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.

There’s Food Out There — You Just Have to Look

I emerged from the bushes the other day onto the street where our neighbors, Brooke and Doug, were strolling by, looking somewhat taken aback by the man climbing out of the trees.

“Hello,” I said, holding two large white mushrooms.

“Wow, those are beautiful!” said Brooke. “What are they?”

.

“There are amanita ocreata — destroying angels. One of the deadliest mushrooms in the world.”

Her joyful face melted away, and she took a couple steps back. Now there is a great irony in the fact that a few hours later, she would be eating wild mushrooms that I picked.

“I did hear that you are an expert on wild mushrooms,” she said. I shrugged and said, “Sorta,” and somehow she still trusted me when I left a bag of chanterelles on the mailbox for them later that afternoon.

I had been running in the state park earlier that morning (back when that was still a thing), when something conspicuously orange caught me eye in the oak leaf duff deep in the middle of a huge patch of poison oak. I climbed down carefully through that ornery weed to have my suspicions confirmed — chanterelles! And a lot of them. (Hence my subsequent sharing with miscellaneous friends and neighbors.)

Southern California produces the world’s largest chanterelles (those years that are rainy enough for us to actually find them). A single mushroom can weigh two pounds, and feed a family of five (I only wish my children would learn to enjoy them…) Besides chanterelles and the carpet of live oak acorns on our property that could theoretically feed us for six months, there are many other things growing in our nearby fields and woods that are edible.

Miner’s lettuce

I once took a guided walk with a naturalist up in our state park, and he showed us many different edible foods (besides deer and rabbits) — there was the wild sage plant, whose flowers turned to chia seeds; another small plant was a wild buckwheat, whose seeds could presumably be collected, pounded and baked into some sort of breadlike something.

One of my favorite wild foods in our area is miner’s lettuce, a beautiful, delicate green that presents a lovely addition to a salad. Sometimes, when I am nerding out or doing an expensive dinner for a client, I will pick the little circular cups, and fill them with something exquisite and delicious — a mini salad, perhaps; or caviar.

Some people in other places have better wild foods than we do — the wild mushrooms at my mother’s house could make us a wealthy family if we ever set our minds to it. And I always covet the bounty of the Northwest — not just mushrooms, but fiddlehead ferns, wild ramps, berries of all kinds, oysters and salmon. But you get what you get, and you don’t get upset.

With prolific late winter rains in Southern California, the chanterelles have been abundant. I’ve seen friends and acquaintances posting photos of their catch on social media. The smart (i.e. cautious) have come to me for a positive ID. While there isn’t much you can mistake for a chanterelle if you know what you’re looking for, I do worry that people will become emboldened and go on to sample other mushrooms they find growing. Hopefully not the destroying angel. The morning I found the chanterelles in the park, I also discovered a large patch of what I was pretty sure was amanita velosa — the springtime amanita, supposedly one of the most delicious mushrooms. But with amanitas — the family of mushrooms containing the two most deadly specimens on earth — “pretty sure” isn’t good enough… even after 30 years hunting mushrooms, I’m wary of just about all amanitas.

I went out on the lower part of our property this morning to see if there might be any other mushrooms growing. I discovered several more beautiful snow white destroying angels, some russulas described by one of the mushroom books as “edible but insipid,” and some large agaricus — relatives of the common grocery store mushroom. These I was carrying home to attempt an identification when, emerging from the same cluster of bushes, I encountered another neighbor couple, Megan and Gregory, out on the street.

“Oooh! Those are beautiful!” said Megan. “Good for you for getting your own food!”

Agaricus

They were certainly beautiful. I was skeptical of their edibility, though — the telltale almond scent of the edible agaricus that grow near us was missing. But no worry — there was a pot of borscht on the stove back at the house, I’d done well on chanterelles already this year, and we weren’t yet at the stage where the pantry and fridge were running bare (there was even plenty of Ben & Jerry’s still in the freezer!). For now, foraging remained nothing more than just a lovely way to pass some pandemic time…

Life Under Self Quarantine

I was going through my phone deleting recent photos, when I noticed a troubling trend developing in the photos I’d been taking during the second half of March.

Whiskey sour

These were all photos I took in the afternoon when I was virtually toasting one friend or other. Fortunately they aren’t all from the same day.

You’ll be able to spot the theme.

 

Is anyone else having a similar experience?

Shopping in the Time of Coronavirus

Today, I went grocery shopping.

“Don’t touch anything!” my wife suggested helpfully as I left the house.

We weren’t in “need” of food, exactly — we could’ve easily lasted a month or more on the supplies in our amply stocked freezer, pantry and garage before even resorting to turning on the chickens and pig or trying to grind acorns. But the half-and-half was running low, we were almost out of kale… And I was getting cabin fever. (My nascent experiment as a home-schooler parent in danger of going horribly awry.) So it was time.

Eerily quiet at the expensive Bristol Farms

The world was strangely quiet, like driving around on early Christmas morning. I got to the local Ralph’s supermarket, where there was a line stretching across the parking lot (although people were maintaining 6 feet between one another). I turned to leave the parking lot to try somewhere else, before realizing that the line was moving fairly swiftly, and seeing a sign that said, “Only 50 family groups allowed in at a time. Help us maintain space between shoppers.” This seemed fairly sensible, and as I was in no particular hurry, I parked and queued up.

The spirit in the line was jovial, people making virus jokes whilst keeping proper distance from their potential infector beside them. Inside, the store was sparsely populated. It wasn’t quite Soviet bread line shopping — there was plenty of food to be had, although the selection was somewhat picked over. And if you were Italian, for example, and having a spaghetti jones, forget it. A man near the deli counter sneezed, and the store froze. He raised his hands defensively, like a bank robber caught in the act, people exhaled and carried on.

Figuring I would want to hunker down at home the next few days and watch what happened with the viral numbers, I planned to get in as much shopping as I could. My next stop was the Vallarta Mexican super mercado. Aside from limits on tortillas and the requisite empty toilet paper aisle, things seemed more or less normal. I grabbed some pork and Oaxaca cheese, loaded up on my limit of Sonora rustic tortillas and headed out.

It was a different scene at Trader Joe’s. Whether they were limiting the number of shoppers or simply overwhelmed I couldn’t tell, but the line stretched around the side of the building and off into the distance toward the Target. I didn’t even slow down. Instead, I would head for the Trader Joe’s in Calabasas, where the beautiful people live and don’t put up with queueing. Sure enough, I parked and walked right in. Like the Ralph’s, there was no pasta. But I got lettuce and the prized half-and-half, plus beer and whisky; and everything after that was icing on the cake. There was a strict limit on many items here as well.

Heroic checkers at the Calabasas Gelsons

“Is he allowed to get two of these?” the young clerk asked her supervisor. The supervisor glanced at my half-and-halfs, looked at me, and looked at her. “The limit is for milk. But if you don’t really need two…” They had me — the implied guilt of depriving another shopper of their half-and-half. I slumped and pushed the second carton toward the supervisor.

I had just exited the store when I realized I had forgotten cream cheese for my son’s bagels, and ran back in (thank goodness for no lines!). I approached a different clerk with my single purchase. “Hey,” the kid said, “Quit hoarding all our cream cheese!”

I will take a moment here to offer a shout out to the humble grocery store clerk. Who would’ve ever thought this part-time gig would be praised for its heroism? But here they are, handling much-handled goods, facing shopper after potentially-corona’ed shopper, and doing so with humor and grace. Most without health benefits or sick leave, should they become infected.

There would be two more markets en route as I began to wind my way back into the mountains. The first was the uber-fancy Bristol Farms, where the customers REALLY don’t put up with queueing. Inside it was a bit emptier than usual. A friendly grocer stocking a shelf in the dry goods aisle asked how it was going. “Pretty well,” I replied, “You?” “Barely holding it together,” he huffed before shuffling off — a refreshing bit of transparency, I thought.

I noticed as I waited for my shaved finocchiona salami that there hadn’t yet been a run on caviar. “Do you need some?” the deliman asked when he saw me looking at it. “Oh, not today,” I replied.

At the Gelson’s up the road, there were at least a few boxes of orrechiete and campanelle on the otherwise cleared-out pasta shelves. “Don’t they know how good these are!?” I thought to myself, as I snatched up my two-box limit and slipped out.

A light rain was falling as I wound my way along lonesome Highway 27 toward the sea, a brief moment of contemplative solitude before I returned to my role of chef, waiter, co-teacher and activity director back home, wondering how long this very strange interlude might last…

I Stand with Italy

Nobody is talking about anything but the coronavirus these days.

Well, sure… a last few disillusioned holdouts are still talking about Bernie Sanders (“The establishment is robbing us!!!”) — including Bernie Sanders. But everyone else is talking about coronavirus.

A lot of talk surrounds food. “Do we have enough?” “Will the grocery stores close?” “Will we still be able to have the sushi bar Postmate dinner to our door?”

Tortelloni ready for duty

A friend was telling my wife about the pellet gun he had to shoot bunny rabbits in case things got real bad. “But then what would the coyotes eat?” I said.

Things are really bad in Italy, where people have to stay home and eat unending quantities of pasta. (I guess that’s better than being stuck at home with your pantry in Iceland.) As we in Topanga settle in with schools closed and the kids at home for a couple weeks of social distancing, plus the added benefit of rain and more rain in the forecast, my mind, too, turns to food.

It’s a natural instinct to want to cook comforting dishes in uncertain times. Digging around in my freezer in my eternal Sisyphean quest to clear out space, I found a bag of brodo. Brodo is not an intrepid hobbit from a Tolkien book; rather, it is a rich stock made from chicken, pork bones, vegetables. A central ingredient in one of the foodie mecca of Bologna’s most famous dishes, tortelloni en brodo. Basically, tortelloni in a rich broth. Sounds simple enough. Except it’s one of those “sums of its ingredients” dishes where the higher the quality of the two components, the better the dish. You could make a perfectly enjoyable version for you and your kids with Swanson’s chicken broth and grocery store tortellini. But to be truly transcendent, the broth should simmer and reduce for hours, filling the kitchen with steamy, savory scent; the tortelloni lovingly folded around thumbs with homemade egg pasta stuffed with minced pork, mortadella, prosciutto and parmesan. I just happened to have mortadella and prosciutto in the fridge. Tonight, this was the tortelloni en brodo I would make.

I do sometimes think about what we would do, after panic toilet paper shopping, if there was a real emergency — say a big earthquake or breakdown of society — that caused us to be at home for a long period of time without grocery stores. I know we can eat the hundreds of pounds of acorns that fall from our oak grove (and which the acorn woodpeckers have kindly granaried in the siding of our home), though apparently they require a drawn-out process of soaking to render edible. Our flock of chickens produces a fair number of eggs each day, which would keep us afloat for awhile and which this day would be a key ingredient in my tortelloni.

Tortelloni en brodo — yes please!

When I begin wondering if I should be out panic purchasing toilet paper, kneading and rolling out egg dough for tortelloni returns me to my center. The soup was rich and nurturing. Even though we were supposed to be social distancing, pal Steve and his daughters showed up for soup, because he didn’t have any brodo in his freezer, and they needed nurturing too. The spontaneous arrival of guests meant fewer tortelloni for us, but it was nice to have the company.

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I also stand with Ireland.

Because, well, I’ve got a lot of Irish blood. And also, it’s almost St. Patrick’s Day, and I have a feeling this bloody virus is going to ruin that happy holiday this year.

I went to our local Ralph’s supermarket the other day, where people had absolutely lost their minds. The lines stretched to the back of the store, the potatoes and toilet paper were gone, and people were just grabbing whatever meat was available. An elderly lady in line in front of me filled the little space left in her basket with a dozen or so boxes of Blue Diamond Nut Thins — never know when you’ll run out of those. Bottled water was cleared out — because the coronavirus is going to cause water to go away? Relatively untouched, however, were rows and rows of packages of corned beef. Did people just not know how good corned beef is? “We’ll have an early St. Patrick’s Day meal!” I said to myself.

My retirement plan

The other advantage of the corned beef is you can stretch it and make multiple meals out of it. I bought the largest one I could find, a hulking four-pounder. Unsurprisingly, the seeded rye bread and sauerkraut had not yet succumbed to panic purchasing, so I grabbed one of each. I could see reuben sandwiches on my horizon!

There was no cabbage, so after my 45-minute check-out process at Ralph’s, I swung by Gelson’s — where ungodly prices seemed to be keeping the hoarding more muted, and paid $5 for an organic cabbage. Even there, the toilet paper was gone.

We enjoyed our first family-only social distancing dinner, an early St. Paddy’s Day feast, on an unnaturally quiet Friday night. The following morning, as promised to my breakfast-loving 16-year-old son, I made corned beef hash with fresh fried eggs (“From the chicken’s butt to your plate!”) that were a crowd favorite. “You should make soup with that!” daughter Imogen had said the night before, peering into the pot of corned beef cooking liquid. Excellent thinking! So an Irish lentil soup also bubbled on the stove. And in the fridge, the makings of the future reuben…

Because who ever said this panic-demic had to be all suffering?

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