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Sunday, June 19, 2011

A Must-Have Condiment Staple for Your Pantry

I am just here making a little sammy for a late dinner (since I had a late lunch, too). And as I was whipping up my new go-to spread to add to my tuna salad, I felt compelled to share this tip for everyone else's enjoyment. It's a condiment that many people probably do not have in their stock, but which all persons would do well to add because it's versatile and oh-so-delicious. Here it is:

Whole Grain Mustard.

If you're like me, you probably already have an assortment of mustards: yellow, brown, Dijon. But this one is different. It has (due to the whole grains) a little pop-burst to it, and even a slightly sweetish flavor, and tastes rich.

Go buy it now--it's right there next to all the other mustards in the supermarket. Really. I'll wait....

Ok, so now that you have it, let me reiterate how yum it is.

I started buying whole grain mustard a few years ago because I found a recipe for a fancy pork loin meal on Food Network's website. It was an Ina Garten (aka Barefoot Contessa) recipe. She uses whole grain mustard often in her cooking, so I have her to thank for introducing me to it.

The pork was delightful and my husband and I received rave reviews on the meal.

More recently, I was looking for a good potato salad recipe. Again, Ina delivered. Again, it called for whole grain mustard. I got rave reviews on the potato salad too--everyone asked for the recipe. I'm telling you--it's the mustard that makes it good.

A few days post-potato salad, Brian and I were watching Chopped. He felt inspired to come up with a "weird" recipe for us to enjoy, so he told me his plan. (It wasn't too wild and wacky, but was basically a tuna salad lettuce wrap melt.) I was game to try it. I only made one suggestion to him: since there happened to be some of the potato salad "dressing" left over, I suggested he use it instead of the plain mayo to make the tuna. He did. Those lettuce wraps were amazing! It was that dressing.

I tried it on egg salad, too--also a success.

So here's the recipe I use (which is slightly modified from Ina's) which you, too, can enjoy with egg salad, tuna salad, potato salad, or, as I also used it, as a spread on a grilled chicken sandwich with lettuce and tomato. All, I promise, were delish and it's due to the whole grain mustard.

(For a little over a cup yield of the spread)

1 cup mayo
2 tbsp whole grain mustard
2 tbsp Dijon mustard
3-4 tbsp fresh dill weed, minced
pepper to taste
(I would suggest NOT adding salt--I've found the mixture quite salty enough without adding it in there)

Stir and enjoy!

I hope you take the time to try this lesser-used mustard. I think you'll be glad you did.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Best $10,000 I Ever Spent

Back in 1999, I made a decision that would forever change my life (for the good, I think): I chose to attend the beautifully picturesque Rosemont College as an undergraduate.

At the time, Rosemont was a women's college, which wasn't at all something I'd been looking for when I was college-searching, but which actually ended up being one of the greatest parts of being there. (As a sad aside, Rosemont has recently gone co-ed which, while I'm sure a lucky break for the boys, is quite a shame to its own heritage. I guess Rosemont did what she needed to do to stay afloat--after all, single-sex colleges tend to have stigmas attached to them and aren't a big draw to today's college-bound students--but the move felt a bit like a sell-out to me, and I haven't yet quite forgiven her for it.) There was always a sense of family there, and, because it was a small school, there was also the sense that each individual was valued for herself and her own contributions. The professors, especially those in the English department (since, as an English Literature major, I spent the most time with them), were exceptional. I received a top-notch education and left much brighter than when I entered.

When I left in 2003, not only did I take a degree with me, but I also took relationships with some of the finest women (and one man--my husband!) I've ever had the pleasure of knowing.

I worked very hard in high school, such that I had earned almost a full academic scholarship to Rosemont, which I supplemented with the various grants I'd won from outside organizations like the Rotary, Soroptimist International, and Sam Walton (Wal-mart); the money I earned for having been a papergirl for the Intelligencer for 3 years; and a Stafford loan. In all, I ended up amassing only about $6,000 in college education debt. However, my loans equalled about $16,000 because I lived on campus for 1.5 years and the rest of my debt was a result of room and board. (Isn't that madness?!)

Had I not lived on campus, though, I wouldn't have been able to experience some of the things or cultivate the wonderful friendships I did. Nor would I have qualified for the work-study program, which placed me as a student worker in the Department of Public Safety where I met Brian, who I married in 2004. (We started as friends, and didn't even start dating until my senior year, long after we'd both stopped working there.) Thus, I often joke that my husband and friends cost me $10,000. But it was definitely money well spent.

While my college girlfriends are a varied bunch, each lady is smart, sassy, and successful. Among my own core group (made up of myself, Erin, Ellen, Kate, Kelly, Laura, Lisa, and Theresa--and 3 others who live farther away: Jamie, Nicole, and Nicole), we have 4 ladies in education--2 high school teachers, a guidance counselor, and a world-traveling teacher of English, 3 lawyers, 2 doctors, an HR manager, a lobbyist, and a partridge in a pear tree. Not a bad showing!

Since graduating, we've celebrated 7 marriages, 4 births (and another on the way), and most recently, an outbreak of 30th birthdays!

Though we don't all get together very often (usually, the crowd is smaller), most of us regularly communicate on facebook or by phone. And, 2 to 3 times a year since 2004, we try to assemble for a meeting of the Rosemont College Wine Club. (In vino veritas!)

One of us will host, and thus sends out the invitations, setting the date and wine type. On the designated day, each lady comes bearing a bottle of wine, and an appetite for catching up. We actually DO conduct a thorough wine tasting in and among our chatter: we discuss the color, smell, and flavor of each wine (we used to try to discuss the "legs", too, but admitted at our most recent meeting last month that we clearly have no idea what we're doing on that front, so we've abandoned it for now.) I keep a log of our comments for each bottle we try. At the end of the tasting, I read back our (often hysterical) comments, we vote on which wine was the best overall, a little prize is awarded to the lady who brought the winning bottle, and we set about finishing off as much of the wine as is left. It's really quite a delight. Not the wine so much (though wine is, let's face it, certainly also great), but the friendship.

I can't elaborate further because we agreed long ago that the first rule of Wine Club is that you don't talk about Wine Club, a.k.a "what happens at Wine Club stays at Wine Club." (It's similar to Fight Club that way, I guess. And Vegas. The rule is probably our only thing in common with either, though.)  In any event, frankly, I've probably already said too much!

I cherish these get-togethers, though, because they remind me of what friendship means, and the important role it plays in our lives. I love that we are each very different women, each with our own distinct personality and path, but that we also share common memories from a happy time when we blossomed as women at Rosemont, and can continue to grow together as we blossom as women of the world. We celebrate each other's successes, mourn each other's losses, cheer each other on, build each other up, and drink wine. What could be better?

So raise a glass to friendship--how sweet it is. (It may have "cost" me 10 grand, but it was worth every penny!) Cheers!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

June Reflection: My Favorite Teaching Memory

It's June.

If I were at work (which I'm not currently for 2 reasons: A. I'm on maternity leave, and B. I've been suspended and continue to await a decision by the district as to whether I'll return next year), I would be excitedly--and frantically--bringing the semester to a close. Papers and final projects would be done (or nearly done). I'd be directing my students to check the online system for final exam preparation materials. Administration would be pressuring teachers to pass their borderline students, while students who had slacked all semester would be approaching me at the 11th hour trying to seek out non-existent extra-credit assignments. You know, standard June behavior.

Next week would be finals. Next Friday, graduation.

But I'm not there to deal with that stuff right now. I'm home with my family.

But June is June. To me, it's the 'end of the year.' And time for reflection.

This year, I have more to reflect upon than normal.

In an obvious sense, I can reflect upon the fact that I started this year super excited and happy and flexible and hopeful. Then I got a particularly malicious group of students (again, no, not ALL of them, but evidently enough to strip the lustre from the positive feelings above) who decided to make it their business to try to ruin me. But that's not what I feel like reflecting on right now. (Some people have charged me with being too negative, but they are wrong.)

Instead, I'd like to reflect on my absolute favorite teaching memory. Why is it in my head now, you ask? Because the student involved is graduating next Friday and will be heading to his first choice college in the fall (for which I wrote him a stellar recommendation letter sharing this very memory!)

In order to appreciate this story, though, it's important to have a little context, so I'm going to provide it first.

Paper-writing time is always one of the worst parts of teaching (and taking) English class. In a general sense, students don't like to write--especially on academic subjects--and feel overwhelmed by the process even before it begins. They sort of psych themselves out right up front, which is a shame. I'd attempted to make the process as painless as possible by pairing the paper with the short story unit (which students tend to enjoy more than other units, probably because the stories are more modern), and by making the essay prompts directly follow the topics we'd specifically discussed in class. Further, I had broken down the essay into several parts (after painstakingly reviewing all of the writing process and a sample essay with them): thesis statements, outlines, quote selection, rough draft, final copy. I offered conferences for their thesis statements, their outlines, and their quote selection.

How this typically ended up playing out, then, was that students would sit down with me for their thesis conference and would have something vague ready to go, and would expect me to fill in the blanks for them. I'd turn this tactic around and ask them leading questions to get to the basis of what they wanted to express, and then they would, in fact, end up writing their own statements. Sometimes they resented this, but a lot of times it worked well. The outlines and quote checks were a little more sketchy. Some students did exactly what they should've done, and had questions ready for me when we conferenced (which is the idea of the conference), and things went well. But more often, there would be parts that were good and parts that were off base, or parts that were not even completed because they'd saved the task for the last minute and run out of time. I'd point out the issues that needed work, and would offer suggestions or ask questions of them so they could realize how they could fix the problems, but, more often than not, between the early drafting process and the final copy, the papers didn't undergo much change. It was so frustrating because it seemed an issue of laziness much more than inability, especially as the review time was there.

Now, with this particular favorite memory, the paper process was, in large part, progressing in a similar fashion as I've just described. We were in the outline stage. The way I had them outline, though, was in complete sentences AND with textual evidence, so, in large part, they would sort of already have their paper written if they completed this stage correctly. If completed properly, they would have put a good deal of time into their outlines.

One of my male honors students came up in turn for his conference. He was a relatively quiet but creative kid, and one who would only participate sporadically in class discussions. He had his entire outline completed as assigned, and it was substantial. He said something like, "I've been working on this and it's pretty decent, I think, but you mentioned something in class recently about the potential supernatural element in the story. I've been thinking about it -- can you tell me a little more about that?"

I was shocked. In a good way. I was so excited. Someone was listening! Someone was interested in something I'd said! Yahoo!!! So I happily explained the supernatural element as he'd requested, and he excitedly interjected a few things as they were occurring to him as I talked.

Then he said, "Wow. This is cool. Would it be ok if I changed the direction of my paper to this, and went home tonight and made a new outline to show you tomorrow?"

Would it be ok for a student to willingly scrap his entire 1st effort in favor of one that he was interested and excited enough to want to explore instead???!!! Hells yeah! I was blown away.

And what's more, he DID it. He went home that night, reworked an entirely new outline with textual evidence, and brought it to me the next day for review. We conferenced again, and he turned the outline into a fully-realized paper for the final deadline. Was his paper the best I'd ever read? No. But it was good. And it was the result of genuine interest and effort, and one of the truest displays of learning and enthusiasm I'd ever seen to that point, and since then, in fact. It was an absolute treat to read.

It was a breath of fresh air. It was so delightful to me as an instructor to be able to have shared an idea that sparked a student's interest and made him want to think about it some more. It was an example of why so many teachers do what they do each day. It was what school is supposed to be about. It was magnificent.

While I wish that these moments were far less rare, I'm still thrilled and touched to have been part of that incident, and will be forever grateful to that particular creative, funny, and enthusiastic young man for showing passion about ideas.

After this incident, he seemed a bit more outgoing in class, and would sometimes stay after for a moment to chat about something I'd said that day. He continued to stop by my room to chat the rest of last year, as well as this year before I left. Like I said, I even wrote him a letter of recommendation and shared his happiness at getting admitted to his first-choice college.

I wish there were more students like him, and I wish this memory wasn't as exceptional as it is. Regardless, though, I hold it close to my heart and, this June, I wish him and the other students who were kind and who tried and who were willing to work, all the best in the future. Congrats to the grads!

Monday, June 6, 2011

New Flavor for Food Network Star Season 7?

Last night was the much-anticipated season premier of The Next Food-Network Star. (What? I was much-anticipating it!)

I've been a fan since the show's inception. However, it seems like Food Network might be trying to tweak its usual recipe for the 7th season, and I'm not sure I'm a fan of the new flavor.

Star is pretty standard fare for reality tv talent search: in their case, they're looking for a person who has cooking chops, is likeable, and marketable from a brand perspective. They also want someone who brings something different to their tv lineup table. (If you'll excuse all of the cooking puns.)

As the seasons have progressed, there have been--as with any talent search--some successes and some fizzles. Amy Finley of season 3, for instance, never reached star potential on Food Network. (Interesting fact for you non-Star watchers: Finley was actually NOT the chosen winner. The original winner was some ex-Marine guy who ended up having some disqualifying characteristic which the show evidently didn't know about until after naming him the winner. Thus, Finley was given the top spot in the manner of Miss America's first runner up, what with Mr. Star being unable to fulfill his duties and all... I'd been a fan of Finley's for most of the season and was happy to see her end up with the win. However, when I saw her show air, it was really quite bad. She didn't have the star-power needed to hold viewer attention; her show was actually boring to watch. Which is probably part of the reason you no longer find her on the Food Network.) Then there's the biggest former Star: Guy Fieri of season 2. You'd know if you read my old blog (before I took it down at the height of Bloggate 2011) that I feel that Guy is over-exposed. He may be a good cook and a fun dude, but he is involved with waaaaaay too many things: TGIFriday's stuff, several shows on Food Network, host of "Minute to Win It." It's just too much for me. I say, sometimes less is more.

There has also been the emergence of the cooking show contestant archetypes: stay-at-home mom who has to prove herself among the "classically trained" cooks, gourmet chef showing his mad cooking skills, foodie-turned-cook, food blogger, ethnic cook, health-nut, former overweight cook who discovered food can be healthy and wants to share, good cook who sucks on camera, bad cook who's good on camera, obnoxious guy, pretty gal... you know what I mean. Everyone is filling a role, beyond just filling their rolls. (Couldn't resist that one!)

Over the years, the challenges have gotten tougher, and the parade of the biggest names on Food Network has gotten more regular, like Bobby Flay as host, and Alton Brown as guest director there to be borderline rude to the contestants. (Seriously, Alton, you could tone it down just a smidge; they aren't professional tv stars yet!) But one thing has remained pretty much the same: most of the contestants have been likeable in some way. Even the obnoxious or weird ones (think Adam Gertler or Tom Pizzica, neither of whom won the show but both of whom now have shows on Food Network) had us rooting them on because they were goofy and fun-loving. Oh sure, there were the occasional double-crosses and lies and slimy behavior situations--some incidents with Debbie Lee of season 5 and Paul Young of season 6 come to mind-- and the occasional 'tude--like from Brianna Jenkins of season 6--but, again, most of the contestants seemed like nice enough people. I've always assumed that this was purposeful on the part of Food Network because, after all, how are you going to successfully market someone who all of your viewers know is a jerk? It would probably be difficult.

But, it seems, something is shifting now.

Maybe it's because reality tv dominates the airwaves now, and the competition is more fierce, and people are tuning in to such trash as the Real Housewives or MTV's Real World (which has grown more and more disgusting as the years progress, though I haven't watched it in years and am basing my contention on clips I see on The Soup), and Food Network is just trying to keep up with the times. But of this season's hopefuls, I found myself thinking last night, there were several personalities who seemed out of place with the normal crew. There were archetypes missing from the contenders (the stay-at-home mom, for instance, though perhaps they don't need her anymore since she won 2 seasons ago...). There were, quite regrettably, new ones that really have no place on this show, and I think it's to the detriment of both the program and the network as a whole that they were even there.

Take, for instance, the 1st casualty of the season: Howie. He is a radio personality who was trying to break into tv. He is not a cook. He said as much himself, and then proved it over and over again in the challenges. He even said to the judges that he was a novice. Um, I'm sorry, but who wants to watch a cooking show hosted by someone who, it's very possible, knows even less than they do about cooking? Not I! He clearly had no clue what he was doing, and was a drain on his team (at least, that's how the show's editing made it seem.) In the team challenge, his teammate Jyll had to find him bowls, ice, utensils; had to help him heat oil; had to instruct him on, it seemed, all counts. But when it came time for judging and his teammates didn't have anything to show for themselves since they'd been busy helping him, he said nothing. Before the elimination, when Jyll approached him about how much she'd helped him, he didn't thank her or apologize--he tried pointing out the things he felt he had done and made it seem like she'd done little for him. At elimination, he tried the same tactic. Thankfully, the selection committee saw that he didn't have the cooking chops and cut him, but I couldn't help wondering how he could have even made it to the taping round. Had there not been any better contenders among the audition video entries than him?

Next, there was the obnoxious dude (who is doing double-duty this season as the gourmet chef who thinks he's a food god), Chris, who tried to buy a 6-pack of beer on his team's trip to the market to get their supplies for the challenge. Did I mention that he was planning to use part of the team's food budget for this purchase? And was trying to pressure one of the teammates into not buying a more expensive chocolate for her dessert so that he could get the beer? Well, he was. One of the contestants remarked early on that Chris seemed like a frat boy. That was an accurate description of him. He also tried to start crap with one of his teammates (the ethnic cooker, if you were wondering) about her spicy sauce. He tried pulling rank and saying he wouldn't serve something that would burn the judges' mouths. She had to argue in favor of the bold flavor as it was her cooking type and her contribution. (It was served; the judges enjoyed it.) His brand of obnoxious and his argumentative nature do not seem like they'll become endearing as time goes on. They will merely become more annoying.

Most notably, however, in unlikeable characters, was a woman who, I think, must have gotten lost on her way over to the Mob Wives taping. A short, dark-haired middle aged woman, Penny showed up in a garish, fuzzy vest-like abomination and animal-print stilettos. Then she took an immediate, catty, and unbecoming dislike to the younger, tall, blond, former-model Alicia. She even remarked that Alicia was tall and blond and her opposite. It seemed quite obvious that she hated Alicia on sight simply because of her appearance, as though jealous of her. Then, in and among her time trying to over-sell her "sexy" food concept (which, also, really doesn't have a place on Food Network), she proceeded to be, well, a real bitch to and about Alicia for the rest of the episode. Penny made snarky comments about Alicia's cooking abilities, was argumentative at the market because Alicia needed "too many" ingredients for her meal (which the judges loved, by the way), was mean about the dessert concept Alicia had come up with for their team, and even appeared to try to sabotage it by letting it boil after being asked to make sure that it didn't. From the look of the previews, it seems like this won't be the last of the cattiness from this chick. I'm not saying I'm Alicia's #1 fan --though, really, she seemed quite harmless and, so far, likeable enough--the animosity coming from Penny was uncalled for, and made her seem like a villain.

As I said before, I don't know exactly why Food Network has decided to go this way in their casting for season 7--perhaps they're trying to stay up with the trends--but I really wish they wouldn't. I was further distressed by their preview montage which advertised more clashing behaviors and incidents coming up this season. Why this new approach? They should really leave the spice and intrigue and trash to the other shows and just concentrate on what has made them successful in the past.

The thought that this shift might be the new norm for this show leaves a bad taste in my mouth.