We are three sisters united in our search for the divine - in food, libation, literature, art, and nature. This blog will capture the true, sometimes decadent, at times humorous, and every so often transcendent adventures of the Salvation Sisters.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Memorial Day — Shooting Star

by Linda

"Whenever I meet with our Gold Star families, like I did this morning, I hear their pride through their tears, as they flip through old photos and run their fingers over shiny medals. I see that their hearts are still broken, and yet still full of love. They do not ask for awards or honors. They do not ask for special treatment. They are unfailingly humble. In the face of unspeakable loss, they represent the best of who we are." — President Obama ~ May 2015

Joshua T.—United States Army Special Forces—12-03-1978 to 01-16-2009
Operation Enduring Freedom
   Included in this post is a letter that I wrote about my son Joshua six years ago. As you may or may not know, in January of 2009 Joshua died when he was serving with the Special Forces of the United States Army on his second deployment in Afghanistan. The letter that I wrote includes a beautiful and inspirational letter to me from my friend, Cindi, who wrote to me while I was staying in Solvang with our family—waiting for Joshua's body to be sent back from Afghanistan. The process took the better part of two weeks culminating in his military funeral with was a terrible ordeal for the whole family. I end my letter with a description and revelation that I had during a trip to the doctor. I had some serious health issues right after Josh died. Months later I would discover that my illness was brought about from the grief and stress I experienced from the trauma of his death. It has taken me six long years to be ready to publish my letter, and my purpose and hope on publishing it this Memorial Day, is that in sharing it, that it might help anyone who is suffering from a traumatic loss—especially the loss of a child.

April 17, 2009

Dearest Family and Friends,
   My friend, Cindi, is a veteran and we worked together for several years. She recently wrote me a most insightful and eloquent letter just after Joshua's death in response to one that I sent to her. The background is that Cindi's beautiful 21-year-old daughter was killed in an accident while riding on the back of her boyfriend's motorcycle. She was thrown from the bike and she died on impact. It will be three years this June since the devastating crash. Vanessa's death hit me so very hard. Joshua had just been deployed again to Afghanistan, and the one thing in life that I was sure that I could never deal with was the death of either of my children. I cried for weeks over Vanessa's death, and she wasn't even my own child—but somehow she symbolized my child, and I loved her mother. Cindi was the example that I wanted to emulate if anything like this should ever happen to me, God forbid. Cindi is a beautiful person inside and out, and she seemed to me like a flower with an oak growing inside of her—delicate but so strong. After Vanessa's death, Cindi unimaginably still glowed from within, and she loved to talk about her beautiful girl, even though the tears would inevitably start flowing when she spoke of her.

   When we received the devastating news about Joshua, I wrote her a letter in the first week looking for solace. I was reeling. In return, she sent me this letter in response to my reaching out to her just a few days later.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Hi Linda,
You have been on my mind constantly and even when I dream. I don't know when the memorial for your son is or when you will get back in town, but I wanted to send you my thoughts as soon as possible.  Thank you for the loving words you sent my way. I feel so honored that you would think of me during a time like this and draw strength from my experience. I remember drawing strength from your experience you shared with me about your sister as well. I would like you to know that I am honored by your son's 
life and sacrifice to our country. I take my freedom less for granted today because of him.  I have never known anyone personally who died in a war, so this brings the war so much closer to my doorstep. 
   We are all grieving with you over your loss, for I know it is without boundaries. I realized after Vanessa went to her new life that I would look at life and after-life totally different than I used to. Somehow she opened up a new portal to me. I know we are only separated by mere vision and dimension and that as fast as life is, we will be together again soon.  I know without a doubt that the only thing we take from this life to the next is love, and so death is not an end, in fact I don't even call it that anymore. Our beloved children are in the arms of love right now and are happier than we can ever imagine. It is so important to let yourself grieve as often and as deeply as you need to. I find I need to cry my eyes out often and go all the way down with my sorrow. Then I start thinking about how happy Vanessa is and that she is still with me. I was told by several authorities on the subject that she is actually near me and protecting me and caring for me from the other side. I really believe this. I only can pick up myself by holding onto this perspective. 
   I realize more than ever how very temporarily we are here and Vanessa has taught me to live each day with all my heart, never neglecting an opportunity to love those in my path. The most important thing to avoid is regrets right now.  Joshua would only want you to know he understands everything from where he is and doesn't want anyone to feel bad about anything. Regrets and guilt can plague your transition into acceptance and peace. I have watched everyone in my family go through this and it really made them suffer twice as much. I have seen grief bring up other underlying sorrows that people were carrying. Sometimes it was hard to get everyone to just focus on Vanessa. But I know this is a very personal journey—and believe me— Joshua will help you go through it. He will come to you in many little ways and let you know he's near. I only wish I could have known him. 
   I hope sometime you can show me pictures and tell me all about him. He will always be there cheering you on to your finish line, Linda. He will give you courage to face all the obstacles in your path and help you live better than you ever did before. We are so blessed to have such wonderful children, if only for a short time.  Love you—and hope to see you soon. 
Love always, Cindi

Joshua in Fort Bragg, North Carolina on the day he won his green beret.
   When I received Cindi's letter I was so very deep in the pit of grief I couldn't even conceive of how Joshua might "speak to me", but just a few short weeks later, I found myself in the doctor's office one afternoon just after Joshua's death, feeling like I was going to collapse. I thought to myself, "Why am I so sick? God, this has truly has been an awful year and it's only just beginning!" Honestly, I was in the frame of mind that I didn't really care if I died, but Michelle would have none of my protestations and forced me to go to the doctor from afar. So it was while waiting for the doctor and feeling very sorry for myself that I heard Joshua's voice in my ear, "Self-pity is for losers, Mom". I stared harshly at Winnie the Pooh and Piglet on the wall (evidently I have been put in the "nursery") and I was feeling annoyed by the Disney motif. Just then, the nurse named Jenny came into the room and announces to me that she needs me to change to another room. I feel grateful for that at least. As I seat myself in the new room on the weird little examining table with the crinkly paper under me, I am intrigued by a beautiful photo on the wall to my left. The photo is of oaks and of beautiful wildflowers that look vaguely like cyclamen. I think to myself that it looks like home, but I am so far from home... how could it possibly be? I keep looking at the photo—it is a numbered print, and the title of the photograph is scrawled in a beautiful but tiny script which I can't read. 

Joshua—12-03-1978 to 01-16-2009—SSG US Army, Operation Enduring Freedom—
Photo courtesy of the Santa Barbara News-Press.
   One of Joshua's very favorite places in the world is Figueroa Mountain in the Santa Ynez Valley where I took them as boys. He loved to go there with his dog, Walker, and his friends, and he camped there often when he was old enough. We have always loved the place as long as I can remember. I can visualize like it was yesterday, driving with Jordan and Joshua in the first week that we got our very first new car—ever! The boys were about five and our life before that day was a series of clunkers—which means breaking down at any time. We did not have a reliable vehicle with which to go to the mountains. Our brand new car was a blue hatchback Honda Civic, and I belted the boys in the back seat, and we took off for the mountain. We drove up the winding road, and we stopped at the summit, where I let the boys play. We collected a bagful of pine cones before we headed home. I remember posing the boys in a huge bunch of yellow lupines for a photo before heading back home down the dusty dirt road.

Linda with Jordan and Joshua on Figueroa Mountain in the
Santa Ynez Valley. Photo courtesy of Ron Levy.
   When Joshua died, instead of going with my family to the beach on the day before his service, I drove up to Figueroa Mountain. I stopped all along the way to collect plants for a bouquet for his coffin. He was buried with oak, pine, mistletoe, white sage, mountain laurel, Toyon berry and a nice fat chunk of serpentine rock that I collected that day from the mountain as I paid homage to the sacred plants and my son who loved them and that beautiful mountain.

Josh and his dog, Walker, who was a wolf-hybrid.
   Meanwhile back at the doctor's office, as I sit, I am straining to read the script on the bottom of the photo, and even with my glasses on I have to lean closer and squint to try and read what is written at the bottom. I don't want to get up as I am covered from the waist down with one of those flimsy paper drapes.

"He will always be there cheering you on to your
finish line, Linda. He will give you courage
to face all the obstacles in your path and help you live
better than you ever did before."

   As I strain to read the words on the bottom of the photo, they gradually come into focus. I read:

"Shooting Stars, Figueroa Mountain, Santa Barbara, County— California"

   Tears welled up in my eyes, but I instantly realized that this was the message that I had been seeking, and somehow, I would find the strength inside myself to heal, and with the love of my family and friends to keep on going. 
   And I have, and we have, and you can, too.

Linda and her son, Joshua in October of 2005. This was photographed on the pier in Cayucos, CA.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Boneless and Breaded Chicken Breasts — How Do I Love Thee? Even More When Thou Art Gluten-Free!

by Michelle

"First we eat, then we do everything else." M.F.K. Fisher

   Precooked Breaded Chicken is the darling of the frozen section of the grocery store. You know why? Those tasty morsels are frickin' delicious. Especially when the little guys are paired with Ranch Dressing. In addition, I particularly like to amp up the flavor quotient by drizzling on a mighty dose of Frank's Redhot® Buffalo Wing Sauce (for a spicy kick right in the taste buds). Being gluten-free, and liking to be very choosy about the chicken that I buy because most commercial chicken is filled with added hormones and antibiotics—I always make my own at home.

One of my all-time favorite sandwiches, The Buffalo Chicken is absolutely 
finger lickin' good. Canyon Bakehouse® gluten-free buns are a great choice. 
Frank's Redhot® Buffalo Wing Sauce is gluten-fee and Paleo-friendly.
   In my book, Chicken Caesar Salad is a contender for the best salad of all time. On a weekly basis, I either make it at home for a quick dinner or order it for lunch. The famous salad is particularly tasty when warm slices of breaded chicken are splayed over the top.
   And, don't even get me started on Chicken Parmigiana served atop a swirl of marinara coated spaghetti and garnished with a chiffonade of basil. To. Die. For.

Crave-worthy Chicken Parmigiana in Michelle World has a slice of Prosciutto nestled 
underneath the melted mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses.
Breaded Chicken Breasts are the basis for Chicken Piccata

   Invariably Linda and I find that the best time to catch-up with each other is when we're preparing dinner. We will both have our speaker phone setting on as we move through our normal kitchen activities of preparing a meal from scratch. Interspersed with our chatter, we can often hear the action of the knife blade on the cutting board, a block of cheese moving across the teeth of the grater, or something sizzling in a pan. We feel lucky that even if we can't be in the same kitchen at the same time, we are still sharing our love of cooking together on a frequent basis because this much we know is true— True friendship isn't about being inseparable, its about being separated and nothing ever changes.

From left to right: Juliette, Linda and Michelle—Photo taken by Fernando Serrano
A weeknight staple at our house—my gluten-free Chicken Caesar Salad.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Life-Changing Nut and Seed Bread aka "Bread Regular"

by Linda
Photos by Linda and Michelle

"You are all made of real poop." —Anne Frank, The Diary of Anne Frank and Related Readings

   If I should ever decide to get back into the baking business again, I think I would open a shop where the bread recipe that we are sharing today would be the star of the show, and I would name my bakery Life-Changing Bread. While that may seem like a hyperbolic claim, Michelle and I have found that this bread actually has changed our lives for the better.
   No one enjoys discussing the topic that I am about to broach, however, for almost 25 years now, I have been working in the vitamin and supplement aisles of California talking to people about health and nutrition. A problem/question that comes up frequently—as in every single day—with my customers is how to make pooping a non-issue? How does one have regular bowel movements, and how does one have the poop just slide on out without effort (hemorrhoids are are also a frequent topic and not just by pregnant women)? In my experience, most people are reluctant to admit that they are having difficulty going #2, in spite of knowing that pooping is a natural and necessary part of having a healthy body. Everyone poops and everyone must poop or die. Prune juice simply is not taking care of the problem for the majority of people who suffer from chronic constipation. Each year Americans spend more than $700 million on laxatives.

   Hence, we all know that we need fiber, but fiber supplements are problematic, and the topic of fiber supplementation is somewhat a controversial one. We all know that we need it, but in what forms, how much, and when? Chris Kresser, M.S., La.C is one of my favorite sources for nutritional information. In his article, Myths and Truths About Fiber, Chris addresses the conundrum of how to get fiber, and shares some of the growing research about fiber. More isn't necessarily better, and sources of fiber are important.
   Years ago I helped develop a bread recipe at the hotel where I worked as the pastry chef. The bread became hugely popular with the guests, and they would frequently buy loaves to take home. Later I would bring the bread recipe to a bakery/cafe that is now defunct in Solvang, California, which is primarily a tourist town. I began shipping bread to different parts of the country, so that folks could have my Grain and Seed Bread (dubbed Bread Regular by my brother-in-law, Jay—I will let you put two and two together). I am including this recipe also, but I no longer make it because I stopped eating gluten-containing foods over three years ago, and overall I feel much the better for it—less asthma, allergies and congestion. The heartburn that I was starting to have regularly vanished. However if you still eat wheat, this is yeasted-version and is more akin to what most people think of as bread. Sadly I have found that the gluten-free breads that are available commercially are not full of fiber, but are made from various starches. In other words, not very healthy for you, nor do they have much flavor.

   Recently Michelle and I found this gluten-free bread recipe featured in a blog post. The bread is full of nuts and seeds with the addition of gluten-free oats—fiber galore, and it uses coconut oil as the fat. Awesome! Michelle made it first and happily reported that not only was it delicious, but it had the same effect as my old Bread Regular. I decided to bake it immediately on her recommendation, and I have to say that ever since I have a toasted slice in the morning with some almond butter, and from then on I am not thinking about you know what—at all... except during the sixty seconds it takes to get my business done and then get on with my day. If pooping is something that you would like to think less about, as is the case for many adults and children, you are going to want to bake this bread for yourself and your family. Toast up a slice and have with tea or coffee in the morning, and getting your fiber for the day will be a tasty treat, and not an onerous chore. This bread makes great toast and is also perfect for open-faced sandwiches. #pooplikeachamp 

Life-Changing Gluten-Free Nut and Seed Bread (Our New "Bread Regular")

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Garden of the Gods and Castle Rock's Old Stone Church Restaurant

by Michelle

   "Love easily confuses us because it is always in flux between illusion and substance, between memory and wish, between contentment and need." 
                                                                                             —Tom Robbins, Even Cowgirls Get The Blues

Garden of the Gods is located in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
   I have reached the age where I can look back over the course of many years and try to consciously examine the relationships I have had with friends who have come and gone from my life. While friends may come and go, my sisters and I remain close. In fact, as time marches on, our bond continues to get stronger. We sisters tell each other the truth and we hold each other accountable. We also kick up our heels together and tease each other. We're each other's mirror and we reflect what needs to be seen, both the good and the not so good. We all have work to do on ourselves. No one points that out faster than a sibling or a spouse. Friends, on the other hand, seem to come in and out of my life and tend to need more subtle discourse than the rather blunt conversations I enjoy with my sisters.

Perhaps the park should be renamed Garden of the Goddesses
for yours truly (on the left) and my dear friend Stephanie.
   One of my favorite authors, Tom Robbins, wrote an entire book examining the question, "What makes love stay?" This is one of my favorite quotes from Still Life With Woodpecker:
  “When two people meet and fall in love, there's a sudden rush of magic. Magic is just naturally present then. We tend to feed on that gratuitous magic without striving to make any more. One day we wake up and find that the magic is gone. We hustle to get it back, but by then it's usually too late, we've used it up. What we have to do is work like hell at making additional magic right from the start. It's hard work, but if we can remember to do it, we greatly improve our chances of making love stay.” 

   I met my friend Stephanie thirteen years ago when my family moved from Northern California to Tucson. Stephanie, her husband and young daughter lived in the home next door to our house. In other words, we were neighbors. My first memory of Stephanie was of her slender pregnant form, sitting on the ground in her front yard, picking weeds. I walked up to say hello and that's all it took. We've been friends since that day.
  My daughter Maddie celebrated her fifth birthday shortly after our arrival in Tucson. Stephanie and I were talking on the phone recently and we both marveled that Maddie will be graduating from high school next month. Over the thirteen years that we've been friends, our families have known both happiness and heartache, and we've done our best to support each other while we walk along life's rocky path. What's made our friendship stay when so many others haven't?

   I have noticed in my forty-something years on this planet, that most relationships don't survive distance. Relationships need consistent nurturing which is more easily accomplished through proximity. When my daughter, Maddie and I returned to California for one year to support my sister Linda while she was grieving the death of her son, Joshua, I found that a close friendship that I had enjoyed for ten years—despite its ups and downs—would come to an end. And, although my friend and I tried to keep our strained friendship alive and even revive it when Maddie and I returned to Tucson—to my disappointment our friendship did not last. By the time we tried to discuss our differences, there was too much water under the bridge, as the saying goes, and a dispassionate current swept away what little remained of our relationship. I always feel a little melancholy when I think of her, and then I recall another Tom Robbins quote that is our sister Juliette's favorite, "It is what it is, you are what you it, there are no mistakes."
   While one long-term relationship slowly withered and then died, my friend Stephanie and I continued to grow closer. It wasn't long after I had returned to Tucson that Stephanie shared with me that she and her family would be relocating to Colorado. It was a sliding doors moment. I returned and she departed. There goes my dearest friend, I thought. Life won't be the same. And it is not. I miss her deeply. Life morphs and changes and hopefully we resolutely continue to support each other along life's journey regardless of whether we are near or far.

#iPhonePhoto #nofilter
   Last year when I discovered that I would be visiting Denver in February for a trade show, the first call I made was to Stephanie. The prospect of spending a couple of days with my dearest friend and her family made my heart sing. I patiently counted down the months until we'd be together again. In the meantime Stephanie made plans. On the itinerary, Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs made the cut as well as a tour of downtown Castle Rock and a special lunch at one of Stephanie's favorite places to eat, a quaint old stone church turned restaurant. I would also have the opportunity to watch Stephanie's eldest daughter ride her horse at a jumping lesson. We'd share family meals. We'd talk and laugh and have time just to be together. I could hardly wait.
   My trip happened to fall over Valentine's Day. Stephanie's youngest daughter, with whom she was pregnant when we first met, helped her dad make a breakfast of pancakes, eggs and sausages. I can't tell you how much I love to watch other people cook, so it was great fun for me to be seated at a bar stool that overlooks the cooking range and see the father-daughter duo companionably doing their thing while I sipped a latté and admired the bouquet that was waiting for me when I arose. Talk about five star bed and breakfast accommodations!

A stylized portrait of my Valentine's Day bouquet.
   I think a lot about interpersonal relationships. Over the course of my life, I have gained so much from failed relationships that did not, for various reasons, stand the test of time. These are people that I loved deeply for a time and then we let each other go. We couldn't make love last. Yet, I have an unbreakable bond with my sisters that has been tested throughout the years. We have not and will not let each other go—ever. There have been times when we have been so angry with each other that we did not speak for nearly a year, but we overcame our differences and are stronger for it. In a similar vein, I've been married for 24 years. Like any marriage, we've experienced our ups and downs. But, we overcome our differences and are stronger for it. Why can't it be the same way with friends that we've been close to for years? Why can't we overcome our differences and be the stronger for it?

The Barn offers shoppers an amazing mix of specialty items
and antiques along with upcycled and recycled finds. 
   I suppose I think a lot about long-lasting relationships because my daughter is an only child. She has no sisters that will be there to pat her on the head or to kick her in the ass, or both simultaneously, depending upon what's needed. I had hoped that her early childhood friends would be like her sisters, but that was not to be. They all parted in middle school and went in separate directions. My continuing hope is that college will bond her to friends that will last throughout her life. Maddie also has her lovely cousins with whom I hope she will enjoy close familial ties over the long haul. Because I think that's what we need, people we can depend upon for the long run. They have your back. They're resolute. Folks with whom you can disagree and then get beyond the argument to find new common ground. And, then get on with the business of living. Together. Happy for each other. Supportive.

The Barn is a conglomerate of shops  similar to an antique mall 
located in downtown Castle Rock, Colorado. 
   I have many acquaintances and few friends. I only need a few friends though, when I have a friend like Stephanie who is kind, honest and supportive. I especially admire her strength of character. And, to my point about my sisters, Stephanie kicked me in the derrière once and we got beyond it. She was right and I was wrong. Maybe that's what makes love stay; admitting when you are wrong and then offering an apology—at least it's a good place to start. My sincere apology to Stephanie got us back to playing card games, discussing art and sharing laughter. As an added benefit, Stephanie is an amazing artist, and I have her artwork displayed throughout my house. Her gifts to me of her are are constant reminders of her whenever my eyes rest upon one of the intricately crafted pieces she poured her creativity and love into. At this point in our relationship, after our years together, and supporting each other through our crazy lives, I think of her as my sister. Thank you, Stephanie, for all the love you've given me since the day we met. Let's make love stay. I'm playing for keeps.

The gorgeous stained glass windows are gaze-worthy at The Old Stone Church Restaurant.
Chimichurri Dressing by The Old Stone Church Restaurant

Saturday, April 25, 2015

It's Spring! Make Deviled Eggs and Lemon Cake and Pickled Shrimp and...

by Michelle

   "Allegiance, after all, has to work two ways; and one can grow weary of an allegiance which is not reciprocal."  James Baldwin

   One of the more fun chapters of my life occurred during the early to mid 2000s when my daughter attended Montessori Schoolhouse from Kindergarten through 4th grade and I had a business development position with one of the larger employers in Tucson. Most of my business travel occurred during the summers and I had the pleasure of meeting my customers at conventions hosted in fun cities such as Chicago, Boston, and Washington D.C. and not as much fun destinations like Dallas, Orlando and Las Vegas (seriously, go to Vegas 11 times in one year and you won't be diggin' it either).
  Layered on top of busy school and work schedules, my husband and I undertook the long laborious affair of remodeling our home as a do-it-yourself project. As if that wasn't enough activity, it was also the the time in our lives when we entertained like crazy. We often entertained in conjunction with my good friend who also happened to be the mother of my daughter's best friend. We did not limit our entertaining to small cozy affairs. We also threw big, raucous parties where we commingled friends, neighbors, colleagues and acquaintances from all the parts of our lives. It was a mash-up of sorts and all the many different personalities came together to create a spectacle, especially at our annual Halloween bash. My friend and I had no sooner cleaned up a big mess of a party, when we began to plan our next big event. Now when I look back, I marvel at what we accomplished.

Pickled Shrimp are a tangy accompaniment served with the deviled eggs.
Juliette found the specialty egg plates while thrifting for about a $1.00 each. Score!
   In my garage there are tall and deep cabinets that house all the paraphernalia needed to cook and serve for large parties. There are big pots for making carnitas. An assortment of baking pans to make just about any type of sweet, including a square angel food cake. Elegant punch bowls for serving spiked beverages. Bowls of all sizes from the small to the enormous. Then there are the trays. So many trays including what seemed to be at the time, an ever expanding collection of etched brass platters for my Asian themed New Years Eve parties. Sometimes I think I should just have a big garage sale and rid myself of my haphazardly stacked "clutter mess". But, I can't. At least not yet. I enjoy selecting pieces to photograph for the blog and every once in awhile, as for Christmas, or my daughter's upcoming graduation party, I still need a variety of serving bowls and trays for a party. I subscribe to the theory that what you serve is just as important as how you serve it.
   This past Christmas I transformed into a lady Grinch. After Linda visited just after Thanksgiving and we had our big family celebration, the holiday season was over for me. Yes, we still exchanged presents, but there were no big family dinners or fanfare of any kind. Ixnay to the New Year's Eve party. I freed myself from all the extra curricular (and exhausting) work that comes along with the holidays, and you know what? It was great. We adopted my sister Juliette's tradition of watching films on Christmas Day as we lounged on the couch or sat comfortably cradled in our large padded chairs, resting our legs on the overstuffed armrests or on cushy ottomons. And for a simple dinner I heated defrosted homemade Beef Bourguignon and quickly whipped up fluffy mashed potatoes. Clean-up was a breeze. The dinner dishes were managed within fifteen minutes. Now that's a holiday.

   When Easter was within planning range this year I vacillated over whether to have a family dinner. Entertaining just seems like so much work now. My party flame has been extinguished and I don't quite know if I want to relight it. Every once in a while I get a party gleam in my eye and then I begin reminding myself of everything that's involved from the planning to the pre-cleaning of the house, to the grocery shopping, to the preparing of food, to the post-cleaning. Then there's the expense. It ain't cheap to entertain.
   When I invite you to my house to participate in a simple dinner or a big party, the invitation and the work associated with prepping the meal and the environment to enjoy in, is in fact, an act of love. What confounded me over time were our friends who made no effort to be reciprocal. We'd have them over again and again and yet they wouldn't invite us over, or out. Our best friends became those who showed us that they loved us back by being reciprocal in some way by either inviting us over for a meal or, if they didn't like to cook, taking us out to a favorite restaurant. And, don't even get me started on guests who bring Two Buck Chuck as a hostess gift and act like it is the greatest find in wine... ever. Two Buck Chuck is what it is. The swill masquerading as wine costs $2.00 and tastes like it too.
   While vacillating over whether to host Easter dinner, my daughter pushed me over the edge when she offered to lend a helping hand in the kitchen. I have found over the years it is so much easier when there is more than one person helping to prepare a fancy meal, or any meal for that matter. The proverb is true, many hands make light work. Plus there's the added benefit of shared camaraderie. Often, the kitchen is the best place to be. It's where the action is unfolding. That's why everyone jams themselves in to a kitchen during a party. Linda and I have so much fun working together to prepare a meal and it is great theater when we're in our groove. Linda's flown to Arizona more than a few times to help with the cooking for our big parties and special occasions, which makes the entire experience so much more enjoyable from beginning to end. Have I mentioned lately how much I adore my sisters? I do. They are fabulous in every way.

Maddie and I prepared a double batch of Avalon and Sonora's Favorite Chimichurri
so we could send them home with a jar filled to the brim with their favorite sauce. 
   For Easter dinner we invited my nieces Avalon and Sonora, and my mother. Juliette declined our offer and opted to stay in Bisbee to enjoy time with her son Paul and his family. She sent me adorable photos of her grandsons searching for Easter eggs. Even though I had the offer of help from my daughter and could plan a more elaborate meal, in the end I did not want to complicate our time together. Naturally, there are always everyone's food preferences to take into consideration when planning a menu. Avalon doesn't care for ham. My husband doesn't particularly like lamb. Everyone loves steaks. Steak it is. Once again.
   I tend to always make one new dish for an event, which reminds me of my friend Stephanie and the time I hosted a Spanish dinner. I assume if you are coming to my house that you must be starving and want loads of food, and variety, of course. I tend to offer big portions and lots of sides. There are always several appetizers for a party and there is always a risk that guests will fill-up on cheeses, maple sugared candied walnuts, charcuterie and shrimp before the main affair hits the table.
   One of the sides for the Spanish dinner were roasted piquillo peppers stuffed with a mixture of mashed potatoes and salt cod. I was running behind on dinner because I was fussing around with the appetizers, grilled flat breads with chimichurri sauce (still one of the best things I have ever tasted). Everybody was chowing down and dinner was yet to be served. Stephanie was dressed up and looking fabulous, as always. She asked if she could assist me in any way. I hesitated, assessing her outfit and not wanting her to get messy. "There is one thing," I said reluctantly. "I need the piquillo peppers stuffed."
   Stephanie gamely put on an apron and got to work scooping the savory white mixture into the small roasted red peppers. I apologized for the chaos of the evening. Stephanie and her husband are admirably organized when they entertain and have practically the entire meal prepared in advance. I'm always amazed at their operational efficiency. Stephanie laid my concerns to rest. "Are you kidding?" she asked rhetorically. "Where else in town town would I be stuffing cod into a pepper." I still laugh at the memory. It's true. I'm always doing something crazy foodwise. And when I'm in the middle of pickling or preserving or doing some intricate activity in the kitchen, I'll repeat to myself Stephanie's line. By the way, the cod stuffed peppers weren't that great (they are likely an acquired taste), but who cares? The rest of Spanish themed dinner was pretty amazing.

   For our lovely Spring dinner to celebrate Easter, I broke no new ground. That's how I kept things simple. I settled on the favorites. And by doing so, Maddie and I could practically make everything without a recipe. My husband grilled New York steaks and we rounded out the menu with loaded baked potatoes, pickled shrimpsautéed and caramelized mushrooms, grape tomato halves with balsamic syrup vinaigrette and chimichurri.
   When I greeted my nieces at the door and said there will be lemon cake and strawberries they both cheered. And they were especially happy that I made a double recipe of chimichurri with the plan of sending them home with a full jar of the condiment. My Easter surprise for Maddie was a special cheese that Linda introduced us to when we lived in California with her for a year. Maddie couldn't wait to dig into the rich creamy deliciousness that's called Mt. Tam Triple Cream Cheese by Cowgirl Creamery.

My daughter brushes lemon glaze and drizzles frosting on Lemon Cakes
while I peel the hard boiled egg.
   With Easter dinner I did not satisfy my need to make one new dish to accompany all the tried and true menu favorites. I have Maddie's upcoming graduation "fiesta" to try my hand at a few new recipes. Namely, I want to make Horchata as well as a Watermelon-Lime Agua Fresca. I may also indulge in my need for menu overkill by also preparing Pineapple Ginger Agua Fresca. The younger ladies in my life have been investigating the pleasures of fondue lately, so I will also whip up Queso Fundido in the copper fondue pot that Juliette found for me on one of her regular thrifting jaunts.
   Even though I no longer have a huge desire to entertain, especially like we did during the glory years when my daughter was just a young girl and we had a big group of friends from all walks of life, I do still recognize the importance to connect, to share a meal together, to share stories and above all, share laughter. We all seem to live such busy lives now that if we don't carve out time to simply be together, it just doesn't happen at all. So, I'll slog through the bits that I really don't really care for anymore to get to the end goal... time well spent with family and friends enjoying each others company and strengthening our relationships through the time honored tradition of sharing a well-crated meal.

Mom's Deviled Eggs

Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Tucson Botanical Gardens and Cold Brewed Mint Iced Tea

My Traveling Tales by Michelle

   "Happiness is a butterfly, which when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you."  — Nathaniel Hawthorne

My husband and I enjoyed a refreshing lunch on the patio at Café Botanica,
the restaurant nestled inside the Tucson Botanical Gardens.
   When my husband and I purchased our home thirteen years ago, I willfully ignored the fact that the large back yard was a barren landscape (even though the ground was completely covered by gravel). I was undaunted by the thought of master planning and then planting what is a fairly big area, even though friends and family tried to forewarn us. A blank canvas, I thought, in which we will create an inviting environment to attract birds and butterflies and to entertain our friends. What thrilled me most was the unencumbered view of the Tucson mountains. I minimized the labor intensive effort that would be required. I also ignored what would likely be a steep financial cost of putting in the watering system, patios and landscape. At times, ignorance truly is bliss. Until reality sets in—that is.

The Tucson Botanical Garden features a butterfly exhibit in a greenhouse filled with orchids.
   What happened first, is pretty much what always happens, I suspect. We ignored the needs of the yard in favor of the house. My husband and I agreed that the "miles and miles" of dusty rose pink carpeting would need to be replaced. And since we would have to live with that awful carpeting day-in and day-out, I wanted it gone sooner rather than later. It was definitely the priority project. I also wanted to paint over the white walls and add lots of happy color. From an operations point of view, the painting needed to happen prior to the installation of new flooring. As the saying goes, one thing leads to another.
   Similar to my thoughts on landscaping, I was likewise unfazed by the prospect of remodeling. I grew up with a father who subscribed to the do-it-yourself lifestyle before there was ever a Home Depot to promote such activities. I don't recall my dad hiring anyone to do anything on the houses or yards of my childhood homes. He had the tools and the know how to initiate and complete just about any type of home improvement project.
   After my husband and I were settled into our home, I'd giddily read through Phoenix Home and Garden and Martha Stewart Living seeking artistic inspiration. Pages ripped from the magazines decorated the refrigerator and were a constant reminder that we had big plans ahead that needed to get underway. I set about to convert our stucco and tile track home into a suburban shabby chic palace. I dreamed big, planned big and then finally got down to the execution phase.
Two views of the same butterfly inside the Butterfly Magic exhibit. 
   What happened next was years of toil punctuated with multiple starts and stops. Energy ebbed and flowed as did our family income. At the start of the project we ripped out all the downstairs carpeting and the linoleum in the kitchen. What remained was a lot of stubborn glue that needed to be removed from the concrete floors. The work was slow and tedious as we tried a variety of nasty cleaning agents that did not work. Frustrated, I called my dad, the do-it-yourself guru, for advice. He spoke out loud as his brain systematically tried out and discarded several possible solutions. Finally, he asked, "Did you try just water? Most of those glues are water based." Turns out hot water and lots of elbow grease did the job. Thanks, dad!
   Last week I had the opportunity to talk to a business contact that I had not spoken to in years. In the interceding time, his business has grown exceptionally. I complimented him on his success and he replied, something to this affect, "The funny thing is success is never linear. The road to success has its ups and downs and there are always obstacles to overcome. Oh, look, watch out for the snake pit. And, darn, we took a left when we should have turned right." This line of thought applies to home improvement projects, too. You think that your on the right path until oops! something happens that sets you back and there's a new challenge to overcome before success is hard won.

   Once the glue was dealt with, I finally started painting. Initially I thought painting the ceiling a light blue would add the novelty pop of color that I desired. Even though I tried to minimize the work by painting just the ceiling, it in itself was no small job. The front room is made grand by a vaulted ceiling. I didn't like the idea of painting the highest point of the ceiling from an extension ladder. I tapped into my inner Michelangelo and used scaffolding instead. Sometimes I stood on the scaffolding and at other times I laid on it depending on where in the room I was working in relation to the slope of the ceiling. After I completed painting the ceiling,  with a keen eye I evaluated my work. Now this may sound odd, but the tones of the paint did not go well together, even though the ceiling was a light turquoise and the walls were white. The hues were definitely a mismatch and that's when I conceded to myself that the walls needed painting, too. I had just talked myself into about a year's work at my less than part-time pace.

The children scurrying around the Butterfly Magic greenhouse were
highly skilled at finding the deeply hued dart frogs.
   While vacillating over the color palette for the walls, my sister Linda recommended that I watch the Julie Taymor directed film, Frida starring Salma Hayek, to pay close attention to the set decoration. Linda was right. I found inspiration in the vivid colors of Frida's home and paintings and decided upon the colors typical of a Talavera painted plate: cobalt blue, yellow, orange and green.
   Applying multiple colors of paint is tedious work because where the various colors meet, the lines must be perfect. Thankfully I have a steady hand, but I still needed to use lots of blue tape to ensure perfect transitions between adjacent colors. Even then, there were too many touch ups to count. We lived with concrete floors for the years that I painted. I didn't mind it much. My daughter Maddie thought it was wonderful when she and her friends donned roller skates and created havoc throughout the first floor of the house playing tag.
  While our remodeling projects extended across the years, our lives went on. Amongst the chaos, we entertained. At times I'd use the good china even though there might be scaffolding in the front room and plastic sheeting protecting areas in the living room. Several friends told me that I was an inspiration, that they couldn't conceive of hosting events at their house unless everything was perfect. If I waited for everything to be perfect, then there would have been no parties and no fun... for seemingly forever.
   I set up long tables in the front room and hosted themed parties. One of the niceties of our lifestyle was that I didn't have to worry about the kids spilling food or drinks on the concrete floor. I continued to decorate for the seasons. There were heavily adorned Christmas trees to grace the front window and a full house of our family from near and far who stayed with us to enjoy the season. We hosted New Year's Eve celebrations with dance parties in the living room. We celebrated Valentine's Day with family and friends with tables covered with lace and set with vases of tulips. The Easter bunny came and went. Barbecue season rolled around. The fire pit got a lot of action. We did the things we wanted to do and our friends and family joined in the fun.

   While I dreamt of a suburban shabby chic palace, my husband dreamed of creating an oasis in the barren scape of the gravel yard. Sometimes I spied him at the kitchen table with his eyes directed to the yard, a far away expression on his face, and I knew he was painting a picture in his mind of a fully landscaped, functional space for relaxing and entertaining. A gorgeous, green, manicured respite from the world featuring mature trees, a gurgling fountain, a dramatic fireplace and an extended patio softly illuminated with strung lights swaying gently in a soft breeze. I know this because he often draws master plans that look like pages torn from a football play book. He verbally translates the written x's, o's, and arrows that are the markings for trees and shrubs and points of architectural interest.
  The yard waited while I finished the painting. After the painting was finally completed, we embarked upon staining the concrete floors in the kitchen and living room areas. Hindsight is 20/20 and I wish we had subbed this work to a professional. The extended physical labor and repetitive motions of mopping the floors during the staining and cleaning resulted in a rotator cuff injury. When I asked the doctor how long it would take my shoulder to heal, he said that it would hurt for a very long time. So long, in fact, that one day I would wake up and realize that my shoulder did not hurt anymore. He was right. My shoulder did in fact hurt for so long that I was not aware when the pain had stopped. I know the pain continued for at least a year, although I was only seriously debilitated for a month or so. Thankfully I did not need surgery. I just had to grit my teeth and bear it and use my arm.

   The house stayed a work in progress for many years until we were forced to complete the work. We finally buckled down and finished the tile and carpet when we put our house up for sale in 2009 when we were planning to move back to California. For all the years we have lived in our house, the backyard is the project that is continually pushed aside. The decision making process usually goes something like this: do we want to get braces for our daughter this year or landscape the back yard? Braces it is. Shall we go on vacation this year or landscape the back yard? Ummm, vacation, please. Everything always seems to take priority over the yard.
   In preparation for placing the house on the market to sell, we planted ten trees in the backyard and some bougainvillea. The caliche soil in Arizona is so stubborn that we had to rent a jack hammer to assist with "digging" the holes for the trees. Crazy! In addition to the planted trees there were also numerous potted fruit trees placed throughout the yard and smaller groupings of herbs and succulents in various shapes and sizes. We did just enough to make the realtor happy. When we took our house off the market in 2010 and decided to stay in Tucson, it was nice to enjoy the fruits of our labors. We like our brightly hued walls, the finished floors, and our partially landscaped yard.

Apricot Mallow is a drought resistant plant that is gorgeous and requires little water.

   On a late Saturday afternoon, Jay and I often celebrate happy hour by sitting on retro-style metal chairs that are situated under the eucalyptus trees that provide ample shade. Our conversations often turn to the yard. We debate where to plant more trees and whether we should still pour a meandering concrete walking path that will run the perimeter of the yard. We'd like the dirt area between the concrete path and the wall to be planted beds with creeping ground-cover and flowering shrubs. We discuss the materials we could choose to build the outdoor fireplace and living room area. And, what about a pizza oven? It still sounds great even though we've been eating Paleo as of late. There are so many options to consider and so much money needed to create such an inviting space.

This is the seat of a mosiac bench that was installed in the Tucson Botanical Garden
as a tribute for a family's loved one that passed away. 
   While our landscape plans are still in flux, we enjoy finding inspiration in Tucson's various public gardens. Our favorite places to visit time and again are the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Tohono-Chul Park and the Tucson Botanical Gardens. All three parks do a wonderful job of providing identification of the plants and trees planted throughout the landscapes. While we wander, Jay and I record plant names in notebooks and capture photos with our iPhones to record our preferences. We always say this is the year we will finish the yard and once again spring is well underway and we are still dreaming the dream.

   As a couple what Jay and I know "for sure" is that we don't want to live in this house forever. We will be empty nesters in the fall after our daughter leaves home to attend college. We may downsize. I fantasize about less upkeep and definitely less time cleaning. A single-story home sounds great—no climbing up and down the stairs a hundred times a day. I am no longer naïve about the consequences of both time and money associated with the do-it-yourself home improvement movement. I do not desire weekends filled with home renovation projects. I'd rather spend my time on photography or writing or working on a new recipe in the kitchen. Or sitting in the lovely garden of my next home that the previous owners spent their time, money and effort to create. No one will be able to say that I am not grateful. Oh, I will be—I promise.

Cold Brewed Mint Iced Tea

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