mash together the butter, jalapeno, feta, cilantro, garlic, lime or lemon juice, salt and coriander.
Divide the butter equally onto six pieces of parchment paper large enough to wrap them snugly (6-inch squares should do it), form into logs, and wrap well, twisting the ends like candy wrappers. Chill for at least 2 hours and up to 3 days before using, or freeze for up to 3 months.
Light the grill or heat the broiler, arranging the rack about 4 inches from the heat source. Brush corn lightly with oil. Grill until charred on all sides, 3 to 6 minutes total.
Transfer corn to plates, and serve each ear with a log of jalapeno-feta butter for rubbing onto the ear.
Makes 6 servings.
Gingery Grilled Chicken Thighs With Charred Peaches
For the chicken:
5 tablespoons balsamic vinegar (preferably the good, syrupy kind), divided use
2 tablespoons finely grated fresh ginger and any ginger juice from a 2-inch piece
2 ½ pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs
8 sprigs fresh thyme OR 4 sprigs fresh rosemary
3 cloves garlic, finely grated or mashed to a paste
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon fresh lime juice, plus more as needed
Olive oil, for brushing
Plain whole-milk yogurt, for serving (optional)
3 green onions, white and green parts, thinly sliced (optional)
Handful of torn fresh basil (optional)
For the peaches:
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme OR 2 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary
1 teaspoon honey
3 to 4 ripe peaches or nectarines, halved and pitted
Flaky sea salt
Marinate the chicken: In a small bowl, mix together balsamic vinegar, grated ginger and a pinch of salt. Season chicken all over with salt, and put it in a larger bowl or resealable bag. Add 2 tablespoons of the balsamic mixture. (Give it a stir before measuring in case any of the ginger has fallen to the bottom. Save remaining balsamic for serving.) Add the thyme, garlic, soy sauce, and 1 teaspoon lime juice. Cover bowl or close bag, and let chicken marinate in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours and up to overnight.
Light the grill or heat the broiler, arranging the rack about 4 inches from the heat source.
Prepare the peaches: In a bowl, combine butter, thyme and honey. Brush peaches lightly with butter mixture and place in a grilling basket, if you have one, or directly on the grill. Grill over direct heat until just charred, 2 to 4 minutes per side. You'll know they are done when the skin curls back and the flesh starts to melt. Transfer to a serving platter or plates, and, if you like, drizzle with a little more of the butter mixture and sprinkle with flaky sea salt.
If there's room on the grill, cook the chicken at the same time (or wait until peaches are done). Brush off any clinging pieces of marinade from chicken, pat it dry, and coat lightly with oil. Grill or broil until charred and browned and the internal temperature reaches 165 degrees, about 4 to 6 minutes per side.
Transfer chicken to a platter or serving plates, along with the peaches. Serve with dollops of yogurt on the side if you like, and a drizzle with some of the remaining gingery balsamic and a little more olive oil. Scatter with scallions and basil, if using, for garnish.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
No-Bake Butterscotch Custards
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup creme fraiche
½ cup dark brown sugar
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon light, unsulphured molasses (optional)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Whipped cream and fresh berries, for serving (optional)
In a medium saucepan, combine cream, creme fraiche, brown sugar and salt over medium-high heat. Bring to a simmer, stirring frequently to dissolve sugar.
Cook at a vigorous simmer until mixture thickens slightly, 5 to 7 minutes.
Remove from heat and stir in molasses and vanilla. Let sit until mixture has cooled slightly and a skin forms on top, about 20 minutes.
Stir mixture, then strain through a fine-mesh strainer into a measuring cup with a spout. Pour mixture into ramekins or individual serving bowls.
Refrigerate, uncovered, until set, at least 3 hours and up to 3 days. Serve with whipped cream and berries, if you like.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.