Thursday, November 27, 2008

Giving Thanks

Yesterday was a sad day for my family, especially my parents and brother, as we watched the attacks unfold in Mumbai, India. Although the attack was widespread, the area hit hardest and longest was my family's old neighborhood, Colaba. As the newscasters mentioned names of hospitals, rail stations, hotels and restaurants, I thought about all the times I had heard about these places before in the context of my family's life and adventures before me. And as I watched the flames erupting at the Taj Palace hotel, I thought about the time we had stayed there for a few days after visiting family. It wasn't exactly in my parents' budget at the time, but they wanted to treat me and my brother after we spent the summer roughing it at my mom's tiny village. I was only 10 at the time, so what I remember most was being completely awed by its size, the architecture and interior decorations.

My mom had moved to Mumbai in her early 20s to attend nursing school. My dad also moved to the big city in his 20s. Eventually they met, fell in love and got married. They were mavericks; back in those days a "love marriage" wasn't too common. Soon after my older brother was born. I didn't come along until much later, ten years to be exact and after they immigrated to the U.S. Growing up however, I was often regaled with tales of their life in Mumbai: the walks along the waterfront near the Gateway of India, the various cafes with the best Chinese, Farsi and Indian foods, the Cadbury chocolate factory that my brother walked past every day on the way to school, the hustle and bustle of the city and the general peacefulness of the neighborhood. To see that peacefulness shattered in such a terrible way yesterday affected all four of us. It broke my heart to see the city in chaos, to see such iconic buildings destroyed, to hear about all the local residents injured and killed as they went about their daily activities and to hear that American & British tourists were particularly targeted.

The sad events halfway across the world have made me even more thankful for all the goodness in my life on this Thanksgiving.

I am thankful that my mom made the bold decision to leave her village on her own for school in Mumbai. Without her training as a nurse, they would not have been able to move to the U.S.

I am thankful that my parents always pushed me to pursue higher education. Thanks to their efforts and encouragement I have a very stable job in uncertain economic times.

I am thankful for my family & friends and their health and safety. I may not get to see everyone as often as I would like to, but when I do it's as if we've never spent time apart.

I am thankful for my husband, who makes me laugh every single day no matter how rotten of a mood I might be in.

I am thankful to receive the type of unconditional love and amusement only a pet can offer.

I am thankful to have good neighbors.

I am thankful for my Nesties; I wish I would have delurked sooner because you are all fantastic.

Finally, I am thankful that the turkey turned out moist and that all the side dishes turned out fine. It took six hours start to finish, but I successfully cooked my first Thanksgiving dinner entirely on my own. :-)

Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Final Day & Final Thoughts

Sunday, October 26, 2008

I woke up early on Sunday to attend 9am mass with my parents at the St. Louis Cathedral in Jackson Square. The outside of the cathedral is much more impressive than the inside, which tried too hard to replicate the magnificence of European cathedrals.
After the service ended I dropped my parents off at the hotel and took a solo stroll around the neighborhood. One of the buildings I wanted to take a closer look at was the Pontalba building, a row of townhouses built by Baroness Micaela Almonester de Pontalba. Wanting to keep her fortune in the family, her father-in-law had tried to kill her for attempting to divorce his son. She survived multiple gunshots, divorced her husband and recovered her property through a court order. That sounds pretty kick-ass for a woman in the 1800s.
So why did I want to take a closer at the Pontalba buildings? Because the Baroness had the letters 'A' and 'P' subtly intertwined into the wrought iron work above each doorway and on each balcony. The narcissist in me had to check it out.

During my walk I also came across a couple of the trolley cars created as part of "A Streetcar Named Inspire" project. We spotted several of these at a distance throughout the town; it was cool to see them up close. Streetcar Art has many more photos of the streetcars and an artist list.

Cafe du Monde was crowded beyond belief! The line snaked through the dining area and out onto the street for at least a block and a half. I'm so glad we had gone earlier in the week.
On my way back to the hotel I popped into a few local boutiques and Laura's Candies. I spent more time out on my walk than I should have. I have never packed so fast in my life. We still had a few hours before we needed to check in for our flights, so we headed to Remoulade for a leisurely lunch. It was a good thing we had time to kill; service was pretty slow.
This spooky goblin hovered over my shoulder. Maybe he (she?) put a curse on our meal.
The shrimp bisque was good . . . . . when it finally came out.
My muffaletta pizza was just okay. Considering how much time had elapsed between courses, the crust should not have been underdone. And the toppings should not have been all clumped in the middle. It wasn't a horrible meal, but in light of how great all our other meals were this was a disappointment.
My battery died right after this shot, but I'm so glad I was able to get this one in. I don't think any of us ever expected to see my parents hanging out on Bourbon St.
I must admit, I had some reservations about this trip before I left. I wasn't sure how balancing time between my parents, our friends and ourselves would work out. I was worried about my parents' abilities to keep up physically. I thought that visiting a city in the U.S. would pale in comparison to our last couple of trips overseas. I was happily wrong on all counts. I loved our time in New Orleans and would go back anytime (except hurricane season!). There are still many restaurants I would love to eat at. There are also many stores I would like to shop at. Now that we have tackled the Quarter, I would love to spend some more time in the Garden District or spend a night at a B&B on a plantation.

Emcee and Fraggle are already planning for a girls' only trip for their fiftieth birthdays in 2018. ;-)

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Cooking Cajun Style

October 25, 2008

We opted for sleep in lieu of breakfast this morning. We had to be at the New Orleans School of Cooking by 9:45am, which is a little too early to be functioning for a weekend.

We had signed up for a two-hour cooking demo, during which we would watch our lunch being made. Our instructor, Miss Pat, reminded us a bit of Paula Deen. She had several of the dishes partially prepped before class started and had a nifty mirror so we could see every step. While she cooked she gave us an overview of the culinary history of New Orleans. We started with a chicken and andouille gumbo. I told Eddie to pay close attention, since he had been having a cup of it at every meal. If there is anything he should learn to cook, this should be it. I was pleasantly suprised to learn that it is not as complicated as I thought it would be to make. Apart from all the onion and bell pepper chopping, the trickiest part seems to be making the roux. I've made a roux for mac n'cheese before, so I think I could handle this.
Next up was a cajun style jambalaya. The cajun style differs from the creole style in that the creole version utilizes a tomato-based sauce for moisture. This preparation used chicken stock. My parents gave this one two thumbs up. Eddie preferred the creole style. I was Switzerland.
We learned how to make bread pudding for dessert. Miss Pat decided to get creative and made a pina colada bread pudding. I was skeptical while watching her pour in the pina colada mix, canned pineapple and shredded coconut, but this was actually quite tasty. The pineapple and coconut flavors turned out to be much more subtle than I anticipated. We also learned how to make pralines. I suspect my neighbors will be receiving some of those for the holidays.
Everything tastes better with a local brew in hand.
After our lesson, with recipes safely tucked away in my purse, we hopped on one of the trolleys for a ride around the city. The original plan was to ride along the Riverfront, but due to the Voodoo Experience several trolleys were being rerouted. We ended up taking the St. Charles trolley out into the Garden District.
I probably should have tried to take some pictures of the homes, but (a) it was crowded, (b) I didn't have a window seat and (c) I was zoning out. I did manage to catch this odd billboard as we came around a corner. It says simply "EDDIE". No one seems to know why. Someone's head expanded a bit after seeing it.
We transferred trolleys and hit up the shops and stands at the French Market for souvenir shopping. A lot of the merchandise was repetitive and somewhat tacky. After finally finding some kiddie t-shirts for the grandkids and godkids and a faux Venetian mask for myself, we headed back to the hotel.
My parents headed up for a nap, but we stopped in the lobby since I finally spied empty seats at the Carousel Bar. The main attraction is obviously the slow, rotating bar but the rest of the interior was to my liking as well: a dark, sparkly ceiling, oversized booths and a grand piano. It was difficult to get a good picture without flash; New Orleans really seems to like its dark and mysterious spaces.
The drink you are supposed to have at the Carousel Bar is a sazerac. However, I chose to have a sidecar in honor of FogCityDweller (it's her favorite). I think she would have been pleased with the quality. The sidecar actually ended up being a conversation starter with the two couples seated next to us, since neither had heard of the drink before.
Post-cocktail we went upstairs to get ready for dinner at a place owned by this dude named Emeril. I think he has a show on tv or something.
I have to admit, Emeril's was not my first choice for our dinner. But what the birthday boy wants, he gets. And my parents watch Emeril's show often. I started off the evening with doubts based on a bad experience I had at another one of his restaurants. Fortunately my doubts were laid to rest. Our table had a view into the open kitchen; if I were to go back I'd love to sit at the counter.
We shared the Barbeque Shrimp with Petite Rosemary Biscuit and Fresh Chives as an appetizer. We scarfed all of them down before I could take a picture. :-) Instead of the standard loaf of french bread that we encountered at most restaurants, the waiters at Emeril's brought around miniature sized brioche buns, french bread loaves & corn muffins. I ordered the special salad of the evening: Warm Duck Confit with mixed greens, pecans, blue cheese and satsuma vinaigrette. I'm usually not a fan of mixing sweet with savory, but this was wonderful.
For my entree I departed from my usual choice of seafood and instead had the Pan Seared Filet of Beef with Creamy Mascarpone Polenta, Slow Roasted Pork Belly, Wilted Swiss Chard, Tomato Confit and Goat Cheese. This.was.SO.good. I was the last one to finish dinner because everyone else claimed they were too full to finish their entrees. Wimps. I ate every single perfect bite of this deliciousness.
The perfect ending was a light tasting Vanilla Bean Crème Brûlée with Seasonal Fruit and Shortbread. The only issue with this was that the seasonal fruit consisted of a strawberry, blackberry and raspberry, all of which are not in season. They were tasty though, not bland and watery like most out of season fruit, so I'm left wondering where Emeril's secret berry hook-up is.
After dropping my parents off at the hotel, Eddie and I took a leisurely stroll down Royal St., pausing to admire the window displays at all the art galleries. I even found a jewelry store still open and walked away with another souvenir. We headed up to Bourbon St., to see all the craziness one last time. Suprisingly, it seemed rather quiet in comparison to the previous night even though it was still bustling with pre-Halloween revelers. It was just fine with me.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Just Three More NOLA Posts!

I can't believe I'm still blogging about my trip! In my defense, my office has looked like the file room exploded in it almost every day since I've been back.

So on October 24th we slept in after our night of carousing and had a late breakfast at Cafe Beignet. It seems to be a local chain; I came across at least two others while we were walking around. This one was just down the street from our hotel, with a very charming interior and courtyard. I ordered Cajun hashed potatoes, served with french style scrambled eggs and a baguette portion. Eddie had a french omelette with mushrooms and cheese. Both of us had cafe au laits.

This is Cafe Cat. He never moved from his spot despite all the people around him and the enticing smell of their food.
After breakfast we met up with my parents for another tour. This time we headed out to see the Oak Alley Plantation.
The front walkway is flanked by the alley of trees. According to our hoop-skirted tour guide, the trees are what attracted the original owners to the location.
We entered through the side. The large green field in the background is sugar cane.
A movie that is slated to air on Lifetime in the spring happened to be shooting on location. Due to this, some parts of the plantation had faux debris scattered around. Alas, neither Faye Dunaway nor Jerry O'Connell were to be seen around.
The grounds were quite substantial. This was taken as we walked toward the tour's meeting point, the back of the house.
Photography was not allowed indoors. Because our group was fairly small, I couldn't even think about sneaking any. I didn't want to risk the wrath of an angry southern belle. The interior was a little bit disappointing. Everything was meticulously and beautifully restored, but the house just felt so much smaller on the inside than it appeared. I think that is partly due to the thickness of all the walls, which were intentionally designed to help control the climate in the living quarters. We were allowed out on to the veranda in order to fully admire the alley of oaks.
There was also a blacksmith shop that we could visit. They also sold mint juleps on site. Mint juleps are a great sipping drink for a warm afternoon. :-)
The plantation was approximately an hour away from the French Quarter. Since the tour ran through lunch, we decided to have an early dinner. We ended up at Mr. B's Bistro, primarily because it was just across the street from our hotel. Plus it's dinner hours had just started, so we didn't have any wait despite it being a Friday night. From the outside it looked like a small, casual neighborhood joint. The interior revealed something a little more upscale. I started with a vidalia onion and goat cheese tart. No photo, because I'm reluctant to use flash in restaurants and the photo came out so.very.dark. But I broke my rule to take a photo of my entree, trout amandine. For dessert I ordered a traditional bread pudding. It lost points with me because it had raisins. Blech. Eddie's dessert in the background, a warm white chocolate brownie, was phenomenal. A more accurate description would be a chocolate chip blondie, but the darn thing really tasted like a dense, chewy chocolate chip cookie. And y'all know I'm a cookie monster.
The rest of the evening is better forgotten, at least by me. I was pretty cranky that night; I think the fatigue got to me. College football fans descended on the city for the LSU/UGA game the next day. They were everywhere. All I really wanted to do was have a drink at the rotating bar in our hotel, the aptly named Carousel Bar, but it was standing room (on solid ground) only. We decided to check out Bourbon St. for a while instead, which was a madhouse in comparison to all the other nights we were there. We ended up back at John Lafitte's and while we were able to easily get a drink and find a table, a different piano player was performing. She was atrocious. She sounded like a tortured animal. We finished our drinks and left, then happened to run into Emcee and her husband as we walked back to our hotel. After a bit of chatting and people watching we parted ways. Even though a few hours had passed and it was almost 1am, the Carousel Bar was still packed. To quote Dunc, balls!

Happy Wednesday!

Eddie is not known for being a particularly romantic or sentimental person. Yet he never fails to suprise me every once in a while. Yesterday, in the midst of an exhausting and stressful week, he brought a beautiful fall bouquet for me. Why? Just to wish me a happy Wednesday. :-)

Monday, November 10, 2008

Po'Boys and Partying

October 23, 2008

Our bodies needed some replenishment after the Katrina tour. Literally. We decided on a quick lunch at the oldest family-owned po'boy sandwich shop in NOLA:

Johnny's is a tiny, quick and casual place. I had the oyster po'boy. As hungry as I was I still could only eat half of my sandwich.
Eddie had the muffaletta, which is only sold as a half sandwich. But what a huge half it is! I definitely preferred the flavors of the muffaletta over my po'boy. It's all about the olive salad in the sandwich.
It was starting to rain again after lunch, so we retreated to our hotel rooms and lounged the afternoon away. In the evening Eddie and I headed to a New Orleans institution for dinner:
There was a line of almost 15 people outside the door. The line moved quickly though. It wasn't too long before we were sitting down at the oyster bar. We started off with a dozen raw oysters accompanied by a local brew, Abita Pecan Harvest. I'm not a huge beer drinker, but this one was nicely balanced and went well with the oysters.
I also had hush puppies. Eddie had his usual cup of gumbo. Don't let the sign below fool you. The service was actually great. Very efficient and friendly. The wonderful advantage of sitting at the bar was having an oyster unexpectedly turn up on your plate when your shucker thought you weren't looking. Curtis totally hooked me up with at least another 1/2 dozen oysters on the house.
After dinner we met up with my friends for a night of drinking and dancing. As we walked towards our first stop of the evening, we passed by one of my favorite window displays. It's a little hard to see in this photo, but those are all Ken dolls, dressed up in some of the best Barbie outfits.
We kicked the night off at Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop Bar. The oldest building in the French Quarter, legend has it that it was used as a hideout for pirates as they traded their balck market goods. Despite being on Bourbon St., this place retains the feel of being a neighborhood bar. Perhaps that is because it is a few blocks off of the main party row. Or because it is so dark and almost dive-y on the inside. Whatever the reason, I enjoyed it a lot.
We managed to get a great table in front of the piano man, who fit in with the dark, pirate-y vibe of the place.
Yes, I had more hurricanes. Note Eddie's "asian glow" after just 1-1/2 drinks.
After a few drinks and some of the most hilarious conversations I had in a while, we headed back down Bourbon St. in search of a good band. We ended up at the Bourbon Street Blues Co., dancing along as an '80s cover band played. Ignore Mr. Emcee's and Mr. Fraggle's serious faces; we all had a fun time.
The Southerner might have been having even a bit more fun than us old boring married folks.
We definitely did start feeling like old folks the closer it got to 2am. There were plenty of places where the parties were still going strong, but we were beat. It was time to stroll back to the hotel.