Resolution: See’s the Day

February 5, 2010

February 5, and I’ve never felt more relieved at the turning of another calendar page. Suffice it to say, I have a love/hate relationship with the month of January. Kind of like Starbucks – a quick caffeine fix at the expense of a sub-par cappuccino and the snotty baristas I’m forced to suck up to – or that wolf-in-le-crueset-clothing known as Williams-Sonoma.

I realize that to my inner optimist, which I’m still convinced does in fact exist, this sounds completely backwards: as if anyone can outwardly deny the inherent goodness of a slate-wiped-clean? January 1 begins a fresh start, a gift of 365 new days mercifully and miraculously granted, completely pro bono, at the end of a simple countdown (10…9…8…). There’s just no greater demonstration of unfiltered idealism – not in real life, anyway. Fundamentally, January is the best kind of gift, wrapped up in all things bright-and-shiny. Promises made, resolutions resolved, 2010 is right on track with a flood of newfound self-will (as in ‘I will enjoy multiple pours of Pinot without compromise of social repute’)…

…Right on up until that midweek morning, when the pleasant clink of champagne flutes has been replaced by jarring email alerts, inclement weather forecasts and the hollow echoing of my deficit checking account. Welcome, throes of reality. Suddenly, this same month of inspired hopefulness is the ultimate killjoy, drowning out the holiday crescendo with the dull white noise of winter. Despite earnest refusals to surrender our twinkling lights and four-foot Christmas tree  to cardboard box obscurity, January trudges us onward in a barrage of imperatives (must.exit.warm.bed.), budget reallocations, and (*shudder*) scratchy turtleneck sweaters.

All of this, I could deal with, if it wasn’t for the part that makes January just so irksome: the New-Year-New-You Nonsense. Like the winter Olympics of self-improvement services, the occupants of this faithful Barnes & Noble subsection elbow into primetime, ablaze in full-force competition for top place on the medal stand.

How-to: be happy, save money, age gracefully, keep the secret, succeed without bribery, raise kids who don’t hate you. Worst of all offenders – though the ‘finding mr. right’ series is a very close second – the ‘Healthy Living’ display, a thinly veiled pointed finger with endearing titles like The Belly Fat Cure, Cook Yourself Thin and my personal fav,  YOU: On A Diet.

Ugh.

Now, after months of noel noshery, I can certainly appreciate a lighter table load. But to this subjugation of guilt from traitorous kitchen-aides, I must object. I mean, really – a girl works hard to keep up airs of holiday cheer. You think it was easy stuffing down homemade fudge and cookies by the tin? Or plating a second scoop of family-recipe cranberry sauce and buttered mashed potatoes? As if I could disappoint the expectant entreaties by refusing another slice of pie. It’s called being an gracious guest, people. And every bite was a (delicious) sacrifice.

So thank you, Skinny Bitch, but I will relish my dutiful task of devouring the remainder of my 2-lb gift box of See’s omigosh-these-are-THE-best-chocolate truffles one.by.one throughout January and beyond — and feel all the better for it.

Ae Fond Kiss For Burns Feast’s Disreputable Dish

January 26, 2010

Admitted anglophile that I am (please note ongoing reference to PG Tips, football-that-has-nothing-to-do-with-yard-lines and Cadbury as evidence), I thought it only fitting to dedicate this latest post to Britain’s holiday romp known as Robert Burns Day.

Image: Library of Congress

Also widely observed as Burns Night, this annual January 25 celebration commemorates the birthday of Scotland’s greatest romantic poet and lyricist Robert Burns – affectionately known as Rabbie Burns, Scotland’s favourite son, the Ploughman Poet, the Bard of Ayrshire and in Scotland as simply The Bard. Ringing any bells from your English Comp I days? How about lines like, “O my Luve’s like a red, red rose.” No? Okay, fine. Forget the verse. Let’s move on to the main draw in toasting an 18th-century ladies’ man: the Burns Supper.

Now, obviously, this is my kind of holiday, lauded in spot-on form with a HUUUUGE tablespread of traditional goodies and Scotch whiskey. Lots of whiskey. For background, the first Burns Supper was held at the bard’s own birthplace Alloway cottage in 1801 and for several years commemorated Burns’ July death as well as his January birth. Speeches and toasts were made to the poet’s “immortal memory,” with poetry recited between courses – a tradition still continued today. Here’s a complete rundown of formal supper festivities from the Robert Burns World Federation. But for our sake, the basic need-to-knows include Cock-a-Leekie soup, neeps and tatties (turnips and mashed potatoes), and the main culinary star of the evening… Scottish haggis

Okay, before any retching noises or browser-refreshing ensues, I beg you to indulge a girl’s earnest attempt in vindicating this subject of near-mythical villainy. What is it about haggis anyway? Where or how Americans developed this sense of misguided repulsion is beyond me – as if raw fish or street vendor mystery-meat-on-a-stick is any more reassuring? We serve Foie gras on silver platters, slather sauerkraut atop our corned beef on rye. Nacho-flavored cheez-whiz, now that is frightening. And yet a little innards, oatmeal and spice have us running for the highlands? Unfathomable.

So when I found myself wandering the streets of Edinburgh on a cold, dreary September afternoon back in 2008, there was no question in my mind that I was going to give haggis a try. Our little traveling party had maneuvered into a cozy dining room overlooking the Royal Mile, an elegant retreat from the bitter chill outside with delicate china and linen tablecloths. When the waiter took our order, I didn’t flinch in my delivery. If there was ever a time and place, this was it. What arrived at the table a short time later resembled nothing like the bulging, reeking balloon stuffed with boiled sheep parts of lore:

Sitting atop a shallow pool of light whiskey gravy, the haggis was warm and nutty, with rolled oats and peppery spices folded into the minced meat. A layer of mild yellow turnips and buttery tatties made the dish hearty and delicious – almost like shepherds pie. Also had to give our server extra points for the cute, albeit touristy, touch of topping all with a Scotland flag in miniature. I had no trouble cleaning my plate (with the help of two other would-be naysayers).

So why all the haggis hubbub? Maybe a big part of the mystique lies in the fact that since 1989, haggis has been banned from import to the US following a mad-cow disease outbreak in Britain. Not that it’s caused ongoing concern across the pond: haggis sales grew 19 percent in 2009 alone. What makes this year’s Burns Feast especially big news is that the USDA is expected to lift its 21-year restriction, relaxing legislation on imported meats that has prevented sale of the Scottish staple stateside.

Who knows, by next year we might all be able to finally stomach (pun fully intended) Scotland’s “great chieftan o’ the puddin-race.” Until then, I say cheers to Burnsy and the whiskey-fueled feast he inspired.

Fare thee weel, thou first and fairest!
Fare thee weel, thou best and dearest!
Thine be ilka joy and treasure,
Peace, enjoyment, love, and pleasure!


2010, From Scratch

January 7, 2010

So wow, the entire holiday season has come and gone already! Cannot believe it’s been so long since my last post, and sincere apologies to all, as both the writing and cooking have taken a literal back burner to that stretch of madness spanning three epic food-for-all calendar dates. Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year – all of which, now a blur of belly-blessed treats that cannot begin to be recalled except in creeping scale increments. Kinda like a trip to Whole Foods: somehow you’ve blown $75 and yet have no idea what you’re eating for dinner upon reaching the parking lot. But oh, was it worth it. After all, there’s only so many winter-wonderful recipes and gift basket engineering a girl can withstand before trading the pie tin for pinot and joining the holiday merriment beneath flurries of twinkling lights.

Though, I do think that befitting the occasion, there should be some sort of countdown involved – a wrap-up of the foodie best-in-shows, Holiday Edition 2009. Get those crackers and noisemakers ready…we’re off:

'yule' want to cozy up with a batch asap!

5. Chocolate Peppermint Bark Cookies – Easily my new favorite and the coveted prize of any cookie exchange. Hershey’s dark chocolate and peppermint-white kisses make these as festive as they are delicious. Also solves the dilemma of leftover candy canes – crush and sprinkle on top for added crunch. Using store-bought sugar cookie dough, it just doesn’t get any easier. Special thanks to The Recipe Girl for this gem.

4. Peet’s Coffee – The warm cranberry-walnut scones, pillowy milk froth, dark kenyan roast and a slow-down-&-sip soundtrack is a California morning staple. And what little tree could be properly trimmed without a Peet’s Coffee & Tea Christmas ornament? Love and latte for all.

Flickr photo courtesy of David Lebovitz (daveleb)

3. Christmas Stollen –  Our lovely friend Inge is kind enough to bake up and share her delicious traditional German stollen each year, and it’s quickly become a personal favorite. Forget the doorstop-double fruitcake jokes; this treat is light and crumbly, with sugary icing and an addictive balance of fruit and spice. Orange and green citron add holiday zest. Toasted with a smidge of butter, stollen will disappear faster than you can say “Dankeschön.”

2. Dundee Marmalade – Once confined to a permanent shelf life, my newest flavorite would not have been discovered without the former entry, perfectly paired as they are. I never cared for the orange jelly stuff, but the bits of real candied orange peel make James Keiller & Sons marmalade perfectly sweet while still a bit tart – not overpowering or gummy in the least. It seems the UK company knows they’re doing something right, too, since the spread has been around since 1797. Bonus points for the elegant, white porcelain jar that makes tea time that much more refined.

1.  A New Year’s Eve dinner affair to remember - What better way to ring in 2010 than with good friends, good food and a very good rose from Moet & Chardon? On the menu: shrimp arrabiata pasta, warm spinach salad with gorgonzola, bruschetta trio, vino and a little (okay, make that a lot of) bubbly. 2010, you’re looking good so far… (pictures to come soon!)

So cheers, everyone, to a bright New Year chock-full of tasties ahead!

~ Cin Cin from the grego girl

Too Much Of A Food Fling

November 11, 2009

One of the most unfortunate consequences of growing up is the forced coming-to-terms with the fact that some things just don’t exist. Despite a girl’s best intentions to remain hopelessly optimistic, at some point she will eventually be affronted by the evils of adulthood disenchantment.

darcy_large

Santa Claus. The Easter Bunny. Time Travel. Free Credit. Zero-Calorie Desserts. Style And Support. Fair Salary Compensation. Platonic Friendships with the Opposite Sex. All of these, as it turns out, are mere fictions – the stuff of myth that deludes us into a more pleasant state of ignorant bliss.

(*Author’s note: Still waiting, Real-Life Mr. Darcy…)

That is, until the day we unwittingly bite into the proverbial fruit of knowledge. Or, more appropriately, devour the entire produce stand. Case in point being my latest test of the ubiquitous anthem: “A girl can never have too much of a good thing.”

Now really, at first glance who would argue? I don’t know a single acquaintance that would turn down a truckload of Tiffany diamonds, for instance. Or wave away a thousand free airline miles. Pass on a Grey’s Anatomy marathon? Never.

So when I made my way to the Party of the Senses culinary showcase at Disney’s Epcot Food and Wine Festival this weekend, I had little concern as to how I could carry myself through the three-hour epicurean free-for-all.  The evening’s ‘Italian Cuisine’ theme granted even more confidence with a quick menu glance of savory pairings and sweets: Chianti, Prosecco, Pinot; Veal, Lobster Risotto, Diver Scallops; Cannoli, Nocciolo Gelato, Espresso Bar. Three entire displays of international artisan cheeses… Oh my!

Wine glass and tasting plate readied, I gazed in awe as the curtains were drawn back to reveal my own personal fairytale, a cavernous room beckoning with nearly 50 gourmet spreads and wine flowing in abundance – before the scene quickly turned to a strange, running-of-the-bulls spectacle as evening gown-clad devotees trampled across the floor to claim their front-of-line status (clearly my passion for all things edible has yet to reach category:obsessive).

The straightforward strategy was decided early on: counter-clockwise rotation through the room, saving cheese and dessert for last naturally; anything deemed just ‘good’ would be swiftly disposed in exchange for the next course. Wine should be consumed in moderation (for me, with caution), and same rules apply.

This method began in literal good taste, with highlights like warm pumpkin-thyme torta beneath a creamy melt of gorgonzola dolce gelato, followed by a red wine-braised short rib and ricotta di pecora gnocchi. Martini & Rossi prosecco sparkled alongside a to-die-for veal tenderloin with sweet mission fig glaze. I’ve never had a better pour of Pinot Noir than Q by Iron Horse Vineyards – a 2006 signature that’s one of only 500 bottles produced.

Somewhere into the second hour and my third (or fourth?) consecutive ounce of Chateau Ste. Michelle, an ominous feeling began to take form. But with another half room still to go, and not a single taste of piave cheese or Grand Marnier zeppole to boast of, I resolved to squelch any sense of waning appetite… and helped myself to Sonoma lamb shoulder and the night’s standout: blood orange braised short ribs and vanilla scented parsnip. The rest of the night was fabulous blur of fresh gorgonzola, reggiano, honeycomb, candied dates, handcrafted chocolate truffles, cannoli, tiramisu gelato and espresso, amaretto tartlets… enough to induce the resulting food coma that kept me reaching for the Pepcid well into the wee hours.

Way too much of a good thing? Undeniably and unquestionably yes. The painful repercussions of discovering such truth? Grand-scale disillusionment and more acid reflux than a chili cookoff. Totally worth repeating? In a heartbeat.

Rakija: Grape to Glass

November 5, 2009

The first time I tried Montenegrin rakija, I was seventeen and already intoxicated with the sense of independent entitlement found in a first trip over the ocean. Crossing the barriers of time zones, language and – more importantly – lawful restrictions meant limitless possibility, the empowerment of pseudo-adulthood. Here, I was legal. So when initially offered a small vial of foreign alcohol, it was all too greedily accepted.

In relishing my no-holds-bar brazenness, I overcompensated with the first too-bold swig, replacing a cautious sip with a mouthful of fire that would scorch its way into my chest. What followed was a humiliating production of spattering coughs and hiccups, made entirely worse by hardy men’s laughter erupting in surround-sound. So much for maturity.

Rakija is in fact pure alcohol: a colorless, caustic liquid-syrup made from fermented grapes found in abundance throughout Montenegro. While available from commercial distilleries, rakija is widely homemade, resulting in variants of flavor and potency (between 50 – 60 percent ABV versus the 40 percent commercial norm). Such is the case with my uncle Mirko, who forgoes the use of sugar or additions of any kind, relying only on the grapes’ sweetness to cut the sheer burn of the brandy.

GrapePicking

Obviously, this isn’t your standard Friday night cocktail. Despite its shot-glass presentation, don’t misunderstand:  rakija is typically served as an aperitif, meant to whet the appetite prior to the afternoon meal. It should be sipped gradually – and trust me, you’ll want to do so anyway.

The distilling process is fairly straightforward. Hundreds of pounds of grapes are gathered and set to ferment in large kettles or drums, where they are stirred daily according to the maker’s timetable until rakija-ready. The mix is boiled, allowing the vapors to burn off and cool before condensing again into purified alcohol.

Of course, devotees will argue that the true art form is more primitive – a seemingly appropriate fit for rakija’s etymology, which connects its origin in the Arabic word for “sweat” (a reference to the vapor droplets that form, though the process itself is not without a good deal of manual labor).

One day prior to my arrival in Petrovac, the men of our family had reaped about 500 pounds of grapes for a homemade batch. I was sorry to have missed such a harvest (kind of), but luckily had the chance to see how the process worked on a visit to my aunt Slavka and her husband Vasko – who produces his own rakija in a backyard contraption that includes 100-year-old copper kettle, a garden hose and PVC piping. It just doesn’t get much more authentic than that.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to Montenegrin moonshine, in photos. Enjoy!

Rakija4

Fermented grapes are stirred and carefully inspected on a daily basis

Rakija1

The mixture is boiled in a copper kettle fitted with a lid where the vapors collect.

Rakija2

A series of cooling pipes condenses the alcohol through the water barrel; the distilled rakija emerges in droplets from the end pipe.

Rakija3

Cin Cin!

Easiest. Pasta. Ever.

October 30, 2009

Ahhh Friday, how I’ve missed you. You’re so mellow and easygoing; not at all like high-maintenance Monday or party-lush Thursday. And after a week like this, you won’t hold it against me if I just can’t bring myself to dress up for dinner. It’s nights like this that remind me why I love you.

Among the Mediterranean magic conjured from my aunt’s kitchen, Pasta with Cherry Tomatoes and Capers is a stand-out solution to an uninspired Friday fix. It’s just as hassle-free and quick to prepare as it sounds – little more than 15 minutes total is all the quality time you’ll be missing out on. But don’t let the simplicity of the ingredients fool you: the sweetly-singed bite of the tomatoes and red pepper flakes combined with the capers’ bright tang is anything but blasé, and packs enough perk-up to get the weekend rolling.

Note: this isn’t an exacting recipe, either – just taste your way through it. If the pan is a little dry, add more oil or hot pasta water. Need more salt? Go for it. Spice it up with more heat from the pepper flakes. Friday won’t mind one bit – promise.

You need:

  • 2 cloves garlic
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 carton cherry tomatoes, washed and halved
  • 1/2 tsp oregano (fresh is great, dried is fine)
  • spaghetti
  • capers (as desired)
  • salt, pepper
  • 1 tsp red pepper flakes

Cook:  Set water to boil over high heat. In separate non-stick pan, add olive oil to coat and heat over medium low.  Slice garlic cloves in half and add to pan, sautéing until fragrant but careful not to burn, about 2-3 mins; remove. Add cherry tomatoes, red pepper, oregano and salt to pan, raising heat to medium; allow tomato sauce to simmer until tomatoes begin to break down, adding oil or hot pasta water as needed to thin sauce, about 7 mins total. While sauce is cooking, boil spaghetti as instructed on packaging until al dente; it should be soft but still somewhat firm. Reserve 1 cup pasta water before straining, then add spaghetti straight into the saucepan with tomatoes. Add capers as desired (I love these little flower buds, so about 2-3 tbs is great, but feel free to use less). Mix sauce and pasta well, thinning with reserved water if needed. Mangia!

PASTA

Simple? Sure - but trust me when I say the flavors are anything but.

‘Abroad’ Question of Taste

October 28, 2009

Okay, you’re probably wondering when I’m going to stop with the feature-length Montenegro narratives and get back to addressing the preeminent question that should be asked of any traveler-returned-home-at-last: So, how was the food?

Right? Because really, one of the best things about vacation – for me, at least – is that sum of moments spent savoring all manner of tongue-twisting specialties in a faraway scene that’s impossibly genuine and yet cinematic-surreal at once. You just can’t replicate that sense of place anywhere else. Proof: spend an afternoon under the shade of sprawling grape vines, flaking apart whole-grilled Mediterranean orada that’s basted in fresh-pressed olive oil – and then see if that frozen mahi in your freezer is ever quite the same (it’s not, by the way).

Perhaps even more significant to a wandering palate is the experience of travel nirvana: the personal-discovery high that occurs somewhere along the path of any globetrotting or cultural romp. Sometimes the feeling is subtle, reflective; others, so profound it can knock the breath right out of you. To a girl who experiences the world food-first, it was a simple forkful that reconciled a part of me that was, if not altogether lost, too often taken for granted. To this end, I’d like to make a sincere apology – ahem – to my tastebuds.

Okay, I know how bad this sounds. And I have to tell you I never thought I’d be in a place to make such an admission. I mean, it’s me. Nevertheless, the misdemeanor stands – enabled by a daily context of over-processed, hyper-sugary, crispy-fried, vitamin-enriched, triple-fortified. We add sodium to lunchmeat, corn syrup to whole wheat, periodic table elements to ice cream; God knows what manner of creation birthed Velveeta. Is it really any wonder that any of us are suffering from tastebud fatigue?

As Montenegrin tradition goes, there’s only one remedy – which is a good kick in the mouth (figuratively speaking, here, people).

Enter simple, fresh flavors that get back to basics and let each dish speak (or shout) for itself: Citrus! Olive! Basil! Thyme! And OMIGOSH is that real butter? No packaged posers, foreign additives or artificial con artists masquerading as anything remotely edible. And good lord, no 100-calorie-counts. Authenticity was never meant to have a shelf life.

Montenegro vacation 280

a typical evening table in Petrovac

What manner of eats are we talking about, you wonder? Among my personal favorites, for the epicurious:

  • Fresh, tart yogurt swirled with pomegranate seeds and honey
  • Dried figs strung together like sweet candied necklaces
  • Lamb shank roasted with rosemary and garlic
  • Peppery arugala tossed in olive oil and salt
  • Quick-fried sardines with squeeze of lemon (so long, french fries)

So yes – in a word, the food was fabulous. But more so, it brought back that sense of unspoiled delight so often disregarded for convenience and function. Eating is good, a truth that while generally acknowledged, may just be best unearthed in a warm, crowded kitchen with windows that open onto the sea.

Montenegro vacation 135

Postcards from Petrovac

October 19, 2009

It’s nearing six o’clock as I join the rest of the household on the open-air terrace looking out over Petrovac – now a quiet crescent of sand-pebble beach and hillside nestled against sapphire Adriatic coastline. Father, aunts, cousins and uncles greet me to a small table set with plates of rustic bread, hand-picked grapes and fresh white cheese. A chair appears, and on cue, ushers me forward into the evening’s welcoming panoramic. I’ve only just arrived to this quaint village my family calls home, and even after a three-year absence, the return to its calm and familiar rhythm comes naturally. Elsewhere in the world there’s rush-hour traffic, ringing cell phones, deadlines and time clocks, headline news. For now, though, our only commitment is the effortless content of another day by the sea.

Petovafromroad

As any previous family retreat, our little party comprises an eclectic mix, with present company including two Italians, three Americans and two Montenegrin locals; the resulting fluency of Italian-Anglo-Serbo rhetoric is laughable. Despite this setback, conversation is pleasant and easy, if not fragmented, as we drink in the hours of peaceful twilight. A slight breeze floats up over the neighboring rooftops, warm and fragrant with earthy hints of sea and olive. In the distance, the sun paints deepening shades of golden watercolor across the ocean, framing the islands of Katic in noble silhouette.

It’s good to be back.

Petrovac (pronounced Petro-vatz) is likely not a destination that’s familiar to most travelers – you’re not alone in having never heard of it before now – nor does it beg glitzy fanfare like neighboring urban centers. Believe me, it doesn’t need to: its understated charm and picturesque setting make Petrovac a world apart.

PetrovacHarbor

Petrovac, looking inward from the castello point

Any local or visitor will tell you that a typical day here is really a series of intervals separating time near the sea. Residents walk between sleepy resorts to the main stretch of Petrovac beach and, a little further out, the less developed Lucice (Lu-Chi-Tza), separated by a hilled peninsula that juts out into the inlet. The water is cool if not downright icy, but clean and crystal-clear, rivaling the coasts of renowned Mediterranean destinations like Sardinia, Capri and Cyprus. Slants of bare rockface jut out from the surrounding cliffs, forming turquoise caverns at the water’s edge.

Petrovac is also distinctly low-key, the kind of place that makes you happy to leave everything behind in return for its small-town vibe even in the height of summer tourist season. I haven’t packed much for my visit besides breezy cotton dresses and flip flops; a swimsuit is really the only dress code requirement for a two-week stay, and that’s fine by me. There’s no need for driving here either, and personal experience in trying to maneuver through steep, narrow streets by car will tell you that walking is absolutely preferred. Not that I would think twice about leaving the keys behind while I set off for a stroll along the oceanfront promenade, lined with boutique hotels, village shops, gelaterias, open-air restaurants and shaded cafe terraces. On the numerous walks back up the hill, however, I will highly reconsider.

viewfromaunties

a girl's daily stroll to the shore

I recently came across a prominent travel guide’s admission of keeping mum on Petrovac, an effort by the writer and numerous others to guard the unique, unspoiled feel of this seaside retreat against overdevelopment.

All things considered, can you really blame her?

Montenegro, Finally

October 13, 2009

A full week after my return from abroad, and I’ve been mulling over this post for nearly as long, struggling to find a starting point that can in any small way set the stage or do justice to such an epic narrative. Officially, I’ve relented on the basis of professional bias. It’s also pretty much close to impossible.

Of course, it’s comforting to note that throughout a thousand-year history, visitors here have grappled with that same task, stumbling in the sheer wonder of unrestrained creation that greets them. In person, Montenegro is by far more breathtaking than initially assumed.

Limestone cliffs along the Adriatic Sea - Petrovac, Montenegro

Limestone cliffs along the Adriatic Sea - Petrovac

Almost any travel reference will quickly turn to a ubiquitous christening by the British poet Lord Byron – who, upon first visiting at the turn of the 19th century, observed the country as ‘the most beautiful encounter between land and sea.’  Raw and impossibly seductive, it’s not difficult to imagine how the Romantic figurehead would discover a muse in a place called Crna Gora - Black Mountain in Serbian. Though, even here, the poetic ideal waxes short of the tangible Montenegro – a vivid landscape so intensely realized, it literally charges upward out of the sea in fierce pursuit of itself.

Mountains over the town of Zabljak - Durmitor, Montenegro

Mountains over the town of Zabljak - Durmitor

Defining this ‘wild beauty’ by a single impression is somewhat of a challenge, if mainly for the simple fact that it’s just so unexpected. Montenegro has long remained a tucked-away corner of the Mediterranean region, overshadowed by the better-known Italy, Greece and glamourous coast of Croatia. Totally logical, since the entire country is roughly the size of Connecticut. Only in recent years, with its recognition by the EU as an independent state in 2006, has the country gained a foothold in mainstream consciousness (though navigating the locale via GoogleMaps remains questionable). For what it lacks in geographical area, however, Montenegro more than makes up in the stark contrast of its terrain.

Pastures below thirteenth-century Moraca monastery - Moraca River Valley

Pastures below thirteenth-century Moraca monastery - Moraca River Valley

The country’s entire population hovers somewhere around 700,000 – mostly concentrated in urban centers like its capital Podgorica and its seaside mega-resort towns – leaving a vast expanse of open landscape. Crisscross the country’s narrow, cliff-carved roads and you’ll feel your pulse incrementally quicken – for more reason than hairpin turns and treacherous shoulder drop-offs. Beyond idyllic villages and gracefully rolling plains along the southern Adriatic coast, Montenegro reveals its mountain namesake in triumphant herald. Ancient stone crags leapfrog taller one over the next, arching gracefully above glacier-marred ravines and crystalline lakes. Primeval conifer forests plunge into low-lying marshlands, jutting back again in slanted cuts of rockface just as suddenly.

The Money Shot - Bay of Kotor

The Book Cover View - Bay of Kotor

Intense? Um, yeah. Welcome to Montenegro.

Waiting Games: Final Tally

September 19, 2009

With just an hour left to go before I’m officially vacation-bound for the airport, I’m starting to realize that this homestretch is even more agonizing than the weeklong holding period. Bags are packed, electronic tickets printed, passport and ID readily at hand. I’ve charged my camera battery, remembered a power converter and loaded up on iphone movie rentals long enough to eat up a substantial chunk of the 10-hour flight. Apart from my usual M.O. — i.e., frenzied blur of bags and explosion of clothes/makeup/shoes and “Christie let’s MOVE!” — I can sit back and relax, knowing I am well-prepared and very ahead of schedule…or you’d think, at least.

Of course, herein lies the danger of this gift of extra time, because as I start crossing things off my mental checklist, the anxiety starts to build that I’m forgetting something.  Toothbrush? (check.) Sunglasses?  (check.) Sleeping pills? (BIG check.) In my brilliant move to avoid the last-minute pack-run-pray ordeal, I’m now in danger of over-thinking my entire packing process.

I’m also a little bored. 55 minutes to go.

I will NOT think about what I could be forgetting, or the prospect of spending 10 hours crammed in an economy seat in front of a screaming child. Which seems to happen every time. Instead:

Round 3 (Thursday): Kitchen Sink Soup

Prep: 1/2 can tomatoes, 3 cups water, remainder of orange pepper, ground turkey, frozen spinach, rotini pasta, salt, pepper, dried oregano.

To cook, throw all ingredients into pot over medium heat and bring to boil; simmer until pasta is cooked al dente.

Round 4 (Friday): Pasta Puttanesca

Okay, friends – here I freely admit defeat after a grueling pre-vacation week. Still scrambling to send last-minute emails and set voicemail out of office messages at 7:30pm in my office, I threw aside my best-laid plans for this meal and resolved to chalk up $3.55 for a chick-fil-a grilled chicken sandwich – and at the end of the day, money well-spent.

At this point, I’m down to about half an hour, abiding by the two-hour international flight rule – and only more time to wait ahead of me. As any traveler knows, vacation never fully starts until the plane leaves the tarmac. Enjoy the weekend, and look out for adventures abroad from Montenegro up next! DOVID-ENJA!


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