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.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Denver Chalk Art Festival, A $5 Poem and Crêpes

My Traveling Tales by Michelle

"When you're alone and life is making you lonely
You can always go downtown
When you've got worries, all the noise and the hurry
Seems to help, I know, downtown"
—Lyric by Tom Hatch and Sung by Petula Clark

   I grew up in the tiny Danish-style town of Solvang situated in the Central Coast of California. The bucolic countryside surrounding the town is predominately owned by ranchers and farmers. The wine industry has grown considerably since I moved away and the Santa Ynez Valley has become a preeminent destination for wine aficionados, especially after the film Sideways became an unexpected box office success in 2004.
   During my childhood, all I wanted to do was escape the valley and move somewhere else. "Else" as in a city, a place where not everyone knows your name and the citizens are not involved in your day to day life. I desperately wanted anonymity and to experience a sense of adventure, both which seemed to me, were not readily available in that beautiful but claustrophobic little town.

   Now you may be prone to jump ahead and think that this is when I will henceforth recall how I naïvely marched into the big world and experienced first hand the plights of living in a cold unforgiving city, learning through hard won wisdom to appreciate the simple comforts of small town life. Not so much. I may like to visit a small town to feel my country roots, but I'm definitely a city girl. The cities I have chosen to live in seem to be those with suburban sprawl and I'm always in a house located away from downtown. Therefore, owning a car is not optional. I have always wondered what it would be like to live in an urban environment where the coffee shop and the corner store are within walking distance and public transportation is my new normal.
   I love going walkabout in cities such as San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Memphis, Boise and Vancouver BC, to name a few. Something is always happening downtown and there always seems to be an abundance of photo opportunities. I'm also content to sit in an outdoor cafe and watch the people go by, bustling about their business.

   My mother and father moved to Denver for a six month stint when my sisters, Linda and Juliette were very young. My mother loves to reminisce about the schizophrenic weather she endured living in Denver for that brief time. It was not unusual to experience four seasons in one day and snow in June. It's true the weather is wacky in the mile high city. I got a taste of the ever changing weather conditions during my two visits to Denver this year. Over the course of one week in early June, we experienced sun, rain, hail, and a tornado warning. The ever changing weather patterns were hard to predict. It could be sunny in the morning — absolutely beautiful weather  followed by a torrential downpour in the afternoon. If you visit Denver, my advice is to carry an umbrella with you... at all times! The one day we didn't have our umbrellas with us was the afternoon we got caught in a heavy rain. My daughter, Maddie was positively soaked from head to toe.
    With regards to my professional life, it turns out that Denver is a popular city for conferences this year (thank goodness because Las Vegas has worn thin on me). Back in April, I learned that in June I would be attending XeroCon, an accounting conference. Since my daughter would be a recent high school graduate, she would be free as a bird to travel with me. Maddie and I were excited to stay with our former neighbors and close friends who moved to Colorado a couple of years ago. I had the pleasure of visiting Stephanie, Michael and their two girls earlier in the year when I was in town for a mining conference. In February, Stephanie and I had a blast exploring Castle Rock and walking among the spectacular red rocks of The Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs.
   This visit, we had planned to attend the First Friday Street Fair in the city of Golden, weather permitting. It didn't. The mercurial weather turned nasty and dashed our plans. We amiably switched to "Plan B" and opted for dining at the charming The Old Stone Church, followed by enjoying a movie at the local cineplex. The next day, Stephanie read that there was a Chalk Art Festival in downtown Denver. I was excited to attend, recalling Linda's blog post covering Italian Street Painting Marin that takes place bi-annually in San Rafael, California. Maddie was determined to see downtown Denver for the first time so we all planned to attend the chalk art festival rain or shine.

For a small donation we supported a local poet and, in return,
we received a personalized poem as a travel keepsake.
    Saturday morning, Michael found parking in a small lot near the event. We proceeded to go walkabout before heading towards the chalk art festival. We stopped by the Tattered Cover Book Store to browse the titles in the large cavernous space that overfloweth with character. As part of my ongoing commitment to support independent book sellers, I purchased a copy of Tom Robbins' new book, Tibetan Peach Pie. Afterwards, we proceeded on to Union Station and admired the beautifully remodeled interior.
   When I tour a downtown area, I always make sure to have some dollar bills handy in a pocket. I enjoy supporting local artists, those talented souls who sing while playing an instrument, or the writers of prose who are willing to compose and recite  with feeling, I might add  a spur of the moment poem. Magicians and mimes are also favorite performers of mine. Not long after our visit to Denver, Maddie and I traveled together to New Orleans and our time there would not have been the same without interacting with the local performance artists, musicians and painters.
   As for the talented chalk artists... well, as you can see from the photos above, the drawings were amazing. We wandered around and watched artists create for the sake of creating. The crazy Denver weather would surely wash the drawings away within a short period of time, even if the artists were using a special formulation that could withstand the elements longer than normal chalk. Sure enough, as we wrapped our day and headed to the car, light sprinkles of rain descended from the sky. I kept my fingers crossed that the artists would be able to finish their designs and that the crowds could linger until dark to admire the art and to hopefully appreciate all the fine things that cities have to offer.

A perfect Sunday breakfast that we enjoyed at Michael and Stephanie's.
Crêpes  Sweet or Savory

   Stephanie's husband, Michael is an exceptional cook. Michael's father was a Chef and he opened restaurants around the globe. Michael is quite comfortable in the kitchen while preparing any meal of the day. When we went walkabout in downtown Denver, Michael led our merry band of sightseers to a crêpe cafe for an afternoon snack. What the kitchen produced looked more like a thin pancake than a proper crêpe.
   I'm the type of person when I am unsatisfied with a meal at a restaurant, I have to make the offending item at home to move on from the lackluster experience. Michael, it seems, is similarly minded. After we returned home from a full day of traipsing around downtown Denver, Michael didn't flop on the couch, but instead began working in the kitchen. Curious, I asked him what he was making. Turns out, he was whipping up crêpe batter that once finished, would rest in the refrigerator overnight and be ready to use in the morning. It's always great to have something to look forward to, especially an elegant family breakfast.
   On Sunday morning while Stephanie made lattes for us and then prepped berries, peaches and whipped cream, Michael busily turned out beautiful crêpes that looked and tasted nothing like the thin pancakes from the previous day. Michael also fried bacon and then basted eggs in the bacon fat. So delicious!
   After devouring breakfast, I knew I'd want to make the crêpes in my own kitchen. I asked, with a little trepidation, if the crêpes were a family secret and if Michael would be open to sharing the recipe with me. Michael crossed the kitchen and returned with a cookbook that he handed to me to read. I was stoked! The recipe, it turns out, is from Crêpes: Sweet and Savory Recipes for the Home Cook by Lou Seibert Pappas. As a lovely surprise, Maddie purchased the cookbook for me as a gift after we returned home from Denver. Michael prefers Cointreau or Grand Marnier in his mix, which tasted wonderful with the fresh fruit filling.
   For a gluten-free option, the author suggests replacing the all-purpose flour with cornstarch and add 1/8 tsp baking soda. For savory crêpes omit the sugar and vanilla extract. Swap vodka for the liqueur.

2 large eggs
1 cup milk
1/3 cup water
1 cup all-purpose flour, preferably bleached
2 Tbsps sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 Tbsp rum, Cointreau, amaretto, brandy, Frangelico, Framboise or other liqueur (optional)
2 Tbsps butter, melted

Additional butter for cooking the crêpes.

mixed berries
in season fruits
whipped cream

1. In a blender or food processor, blend until smooth: the eggs, milk, water, flour, sugar, vanilla, liqueur, and melted butter. With a rubber spatula, sweep the sides and stir down the mixture and blend again. Cover and refrigerate for a minimum of 2 hours or ups to 24 hours.
2. Gently stir the batter if it has separated. Heat a seasoned 6, 7, 9 or 10-inch nonstick crêpe pan over medium-high heat until hot. Wipe the pan lightly with butter, lift the pan from the heat and pour in 2 to 3 tablespoons of batter for a 6- or 7-inch crêpe or about 4 Tbsps (1/4 cup) for a 9- or 10-inch crêpe. Immediately tilt and rotate the pan to coat the surface with the batter. Cook until almost dry on top and lightly browned on the edges, about 1 minute. Loosen the edges with a spatula and flip the crêpe over using your fingers or the spatula, then cook the other side for about 15 seconds, or until lightly browned. Turn the crêpe out onto a clean tea towel to cool. Repeat with the remaining batter, wiping the pan with butter as needed and stacking the crêpes as they are cooked.
3. For serving immediately, cover the crêpes with aluminum foil and keep them warm in a preheated 200°F oven. For serving later, wrap them in plastic wrap in quantities intended for each use and slip them into a self-sealing plastic bag. Refrigerate the crêpes for up to 3 days, or freeze for up to 2 months.  Yield: 16-18 smaller crêpes or 10-12 larger crêpes.

Friday, July 24, 2015

New Orleans and the Authentic Hurricane Cocktail

My Traveling Tales by Michelle
Photos by Michelle and Maddie

"New Orleans is unlike any city in America. Its cultural diversity is woven into the food, the music, the architecture—even the local superstitions. It's a sensory experience on all levels and there's a story lurking around every corner." —Ruta Sepetys

Top: Hurricanes (regular and virgin) and dinner at Pierre Maspero's
Bottom: Jambalaya, Shrimp Creole and Po-Boy at Gumbo Shop.
"There are only three great storybook cities in America—New York City, San Francisco.... and New Orleans." — Tennessee Williams

St. Louis Cathedral-Basilica is among the oldest cathedrals in the United States.
The statue located in Jackson Square is of Andrew Jackson, 7th President of the United States.
My artistic rendering of the cathedral's facade.
Five to midnight in the garden of St. Anthony (on the backside of the cathedral).
   My first visit to New Orleans this past June has prompted me to consider how quickly I might be able to return to this city of mystery and enchantment. New Orleans contains everything that I love in an urban experience: a unique sense of place, artistic vision, live music, friendly locals, public dancing, historic architecture and outstanding food.
   New Orleans was founded nearly 300 years ago in 1718. After both Spanish and French rule, the United States purchased Louisiana from Napoleon in 1803. The cultural and architectural influences of both the Spanish and French are still visible in modern day New Orleans, plus there are substantial Caribbean influences that cannot be denied. Some even go so far as to say that New Orleans is the "northern most Caribbean City". During the war of 1812, the British tried to conquer the city but Andrew Jackson and his troops prevailed to decisively win the Battle of New Orleans with the assistance of privateers led by the famous pirate, Jean Lafitte.
   By 1840, the port city of New Orleans, optimally situated at the mouth of the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico, was the wealthiest city in the nation. Meandering through the French Quarter and the Financial District, it is easy to see that big money built the historic buildings and mansions. Architectural flourishes abound and are pleasing to the eye. Throughout the French Quarter artistic ironwork is a unifying decorative element which embellishes balconies, fences, doorways, staircases, lamps and signs.
My favorite photo from the trip! And the band plays on in Jackson Square...
Maddie and I met the lovely and talented, fascinator-wearing, Ginger Woechan.
You can find her and her adorable dog in Jackson Square.
According to talented artist Victoria Lenning, Dia De Los Muertos is alive and well in NOLA.
When you make eye contact with a joker, this is what happens next.
   Maddie and I arrived in New Orleans in time for dinner on a hot and humid Friday night in mid June. We met up with Alain, the CEO of the company that I joined in April (sorry friends, moving forward, there will be no more photos of me sporting a hard hat, pink safety glasses, reflective safety vest and steel toe boots). With sundown still an hour away, and the heat still rising from the concrete, the three of us gamely set out on foot to find a restaurant. I instantly wilted in the heat, but the new sights and sounds of the city kept me focused on other things besides perspiring.
   We happened upon Dickie Brennan's Palace Cafe. A diner, who was exiting the circularly rotating front door, assured us that the food was great. The recommendation sealed the deal, and we entered the beautiful interior of the restaurant. I audibly sighed when the blast of air conditioning hit my face. The friendly hostess led us up the decorative iron staircase to the second floor and seated our party at a coveted table by the floor to ceiling windows looking out to Decatur Street. Our visit to New Orleans was off to a terrific start.

Café du Monde is famous for beignets paired with café au lait. It was so hot and humid
at our table on the covered patio that Maddie and I opted for frozen coffees. Great choice!
After our visit to Café du Monde, Maddie and I took a stroll along the mighty Mississippi River.
For our next visit, we'll take a steamboat cruise on the Natchez and stay at the Hotel Monteleone.
   What followed next was my first encounter with a succession of delicious meals that properly introduced me to the tasty regional cuisine of New Orleans. Over the course of my life, exposure to Cajun and Creole cooking has been rather limited—much of my knowledge has been gleaned by watching Emeril Lagasse's cooking shows. When I have dined at the occasional Big Easy-inspired restaurant in California, the results haven't been so great. It's probably akin to trying to find a proper Mexican food restaurant in Maine. After my visit to New Orleans, I now understand why people become obsessed with Creole and Cajun cuisine. I have ordered four cookbooks on the subject since returning home, and I plan on making some of the cuisine's classic dishes for family and friends.

The mural at Johnny Sánchez is a rendering of the chef's tattoos.
Sucré is a "sweets salon" near Jackson Square in the French Quarter.
Strawberry daiquiri at Gumbo Shop, bread pudding at Royal House, Crème Brûlée at Palace Café and Arroz con Pollo at Johnny Sánchez.
New Orleans is the birthplace of the Sazerac cocktail made with Rye and Absinthe.
I sipped this one at Evangeline on a Saturday afternoon.
Oyster lovers rejoice! Oyster houses abound in the French Quarter.
Left - Pralines are made fresh on-site at Southern Candymakers. They will ship direct to you!
Right - King Cake was served as an afternoon treat at the business conference our team attended.
   My first meal in New Orleans at Palace Café was Gulf Shrimp in a Creole Meunière Sauce. I discovered that the decadent sauce is made from equal parts dark chicken broth and Worcestershire. Before my visit to New Orleans, I could not imagine adding one cup of Worcestershire to anything. What makes the sauce velvety and decadent is the addition of heavy cream and copious amounts of butter. Creole Meunière sauce is dark and syrupy. The taste profile is reminiscent of my favorite flavor enhancer—demi-glacé. Upon hearing that Maddie planned on ordering the more conservative chicken entrée for dinner, Alain encouraged her to order an appetizer portion of gumbo. A hesitant Maddie bravely dived in and discovered she likes seafood gumbo. She ate every last bite, scraping the bottom of the shallow bowl with the spoon.
   To complete our dining experience we all agreed to order Bananas Foster. Over the course of the evening we had watched the servers throughout the restaurant prepare the dessert table-side by sautéing fresh bananas in brown sugar and cinnamon, then flambéing the mixture by adding banana liqueur and rum. When the alcohol hits the hot skillet, flames leap into the air invoking quite a dramatic scene. The bananas and sauce are served nonchalantly over vanilla bean ice cream. Three spoons dipped into the delicious mess, because no one at the table was going to forgo tasting this New Orleans classic. Personally, I think the dessert would be even better by swapping Butter Pecan Ice Cream for the traditional scoops of vanilla.

After our walk along the Mississippi we headed back to the French Quarter
and stumbled upon a Pride Parade.
The parade's participants threw beads at us, much to our delight. 
Drag Queens enjoy the elegant ride through the French Quarter.
The Pride Party on Bourbon Street was just getting started at midnight.
   To aid in our digestion, after dinner—Alain, Maddie and I took a much needed long walk around the French Quarter. It was dark, the sun had dipped well below the horizon, yet the heat and humidity were still fully present. We walked past antique stores, gift shops illuminated from within, pulsating restaurants and bars that had windows open to the street, music blasting. We stopped and listened to talented street musicians and threw a few bucks in to the open collection baskets or round plastic containers marked by black Sharpies with $ signs. Fortunetellers who were set-up at portable card tables asked to read our futures.
   One intersection led to another, a few lefts and then a few rights, and we eventually found ourselves on Bourbon Street, which I should add, was on the eve of what turned out to be a very historic Pride weekend. Spectacle ran amok. Bourbon Street is not for the faint of heart, prudes, or for those folks who suffer from germ fetishes.
   We walked to the top of Bourbon Street where beautiful, young gay men with waxed chests were dancing in the street, wearing only purple briefs accented with white piping. I peeked in the bar on the opposite side of the street, and there was a dark-haired Adonis dancing on top of a bar, Coyote Ugly-style, clothed only in a white thong. Behind him on the far walls, the big screen TVs pulsated with homoerotic videos, which interestingly enough incorporated ripe fruit, men kissing, pulsating colors, and exploding geometric patterns. It was hypnotic, but when you have your eighteen-year-old daughter and boss observing you from a few feet away, I was encouraged to walk on and find the next spectacle to take in, which on Bourbon Street, it turns out, is right in front of you. It was one arched eyebrow moment after the next.

   The three of us turned around at what seemed to be the end of the line. We retraced our steps, walking and perspiring all the way back down Bourbon Street, all 13 blocks of it—the air cloying thick. We weaved around the thousands of bodies of partiers and bystanders,  and of locals and tourists. Our darting eyes surveyed the scene in front of us, as well as to the parallel sidewalks and the balconies above. Intermittently we looked down surveying the ground a few feet in front of us to identify and avoid urban landmines such has horse dung, vomit, discarded food and trash.
   Public drinking is, of course, legal. People haphazardly carry big plastic glasses filled with strong cocktails such as neon pink Hurricanes or the appropriately named Hand Grenade®, touted as "New Orleans' Most Powerful Drink". A man wore a cardboard sign that advertised Big Ass Beers at a nearby bar that had a sidewalk accessible take-out window. Alcohol-fueled laughter and shrieks of glee filled the night air. A few inebriated college-aged girls cried while loitering in the street and high octane couples verbally abused each other. I felt like a voyeur as I bobbed and weaved through the swarms of people. We saw men cajoling and females flashing breastsmore cheap Mardi Gras beads being earned to add to the layered collections worn around women's necks.

In Jackson Square, near the Cathedral, there was umbrella-twirling dancing in the street.
Umbrellas in NOLA are used as protection from both rain and sun.
These long legged girls were visiting the city for a volleyball tournament.
  Continuing down Bourbon Street, we saw nearly naked working girls—sirens of the night—standing provocatively in the doorways of strip clubs luring men into the darkened interiors. I wondered if vampires lay in wait. We weaved in out of the crowds. The air was humid, the heat felt oppressive. The three of us, Alain, Maddie and I, were continually separated by the meandering tides of people, and we'd look for each other with darting eyes, and signaled each other with hand gestures, until we were able to once again walk side-by-side, only to be parted shortly thereafter. When we made it back to the hotel in the early morning hours, hot and exhausted, but oddly exhilarated, I immediately took a shower. There was no way I was carrying the grungy feel of Bourbon Street with me to bed. Clean as a whistle, I slept like a baby between those starched white sheets.

Voodoo dolls for sale in a souvenir shop in the French Quarter.
Quintessential New Orleans: Voodoo and Drag Queens on Bourbon Street.
This Four Points Hilton is located on Bourbon Street where guests can view from the balconies
 the nightly spectacle of revelers traipsing and weaving up and down the street and sidewalks.

   On Saturday morning, Maddie and I slept in. Truthfully, I was not overly anxious to leave the hotel to encounter the claustrophobic humidity of a bayou summer day. Maddie finally insisted that we leave the hotel. What a role reversal. "Oh, alright!" I said begrudingly. "Let's do it." And do it, we did. Almost all of the photos in this blog post were taken on that Saturday beginning with our lunch at the Gumbo Shop, followed by our walking tour of the French Quarter and Jackson Square, meeting Alain for an afternoon snack of beignets (fried donuts sprinkled with copious amounts of powdered sugar) and coffee at Café du Monde, walking a stretch of the Mississippi, stumbling across the celebratory Pride Parade, and once again wandering all over the French Quarter and eating dinner (while resting our aching feet) at an oyster house before catching a taxi back to our hotel. Maddie and I had a blast, and I was so happy to be making memories like this before she heads off to college in August.

There's no shortage of gift shops in the French Quarter.

   I am compiling a bucket list of items for a future trip to New Orleans, which I'm hoping will be for an upcoming Sistercation (but not when it is so damn hot). I think it is safe to say, no matter what your personal proclivities, New Orleans will ignite your imagination and especially your taste buds. The city is at once foreboding and yet also inviting. New Orleans sits at an odd juxtaposition of old and new, prim and sultry, Gothic and modern. There's plenty of Southern charm to go around. I've returned home with the hankering to learn more about Cajun and Creole cooking, and to wash it all down with a not-too-sweet, passion fruit-accented Hurricane cocktail.

Immaculate Conception Jesuit Church is located near the French Quarter.

Join us for Hurricanes below...
The Authentic Hurricane Cocktail
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