Free Reading Friday: Sous Chef

Sous ChefAlthough I am not generally a fan of reality TV, I am slightly obsessed with cooking shows. From Chopped, to Iron Chef, to The Next Food Network Star, to Cupcake Wars, if there is competitive food creation, they’ve grabbed my attention. My son always tells me that I should be on one of the food shows because he thinks I’m a great cook. While that is definitely flattering, not only have I come to cooking a bit late in life (really only after he was born), but I am also very much a recipe girl. I need solid directions I can follow and add just a bit of improv to. I randomly forget my cooking basics like how to boil an egg or corn on the cob. I definitely get more than a bit flustered when trying to put together a complicated main dish and any sides at the same time and timing is NEVER my friend in the kitchen.

That being said, I am fascinated by those who can do it all and do it well. Aside from dishing out popcorn at the local movie theater, I’ve never worked in the food industry, so it is a bit of a mystery to me. I’ve had several friends who have been members of wait staffs in restaurants, but most of them were in college and did not take their jobs very seriously. What goes on in the actual kitchen remains a bit of a mystery to me.

Michael Gibney’s book helped clear up some of the mystery.

From movies, TV and my one Facebook friend who actually works as a chef, I knew chefs put in long hours. However, until I read Sous Chef: 24 hours on the Line, I had no idea just how long those hours are. I did not realize that my 8 hours a day being bombarded with questions from teenagers and the additional two hours or so I spend each night working on grading and lesson planning pale in comparison with life on the line in a kitchen. The idea of going into work at 9 am and not finishing up until after midnight is appalling to me. Although Gibney explains that the early hours before the restaurant opens for business (in his case dinner M-F and additional brunches on the weekends) are a bit slow and contemplative, the constant barrage of work that descends on everyone in the kitchen mid-day is enough to make me thankful I’ve only ever been on the dining room side of the experience.

The kitchen hierarchy was fascinating to read about. All the individual jobs I had no idea even existed are knowledge I am glad I now have. I also like finally understanding what a sous chef really does.

Reading his first hand account of the craziness that does not manage to burst into complete chaos once the tickets start rolling in has given me a better perspective on why it sometimes takes longer than I think it should to get my food. It also helps explain why sometimes things on the plate are not perfectly executed. It has also made me rethink my stance on sending food back to the kitchen (although I rarely do).

While I haven’t actually eaten at a restaurant since finishing the book, I believe the next time I do, the knowledge Gibney has given me will not only improve my experience as a customer, but also my empathy for my fellow human beings.

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Throwback Thursday: Best friend time

Buldog side viewI write about my friends a lot. I can’t help it. They are the most amazing people in the world. They are my family and I cannot imagine my world without them. Unfortunately, the years have scattered us across the country. Of our core group of 5, only one of them still lives near me. One spends a great deal of his time hiking in Colorado, one is trying to uncover the seedy underbelly of cyber security in DC and one is teaching Victorian sci-fi and horror in Georgia.

This summer my best friend and I got to spend four days bumming around DC with our reporter friend. It was amazing since it was the first time I’ve gotten to visit him in his new hometown (and it’s been his hometown for over a decade…yeah, I know, bad friend).

Last month, we all got together for another for another glorious four days in Isle of Palms, South Carolina. We rented a beach house, stayed up late, went on ghost tours and generally had a blast.

Then, just last week I got to spend part of my fall break visiting with my best friend in Georgia. Sure, she still had classes to teach, but in between those classes, we got to hang out at the coffee shop, go shopping, take my kids on adventures, eat a lot of super tasty food AND, most importantly, watch our favorite girly movies and talk, talk, talk.

One of our very first stops was Jittery Joe’s, a local coffee chain that has 16 locations: Nine are in Athens, four are in other towns in Georgia, one is in Tennessee and very unpredictably, one is in Japan. Athens actually has a surprising number of local, sort of chain restaurants, which I think is cool.

Jittery Joe'sWhen my best friend used to live around the corner from me, we spent countless hours at our favorite local coffee shop. Although neither of us are huge coffee fans, if we tried to count up all the spiced chais we drank over long talks about every aspect of our life, we could probably fill a swimming pool..and I’m not talking about a dinky backyard pool either. Because my best friend lived right around the corner and our local coffee shop was just right around another corner, my kids practically grew up there. In fact, they are friends with the owners’ kids, so they always loved going to the coffee shop with us. They’d bring books or electronic devices, share a cookie and let us talk for hours.

At Jittery Joe’s, we all fell right back into our old habits. Well, almost. The barista accidentally made a pumpkin spice latte and offered it to me for free, which replaced my usual chai. I also had to change out my usual cookie for a chocolate croissant. JJ’s has cookies, but they are flat and sort of hard. On my very first trip to Athens, my BFF warned me not to be fooled by the cookies because I would be horribly disappointed. As we share nearly identical sweet teeth, I trusted her. Thankfully JJ’s does have some good brownies, muffins and some passable croissants. The kids were happy playing their devices and I was thrilled to get some major best friend time in.

When my BFF was not teaching and we were not hanging out with my kids, we got more quality time in watching (and partially talking through) some of our favorite shows and movies. After my kids go to bed, we have a habit of putting a show we both love and have seen 100 times like Friends on in the background. We usually start off watching the show, but then start talking. Before we know it, three or four episodes have gone by with us only catching about half of what is going on, but not even remotely caring. We also like to hang out, browse the internet and read fun bits of information to each other. On our last visit together (when she came to see me before DC), we spent several hours reading hilarious book summaries and reviews to each other on Amazon. Yeah, I know, we are total geeks, but we both teach literature for a living, so this is big fun for us.

We also continued our tradition of watching movies our husbands don’t really enjoy. We re-watched Bride and Prejudice for the umpteenth time. We broke out into songs in several places and debated the hotness of William Darcy (played by Martin Henderson) and Balraj (played by Naveen Andrews). It was a hard call, but in most scenes we went for Andrews. Of course, that could be because of our undying love for his character Sayid from Lost. While the movie was playing I found myself looking up the actors to see what else they’d been in. When we found out Henderson had played Brittany Spears boyfriend in her “Toxic” video, we had to watch that as well.

My Cousin Rachel was also on our to view list. Neither of us had seen it before, but she’d read the Daphne du Maurier novel it is based on and really liked it. We both really liked the movie and it lead to a great debate about our thoughts on Rachel’s guilt. One thing I desperately miss about my BFF living 10 hours away is our discussions about movies, books and TV shows.

On my last night in Athens, we also kept up a long standing tradition of watching a Mystery Science Theater production. Every Friday her husband makes popcorn and they watch either a Rifftrax or an MST3K. This time it was The Final Sacrifice. Like all movies featured on MST3K, it was horrific, but the jokes of Mike Nelson and his robot pals made it a wonderful, laugh out loud night. I love watching one of these movies the night before I leave because it makes the leaving just a tiny bit easier. Or at least it distracts me from it.

Junkman'sThis trip we did not get to do nearly as much shopping as I’d like. We weren’t able to get a babysitter and since dragging my kids clothing shopping is worse than a root canal (or so I’m told, I’ve never had one, but my BFF assures me, having done both, that this is true), we only got to pop into one store. Usually we get a few hours to shop all our favorite places in downtown Athens and I go home with an outfit (or two) more than I arrived with. My BFF is the best person in the world to go shopping with. She gives me an honest opinion every time and encourages me to indulge, which is something I rarely do. I, on the other hand, keep her desire to spend too recklessly in check. We perfectly balance each other out. Plus, we have a lot of similar taste in clothes. Since there was no way we’d be able to enjoy clothing shopping together, the only store we got to go in is the Junkman’s Daughter’s Brother, a really strange and eclectic Athens institution. My kids love going in there because they have lots of unique items (and TOYS!). I love it for the same reason. The owner seemed really keen on showing us all the anti-Trump merchandise that had come in. I cackled a bit when he said the only good thing about Trump being elected was all the anti-Trump merch he was able to sell. I told him I was glad Trump was making someone happy.

As usual, the visit was over way too soon. It seemed like before I could blink it was time to load my car back up and head back home. My kids and I left at 7:30 in the morning and there were tears all around. My kids were crying because they were going to miss my BFF (and her amazing dog) so much. My BFF and I were sobbing because it will be five more months until we see each other again.

We’d gotten a bit spoiled seeing each other three times in the as many months and this stretch is going to be hard. Even though I know I will see her again on spring break and we will have an amazing time, it was just as hard to leave her on Saturday as it was the first time I pulled away from her house four years ago. She is my family and without her, home just doesn’t seem quite like home.

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Wildcard Wednesday: Fitbit Charge 2

fitbit charge2I’m not quite sure how long I’ve had a Fitbit in my life. Even before I upgraded to the super fancy digital version, I’ve had some sort of pedometer strapped to my body for at least a decade now.

Although I would never call myself a health nut (I’m eating Lays bacon wrapped jalapeno chips as I type this), I do make an honest effort to get in a minimum of 10,000 steps each day, in large part so that I can eat things like bacon wrapped jalapeno chips.

As much as I loved my old school red pedometer I bought at Target, which clicked every time I took a step, it was highly unreliable. I’m a pretty animated talker and sometimes I’d be in the middle of an intense conversation with nothing but my arms flailing, and I’d hear the “tink, tink, tink” of my pedometer. Other times I’d be sitting at my desk nervously jostling my leg and I’d once again hear, “tink, tink, tink.” And don’t even get me started on how inaccurate it was on the rare occasions I decided to jog. Still, it was a good start for me and even though the “tink, tink, tink” drove me nuts at times, it was was still comforting.

About five years ago I decided to take a real leap forward and buy a Fitbit. When I bought my first Fitbit, there wasn’t much in the way of variety. I had a choice of one that could hook onto my clothes, which was only a tiny step up from my Target version or the Fitbit Flex which offered to not only count my steps more accurately, but also to help me track my weight, caloric and water intake, sleep patterns and gently wake me up vibrating alarms. I doled out the big bucks for the Flex.

For the most part I was pretty happy with my Flex. Since I work on the second floor and my house has a basement, I was a bit annoyed it didn’t count steps. I also didn’t like the fact that unless I logged on to the computer (and later my smart phone), I couldn’t see the exact number of steps I’d taken. Sure, if I tapped it, little dots would light up and flash to help me estimate to the nearest 1,000 steps how many I’d taken, and while that may have made me feel a bit like a Cylon, it also left me frustrated.

Even though there were elements of my Flex I was not fond of, when it fell off in the Kroger parking lot (because I’d ordered cute knock off bands with inferior clasps) and was run over by a car, I still decided to replace it with another Flex.

Fast forward to last month. While I was still wearing my Flex religiously (this time without the knock off bands), I was getting frustrated with it. It wasn’t holding a charge for long and I often had trouble getting it to charge at all, despite leaving it in the charger for 8 hours. I think something in the connection was just failing. I definitely wanted an upgrade. After trying a knock off fitness tracker I bought at Target, I decided I needed a new tracker, but this time I wanted one with a few more features. I definitely wanted to be able to see the exact number of steps I’d taken, I wanted a watch function, a heart rate monitor and an alarm function. I’d grown very accustomed to ditching the alarm clock for my Fitbit.

After a ton of research, which included quite a lot of feedback from my friends, I decided on a Fitbit Charge 2 because it was the only tracker I found that met all my other guidelines and had the alarm option.

I LOVE IT!

I love that I can see the time and date as well as every little step I take, including the ones I take when I’m pushing the cart around at the grocery store, something my Flex never did. I love that it tracks my stairs–so far only 3 today, but some days I do as many as 11 flights. I love that I can track specific times for my exercise routines and that it has a variety of routines to pick from. I love that I can see my active and inactive alarms so that I can make sure an alarm is actually set without having to get on my phone or my computer. I can also enable or disable my alarms from my Charge, which is fantastic! I like that it gives me little reminders to move every hour so that I’m at least taking 250 steps an hour. I even like the guided, meditative breathing function it has. It’s amazingly relaxing, which I know is the point.

When I had my Flex, I was sometimes really pushing it to get in all 10,000 steps. Some days I’d felt like I’d walked all over creation and it was still barely registering 8,000. Since I’ve had my new Charge 2, the only days I haven’t hit my minimum are days I’ve been on vacation. I’m actually averaging closer to 12,000 each day. I don’t know if it’s the added accuracy or just a burst of new pep in my step thanks to my new tracker.

fitbit bandsPlus, unlike my Flex, I’ve been able to order cheap, knock off bands for my Charge 2 and they are amazing! Thanks to the design, there is no way my Charge 2 will just fall off of my wrist. They are high quality and 12 of them only cost me $15. I actually just ordered another band that has adorable owls on it for only $8.

Unfortunately I did not think that the face of the Charge 2 needs a bit more protection than the Flex did. I have a tiny scuff on it, so I also found myself ordering protectors on Amazon today. Once they get here, I have a feeling my Charge 2 will be the perfect accessory.

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Teaching Tuesday: Fall break

Starting school at the end of July is more than a little depressing. The weather is at its summery height, people are posting vacation photos, few stores have their school supplies completely out and almost all of my fellow teachers are starting their countdowns until school starts. Already having two or three weeks under my belt before they’ve even clocked in for their first teacher work day is upsetting.

The trade off comes at fall break. Sure, no matter what school I’ve worked at, I’ve always gotten a fall break. But up until my school switched over to the balanced calendar, that fall break was always just two days. At my first school it was a Monday and Tuesday. In Florida we lost it due to the make up days we had to spend because of hurricane closures. At my current school we got our four day weekend in the form of a Thursday-Sunday break.

But when we switched to the balanced calendar four years ago, suddenly those two days became 10 and it’s pretty darn glorious. Our summer may have gone from 10 weeks to 8, but those 8 extra days off during the first quarter are worth it.

Since our grading periods have always been 9 weeks, our fall break was still toward the beginning of October, however, when we returned from it we usually still had two weeks left in the grading period. It was a nice break, but most of it was spent catching up on grading so that I could get ready to head into finals. If we were lucky, our old grading period would end on a Friday and we’d have until the following Wednesday at 8 am to get all of our grades in. Basically fall break was a lot of grading.

A few times our grading period ended on a Wednesday and we’d start the next grading period the very next day, which meant grades were due by Monday morning at 8 am, so those years fall break just meant I got to sleep in until 9 or so and then grade non-stop.

And while I still end up grading over fall break, since I get to spread that grading over 14 days, I never really stress out about my grading. I get it done at a far more leisurely pace while sipping tea or in between trips to the children’s museum or even on car rides to Disney World.

Not only do I get time to do my grading, I actually get a break from school. I get to do things I enjoy. I get to read books for fun. I get to hang out with my kids. We go on family vacations. In fact, I just got home yesterday after spending my first week of fall break visiting my best friend in Athens, Georgia (she’s a professor at UGA). I did some of my grading while she was teaching classes and then when she got home, we got to hang out.

Having time off in early to mid-October is awesome. It’s the off-season for most vacation destinations, so prices are lower. The weather is still nice enough for travel, especially for going to places like Florida or Georgia where I can pull out my capris and short sleeves and frolic on beaches or in gardens. Plus, since most schools are still in session, crowds are much smaller and easier to maneuver. Our two Disney World vacations have been about 25% cheaper than if we’d had to take them in the summer.

If all this wasn’t reason enough to love the balanced calendar and our wonderful break, when I return to school next Monday, it’s a brand new grading period. No matter what mistakes students may have made in the first quarter, it all starts over fresh. The kids come back refreshed and so do I. Before fall break I am usually about at my breaking point. Kids are getting antsy, whiny and beyond annoying, but it is amazing how two weeks can change it all. They come back relaxed, recharged and ready to start it all over again. Discipline issues, which were on the rise in the two weeks prior to break, are back to start of the year levels.

Plus, everyone is generally excited that there are only 9 more weeks until winter break. And that includes two wonderful days off for Thanksgiving.

 

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Chocolate Monday: Condor Chocolate brownie

Condor brownie fullOne of my favorite parts of traveling is trying beloved local eateries. Of course, when my forays into new food gems include chocolate shops, I get even happier.

Recently my travels took me to Athens, Georgia, which is not only the home of my best friend in the universe, but also a ton of amazingly tasty places to eat. In fact, in 2013, Zagat named Athens one of the 7 up and coming food cities. In 2014, it was named the Best Foodie City for Groups by ConventionSouth Magazine. In 2016, Fortune Magazine named it one of America’s 10 New Best Craft Beer Cities. These accolades come in addition to all kinds of ones for just being a totally cool place to vacation, live and go to college. Oh, and it’s also host to some pretty cool musicians like The Indigo Girls, The B52’s and REM. My best friend told me that pretty much everyone she knows has seen Michael Stipe shopping at Earth Fare. Somehow she keeps missing him.

Not only did we spend the week eating at some totally amazing restaurants like Cali N Tito’s, The Grit, Kelly’s and Jittery Joe’s, but we also got a chance to stop by Condor Chocolates.

We originally tried to visit them on Monday, but like half the places in Athens, it seems Mondays are verboten. Seriously, pretty much every place in Athens is closed on Mondays and it is more than a bit annoying. Although our initial attempt was thwarted by a closed sign, since we never give up on chocolate, we went back on Thursday.

Condor chocolate sells chocolate bars, chocolate truffles, cloud boulders (chocolate covered marshmallows), toffee, bon bons, macarons, brownies, gelato and chocolate drinks. Since they have a variety of deserts, shakes, and sipping chocolates, they actually have a dine in cafe. Check out their menu here.

We’d already been out for quite some time and the kids were longing to return to my best friend’s house to play with her dog, so we got our treats to go. Of course I bought one of each of their truffles (which I will review at a later date). My best friend and son got cloud boulders, which they both loved. My son described his as a bit of fluffy chocolate heaven. My daughter got a passion fruit macaron and she was delighted. In the last year she has become obsessed with macarons. I think this is largely due to some macaron shaped erasers she got from the summer reading program.

In addition to my box of truffles, I also snagged one of their brownies. Since Condor chocolate is a bean-to-bar chocolate shop (and cafe) and the owners are brothers whose mother was from Ecuador, all of their chocolate is from Ecuador and most of it is fairly dark chocolate.

Any regular readers of this blog know that I am not exactly on the dark chocolate fan bus. It’s only been in the last 10 years I’ve even been able to tolerate it and even then I get really picky about it. But, because chocolate is a passion, I am trying my hardest to learn to truly appreciate it in all of its forms.

Plus, who doesn’t love a brownie?

My best friend, as it turns out.

That’s ok, more brownie for me. My first bite was not the best. While completely moist (ugh, I hate that word) and chewy, it wasn’t the velvety milk chocolate brownie I was hoping for. Granted, since it is advertised as a dark chocolate brownie, it was totally unreasonable for me to have that expectation, but a lifetime of eating brownies has prepared me for velvety, milky happiness.

My second bite was better. And so was the third. I got used the the slightly bitter bite of the chocolate. The more bites I took also meant more bits of sea salt to balance out the very heavy, very dark chocolate of the brownie. Despite it’s darkness, thanks to the small chunks of dark chocolate in the brownie, it actually had a fairly creamy, if slightly bitter taste.

It was insanely rich and there was no way I could eat it all in one sitting. While not gigantic, it is a large brownie and both its denseness and richness make it a treat I think most people would find hard to eat on their own–at least in one sitting. I actually divided it into four servings, which was about all I could handle at a time.

Sure, I’ll admit that I ate one of those servings for breakfast, but that’s one of the glorious bits about being an adult. As long as my kids don’t see me, I can totally eat a brownie for breakfast!

Although this brownie is definitely a treat I had to portion up and could not eat large quantities of, I’m glad I tried it. It was tasty and really started to grow on me. On my next visit to Athens, I might even try it again. Of course I might also have to get some of their toffee because I LOVE me some toffee!

Overall:

Appearance: 8/10
Taste: 7/10
Value: 8/10 (at $5 a pop, it seems pricey, but since I got four servings from it, I think it’s a pretty good value).

 

 

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Free Reading Friday:The Pretender

The PretenderI have a policy that if a student asks me to read a book they either love or really want to read for a project, I always read it. This has lead to some wonderful literary finds.

It’s also lead to some real stinkers.

My most recent student inspired read is The Pretender: My Life Undercover for the FBI by Marc Ruskin. As part of my AP Language and Composition class, students have to read four works of non-fiction and do a variety of essays/projects based on them. The only catch is that the book has to come from a list of non-fiction books I’ve read. I do this in an attempt to not only curb cheating, but also to be able to provide them with helpful insights and discussion should they find themselves struggling when reading or when trying to figure out what to write/do a project about.

The list I’ve come up with for them to pick from is fairly extensive. There are about 200 books on the list (and I’m always adding more). Although a large chunk of them are memoirs, I also have everything from sports to politics to cooking on there. I have some great books that deal with social issues as well as ones that offer insights into other cultures I’m sure my students are completely unaware of. My goal is to broaden their horizons and make them view life through a different lens.

So, when one of my students brought me Ruskin’s book because she wants to get it on my list, I was eager to read it. Most of my knowledge about the life of FBI agents comes from The X-Files, so I figured it might be time to learn something slightly more factual.

The premise of the book intrigued me. I was excited about the prospect of hearing the ins and outs of undercover life. I wanted to know everything from all the background work that has to be done before an undercover agent goes on assignment all the way through sentencing the guilty parties.

This book definitely covered a lot of the backgrounding elements of the cases and even had some fairly specific details about the actual undercover experiences, but I found it lacking in follow through. Each chapter relates to a case Ruskin worked. After finishing each chapter, I was left with a lot of questions. Some of those questions probably couldn’t be answered due to confidentiality issues with other agents or case information which is still not available to the public. However, the majority of the missing info seemed like it was just oversight and bad story telling.

Ruskin admits right off the bat that he’s an FBI agent, not a writer. And that is very apparent. While many of his stories were probably fascinating, I got so distracted by his writing style at times that I found it hard to concentrate. I wanted him to tell the story, not tell me that he was going to eventually tell the story (especially since he rarely fully delivered on those promises). Ruskin has a nasty habit of starting to tell a story and then stopping and telling the reader they’ll hear more on that later. But he doesn’t mean later in the chapter, he means sometime much later in the book. And these attempts at foreshadowing are not effective as they completely distract from the story he should be telling in that chapter AND are set up to be hugely important bits of information that he doesn’t fully elaborate on later.

He also spends a lot of time complaining about all the aspects of his job he didn’t like. I totally get why he did it, but it not only got really annoying at times, but truly interrupted the flow of his story. I wanted to hear much more about what happened on the cases and less time about the red tape he got caught up in.

It also got harder and harder to swallow that he was the only one who really knew how to do things right. I realize that in many situations his life was in serious danger. He was completely in the right to demand that he was protected and to be very angry when he was not. However, his voice in the narrative is so cocky at times that it gets harder to sympathize with him when the Bureau leaves him in danger because I knew it was going to be paired with a huge excoriation of the Bureau that left him looking like the only competent person working there.

I’m interested to see if my student ends up using the book for one of her projects. She asked me for my honest opinion when I finished the book and I gave it to her: the stories were interesting, the writing was frustrating.

 

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Throwback Thursday: Another friendcation

As much as I want to write a full blog, I will hopefully be on the road before this blog even publishes, hurtling down the highway at a speed just fast enough to shave some time off of my trip, but not fast enough to get me pulled over, on my way to visit my best friend.

Due to an unforeseen incident with my husband’s job, our fall break plans had to be put on indefinite hold. Since my kids and I have two weeks off, and I definitely need a break from this town, we are going to visit my best friend in Georgia.

I’ll have plenty of great pictures and no doubt some travel stories to share when we return. For now I am just super excited about my fourth friendcation this year. Even if my kids have to tag along on this one, I get 6 full days (and two partial days) with my best friend and that is one of my greatest joys.

So, TTFN. Look for me when I return!

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