Easter in Santorini

Sitting around all day for five weeks, watching my wife and kids walk back and forth, had me longing for travel. So I busted out a 1000-piece Santorini puzzle that had been sitting in the garage since two Christmases ago.

I spent part of my honeymoon in the Greek Isles. I still remember like it was this morning my first revelatory taste of fresh Greek yogurt with honey for breakfast (before Greek yogurt was even a “thing” here). Santorini is a lovely island, the classic vision of “Greek isle” with whitewashed, blue-domed buildings clinging to cliffsides. It’s designation in recent years as “Europe’s favorite vacation isle” apparently has it these days somewhat overrun with continental tourists. But it was reasonably quiet when we were there — we swilled the delicious local Assyrtiko white wine while eating octopus on a balcony cantilevered over the azure blue dolphin-filled sea. Now, hermetically sealed at home with my family, I dreamed of that long, wine-hazy afternoon on the other side of the world.

So I tried to figure out whether the small blue puzzle piece in my hand was Aegean water, a blue dome, or sky. And the next thing I knew, it was Easter.

In years past, when I have been able to dodge the going-to-the-in-laws-for-Easter bullet, I have made a Roman Easter feast. But that required ingredients I knew I didn’t have — fava beans, escarole, mortadella, leg of lamb — and wouldn’t be able to procure without a terrifying and perilous trip to the grocery store. So I decided to see what I had on hand and could build a themed Easter feast around. In the freezer was a lamb shank, a Greek strifti cheese pastry swirl, in the fridge a large knob of feta, and a garden full of oregano… And I was set!

Chard, green onions and oregano from the garden

My garden — two enclosed terraces built with high hopes and much fanfare many years ago — produces almost nothing. If I plant ten tomato plants, I get twelve tomatoes. It sits on a shaded hillside covered with acidic oak leaves, and though enclosed, is under constant siege by gophers, squirrels and birds. The one thing I have been able to grow there — prolifically — is Swiss chard. It is fortunate I like Swiss chard. And because our climate in the coastal mountains of Southern California closely resembles that of the Greek isles, we have no problem with oregano. In fact, our biggest problem is we sometimes have to fight the oregano back from taking over our property.

I spent a good part of post-basket-hunt Easter morning preparing a chard, oregano and feta torta — dough rolled paper thin and filled with cheese and fresh greens, brushed with olive oil and baked to a crisp. Then braised my lamb shank and skewered wine-and-garlic-soaked pork. And in the afternoon, I drank wine and made some fresh corn masa for tortillas just because. (My Anson Mills hominy order had arrived the day before.)

Greek Easter feast

The kids set the table and lit candles, I laid out the platters of food, and we had a delightfully civilized Easter dinner. With the flavor of lamb, oregano and wine on my palate, I could even close my eyes for a moment and be transported away to that taverna patio in the Aegean Sea.

And when that sensation wore off and the plates were cleared, it was back to my puzzle.

*    *    *

Greek garlic lamb shanks
serves 2

2 lamb shanks
2 large garlic cloves
I small sprig rosemary
1/4 cup olive oil
lemon wedge
salt & pepper

Cover lamb shanks in water in a pot, and bring to boil. Skim scum off the surface, add 1 tsp. salt, turn heat to medium-low and cover. Simmer for 2 hours. (Bonus! Broth can be used for su filindeu, a rare and wonderful type of Sardinian pasta.)

Remove shanks from broth, and reserve broth if you choose. As lamb shanks cool, place garlic, rosemary leaves (removed from sprig) and 1 tsp. salt in a mortar and pestle. Grind until smooth, then drizzle in olive oil, a little at a time, continuing grinding it in to emulsify. Squeeze lemon at the end and whip into aioli.

When shanks are cool, using your fingers or a pastry brush, cover shanks thoroughly with aioli.

Heat a grill to high heat. Grill shanks until golden, about 3-5 minutes per side, turning once.

Remove from heat and serve with more olive oil for drizzling.

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