Archive for the ‘adventure by the forkful’ Category

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!


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.

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!

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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.

Rakija2

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!

‘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.

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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.

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Let the countdown begin…

September 9, 2009

So it’s September already, which is both thrilling and overwhelming at once.

On a very big plus, my birthday is just 15 short days from today. Contrary to the dismal association of time passing and spinsterhood feared by mothers everywhere, I’ve decided to celebrate the arrival of September 24 with the unabashed self-assurance that 27 sounds very lovely and sophisticated, elegant yet youthful – and not at all sophomoric like the number 26. Something about the balance of syllables, maybe, that makes the age sound much more refined, don’t you think  – or is it just me? I was twenty-six. I am now twenty-seven. TWENTY-seven. Twenty-SEVEN.

If twenty-seven had a favorite drink, it would be a pomegranate cosmopolitan. The Great Gatsby would top the list of books twenty-seven has read. Twenty-seven’s wardrobe would be effortlessly chic and never crumpled haphazardly in the corners of her closet. The personal day planner of twenty-seven would include art exhibit openings and jazz ensemble performances, wine bar rendezvous and park blanket journaling. Twenty-seven would always contribute intelligent and well-timed observances to polite conversation and would garner praise for her business savvy from the corner office. Twenty-seven would never dribble cappuccino down the front of her new blouse.

No wonder I am very much looking forward to this new year ahead! (Note to self: must first purchase day planner. Also borrow copy of The Great Gatsby.)

To this is the fantastic addition that I will be observing said auspicious occasion in the charming coastal village of Petrovac, Montenegro – preferably while lounging on the coast of the Adriatic Sea or swallowing fiery gulpfuls of Serbian rakia in time to pulsating discoteque Euro-trance. Vacation! Ten whole days of reconnecting family roots, afternoon strolls on the cobblestone sea wall, visits to mountaintop monasteries, balmy evenings on the terrace… and away-from-it-all bliss in a foreign country totally unreachable by landline or email.

Petrovac2

Zdravo, Petrovac!

Fortunately, EG will be coming along on the hiatus. Soon-to-come epicurean adventures include turkish coffee fortune-telling, curing cheese in olive oil, the art of Serbian rakia distilling and more – recipes and rich family anecdotes included, of course. The grego-girl guide to eastern europe premiers sometime around Sept. 21 (after I’ve survived the 15-hour travel ordeal).

Pineapple Express

August 10, 2009

There are clear indicators that a girl has reached a certain threshold of food fanaticism: the number of conversations that include terms like ‘zest’ and ‘blanched’; a bookshelf whose resident fiction genre now comprises the minority; casual one-name references to Gordon, Ina, Jamie as though dinner party acquaintances.  All relatively benign, I am assured. Of course, there are also those points at which one realizes she may have just crossed over … as on the day she is presented with her very own homegrown pineapple.

A little odd-sounding? Sure. Though quite honestly, it is one of the best gifts I’ve ever received – a labor of love meticulously nurtured, sustained and defended against insect and other would-be assassins, given for no other reason than to share the delight of finally ripened fruit with a girl who’d appreciate it most.

In truth, the pineapple itself was little bigger than a softball (don’t let the clever camera angle fool you), nearly toppled by the crest of spiky green leaves sprouting from its top. I was also warned it would probably not be very sweet, since the plant was a first-generation transplant experiment of sorts, brought back from a recent visit to South America – to which I scoffed that it would be the best-tasting fruit ever eaten (and if not, I would certainly find a way to make it so).  I thanked my friend and promptly took it home to ripen on my countertop, a process that ended up taking about two weeks for the fruit to turn a warm honey color and to give off any sort of scent beyond the raw, pulpy smell of its cut stem.

I finally decided last night would be the occasion to see what my pineapple was made of. As I cut through the rough shell, I imagined how perfectly sweet the fruit would be, intense with the subtle tang that makes your tongue feel slightly fizzy at its tip.

In fact, it wasn’t. The flavor was fairly dull and still a bit green (I have high hopes for a pineapple salsa to top grilled mahi later this week). However, it did nothing to take away from the significance of my little gift and the generosity of a good friend. To whom I say a very sincere “Mahalo!”