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It’s a go for grilling

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Leaving the warmth of the people and the climate of Oaxaca, Mexico was difficult this past March. It had been our longest stay, and we had rekindled and strengthened relationships with Americans and Canadians we’ve met over the years. And we had become close to many Oaxacans: shop and market vendors, waiters and waitresses, and the staff at the two hotels at which we stayed.

What was hardest about our departure was the frightening uncertainty; what were we going home to and what would we encounter upon our return to the States and our home?

The pressure and stress of cutting our trip short, canceling flights, hotel and restaurant reservations in Mexico City, and hearing horror stories of airport delays and endless lines had us on edge as we hurriedly packed our bags and said our farewells, now just beginning to be aware of needing to refrain from embracing friends.

Once we landed at LaGuardia Airport, the impact of the pandemic was like a slap in the face. The woman we’d contracted to pick us up and drive us upstate arrived wearing a protective mask and surgical gloves, our first encounter with such gear.

Finally ensconced in our little house in Callicoon, we began the process of self-quarantine. Luckily, Janet and I are comfortable being in close quarters and spending time together, pretty much 24/7. Living in the country, as opposed to New York City, we were used to being isolated and we’re both naturally drawn to the life of a hermit.

The worst part of being back was the relentlessly awful weather in the month of April. The skies were perpetually grey. It was difficult to awake feeling uplifted. It rained endlessly and the temps were depressingly low. It snowed more than once.

The gym at the Villa Roma was closed. Movement and Chair Yoga classes at the River Family Wellness Center in Callicoon were suspended. I felt desperate to take a walk and itchy to get out of the confines of the house. The days seemed long, though I was surprised at how quickly the time had gone by. What day was it anyway?

We ventured out only to food shop, stop at the bank’s ATM, or pay a visit to the Post Office. The masks Janet sewed for us were lovely. We looked like attractive banditos, but they were eventually uncomfortable and irritating. Being home and inside for so long was getting on my nerves. Some days, we were blue.

Finally, the month of May arrived and with it a few warmer days accompanied by clear blue skies. We took a few walks, reveling in the freedom, getting some much-needed exercise and seeing other human beings, if from a distance, for the first time in weeks.

Then, just recently, it was warm enough, if a touch windy, for us to eat lunch on our front porch. We have a picnic table on the back porch,where we keep our grill, but the bird feeders and houses are up front, and the action was astounding. As we ate, Baltimore Orioles, woodpeckers, goldfinches, rose-breasted grosbeaks and even the elusive indigo bunting and bluebirds alit on the feeders and their chattering voices filled the air, along with the ringing of multiple wind chimes.

Eating al fresco is my favorite aspect of having a house in the country. Warm weather signals the task of lugging our unwieldy Weber charcoal grill up from the basement. Many prefer gas grills, but I don’t like messing with oil or tradition. Give me a metal chimney, a fistful of newspaper, and a long match and I’m set. Fifteen or 20 minutes later, I dump the glowing coals into the bottom drum, secure the rack and oil it in preparation for a smoke-kissed feast.

Grilled food is obviously meant to be eaten outdoors. Now is the tricky part. We are all feeling the desperation to see friends and family on something other than a screen. As the weather warms, the skies clear and our need to connect becomes stronger, with some common sense and a few precautions, we should be able, taking mindful baby steps, to reunite and share food. Nothing is more binding.

Getting back to the grill and congregating, one idea is to have a picnic on the lawn, which allows for distancing. Or if you want to sit at the table, invite only two or three other people, depending on the size of your picnic table, so you can space yourselves out. Set up a station, like at a buffet, where people can get up one at a time to serve themselves.

Some folks we know have already gotten together with friends on a sunny day, each toting their own food and drink and sitting in a wide circle where they feel comfortable physically and calmed mentally. Which ever way you decide to go has to work for you. Follow your heart.

I offer here a couple of recipes for grilled food, for both vegetarians and carnivores. Get out there and allow the smoke to waft through the air, inhale deeply. Look around at your surroundings. Feel and revel in the freedom, if only for an hour or two.

I do hope that we will share our tables once again, in the not too distant future, with those we love and with whom we cherish exploring culinary adventures.

Grilled baby zucchini with Greek flavors

Serves four

Fruity extra-virgin olive oil, lemon juice and fresh herbs such as dill and mint call to mind the flavors of the Greek isles. I have combined them here, along with pungent feta cheese, in a vinaigrette to be poured over hot-from-the-grill baby zucchini.

6 small zucchinis (or a combination of zucchini and yellow squash)
1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons extra-virgin
olive oil
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh dill
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint
3 ounces feta cheese, crumbled
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Trim off the ends of the zucchini and slice each squash in half lengthwise. Lay them on a plate cut side up and drizzle with two tablespoons of olive oil. Season them with salt and pepper and set aside. In a small bowl, whisk together 1/4 cup of olive oil, lemon juice, mint, dill, and salt and pepper to taste. Set aside. Prepare a grill. Fire is ready when you can hold your hand about five inches above rack for just three or four seconds. Lay the zucchini on the grill cut side up and grill for eight minutes. Turn the zucchini over and grill for about eight more minutes, or until charred, yet somewhat firm. Remove from grill to a cutting board and slice, on the diagonal, at one-inch intervals. Lay the sliced zucchini out on a platter in one layer. Re-whisk the vinaigrette and correct seasoning, if necessary. Ladle the vinaigrette evenly over the warm zucchini. Scatter the crumbled feta over the top and serve immediately.

Grilled chicken brochettes with cilantro pesto and honey maple mustard sauce

Serves four

1 1/2 pounds boneless chicken thighs (or use breasts, if you prefer white meat)
10” long wooden skewers, soaked in water to cover for at least 1 hour

For marinade:

1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh rosemary leaves

Cut the chicken into big, yet not unwieldy, pieces. Place the chicken cubes in a large bowl. Whisk together the marinade ingredients in a small bowl. When combined, pour the marinade over the chicken. Refrigerate, covered for at least one hour and up to three. Prepare hot coals for grilling. Thread four or five chicken strips onto each skewer. Do not crowd them. Place the skewers three inches from the coals and grill, turning once, six to seven minutes, or until just cooked through. Serve with dipping sauces.

Honey maple mustard sauce

Makes about 1/2 cup

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons country-style (whole grain) Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon honey
3 tablespoons pure maple syrup
Combine all ingredients in a small bowl. Refrigerate, covered, until ready to use. Return to room temperature for 15 minutes before serving.

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