The dog was the first to hear the knock. Winston already knew something was up because the table was set, the candles were lit, the kitchen smelled good, and Craig, my husband, was cuing up Ella Fitzgerald on the record player. By the time our friends walked through the door, Winston’s tail was wagging, and if we had tails, ours would be wagging, too.
After a year and a half of repetitive meals on the couch while watching “Jeopardy,” here it was: our first post-vaccine dinner party. Actual people, who weren’t ourselves, would be walking through the door, and I would be feeding them food that wasn’t cobbled together to avoid trips to the grocery store. Here was the moment to dust off the decanter, to roll out the tablecloth, to polish the fine china.
Only these instincts felt all wrong. We had all gone through a collective trauma, we were all a bit dazed, and the idea of making our first dinner party a formal affair felt as misguided as greeting the Titanic survivors with a fashion show. Instead, I had worked out four strategies to make this initial maskless gathering a success:
Cool your jets. Remember those early days of quarantine, when we were fermenting our own sourdough, braising lamb necks for five hours, pickling anything we could get our hands on, antsy and anxious to find something — anything — to distract us from the horror show unraveling on the news? At last, it’s okay to take a breath: both in and out of the kitchen.
As a high-strung person, it has taken me a while to learn that the more relaxed you are at your own dinner party, the more relaxed your guests will be. Stress is contagious — no matter how delicious the food — and the last thing people want after being stressed all year is to be stressed at dinner. This is why I recommend kicking things off with a dip. A dip that takes just a few minutes to make, a dip that you can easily make ahead, a dip that you can present with something as trendy as multicolored carrots or as casual as a box of crackers.
My French friend Cris, one of the best cooks I know, once served us a brilliant combination of white bean puree topped with a garlicky basil pesto. The duo worked beautifully together: the creamy beans offering depth of flavor from tahini; and the pesto punchy and bright from garlic and lots of lemon. Plus, the green on white was visually stunning. Cris gifted me the recipe, which I adapted, and it’s a delightful way to kick off your evening.
Keep things light. Entree-wise, it may be tempting to serve something rib-sticking and hearty, but the truth is — if you’re anything like me — you’ve been pigging out all year (thank you for your service, salt-and-vinegar potato chips).
This evening calls for salmon. Slow-roasted with lots of herbs and olive oil and served with a fluffy rice pilaf, a good salmon entree can feel as elegant and decadent as a four-hour stew. People will be grateful not to leave your home feeling sluggish and heavy, the way most of us have been feeling since covid became a household word. Instead, everyone will feel light and ready to tackle an unmasked summer pool party (or, more likely, a Netflix binge).
Serve individual portions. When I mentioned dip earlier, you were possibly thinking to yourself: “A communal dip after covid? Not so fast!”
It’s a similar conversation to the one people are having right now about masks. Blogger Jason Kottke recently wrote a post: “Eleven Reasons to Keep Wearing a Mask after You’re Vaccinated and the Pandemic is ‘Over.’” The list includes things such as “you’re traumatized from ‘the mental and emotional toll of last year’” and “because your personal risk tolerance is lower than other people’s.”
We need to keep these factors in mind when we invite guests into our home. So family style is probably still a no-no, and dips and things like them should be served in individual ramekins. Dessert, too, is best served individually: no cobblers or germy plates of cookies, at least not right now. That’s why I came up with a sunny, refreshing lemon pudding topped with blueberry whipped cream and served in individual portions. That each person gets their own is a pleasure in and of itself — no one will think “post-covid coping strategy” — and, if you run out of ramekins, it’s even more charming to serve the pudding in coffee mugs or tea cups.
Build in time. Of all the strategies that I worked out for this dinner party, this is the most important: Don’t rush things along. After a year of isolation, what everyone craves right now is the chance to savor one another’s company. Don’t shuffle everyone immediately to the dining room, cutting short these moments of reunion. Serve the appetizers while you’re still on the couch; be sure to offer a cocktail, too. We’re all a little rusty on our social skills and could use the help. (Offering a nonalcoholic option is a good idea to help make the evening festive for those who don’t drink.)
Same goes for the end of dinner: Don’t hurry people out the door. Instead of serving dessert at the table, try another change of venue. If you have a patio, go out there. If it’s just a jaunt back to the living room, that works, too. As long as there’s a chance to linger.
At the end of our first post-vaccine dinner party, the tablecloth was stained, the candles were burned down to nubs, and the dog was licking up bits of rice pilaf that, at some point, fell to the floor.
The next day, there would be dishes to do, wine glasses to polish and ingredients to put away. But at this moment — in the familiar quiet after a roomful of chattering voices, clanking glasses and scraping plates — I felt a sense of peace and optimism that I hadn’t felt in a long time. Maybe I would still need salt-and-vinegar potato chips to cope with the transition, but a world of social gatherings — maybe even ones with communal appetizers — is just around the corner.
Slow-Roasted Salmon and Herby Rice Pilaf
Roberts hosts the podcast “Lunch Therapy” and is co-writing a Broadway cookbook with actor Gideon Glick.
- 1/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided, plus more as needed
- 1 small yellow onion (4 ounces), finely chopped (about 1 cup)
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt, divided, plus more as needed
- 1 cup (6 1/2 ounces) basmati rice, rinsed in a strainer until the water runs clear or in a bowl with several changes of water
- 2 1/2 cups water
- 4 (3- to 4-ounce) skin-on salmon fillets
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste
- 1 large lemon
- 1 cup finely chopped fresh herbs such as parsley, dill, basil and/or tarragon, divided
- Fleur de sel, for serving
Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 250 degrees.
In a medium pot over medium heat, heat 3 tablespoons of oil until shimmering. Add the onion and 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt and saute until the onion is translucent, about 3 minutes. Add the rice and cook, stirring until coated in the oil and combined with the onion, about 1 minute. Add the water and 1 teaspoon of kosher salt and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat so the liquid is at a gentle simmer, cover, and cook until the liquid is absorbed, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove from the heat and let sit for an additional 10 minutes.
While the rice is cooking, in a large, ungreased, rimmed baking sheet, place the salmon, skin side down, and season with 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Using a rasp zester (such as a Microplane), finely zest the lemon, then cut it into wedges. In a small bowl, stir together 1/2 cup of the herbs with the remaining 1/4 cup of olive oil and the lemon zest until combined. Spoon the mixture on top of the salmon fillets, transfer to the oven and roast for 30 to 45 minutes, or until each filet registers around 125 degrees on an instant-read thermometer (the cooking time will vary with the thickness of the fillets).
To serve, add the remaining herbs to the rice and using a fork, fluff the two together to combine. Squeeze a lemon wedge in, taste and season with more lemon juice and/or salt, if desired. Divide the herbed rice among 4 plates. Using a fish spatula or thin metal spatula, lift each salmon fillet off the baking sheet, leaving the skin behind, and place on top of the rice. Drizzle with a little more olive oil, a sprinkling of fleur de sel and a squeeze of lemon, and serve.
Per serving (1 salmon fillet, 3/4 cup pilaf):
Calories: 541; Total Fat: 30 g; Saturated Fat: 4 g; Cholesterol: 47 mg; Sodium: 609 mg; Carbohydrates: 43 g; Dietary Fiber: 3 g; Sugar: 1 g; Protein: 22 g
This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not substitute for a dietitian’s or nutritionist’s advice.
From food writer Adam Roberts.
Tested by Olga Massov; email questions to email@example.com.
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