Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Dishes Everyone Should Be Able to Make

I recently read an article listing 10 dishes that people should be able to make by the age of 30. They included a few specific items, such as scrambled eggs and pancakes; a few categories, like soup and stir-fry; and a few really generic items like “a signature cake” and “something vegetarian.” I’m not sure that a list quite this specific is needed. What I think everyone should be able to cook by the age of 30 is a healthy, well-balanced meal; a “nice” meal worthy of guests; some kind of dessert; and a meal that can be adapted to suit various dietary restrictions, be it a nut or shellfish allergy, gluten intolerance, or vegetarian/vegan.

Here’s the thing about cooking, in my mind: Once you know a handful of basic terms and techniques, you can follow most recipes and make a huge variety of foods. Especially in our world of Pinterest and Google, you can easily find substitutions (“What can I use instead of cream to make lobster bisque for my lactose-intolerant guest?” or “How do I make my own buttermilk?”), look up terms you don’t know (“How do I parboil chicken?” “Which is finer, chopped, diced, or minced?”), and find recipes for pretty much anything you can think of.
That said, here are a few of my favorite items that fulfill each of the things I think just about everyone should be able to make.

A Healthy Meal

One of my favorite dishes is salmon, which can be grilled outside in the summer or baked or broiled indoors in the winter. It has a mild flavor that most people like (even my EXTREMELY picky children), and it’s much easier to determine its doneness than steak or pork. I love it with the traditional sides of white rice and green peas, although this particular recipe also works nicely with a green salad with honey mustard dressing and some nice crusty French bread. 

Mustard-Glazed Salmon
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 teaspoons white wine vinegar
2 teaspoons brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 to 1 3/4 pounds salmon, cut into approximately 6-ounce portions
In a small bowl, whisk together the mustard, vinegar, brown sugar and salt. Spread the mixture over all sides of each piece of salmon. Cover and marinate in the refrigerator for 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, place a cast iron skillet or other heavy oven-safe pan a few inches below the broiler and preheat for 10 minutes.
Carefully remove the hot skillet from the oven and place the salmon skin-side up in the pan. (Depending on the size of your broiler and pan, you may need to cook the fish in batches.) Broil for 2 minutes. Flip and broil for another 1 to 2 minutes, depending on the thickness of the fillets, until the salmon is just barely translucent at its thickest point. (It will continue cooking off the heat.) Remove from the hot pan immediately.
A Nice Meal for Guests
In my mind, a meal for guests includes one or more appetizers, an entrée with several sides, and a dessert. As a host, I love items that I can prepare at least partway ahead of time, so any recipe that allows me to make it a few hours (or the night) before and throw it in the oven right before my guests arrive is a good one for me. This recipe for stuffed mushrooms can be prepared several hours ahead of time and refrigerated, then broiled immediately before serving.

Artichoke-Stuffed Mushrooms
24 medium cremini (baby bella) or white mushrooms
4 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
2 tablespoons minced shallot
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup drained marinated artichoke hearts, chopped
3 tablespoons panko breadcrumbs, divided
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons low-fat mayonnaise
1/8 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground pepper

1.    Position rack in upper third of oven; preheat broiler to low. Coat a 9-by-13-inch metal baking pan with cooking spray.
2.    Remove and finely chop mushroom stems. Heat 1 teaspoon oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add the stems, shallot and garlic and cook, stirring, until the liquid is evaporated, about 5 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and stir in artichoke hearts, 2 tablespoons breadcrumbs, Parmesan, mayonnaise and thyme.
3.    Toss the mushroom caps in another bowl with 2 teaspoons oil, salt and pepper. Stuff each with filling and place in the prepared pan. Combine the remaining 1 tablespoon breadcrumbs and 1 teaspoon oil and sprinkle on the mushrooms.
4.    Broil on the upper rack until the mushrooms are soft and the breadcrumbs are golden, 15 to 20 minutes.

Another easy appetizer that I love, but which can’t be made until right before you want to serve it, is to core and thinly slice a few Granny Smith apples, then top them with a scoop of your favorite chicken salad recipe (add any combination of celery, raisins, grapes, dried cranberries, or whatever – or just use chicken and mayonnaise) and add a candied pecan or two as a garnish.

For your main dish, Rachel Ray’s Garlic Roast Chicken with Rosemary and Lemon is easy yet elegant. Another dish that can be prepared partway ahead of time, the actual baking time is only 20 minutes, plus 5 additional minutes resting in the oven. You can “cut corners” a bit by using minced garlic, dried rosemary, and lemon juice from a bottle (don’t bother with the zest), but using real garlic cloves, fresh rosemary, and a whole lemon makes it taste fresher and look more elegant. I’ve made this recipe with both wine and chicken broth, and both versions are delicious, so use whatever you have on hand – but I will admit that the smell wafting from the kitchen when you pour the wine over the chicken is heavenly!

  • 2 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 3 large breasts), cut into large chunks
  • 6 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 3 tablespoons fresh rosemary leaves stripped from stems
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 lemon, zested and juiced
  • 1 tablespoon grill seasoning blend (Montreal Steak Seasoning is excellent) or, coarse salt and black pepper
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine or chicken broth
Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.

Arrange chicken in a 9 by 13-inch baking dish. Add garlic, rosemary, olive oil, lemon zest and grill seasoning or salt and pepper to the dish. Toss and coat the chicken with all ingredients, then place in oven. Roast 20 minutes. Add wine/broth and lemon juice to the dish and combine with pan juices. Return to oven and turn oven off. Let stand 5 minutes longer then remove chicken from the oven. Place baking dish on trivet and serve, spooning pan juices over the chicken pieces.

My favorite company side dish is risotto – although very simple to make, it is labor-intensive and takes half an hour or so of constant attention, and is best when served immediately. Constant stirring and gradual addition of liquid is the key to tenderness. Once you’ve mastered it, have fun experimenting with different additions: mushrooms, lemon juice, herbs, various meats, asparagus, peas, spinach. 

Lemon Risotto
  • 2-3/4 cups chicken broth
  • 2 tablespoons butter, divided
  • Several tablespoons chopped onion
  • 3/4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 cup arborio rice
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine (if you don’t want to use wine, you can increase the chicken broth to 3-1/4 cups)
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 2 teaspoons grated lemon peel (nice to have, but fine if omitted)
Bring broth to simmer in large saucepan over medium heat. Reduce heat to low; cover to keep warm. (Alternatively, you can heat the broth in a large measuring cup in the microwave.) Melt 1 tablespoon butter with oil in heavy large saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and sauté until tender. Add rice; stir 1 minute. Add wine and stir until evaporated, about 30 seconds. Add 1 cup hot broth; simmer until absorbed, stirring frequently. Add remaining broth 1/2 cup at a time, allowing broth to be absorbed before adding more and stirring frequently until rice is creamy and tender, about 35 minutes. Stir in cheese and remaining tablespoon butter. Stir in parsley, lemon juice, and lemon peel. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

The tartness of the lemon in both the chicken and the rice is complemented nicely by just a touch of sweetness in an accompanying vegetable dish, so grab whatever vegetables and herbs are in season in your garden or at your local farmstand or grocery store – carrots, zucchini, peas, broccoli, green beans, plus thyme, rosemary, sage, parsley, mint – and combine ¼ cup of of honey with a few tablespoons of minced onion, ¼ cup of butter, and some finely chopped herbs, bring to a boil, and simmer for two minutes, then drizzle over the veggies (cooked or raw, however you like them). If you prefer salad as a side, toss together some spring mix or baby spinach, a handful of crumbled feta, some dried cranberries or cherries, and some pecans or slivered almonds, and serve with cranberry or raspberry balsamic dressing.

A company meal isn’t complete without some kind of dessert, of course. One of my favorite desserts, whether I’m at home or out at a restaurant, is crème brulee. Like risotto, it’s not terribly difficult to make, but it looks quite impressive and it always tastes delicious. If you happen to have a torch to caramelize the sugar, great; if not, the broiler is just as functional if not quite as much fun. This dessert MUST be baked a day ahead and refrigerated overnight, then caramelized immediately before serving.

Crème Brulee
4 tbsp sugar
2 cups (1 pint) heavy or light cream or half and half (the lower the fat content, the softer the texture of the final product)
4 egg yolks
1 tsp vanilla
Dash salt

Whisk together sugar and cream in microwaveable bowl. Heat for 2 minutes to dissolve sugar. Stir. Whisk egg yolks slightly. Stir into sugar; whisk well. Add vanilla and salt; whisk well. Pour into 6 (ungreased) ramekins. Set in baking or roasting pan. Add hot water to halfway cover. Bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes. Center will still be slightly loose – do not overbake! Let cool; refrigerate overnight.
To serve, sprinkle with brown or white sugar; melt with torch or under broiler. Let stand a few minutes and serve.

Adapting for Food Restrictions

Depending on exactly how restrictive your guests’ food restrictions are, adapting your menu can be as simple as omitting or substituting a single ingredient, or as complicated as changing your whole menu or making a separate meal for a guest. It’s always a good idea to have a few recipes on hand that are safe for most common food restrictions: nut-free, dairy-free, gluten-free, vegetarian. Asking your guest(s) for suggestions is always a good idea – they may be able to tell you about a good brand of gluten-free pasta, or pass along a great vegetarian recipe. Sending a guest a recipe that you plan to make is also a good idea – they may be able to warn you that the barbecue sauce in your pulled pork sandwiches may contain nuts.

One of my favorite hearty meals that can be adapted for a number of food restrictions is basic lentil soup. It is nut-free and gluten-free, and can easily be made dairy-free, vegetarian, or even vegan with a minimum of omissions and substitutions. Several ingredients can be added to individual servings after preparing so not all guests need to omit them.

Lentil Soup
3 tbsp butter (substitute olive oil for dairy-free or vegan)
½ onion, sliced thin
1 tbsp minced garlic
1 tsp thyme
1 tsp cumin
½ tsp salt
½ tsp black pepper
6 cups chicken broth (substitute vegetable broth for vegetarian/vegan)
1-1/2 cups carrots, sliced
1-1/2 cups celery, sliced
½ package dried lentils (~1 cup)
1 lb. sweet Italian sausage (omit for vegetarian/vegan/pork-free – you can add crumbled bacon to individual servings if desired))
Grated Parmesan-Romano cheese (add to individual servings as desired)

Melt the butter or olive oil in the bottom of a dutch oven or large saucepan. Saute the onions and garlic for a few minutes. Stir in the thyme, cumin, salt, and pepper. Slowly add the chicken or vegetable broth. Stir in the carrots, celery, and lentils. If using, remove the casing of the sausage and crumble into the pot. Bring to a boil then reduce heat and simmer for 50 minutes (covered). Sprinkle with cheese before serving.

If you can make all these recipes (and you can!), you and your guests will never go hungry!

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Friday, September 25, 2015

The Value of "Fluff"

When I think back over my years in school, especially early elementary school, there are a few memories that stick out in my mind.

I remember building a replica of the Great Wall of China out of sugar cubes. I remember recreating Cleopatra’s headdress and jeweled collar on an old department store mannequin as part of a unit on ancient Egypt. I remember drawing a diagram of a ziggurat. I remember drawing a bust of Aristotle as part of a paper. I remember making little clay soldiers just like the ones found buried in China. I remember dressing up as James Madison as part of the Continental Congress, complete with a wig made from a white bathing cap, an entire bag of cotton balls, and an impressive amount of Elmer's glue. I remember stretching a Slinky the length of the school hallway, and calculating the number of bricks in a wall. I remember singing the preamble to the Constitution. I remember licking a very bitter piece of paper and declaring myself a “supertaster.”

I don’t remember much about taking tests, or memorizing stuff by rote (other than a few poems), or learning much about wars or dates or mathematical formulas. But I do remember the “projects.” I remember making stuff. I remember pretending to be a real person. I remember experimenting, and trying, and doing.

I remember doing things that felt REAL. Not just something I read about in a book and accepted as fact, because the book said so, but something that I tried, and saw, and felt, and tasted, and PROVED.
I didn’t appreciate how much work went into building the Great Wall of China until I built a miniature version of it myself. I didn’t appreciate the discomfort and weight of Cleopatra’s jewels until I tried on a copy of them. I didn’t think much about the design of a ziggurat until I tried to draw one. I didn’t think about what was going on in the heads of the men attending the Continental Congress until I “became” one of them. I didn’t understand about tensile strength until I got whacked in the arm with a Slinky. Algebra was just abstract numbers until I had to use it to figure out how many bricks I would need to build that wall. Genetics didn’t mean much until I saw how they worked in my own family.

As a homeschool teacher, I sometimes feel guilty that I do a lot of fun stuff, stuff that some might even call “fluff”. In the first three weeks of school, we’ve already built a working volcano, made rock candy, flown paper airplanes, visited the zoo, made corncakes, taken a nature walk, and made paint from berries and spices. At first glance, they may seem like “fluff” projects, but upon closer examination, they all have value that will hopefully stick with my son in a way that just reading the information in a book would not.

The volcano taught us about geology, and vapor pressure, and chemical reactions. The rock candy taught us how crystals form. The paper airplanes taught us about lift and gravity and friction and air pressure and statistics. The zoo taught us about habitats, and continents, and herbivores, and carnivores, and camouflage, and spelling. The corncakes taught us how to measure and follow directions, fractions, chemistry, and technology. The nature walk taught us how to observe what’s around us, how to write and self-publish a book, how to frame a photograph, and how to identify a feather and a plant. The paint project taught us about experimentation, colors, and creative problem-solving.

I could have simply told my son that some animals are herbivores and some are carnivores. I could have shown him some YouTube videos of volcanos erupting. I could have given him a recipe for homemade paint. But I don’t think he would have remembered any of the information nearly as well without getting his hands dirty, without having tried and failed and tried again, without having had to predict and experiment and describe and THINK.

And that’s really what it comes down to: THINKING. Any time you have to use your hands, and your eyes, and your concentration to do something, it will stick in your head. Having to think about HOW to do something naturally leads to wondering WHY it works that way, and WHAT will happen if you do it differently. The more senses that are involved in learning, the better you understand what it is you’re learning about.

So I’m not going to apologize for the days we spent writing on the driveway with chalk, or smelling fruit at the grocery store, or building a paper mache solar system. I’m not going to feel guilty that I’m offering my kid a fluff lesson – because I’m not. I’m offering him full-body immersion in life. And what better way to learn than that?

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Wednesday, September 23, 2015

History, Schmistory

I was always a pretty good student in school, but there was one subject that I always stunk at: history. I just couldn’t make sense of dates and wars and armies and governments. It was too disconnected from my reality. I couldn’t identify with having to fight in a war, with being concerned that my rights were being violated by my government, with being willing to die for something. But there were a few bits of historical knowledge that I did find interesting: the lives of ordinary people. I loved to read biographies of people in historical times – not necessarily people like George Washington or Thomas Jefferson or Napoleon Bonaparte, who were making history, but people like Laura Ingalls Wilder or Elinore Pruitt Stewart (author of Letters from a Woman Homesteader), who were living through it.

When I was in 3rd or 4th grade, I discovered a magical bookshelf in my school library that was filled with small, orange-bound volumes that were all biographies of fascinating people. Many were quite famous, like Washington and Jefferson and Napoleon; others were recognizable but a bit less famous, like Florence Nightingale and Johnny Appleseed and Susan B. Anthony; but there were many others whose lives had a much more quiet impact on those around them. One of those less well-known subjects was a woman called “Molly Pitcher.”

Molly’s story, as I remember it, was that she followed a family member (I was hazy on the relationship – perhaps it was a brother, perhaps her father?) to the battlefield during the Revolutionary War, and that she brought water to the soldiers as they fought, sometimes even nursing the wounded. I remember a very specific detail that she was so deep in the middle of the fighting at one point that a musket ball flew through her skirt, leaving a hole but not touching her. I don’t remember there being many illustrations in the book, but there was plenty of description, and I remember being able to picture quite vividly a young woman wearing a mobcap, with her skirt tucked into her apron, perhaps some smudges of dirt and sweat on her face, carrying a pewter pitcher, and the dirty, ragtag American soldiers in their motley clothing and carrying their motley weapons, facing off against the perfectly uniformed British soldiers with their matching shiny brass buttons and their perfectly aligned row of bayonets. And I imagined what could have been happening in that young woman’s world to make her willing to step onto a battlefield with musket balls flying all around her, or to make those men willing to leave their farms and their families to fight with little to no training against one of the finest armies in the world.

Molly’s story made history real to me for a moment – not because she was someone who created that history, but because she was an ordinary person who had to live her life while that “history” was swirling all around it.

So when I found a biography of Molly Pitcher at my local library, one that was geared for younger children, I had to bring it home and read it to my son. 

He was not quite as interested as I had been, but he listened to the whole book and asked a few questions. This book had a number of illustrations, so we looked at those together and discussed some of the details. He noticed quickly that the American soldiers had different kinds of weapons: some had flintlocks, some had rifles with bayonets, some had swords, and some didn’t have weapons of their own but fired off the cannons. In this retelling of the story, Molly took over firing a cannon after her husband, who had been firing it, was wounded, and there was no-one else to do it. She had watched the men doing it often enough that she was able to fire it off on her own. My son thought that was pretty impressive. (He was even more impressed when I told him that I knew how to fire a cannon, thanks to an old boyfriend whose National Guard unit manned the cannons for the Boston Pops’ annual 4th of July rendition of “The 1812 Overture.”) He was also impressed to learn that Molly Pitcher was made a sergeant by General George Washington himself, because of her bravery on the battlefield.

I was a bit disappointed, however, to discover that although Mary Hays McCauley, aka “Molly Pitcher,” was a real person, and she really was at the Battle of Monmouth Courthouse, the story of Molly Pitcher is really a composite story based on the experiences of a number of women who helped out during the Revolutionary War. The name “Molly Pitcher” was apparently commonly used to refer to women who carried water to soldiers on the battlefield during the Revolution. And a woman named Margaret Corbin had taken over firing a cannon when her husband was killed during a battle at Fort Washington, New York, in 1777 – was it mere coincidence that Molly Pitcher was credited with a similar act, or was Margaret’s story given to Molly to make it more interesting?

Whatever the truth of Molly’s story, it made history come alive for me. And after mixing up and frying the kind of corncakes that Molly might have packed for her husband to bring to the battlefield, I think history is starting to come alive for my son, too. 

I guess the way to a (young) man’s mind, as well as his heart, is through his stomach. But if that’s what it takes to get him interested in history, let’s get cooking!

Corn Cakes (from Molly Pitcher, retold by Larry Dane Brimner)
1-3/4 c flour
¼ c yellow cornmeal
2 tsp baking powder
3 tsp sugar
1 tsp salt
3 eggs
2 c milk
¼ c melted butter
1 cup whole kernel corn (fresh, frozen, or canned)

In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, sugar, and salt. Make a well in the dry ingredients. In another bowl, beat the eggs and milk together. [Since Molly wouldn’t have had an electric mixer, we opted to do this step by hand with a whisk. Phew, we both developed much appreciation for the cooks of that era!] Add the egg-milk mixture to the dry ingredients. Stir in the melted butter. Add the corn and stir lightly.

For each pancake, use about ¼ c of batter. Pour onto a hot griddle or nonstick pan that has been lighted coated with vegetable oil spray. Brown the pancakes on both sides, turning when bubbles appear and the edges are set. Serve with butter and syrup [we discussed that honey or molasses would also be authentic choices].

Mmm, history tastes delicious!

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Monday, September 21, 2015

2015 Primetime Emmy Awards, Red Carpet Review

I didn’t watch much of the Emmy Awards last night. In fact, I watched for about 5 minutes and was so bored that I turned off the television. But later in the evening I checked out the red carpet looks online and I realized what I had missed: the evening was rich in fashion disasters. There were a few really nice looks and quite a few not-good-not-bad-just-meh looks, but there were a bunch of flat-out hot messes.

Here are a few of the worst offenders.

Jaimie Alexander’s gown had pretty lines, with a body-hugging top and a nicely flared skirt. But the colors and the texture were…I’m not even sure what. Too evocative of outer space? Something about the graph-like lines of the fabric against the curves of her figure reminded me of a diagram of a wormhole. The slicked-back hair wasn’t improving the look any, either. 

Nazanin Boniadi was obviously going for a cutting edge, haute couture look, and she came pretty close to pulling it off – but not close enough. The skirt had an interesting drape and flare, but the bodice looked like a bad mistake from Project Runway, with a tailored jacket on one side and a random piece of fabric stuck on with double-sided tape on the other. If anyone could have made it work, she’d have been the one. But it just didn’t. 

The lines of Danielle Brooks’ gown were lovely. I loved the sheer, pleated overlay that lifted into wings, I loved the high point of the halter, I loved the wrapped sash. But the mix of half canary yellow and half vivid turquoise all wrapped with a random splash of cobalt blue threw off all those beautiful lines and made the whole outfit a hot mess instead of just hot. 

I have to admit that Anna Chlumsky barely made this list. As horrible dresses go, this one wasn’t all that horrible. Like Danielle Brooks’ gown, the lines of the dress were actually quite pretty. But the combination of the weird, silver, spiderwebby lines; the flat-yet-puffy flowers attached to the spiderwebs; the drab, washed-out color that’s too close to her skin tone; and the oddly lumpy hairstyle pushed the look just over the line to horrible. 

Maggie Gyllenhaal somehow always manages to land on my “ouch” list of fashion, and last night was no exception. The violet color of the skirt was gorgeous, and perfect with her coloring, but the saggy, poorly-fitted navy bodice and the wrinkled, puffy, uneven hem of the skirt ruined the look. 

Lena Headey, on the other hand, wore a gown with a well-fitted bodice – it’s not easy to create such a plunging halter and fit it so it looks secure and comfortable, but the designer did very well. Below the waist, however, disaster struck. The beaded overlay that evoked almost a chain mail look at the top loosened toward the hem until the weave looked more like a fishing net, and it also seemed to detach from the fabric instead of laying smooth. The sheer volume of the skirt also looked uncomfortable and unwieldy, with much too much bulk right at the waist. If this gown had used a mermaid or trumpet silhouette, it might just have worked, but the ballgown version did not flatter. 

Taraji P. Henson’s dress had just a few too many strange, disconnected details for me. The heavy industrial chain straps clashed with the fine mesh/lace overlay of the skirt, and the demure reverse keyhole cutout in the bodice was at odds with the see-through skirt. The harshness of the stark hairstyle and heavy makeup also seemed out of keeping with the style of the gown. There were elements of several good looks here, but they didn’t work together as a coherent whole. 

The concept of Julianne Hough’s gown was a good one: a strappy, revealing-but-not-really bodice with matching hotpants just barely visible through a black tulle skirt with a train. And yet the lines just don’t come together. The points of the bra cups create an odd line, the ribbons creating the bodice are unbalanced and uneven, and the train is separate from the rest of the skirt as if it were a last-minute add-on. The messily pulled-back hair tucked into a narrow headband merely adds to the not-quite-finished feel of the entire ensemble. 

The one thing that January Jones’ look had going for it was definitely the color. The deep seafoam green was stunning with her icy blond locks and pale skin. But the gravity-defying overstructured bodice still managed to look uneven, the crotch of the pantsuit was too low, and the hem was long enough to drag on the floor instead of skimming. Had this been a gown instead of a pantsuit, it might just have worked. But instead it looked like a reject from a community theater production of Mamma Mia

Heidi Klum has pulled off some pretty avant garde looks in the past, but this particular look seemed to be beyond even her ability to save. The grey underbodice didn’t work with the yellow overlay, the fringey ruffled sleeve on the one side didn’t balance the leafy sleeveless other side, and the see-through skirt clumped at her feet instead of puddling gracefully. Sorry, Heidi, this look was auf. 

Jane Krakowski’s gown had some interesting lines to it: the geometric color blocking on the fitted bodice was an interesting contrast to the deep waves of the skirt. But that skirt was so heavy and stiff-looking that I was impressed she could even walk in it. The sheer weight of it drew my eye down so I hardly noticed the bodice at first. Get rid of most of the fabric in the skirt and transform this outfit into a sheath or even a mermaid gown and this would have been a real winner. 

Another lovely silhouette ruined by weird fabric, Amy Landecker’s gown would have been ideal for hiding in a forest, since it looked like it was made of tree bark and dead leaves. Oddly enough, the colors were actually quite pretty, with hints of pink mixed in with golds and grays. I think I could have even lived with keeping the texture on the bodice if the skirt had been smooth, but with the leafy texture all over, it was just a little too "Third Tree from the Left” for my taste. 

I have no idea what was going on with Taryn Manning’s dress. The high neck, overlong sleeves, straight unadorned silhouette, and flat black color put it solidly in “meh” territory, but the weird witch’s cape (which appears to be short on one side and floor length on the other) pushed it right over the edge into horrible. No capes, darling. No capes. 

I hate to include Kiernan Shipka in this category, because she’s cute as a button and very nearly makes this look work. If the bubble skirt had been just a hair longer and worn over leggings rather than badly pegged pants, I could have forgiven her the weird yellow band at the top of the bodice. But the lumpy, wrinkled line of the pants and the droopy bust created by the band pulled my eyes away from the adorable print dress and ruined the look. If Shipka can fix those little details for next time, she could be the next Emma Watson.

Maisie Williams seemed to have wandered out of her grandma’s bedroom, having borrowed Grandma’s feathered mules and wrapped herself in Grandma’s quilt. The color of the dress was nice, as was the line of it (even with the pockets!), but the lumpy quilted fabric simply screamed bedding, and the marabou sandals carried out the theme. This whole look was just plain goofy.

But lest I leave the impression that everyone was poorly dressed, let me wrap up with a few looks that were especially well done.

Kerry Washington can be hit or miss but she was a definite hit in this sleek, chain mail-styled dress. Despite the metallic fabric, it looked lightweight and comfortable, and it moved well. The wide décolleté and thigh-high slit, along with the just barely see-through skirt, made the look very sexy without being too revealing or tasteless.

 Christine Baranski was also a hit in this vivid pink sheath with just a hint of a trumpet hem, tiny cap sleeves, and a peekaboo slit. The dress skimmed her figure without being tight and also moved well. The perfectly matching vivid pink lips, gold clutch, and long dangling earrings completed the look beautifully.

Morena Baccarin also stunned in this softly draped, lace-edged crimson gown. The lines of the fabric and the lacy inserts were soft and sweet in contrast to the raciness of the bright red color, broadly open neckline, and is-it-or-isn’t-it-see-through skirt. Delicious!

Jamie Lee Curtis created a sexy look in a completely different way in this starkly simple, pure black, figure-hugging gown with a small train. Adorned only with a single diamond cuff worn over the black sleeve to show it off, and of course her fabulous silver pixie cut, Curtis’ grin shows that sexy is more than just showing off skin – and that it isn’t limited to the under-30 set. Or the under-50 set, for that matter.

And last but not least, Sarah Hyland looked like a million bucks in this simple, beautifully tailored plum sheath with a curved drape at the top, coordinating jewelry and manicure, and barely-mussed hair. The gown shows off her perfect figure, her perfect skin, and her perfect smile. This is what a red carpet look should be: flattering, functional, and fun.

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Wednesday, September 16, 2015

What Do YOU Think of My Kids?

We all know the old joke about talking to someone who is self-centered: ”So, enough about me. What do YOU think of me?” There should definitely be a variation about talking to a parent: “So enough about my kids. What do YOU think of my kids?”

As a parent, I feel like I am often judged by other people based on my children’s behavior, so I do have a vested interest in knowing what they think of them. Do they find their endless chatter entertaining or annoying? Do they see their boundless energy as exuberance or hyperactivity? Are my children fun to listen to, or do they grate on the listener’s ears? Are they merely tolerating them or are they genuinely enjoying them? Do they want to be around my children, or are they desperately waiting for them to JUST GO AWAY?

So whenever I get an unsolicited comment about them that is in any way positive, my heart just about bursts with pride. Take tonight, for instance: we had a new babysitter watching our kids, one that my husband had met but that I hadn’t. When I came home and asked her how they were, she smiled and told me about a few of their antics, then added, “You have such nice kids. You’re obviously doing a really good job with them.”

Our regular babysitter has often commented that she really enjoys watching our kids, and a good friend with kids that we have playdates with reminds me regularly that it is a pleasure to watch my kids and that she is happy to do it.

Comments like that are music to a mother’s heart. There are many, many things that I want for my children: a good education, a solid circle of close friends, a love for God, a rewarding career, marriage and a family. There are many things that I want them to be: honest, loyal, trustworthy, reliable, thoughtful, wise, considerate, loving, well-mannered. But one of the most important things that I want them to be is pleasant to be around. I want them to be likeable, and I want them to be liked. And I think the reason that is so important to me is that being liked is the result of being all the other things I want them to be. Someone who is dishonest will not be liked. Nor will someone who is disloyal, or untrustworthy, or unreliable, thoughtless, willfully ignorant, uncaring, or rude. So the fact that they are liked is proof that their character is what I have been trying to shape it into. Someone who is a genuinely good and caring person is someone who will always find someone to be on their side. Someone who will never be without friends, someone who will always be part of a group, someone who can find support when they need it.

I think that my kids are pretty terrific, and I love them dearly. I even enjoy their company (most of the time). But I know that I’m completely biased. So whenever I find someone else who enjoys them too, even when they don’t have to, it does my heart good. I love them so much, it makes me happy when other people love them too.

I guess I really am doing okay at this parenting thing. 

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Sunday, September 13, 2015

Just Cool

I have a Pinterest board that is entitled, simply, “Just Cool.” It includes beautiful and unusual things, wild and wacky things, and things that are so brilliant that I can’t even stand it. Some of the things I’d really like to have. Some of the things I’d just really like to see in real life. And some of the things I don’t need myself but they’re just so cool I want everyone who might be able to use them to see them.

Here are a few of my favorite “Just Cool” items.

A Bubble Tent

This transparent lawn tent lets you escape the bugs and the marauding chipmunks/ants/raccoons/yeti that might pay you a nighttime visit if you tried sleeping under the stars sans tent, but still gives you a gloriously clear view of the stars. You could even stick it in your backyard on a drizzly day and enjoy the outdoors without getting wet. It doesn’t give you much privacy, but seriously, if you owned one of these babies, wouldn’t you want everyone and their brother to be watching you with envy?

It can be yours for a mere $1,400 (plus $660 shipping – it’s apparently heavier than it looks). From 

Pool Climbing Wall

If you prefer swimming to camping, here’s a cool pool accessory that I bet no-one else on the block has: a poolside climbing wall! No need for safety harnesses or gear; a fall off this wall will land you softly (if splashily) right back in the pool. You can change the orientation of each panel to adjust the level of difficulty. The deeper the pool, the higher the wall can go. Available in light and dark blue or yellow/orange/red combination. Bell to ring when reaching the top not included.

Prices are not listed on the AquaClimb website, which is probably a sign that you can’t afford it. 

Bathtub Planetarium

I love to relax by soaking in the tub. I often play soft music, turn off all the lights, and light a candle or two. I’m fortunate to have a skylight in my bathroom, but unfortunately the angle from the tub is such that I can’t really see much of the sky while I’m soaking. But this nifty little gadget brings the stars right into your bathroom, even if it’s cloudy.

Conveniently water resistant, it comes in your choice of four fashion colors: black, blue, pink, or white. At only $48.84 each, you could get one in all four colors!

Transparent Canoe/Kayak

This canoe/kayak is essentially the cockpit canopy from a supersonic fighter jet, flipped upside-down. It comes with two adjustable seats, one flotation device (apparently you and your fellow paddler have to flip for it), a pair of paddles, and a drop-down skeg (I don’t know what that is, either, but it sounds cool). If you spend most of your time in places that have gorgeously clear blue water and happy rainbow-colored tropical fishes swimming by, this is the vessel for you! If you hang out in muddy swamps with snapping turtles and tadpoles, you might not reap the same benefits. But at a cool $2,500 (plus $350 shipping), if you can afford this canoe, you can afford to fly it to the Caribbean with you in your private jet.

Lightsaber Chopsticks

Every geek worthy of the name should own a pair of these. Not only are they ridiculously affordable at (mostly) less than 15 bucks, but you get your choice of Darth Vader red, Luke Skywalker Blue, Yoda green, Darth Maul red, Obi-Wan Kenobi blue, or Mace Windu purple. But be warned: age recommendations vary with each color. The Skywalker version is appropriate for ages 12-44, but Darth Vader is only for 14-15 year-olds, and Yoda is only for (I am not making this up) ages “15 years – 16 years 4 months”. Don’t try to sneak in an extra month, 16-year-olds. Yoda WILL FIND YOU.

Astronaut Phone Charger

If you prefer your space accessories to be less science fiction and more, well, science, here’s a fun yet practical item for you: an astronaut phone charger. Able to hold either a smartphone or a tablet, this realistic little astronaut will keep you powered up and cheered up. Available in both standing and sitting models.

Manufactured by Hamee and available from both Hamee and Amazon for under $20. 

Loch Ness Monster Ladle


Last but not least, my “Just Cool” list includes this fabulous Loch Ness Monster kitchen ladle. This mysterious cutie pie will happily slink around your soup, conveniently ducking under whenever camera-toting tourists walk through your kitchen. With four little legs, there’s no need for a spoon rest, as she will happily stand on the countertop and watch you cook when she’s not in use.

For the low, low price of only $15.99, you could even buy a couple, so they won’t be lonely – Nessie and Champy, perhaps? From Animi Causa. 

Christmas is only about 100 days away, so start your shopping early with some of these items and YOU'LL be the one who's "Just Cool"!!

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Friday, September 11, 2015

Reflections on My First Week of Homeschooling

If you asked me to sum up my experiences during my first week of homeschooling, the sentence I would use is this: "Homeschooling is HARD."

That's not to say that it isn't rewarding, or that I'm not glad that I chose homeschooling over various other options. It's not to say that I'm not aiming to do better next week, or even to say that I did badly this week. But it is HARD. Unexpectedly hard.

I honestly thought that the first few weeks wouldn't be so bad. I figured that the hard part would come a few weeks, maybe even a month, in, when the novelty wore off and the coolest stuff that I had planned was used up. I honestly thought that the first week would be easy, for both me and my son.


It wasn't easy.

It wasn't easy to take off the "mom" hat and put on the "teacher" hat. It wasn't easy to start seeing my son as a student rather than as, well, my son. It wasn't easy to respond to his frustration with the patience of a teacher rather than with the discipline of a mother.

Honestly, I didn't realize quite how different these two hats are, that of "mother" and that of "teacher." They do have a lot in common: Both want the child to do his best, to learn, to understand, to enjoy. Both want to help the child understand and absorb. Both know how the child thinks and adapt the plan to that way of thinking. Both love the child and have his best interests at heart. But the mother wants to soothe and protect and comfort in a way that the teacher should not. The teacher should - MUST - at times, force the issue. The teacher must insist that the child does what he is being asked to do. She must discipline in a much more distanced and impartial way than the mother is used to.

That is asking a lot of a mother.

I didn't know quite how hard it would be to take off my mother hat.

Even before homeschooling entered the picture, I struggled with not being a "helicopter mom." I had to fight my instinct to hover over my children, to fight their battles, to solve their problems, even when they were perfectly capable of fighting their own battles and solving their own problems. I had to remind myself that they were capable of fighting their own battles and solving their own problems, and that even when they weren't, they would benefit if I let them try. It has always been a hard lesson. I am grateful that I have a husband who is perhaps a bit too far on the other end of the spectrum. Given his druthers, he would let them run through the park without an adult watching over them, stay at home without supervision while he runs a quick errand, and be in a large group of people without holding the hand of a parent. These scenarios are all horrifying to me. But between the two of us, I think we strike a reasonable balance of supervision and freedom. I think we balance each other out so that our children have a healthy dose of both protection and independence.

But when it comes to the classroom, and it's just me and my son, my helicopter mom self wants so badly to do everything for him. I desperately want him to answer all the questions correctly, and if I can't I want to whisper the answers to him. I don't want to see him struggle, or be confused, or have to work hard to figure things out for himself, or (God forbid) to be WRONG. I have to literally bite my tongue to not hand him the answers.

Keeping my mouth shut and letting him struggle is absolutely the hardest thing I have ever done as a parent.

And yet, when I do let him struggle, and he gets frustrated, and cries, and gets angry, but then finally figures something out on his own, I am so proud that I fear my heart might actually explode. I am almost as proud as he is.

Yes, homeschooling is HARD. But boy, is it worth it. It is ever so worth it.

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Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Homeschooling: Day 1

Today is my first official day as a homeschooling mom.

This is what my kids looked like as they headed off, respectively, to preschool and back into our home classroom:

And this is what I looked like as I headed back into our home classroom:

Being the planner that I am, I have lists of topics and projects and resources and crafts. I have lesson plans and a ringbinder and evaluation charts. I have worksheets and educational websites and DVDs and library books. I SHOULD know what I'm doing: I have experience, I've done the research, I've put in the preparation time, and yet somehow I still feel like I'm flying by the seat of my pants. I still feel like I have no idea what I'm doing.

I can't help but be reminded of when I was pregnant with this very child, my son, my firstborn, and my husband and I attended a one-day birthing class led by a wonderful L&D nurse practitioner with two children of her own, who told the class, "Go ahead and write up a birthing plan. Write down exactly what you want to happen, exactly how everything should go, what all of your choices are under various circumstances. [She paused for a moment.] And then rip it up and throw it away, because you're not the one driving this bus. Your doctor isn't the one driving this bus. Your baby is the only one driving this bus, and your baby is the one who will be driving every decision that is being made from here on out. And the sooner you accept that, the easier the whole process will be for all concerned."

I can't help but think that this wise advice applies to homeschooling as well. After all, one of the main advantages of homeschooling is that you can tailor both the material and the teaching methods to the needs and personality of the individual child. And no matter how well I know my son, there's no predicting how he will respond to a certain type of problem, or how well he will take to a particular subject, or what kind of schedule will work for him, once we actually get into the nitty-gritty of a scheduled and structured (however loosely) school day.

So I may have a fabulous list of science projects that include stinky and messy (and vaguely dangerous) chemical experiments, but he may only be interested in cleaner and neater (and absolutely dangerous) electricity experiments. Maybe he won't want to go on a nature walk. Maybe I'll need to figure out different ways to introduce him to the worlds of science and nature. I may have all kinds of ideas about drawing pictures to illustrate the stories we read, but he might have no interest. Maybe I'll discover that he would rather dress up like one of the characters in the book we're reading and act out what we just read instead of drawing a picture of it.

But I'm willing to experiment. I'm willing to wade through my lists of ideas and options and opportunities and see what works for us. I'm willing to throw a whole bunch of educational spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks. I'm willing to take a page from my own notebook and come up with a hypothesis, test it out, and if it doesn't work, come up with a different hypothesis, and just keep testing.

It may be my son's home school, but he's not the only one who'll be learning a few things this year!

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