April 15-19, 2008 - New Orleans

I arrived in New Orleans on a pleasant sunny day, perfect for a stroll along Magazine Street where I stopped for what might have been the best sandwich I've eaten in ages - toasted whole grain bread with a heap of thinly sliced turkey breast, cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato and avocado with a half sour pickle.

Some things remain constant in New Orleans, despite the horrific tragedies of Katrina - stores all over town still sell Mardi Gras beads and as I walked down St. Charles in the Garden District, the remains of the Mardi Gras celebrations still hung from most trees and littered the sidewalks.

Throughout the French Quarter the quintessential wrought iron balconies still decorate the buildings. It's only the numerous for sale or lease signs that signal the lingering financial devastation from the hurricane.

Music remains a constant in this city, and the bars and clubs of the French Quarter, along with the pubs lining Magazine Street, continue to ring with the sounds of zydeco, rock, jazz and the blues. But when I peeked inside, the crowds were smaller and a bit more subdued than my last visit pre-K.

Spring has been here for awhile and coming from Denver where it snowed last week, it feels like summer is in bloom with caterpillars crawling along most every sidewalk. I noticed them because the crumbling condition of the walks forced me to watch my feet to avoid stumbling.

Although residents can be seen everywhere working to rebuild their homes, the sidewalks, curbs, gutters and streets are full of heaving cracks and crumbling stone. It's as if a property is a patient they are working to revive - focusing on heart transplant surgery now, the pedicure can wait until the patient is stabilized.

But what I'm really here for is the food. The International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) conference brought me to New Orleans, arguably one of the top foodie destinations in the country (or world). Crawfish is in season, along with soft shell crabs, and guests dug in eagerly, unable to satisfy their cravings with just one or two.

Every culture has it's form of sausage - in New Orleans it's andouille and tasso ham - so what better way to get acquainted than to begin with an unadulterated and undecorated piece, letting my mouth explore the intricate flavors and spices, whetting my appetite for more.

Everywhere you go, it's a pork thing...I'm thinking of writing a book called Pork Heaven to explore the nearly religious experience of the humble pig in our diet. Here in New Orleans, it was bacon wrapped shrimp offered up by one of the city's famous restaurants.

The chefs of this warm city showed up in force to take care of us - from speaking at the conference about the role they are playing in helping to rebuild both their communities and the tourism of the city, to treating us to the delicacies of Creole and Cajun food: oysters, soft shell crab, and gumbo.

Emeril Lagasse led a celebrity cooking demonstration for a fundraiser this week for the Culinary Trust, whipping up shrimp etouffe, one of those classic dishes that relies on a nice darkly browned roux for color and flavoring. These guys are the chefs from his restaurant empire in New Orleans, waiting for the silent auction to end to serve the crowd.

Chef Paul Prudhomme is perhaps the most famous New Orleans chef, although his shyness seems to hold him back just slightly from the spotlight. He was full of charm serving his famous gumbo from K Paul's restaurant, which he likes to eat served over potato salad instead of rice. Other gumbos served that night included the incredibly savory gumbo z'herbes, which is made with stewed greens like spinach, mustard greens, and kale mixed with spices. It's my new favorite gumbo.

I observed a lot while I was in New Orleans:

A city still struggling to put the devastation behind while welcoming visitors with an open heart and obvious gratitude.

Buildings in all states of repair - some completed and sparkling with freshly planted gardens; others swarming with family and contractors working to saw, nail, and paint a new future; and some abandoned in mid-stride, an indicator that the financial or emotional burden to rebuild may just be too much for some.

A group of people with a relaxed attitude toward life in general, but a fierce sense of pride and self-reliance, making sure visitors know they will overcome their challenges, despite the lack of federal support they wished they had received.

A city in transition - in some ways just like any other as they work to revitalize the warehouse district, but in other ways unlike any other as they rebuild from perhaps the most difficult natural disaster in our country.

Perhaps most obvious is a culture that just refuses to die - the soul of this region lives on and the heart beats strong. Everywhere you go you can still hear the mantra, "Laissez les bons temps rouler!"

April 14, 2008 - Manhattan Like a Local

It cooled down a bit but was still sunny and delightful on Monday, so one of the other women and I grabbed a bite to eat at a falafel restaurant on Columbus Avenue, then walked through Central Park for about a half hour (the blubs in bloom were spectacular!) before heading to a small hole in the wall spa on the upper west side that advertises inexpensive spa specials. I had a hot stone massage that I rated one of my top all time treatments, although my friend said her therapist was lacking any technique other than rubbing lotion on her back.

We walked over to Rosa Mexicano near the Lincoln Center for our final dinner together. Readers of my blogs have seen the soft chocolate chipotle cakes that I frequently make for events - well this recipe originated at Rosa Mexicano and I've been dying to dine there ever since. Fortunately, they didn't disappoint!

Guacamole en Molcajete - freshly made guacamole with avocado, jalapeno, tomato, onion and cilantro (prepared tableside), served with warm corn tortillas, tortilla chips, salsa pasilla de Oaxaca and salsa de tomatillo y habanero.

Chile Ancho Relleno de Verduras - two ancho chiles filled with sauteed spinach, wild mushrooms and goat cheese over roasted tomato chipotle sauce.Tacos de Pollo - grilled chicken marinated in ancho chiles, garlic, cumin, cloves and cinnamon; topped with slow cooked peppers, served with chihuahua cheese and chile de arbol salsa and served in a cast iron skillet.Arrachera con Camarones - grilled skirt steak and jumbo shrimp stewed in a roasted tomato-chipotle sauce and topped with queso fresco.ParaĆ­so de Chocolate - they no longer make this with the chipotle, but the warm chocolate souffle cake and vanilla ice cream with sweet tomatillo dipping sauce still hit the spot.Tres Leches de la Casa - meringue-covered three milk cake with lime natilla and mango salsa, this is a dessert you shouldn't pass up if you haven't had the thrill of trying it.For a change of pace, I washed my food down with beer, and switched brands (I'm usually a Corona drinker) at the waiter's suggestion:

April 13, 2008 - Lazy Sunday in NY

After sleeping in late and barely getting out the door by noon, we made our way to the upper west side to visit the Frick Art Collection, set inside Mr. Frick's private residence on East 70th. (That's a lovely magnolia tree in his front courtyard.) The tour is short and the headset tour provided as much interesting information about the rooms and the residents as it did the art work housed there (which includes original by Manet, Monet, Renoir, Whistler and a host of others).

We then grabbed a quick lunch at Burger Heaven (an old diner in the city) before wandering down Fifth Avenue to shop a little and see the renovated Plaza Hotel. The trees off the patios are Trump Tower, which happens to be the set of The Apprentice.
My friend's sisters from Manhattan and upstate NY joined us for dinner and I was quite excited to snag a reservation at BLT Market, Laurent Tourondel's latest in a string of Bistro restaurants in NY, this one focusing on seasonal and market fresh ingredients. The light was very low (nice) so it was tough to get decent shots, but this will give you an idea.
Amuse Bouche - small hot dogs in puff pastry topped with mustard
I was inspired by the seasonal theme, so selected the Morel & English Pea Arborio Risotto with "Petit Gris" Snails and Coach Farm Goat Cheese . The buttery foam and zesty olive oil were the perfect complement to the dish.
We shared 3 desserts - something chocolate-y that I can't recall (a special), Coconut Pain Perdu / Macadamia Crusted Ice Cream, and this Cranberry & Homemade Granola Tart / Blood Orange Sorbet offered to us as a gift by the waiter:

But honestly all I remember is the incredible complimentary doughnuts that were delivered to us still hot, with a slightly doughy center that tasted of brandy or rum...YUM!

To round out the local theme I selected a chardonnay from Connecticut, recommended by the sommelier as it wasn't overly oaky but would still pair nicely with the dishes we ordered. You gotta love a restaurant that begins the meal with a hot dog and ends it with a doughnut!

April 12, 2008 - Saturday in Lower Manhattan

What a great surprise to see that the weather was going to cooperate with us after they forecast 3 days of rain! After a very civilized breakfast together at the dining room table of bagels with smoked salmon and cream cheese, fresh fruit, and coffee, we made our way to Loehman's and Filene's Basement for a day of shopping. I'm the least interested in clothes shopping of our group (probably because it's always so hard to find petite's) but I was quite enthralled with the Union Square Saturday market across from Filene's in the park.

Fresh rosemary plants

Purple Peruvian fingerling potatoes

Array of fresh seasonal produce

We had an early dinner at La Masseria, a great Italian spot near in the theater district (rated one of the top Italian spots in NY which is saying something), and once again we ate ourselves somewhat silly.

Frito Misto del Mare - calamari and shrimp with a terrific marinara sauce for dipping

Buffalo Mozzarella with Prosciutto and Tomatoes - incredibly rich and delicious, which it should be for a $32.50 appetizer (we easily shared it 4 ways)Tagliatelle with Ragu of Rabbit and Wild Mushrooms (in a Parmigiano bowl) - out of this world!

Dessert - OOPS! We scarfed it down before I could snap a photo, but can you tell this was the second molten chocolate dessert of the trip?

After dinner we wandered over to our theater to see Spamalot - a riot of a show that will leave you slapping your knee and belly laughing out loud!

April 11, 2008 - Manhattan

I arrived in New York nearly an hour late - never a good idea when the rest of my friends have arrived earlier than me and are impatiently tapping their fingers waiting to open the bubbly and serve the first appetizers. One of the women in our group has a gorgeous (let me stress that - GORGEOUS) place on the upper west side, a block from the park, and generously offered her place for our annual "spa ladies" trip (long story behind that name that goes back to the opening of Cordillera near Beaver Creek in the late 80's).

After a couple glasses of bubbly (isn't it great when you don't have to drive to dinner?!) we walked around the corner to Bistro Cassis, a small neighborhood French spot along Columbus Avenue. I was so starving I neglected to photograph anything of the meal, but it was perfect and I recommend this spot if you are in the neighborhood.

Mussels in White Wine & Garlic with Crusty French Bread (served with both butter and a pate spread)
Caesar Salad
Roast Chicken (served with a whole slew of vegetables and a nice mushroom sauce)
Chocolate Trio - Chocolate Sorbet with a Molten Chocolate Cake and Chocolate Syrup