santorini on my mind
January 18, 2009

It's probably because of the frigid temperatures outside that when I start to think about a menu for Nicole and Eliza my mind drifts wistfully over to the Aegean. I've also been trying to heed Ana Sortun's call for sumac (let's assume the non-poisonous kind) in every dish, and I've procured what seems to be a lifetime's supply for 49 cents at Sahadis. I'm floating somewhere between Greece, Turkey, Israel and the boot of Italy, but finally decide to organize under another down-with-winter rubric: Food That Is Pink.

Sumac as a spice is deeply maroon, purple in some lights, and lends an undercurrent of tartness without citrus. I'm so accustomed to heightening the lemon in all my recipes that I'm excited to play with this new option, though so far I just seem to pile sumac over lemon, my taste for tart apparently never satiated. It first goes into the whipped feta and red pepper dip I make the week before. My guess is that it's also good match for the butter flavors in salmon, but instead I bring home arctic char because I'm enamored of its gorgeous iridescent skin.

I cheat a little on the first course because I have a butternut squash and fennel soup I want to bring out and dress up, but it's orange not pink (it is, however, fantastic and plays with sweet and earthy anise flavors next to the sometimes bitter Greek yogurt). My aim is to serve the vibrantly pink beet ravioli trademarked by Al Di La, but I shift gears so I can practice hand rolling tortellini in case it shows up on my final exam on Friday (by the end of the afternoon I have totally built up my tortellini-rolling confidence).

For dessert I'm set to serve a deceptively simple panna cotta with pomegranate sauce, even if the sauce is never truly as pink as I expect it to be. On a whim I decide to mix pomegranate cocktails to start the meal for a bit of menu symmetry (I'm no mixologist, though, and we end up with some undersea-plant-looking refuse in the flute stems). The evening, though, promises to flow smoothly, with all of my food prepped and ready to reheat.

But of course, just as I'm starting to feel as if I've finally mastered the art of dinner partying (that fine line between sober in the kitchen and 4 bottles of wine at the table), a whiff of burning plastic catches my attention, and it's not long after that that I've set off my old friend the fire alarm. The food comes through unscathed, however, and we've soon returned to guessing which of our Southern Italian wines is the bargain bottle and which its pricier compatriot.

As it turns out, the food doesn't skew particularly Greek, and no amount of kitchen time is going to fool me into forgetting the snow storm outside. But as the evening stretches later, it starts to feel more and more like a vacation in a slower-paced culture. Time—which seems to get more and more condensed with each passing deadline, project and inexorable march to graduation—is willing to let go for a few hours, and I'm willing to let everything else wait for tomorrow.