Category Archives: addictions

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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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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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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Chocolate Monday: Hershey’s Cookie Layer Crunch

Hershey's Cookie Layer CrunchI was rushing through Kroger with my kids the other day, trying to pick up my daughter’s prescription when we happened to pass one of those stand up displays that divides the central walkway in half. You know the displays, the ones that guarantee that if you come around a corner and get stuck behind someone pushing their cart at a snail’s pace, you’ll be stuck in the store forever. They are the concrete dividing walls of the grocery world.

Thankfully this trip we were sans cart and we could zip around the horde of shoppers all trying to grab those final ingredients for dinner.

As I started to pass on the left, a glint of orange caught my eye. I’d seen the Hershey’s cookie bars before, but only the mint chocolate and vanilla creme ones. Not that I’m too good for either mint chocolate or vanilla creme, but at first glance they hadn’t stood out and screamed, “TRY ME!”

I’d picked up the mint bar before as mint chocolate chip is one of my favorite taste combinations, but it’s dark chocolate. I’m not a fan of really good, high end dark chocolate and I am REALLY not a fan of cheap dark chocolate. To be honest, aside from Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, I’ve never been a huge Hershey girl, and I have never liked those little Hershey’s dark miniatures. While vanilla creme is admittedly more up my alley, I just got the impression it would be like a cookies and cream bar and I’ve never been a huge fan of that flavor combination either.

So I’ve passed by many a Cookie Crunch display.

This time though, I saw the orange sparkle that almost always announces caramel. I paused in front of the display, staring at the package. Should I? Caramel and chocolate is a must have on any sweet list I make. Surprisingly it was not the caramel that sold me. It was the bits of shortbread cookie. One of my favorite candy bars of all time, Twix, mixes delicious caramel, chocolate and shortbread, so this one had to be a winner too, right?

Hershey's cookie midshotThe chocolate is exactly what I’ve come to expect from Hershey’s: inoffensive, nondescript chocolate. I know many people love Hershey’s chocolate. One of my grandmother’s absolute joys in life was a simple Hershey bar. She didn’t even want almonds mucking up her bliss. For me, the only truly good use for a Hershey bar is in a s’more. Other than that, I have little use for them. The chocolate is fine, but it’s just that: fine.

And that’s what this chocolate was, fine. I was a bit disappointed that the shortbread was just in small bits throughout the bar. I wanted a little more cookie in my cookie crunch bar. I wanted it to have that distinct Twix-like crunch and this bar is kind of lacking on the crunch element. The shortbread is fine, but it seems to provide more texture than flavor. And it’s placement is spotty so some bites didn’t even have that much shortbread in them, which was a disappointment.

Hershey's cookie close upI wasn’t quite sure from the picture on the front what to expect as far as caramel consistency goes. One thing I love about caramel is the way that different companies change up both the flavor and the texture. I love ooey-gooey caramel. I love rich buttery caramel. I love thick, chewy caramel. Pretty much any form caramel comes in, I love. The caramel in this bar was a bit uneven. In the first bite it was almost completely absent. I got a slight hint of it, but not enough to even figure out what type of caramel I was dealing with. The second bite was better. It had more caramel flavor and I was able to tell that the texture was thicker than a Caramello, but more liquidy than a Turtle. The consistency of it was good, but apparently in the piece I was eating most of it had somehow managed to pool at one end. When I got to that end, there was a ton of caramel and it was by far the most enjoyable bite.

The flavors meshed ok, but I felt over all the entire bar, which I had high hopes for was just ok. There’s nothing really negative about it, but also nothing really positive. It just sort of is. It’s better than a Hershey bar, but if I really want this flavor combination, I’ll save the $2 extra dollars (and change) and just get a Twix.

Overall:

Taste: 5/10
Appearance: 4/10
Value: 4/10

 

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Free Reading Friday: Replica

Replica 1I am a huge Lauren Oliver fan. My best friend and I share a love of YA fiction and she suggested Oliver to me several years ago. I started with the Delirium series and have been hooked ever since. I especially appreciate that Oliver has not gotten herself stuck into one type of writing. While the Delirium series is dystopian, Before I Fall and Panic all take place in the real, modern world. She hasn’t even pigeon-holed herself as just a writer of YA fiction as she also has her adult novel Rooms, which is a ghost story of sorts, but securely set in the very real world.

I wasn’t sure quite what to expect with Replica, but I was instantly pulled in by the cover. Not only is the book decorated in a really cool duel toned book jacket with bright butterflies, but depending on how the book is flipped, it tells two different, but intertwined stories. I’ve never read a book like this before, and even if Oliver had not written it, I might have picked up a copy because the concept was so cool.

One half of the story is the story of Lyra, a “replica” living at the Haven Institute. From the very start of the narrative, Lyra tells the reader that she is not human, but a replica (clone), made at Haven. Lyra’s story chronicles her life in Haven as well as her escape from Haven and her connection to Gemma, the main character of the book’s flip story.

Gemma is a teenage girl living with very strict parents in North Carolina. She and her best friend April call themselves “aliens” because they’ve never quite fit in with the other kids in their class. She feels ostracized from her peers in part because of her history of childhood illnesses, in part because of her parent’s strict eye on her and in part because she is teased for being overweight and a “freak.” Gemma also feels disconnected to her parents, especially her father, who she feels has never really loved her. After a strange incident that links her father to a mysterious place called Haven, she goes on a quest to find out just what her father may be hiding from her.

Although the two stories stand alone as completely separate stories, they also intertwine in very key moments to make a bigger, more complete (and compelling) story. Although I liked both stories on their own, I definitely felt pieces were missing at times. I was particularly dissatisfied with the ending to Lyra’s story…that is until I read Gemma’s and both stories were completed.

Well, as completed as the first book in a series can be. Oliver definitely sets the book up for more to come.

Although readers can technically read the stories in either order, there is definitely a reason that the words run down the spine correctly when Lyra’s story is the first one (and the reason there is a bar code on Gemma’s story). The book is more complete and more rewarding if Lyra’s story is the first one.

I cannot wait for our school library to get a copy of this book because I know my students will be lining up to read it. I also cannot wait to read the next book in the series, Ringer, which just came out.

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Chocolate Monday: Tcho orange + toffee

Tcho orange toffee packageI am a sucker for toffee, pretty much in any form it takes. I’m also a big fan of chocolate and orange fusions. In fact one of the few ways I truly enjoy dark chocolate is if it is paired with orange or raspberry. So, when I was shopping at World Market and saw Tcho’s orange + toffee bar, I knew I had to try it.

A few years ago while thumbing through a magazine at my dentist’s office, I saw an article about Tcho chocolate. The flavors sounded amazing and I was heavy into my chocolate Monday blogs, so I pulled out my phone, used my notepad function (why I didn’t just take a picture of the magazine page still perplexes me) and wrote down the company name with the intention of finding their chocolate bars and reviewing them. For some reason, I did not follow through.

Recently I’ve noticed Tcho chocolate bars at my local Kroger. I thought about picking some up, but I already had several chocolate bars waiting to be reviewed at home, so each time I’d go down the candy aisle, I’d look wistfully at them and keep on pushing my cart. When I was at World Market though, the bright, shiny orange wrapper really grabbed my attention and caused me to pause and rethink the purchase. It wasn’t just the packaging I fell for though, the lure of toffee was just too strong.

tcho full barActually, I’m not sure if it was the pull of toffee so much as it was the giant question mark that appeared in my head when I tried to imagine why anyone would pair toffee and orange together. Toffee and chocolate I totally get. Orange and chocolate I also completely understand. But toffee, orange and chocolate? This seemed like some sort of sorcery to me. I had to try it.

My very first bite had me pleasantly surprised. Despite being a dark chocolate bar, it was not overly bitter, which is my universal complaint against most forms of dark chocolate. As I let the first bite melt onto my tongue (which it did), my mouth was flooded with the bright burst of citrus. This is definitely an orange chocolate bar. The toffee flavor is much more subtle. Actually, it’s almost non-existent. To me the only real contribution the toffee gives this bar is a tiny crunch. Still, it’s a nice crunch. It’s not overly crunchy or Pop-rocky as toffee can be when it is thrown in rather gratuitously. When I manage to separate out the toffee, I notice it has a slight buttery taste to it, which I think just balances the bitterness of the chocolate and tames the citrus just a tad.

This is definitely a bar I prefer to savor by letting it slowly dissolve on my tongue. The flavors are just brighter and more pleasurable when they melt than when they are chewed. This bar is a great introduction to Tcho and has me wanting to try more from them. I know that on Sunday when I head to Kroger to get my groceries, I’ll be adding another Tcho bar to my cart. Probably the mint chocolate one.

Overall:

Appearance: 8/10
Taste: 8/10
Value: 8/10

 

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