Archive for November, 2009

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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Fermented grapes are stirred and carefully inspected on a daily basis

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

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

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Cin Cin!