Thursday, August 31, 2017

Red Carpet Review: The 2017 VMAs

Let's just get this out there at the very beginning: I'm old and square and I have absolutely no idea who 90% of these people are. I've heard of Pink, Katy Perry, and Mel B., and that's about it. But I do have a pretty good sense of fashion, and I even have a decent sense of what's appropriate at a somewhat edgy red carpet event such as the VMAs. So I'll do my best to be fair in my reviews of the wild and crazy outfits that were on parade. Some of the artists did a great job at making wild and crazy work for them, and some...a little less so. Let's get on with it!

There were a few trends that I'll use to categorize some of the looks, and then I'll review some looks that were less easily classified.

Sheer and Tight
This has been a trend on red carpets for quite some time now, but the VMAs really ran with it. Mostly black, often lace, occasionally metallic, some peeps of undergarments and some full-on visible, there were a wide variety of takes on this trend.

Alessandra Ambrosio paired a buttoned-up black lace shirt-dress with slick lace hose and black stilettos. It was a great combination of covered-up and revealing. A slick, edgy look that worked really well.

Amber Rose opted for a skin-tight black mermaid dress with a peekaboo pattern that was also covered up and revealing at the same time. Slinky and almost-goth, it showed off her voluptuous figure in a sexy but tasteful way.

Bebe Rexha's gown was more pattern than lace, with a modesty panel across the wide decolletage and a see-through skirt with an opaque short skirt underneath. The whole dress, but especially the bodice, looked uncomfortably tight, and although I loved the lines and the silhouette, it might have been more flattering on a slightly less curvaceous figure, or with a slightly less tight fit. (Skim, don't cling!)
Chantel Jeffries went super-simple in a gold slip dress over high-cut panties. Points to the designer for somehow making the top of the dress opaque but suddenly allowing a peep of panty at the bottom without any discernible transition. In fact, even the bottom of the dress seems to only be transparent when it moves or when the light hits it a certain way, which creates a great peekaboo effect.

Demi Lovato's black lace took the form of a jumpsuit with harem pants. I actually liked the puffy, spangled harem pants, with their angled yoke which flattered her slender figure, but the top was a little too see-through for my taste. A bit more coverage - even just a denser lace pattern - across the bust would have brought this to the next level. Crazy but cool.

Hailey Baldwin hit it out of the park with her silver lace jumpsuit. The plunging neckline, the oval satin sash, the wide-legged pants, the vertically-patterned lace, even the barely-visible boy-cut shorts all worked together to make a strikingly gorgeous look.

Heidi Klum made a rare fashion misstep in this gold lace dress that had a great concept but poor execution. The overlay fabric was drop-dead gorgeous, and I loved the criss-cross pattern under the bust and the high yoke at the neck. But the wide, tight keyhole opening appeared to be straining, and the way the lace pattern fell at her crotch made her underwear look as bulky as a diaper. It was a good effort, but it fell a bit short.
Justina Valentine went for simple sexy with a sheer chiffon slip dress over retro-styled black high-cut underpants and matching bra. The word "Chill" emblazoned in red matched her bright red curly locks and provided a great pop of color that brought the outfit to life. Simple, but effective.

Paris Jackson also paired a generally see-through dress over conservative undergarments, but the styles just didn't pair well. The sheer skirt over fitted shorts actually worked for me - I loved the stylized map on the sheer upper skirt with ethnic-looking art panels along the bottom. But the casual, sporty bra disrupted the lines of the structured bodice, making her look extremely flat-chested and spoiling the gorgeous embroidered art. I would love to have seen this with a lined band across the chest instead of a bra underneath. It would have saved the whole outfit. 

Sibley Scoles emphasized short and tight rather than see-through. Her micro-mini dress of gold spangled lace plunged at the neckline, with a subtle modesty panel with a spray of jewels along her collarbone. I loved the subtle hint of dark red in the beading and the scalloped hem. It was a gorgeous dress, but it kept the focus on the wearer. Great look. 

Tiffany Hadesh went with a short silver lace sheath with a round neck and long sleeves. The pattern of the lace became more open toward the hem, forming a long diamond pattern which drew in the eye and flattered her somewhat straight figure. It was simple, but pretty.

Vanessa Hudgens combined see-through sections with bright color in this fun, fire engine red gown. The bodice and top and bottom of the skirt were covered with a ruffled 3D lace pattern, with a wide swath of sheer fabric from thigh to just below the knee, and sheer sleeves and yoke on the bodice. The upper part of the skirt was lined with a structured underskirt that created a bit of flare, resulting in a fun and interesting silhouette.

Traditional Gowns
"Traditional" is really just a base here, although there were some truly traditional (read: conservative) gowns, both ballgowns and more slender columns. I like to see some of the couture twists that make an ordinary red carpet gown into a VMA red carpet gown.

 Alissa Violet wouldn't have looked out of place at the Oscars in this strapless plum satin column with slit and long train. The fabric was a bit crinkled at the waist, but otherwise the gown had lovely clean lines and looked beautiful on her. But it wasn't especially memorable, especially in this context.

Andrea Russet's take on a ballgown felt more VMA-appropriate to me. The traditionally full white lace skirt flared into a great line from the plunging neckline which revealed just a peep of the tattoo on her sternum (not generally my thing, but it worked really well with the gown). Somehow the sweet white lace and demurely waved hair paired with the "bad girl" tattoo really rocked.

Christina Milian also wore an Oscar-worthy gown. The steel grey-blue gown had a simple spaghetti-strap bodice and a slim skirt beautifully draped at the hip with an open slit at the front. The gown moved gracefully and its simplicity called attention to the wearer rather than the gown.

Gigi Gorgeous was a good example of a great concept but poor execution. Her corset-style white column featured long vertical seaming and interesting straps across the bust with lace and metal detailing, but the bodice was not well-fitted to her extremely full bust and focused too much on her generous cleavage. Perhaps a different hairstyle might have saved the look, but it just didn't work for me.

Hazel-E followed the current cold shoulder trend in this shaggy black gown with wide keyhole and peekaboo skirt. While I like the detailing along the keyhole, it makes her figure look...less than perky, and the long marabou fringe along the arms paired with the ruffled skirt makes the whole look seem somewhat droopy and tired.

Ivana Baquero looked cute but conservative in her metallic-on-white print halter gown. The criss-cross neckline and attached sleeves were cute, but the overall look was just a bit blah for me. I think the same dress in a really vivid solid color like cobalt blue or deep copper might have been a better choice.

Jenelle Evans wore a two-piece gown with a black organza A-line skirt and a brightly-patterned, midriff-baring halter. I loved the contrast of the two pieces, but I'd have liked it better if Evans didn't look so miserable wearing it.

Julia Michaels went for a more traditional look in this flared ballgown with a corset-style bodice. The spangled fabric that faded from midnight blue into silver was my favorite part. It wasn't a knockout, but it was certainly respectable, flattering, and appropriate.

Katy Perry sported one of the most avant garde looks of the evening in this gravity-defying asymmetrical white column. I really wanted to love it, but it was just a little too out of proportion for me. I think that if the right shoulder had been just a little narrower, or edged with a softer fabric, or even if her hair and makeup had been dialed back a bit, it would have felt more in balance. But as it was, it felt like she was trying a little too hard.

Kesha was a good example of a dress overwhelming its wearer. First, the sheer volume of the too many layers of ruffles weighted her down, then the broad puffs of tulle on the shoulders drew the eye outwards, and finally the overall color melted into her hair and skin. Poor Kesha deserved better, and from the expression on her face, she knew it.

Ignoring the birdcage (!?!!) for a moment, Lil Mama sported a long, draped coral chiffon gown. The ruffled neckline echoed the soft drape of the front slit and the graceful puddling of the train, and the wide black choker and long dark hair nicely framed her face and focused attention there. If the birdcage had been smaller and had been a functional purse rather than just a random birdcage, this look would have gotten a 10 from me, but I have to knock her down to a 9. Wait - there was a live bird in the birdcage? Make that a 6. Poor bird. I hope she brought teeny tiny earplugs for it.

Lorde wore a pale lavender ballgown with a simple crushed bodice and a full eyelash skirt. I'm not generally a fan of large swaths of eyelash fabric (it always makes me think of muppets), but the delicate color and graceful lines actually work here, especially paired with her understated makeup and simple half-updo. Well played.

Sofia Carson wore an all-black ensemble that perfectly matched her shiny, shiny sleek hair. With a deeply plunging, ruffle-edged neckline held in place with a modesty panel, the gown flared into a full A-line skirt with a chiffon overlay that swept and moved beautifully. Dramatic and chic.

Vanessa Morgan went in an entirely different direction in her pirate/gladiator/superhero-inspired gown. The floral top features long bell sleeves and a deep v-neck held closed with fabric bands, and the black skirt consists of a narrow front panel with two wide slits all the way up to the waistband, with a full back and just a hint of a train. Paired with knee-high gladiator sandals and long wavy locks, this sweet warrior look is tough but endearing.

Yara Shahidi wore a softly draped and wrapped mustard gold one-shouldered gown with a black sash and shoulder rosette. The color wasn't really right for her, and the style itself seemed too old for her. it seemed like it should work, but it just didn't.

Suits, Pants, and Rompers
It's not uncommon to see a man-style suit on any red carpet, either worn relatively traditionally or creatively (Celine Dion in her backwards tux, anyone?), but the VMAs often bring out pantsuits, pants paired with unusual tops, and rompers and one-pieces of various kinds. As always, some are more successful than others.

 Arielle Vandenberg broke out the leopard print in this stylized suit with flared cropped pants and square-shouldered jacket worn over a black lace corset and black ankle boots. I thought the flared short pants with a gap at the top of the boots looked clunky and shortened her legs, and the line of the lace in the corset was oddly truncated by the waistband of the pants. Slightly longer pants and a fully-lace bodice would have turned this meh look into a great one.

Cardi B. was a knockout in this white pantsuit with full skirted train. The futuristic lines of the bodice and the crisp structure of the pants were perfectly tailored. This is the kind of look that was meant for the VMAs. Big win.

Farrah Abraham belongs in this category because, technically, she was wearing pants, but clearly this outfit is all about the boots. The fabulous boots. And when you have a single accessory that is this fabulous, you want everything else to get out of the way. Her tight white pants and simple white fitted V-neck top with just a hint of angled detail on the shoulders was just right to fade into the background without being boring. I only wish she'd been carrying a tiny matching gold clutch to make this look perfect.

Laura Marano wore a black satin suit with silver detailing. Her jacket was fitted and flared, with a shawl collar and barely flared sleeves, and her pants flared dramatically at the ankle. As much as I loved the jacket, the line of the pants didn't work for me. Had they been either straight leg or flared a few inches lower, I think the silhouette would have worked much better.

Nicki Minaj was painted into a skin-tight, bubblegum pink, vinyl catsuit with giant cutouts over the breasts, accessorized with a wide diamond choker and cuffs, and pink and orange stilettos. There's no doubt that she has a stunning figure, but it would have been better served in something just a little less tight and shiny. Also, my boobs hurt in sympathy.

Pink absolutely rocked the house in this fabulously stylized three-piece, pinstriped suit with super-wide trousers that almost looked like a gown. The formality and masculinity of the suit combined with the soft fullness of the pants and the casual feel of the loosened tie hit all the right notes for this event. This was the best look of the night for me.

Renee Bargh was another big yes for me in this tailored scarlet romper. The cropped pants are just the right length and width, and the crispness of the squared shoulders and open angled neckline are softened just enough by the draped lapel and curve of the lines over the hip. It's bright and comfortable and eye-catching.

Sammi Sanchez went for a take on 1950s chic, pairing a tight-fitting black pants with a black vinyl halter and matching wide corset, with a sheer peach organza jacket and leopard print platform boots. She had me right up to the boots. Finish off this outfit with peach or coral point-toed pumps instead of the boots and this look would be at the top of my list.

Sydney Sierota opted for a lovely deep blue satin double-breasted jacket with brass buttons and matching pegged pants. The severe cut of the jacket gives just a hint of a military flavor, but the soft fabric and the puff at the ankle add femininity. This was a lovely young take on the suit, and Sierota wore it well.

Sophie Beem wore an outfit that can perhaps best be described as "pajamas with matching bikini". Her casual, candy-striped outfit was droopy and wrinkly, and although it would have been adorable at the beach or a sleepover, it was hopelessly inappropriate and out of place on the red carpet - even the VMA red carpet.

Short Dresses
The term "short dresses" encompasses almost everything on the red carpet that hasn't already been covered above. Everything from traditional cocktail dresses to two-piece microminis to slip dresses to whatever falls under this category.

Caroline D'Amore brought ethnic charm to the traditional little black dress in this gorgeously and colorfully embroidered minidress. The lines are simple, with a broad round neck and slightly flared sleeves, but the floral pattern is all the detail this look needs. Terrific.

Chanel West Coast (? I'm not even going to ask) sported a two-piece red and black patterned dress with matching long jacket. I liked the simple clean lines of the straight-cut, lapel-less jacket, the tube top, and the fitted skirt, and I liked that it was paired with a black bag on a long gold chain and cool retro sunglasses. But the black socks with black pumps was a big no for me.

Erin Lim brought a touch of sci-fi flair to her short black and silver wrap dress, with its wildly flared and oversized angular shoulder pads. I liked the lace sleeves and the simple straight lines of the dress contrasted with the busy but subtle metallic print, and the straight lines of the sash and its extra-long trailing ends were a great touch. A good look.

Jasmine Sanders seemed to be channeling either Pocahontas or the perhaps Attack of the 50-ft. Woman in this ragged metallic two-piece dress. The top isn't too bad, but the skirt looks like it accidentally ripped in several places as she was getting out of the limo. Too messy and forced for me.

Jeanine Mason was perky and adorable in this snug white dress with a series of black and silver bands at the neck, bust, and waist. Revealing but solidly in place, this dress wouldn't look out of place at a club, but it fit right in at the VMAs as well.

 Liza Koshy sported a great double-breasted black and white velvet wrap dress. Its deep neckline had a graceful curve, the sleeves had a generous flare at the wrists, and the hemline was just barely asymmetrical - all details that turned what could have been a bland dress into a really great one.

Mel B. wore a gold sequined sheath dress emblazoned with the words "YOU WILL NEVER OWN ME" in rainbow lettering. Accessorized with scarlet pointy pumps and a sideswept hairdo, she indeed owned the red carpet.

Millie Bobby Brown was overwhelmed by her frothy, ruffled, black and gold dress. The long ruffles and loose fit looked baggy and droopy, and the dress itself couldn't seem to decide whether to be prairie, prom, or goth. From the neck up, she looked fabulous, but the rest of the look was just a hot mess.

Defying Categorization
Some looks will never fit into a single category (and that's probably a good thing).

Lizzo seemed to be attempting to channel a bride with her romance novel cover white gown (printed with letters which may or may not have formed words - they weren't readable, in any case), bridal headpiece, and thigh-high white stockings with garters, for some inexplicable reason paired with silver sneakers. Maybe it ties into some album she's touting, but for the uninitiated it just looked weird.

Noah Cyrus may have been attempting to feature her cool boots in the same way as Farrah Abraham, but it just didn't work. The voluminous tunic creates shadows at the top of her legs and jumps to the foreground instead of framing the boots, and the overly-jet black hair competes with the shiny boots. Add in the ridiculously down on the nose pink Lennon glasses and it's just a mess all over.

So - whose look worked for you, and whose look needs to go back to the drawing board??

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Thursday, August 17, 2017

Late Summer Dinners

I get so excited every year in late spring/early summer when the weather gets warm enough that we can eat - and therefore grill - outside. I have a whole list of wonderful, light summer dishes that are perfectly suited to the hot weather. On the other side of that coin, I love all the hearty cold-weather foods like casseroles and crock pot meals that are appropriate for fall and winter months.

But mid-August through mid-September are not quite part of either of those weather patterns. Evenings cool off (well, most of the time), but it's not quite cold enough to justify heating up the kitchen. My appetite is ramping up for heartier - but not yet heavy - meals, but I still don't want to heat up the kitchen all evening. Fortunately, I've found a number of "in between" dishes that make wonderful late summer dinners. Here are a few of my favorite late summer menu items!

Caprese Stuffed Portobellos
Heartier than a simple early-summer caprese salad, but still taking advantage of the fresh tomatoes and basil from your garden, this delicious all-in-one dish makes a great filling but not overly heavy meal.
Garlic butter
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 cloves garlic , crushed
  • 1 tablespoon freshly chopped parsley
  • 5-6 large Portobello Mushrooms, stem removed, washed and dried thoroughly with a paper towel
  • 5-6 fresh mozzarella cheese balls, sliced thinly
  • 1 cup grape (or cherry) tomatoes, sliced thinly
  • fresh basil, shredded
Balsamic Glaze (I use ready-made from Costco, or you can use make your own with this recipe):
  • 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons brown sugar (optional)

  1. Preheat oven to grill/broil settings on high heat. Arrange oven shelf in the middle of your oven.
  2. Combine the garlic butter ingredients together in a small saucepan, and melt until garlic is fragrant. Brush the bottoms of each mushroom and place them, buttered side down, on a baking tray.
  3. Flip and brush any remaining garlic over the insides of each cap. Fill each mushroom with the mozzarella slices and tomatoes, and grill/broil until cheese is melted and golden (about 8 minutes).
  4. Top with basil, drizzle with the balsamic glaze and sprinkle with salt to taste.

For the Balsamic Glaze:
  1. If making from scratch, prepare while mushrooms are in the oven. Combine sugar (if using) and vinegar in a small saucepan over high heat and bring to the boil. Reduce heat to low; allow to simmer for 5-8 minutes or until mixture has thickened and reduced to a glaze. (If not using sugar, allow to reduce for 12-15 minutes on low heat).

Summer Corn Chowder
Another dish that takes advantage of the bounty of fresh late summer vegetables, this rich corn chowder is best made with fresh corn on the cob, but you can use frozen in a pinch.

8 ears fresh sweet yellow corn, husked and silks removed and kernels cut from cob
3 Tbsp butter
5 slices bacon , cut into 1/4 to 1/2-inch pieces
1 medium yellow onion chopped (1 1/2 cups)
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 clove garlic, minced
5 cups water
1 lb Yukon Gold potatoes, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1/2 tsp dried thyme
1 bay leaf
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 cup half and half
1 Tbsp honey
2 - 3 Tbsp chopped fresh chives
Shredded cheddar cheese, for serving (optional)

Melt butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onion and bacon and cook, stirring frequently, until onion has softened and just starting to brown around edges, about 8 - 10 minutes. Add in the flour and garlic and cook 1 1/2 minutes. While whisking, slowly pour in 5 cups water. Bring mixture to a boil, stirring constantly, then stir in corn kernels and potatoes. Add in thyme and bay leaf and season with salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a light boil, then reduce heat to medium-low and allow to simmer, stirring occasionally, until potatoes are tender, about 20 minutes.

Remove bay leave then transfer 2 1/2 cups of the chowder to a blender and blend until smooth. Stir the mixture back into the pot then stir in half and half and honey. Sprinkle each serving with chives and optional cheddar.

Grilled Chicken with Lemon Pasta
Chicken on the grill is always good in my book, and lemon adds a lovely summer freshness, which pairs beautifully with the fresh basil in this recipe. I'll happily eat this dish in the height of summer or in the proverbial bleak midwinter.
4 whole Grilled Chicken Breasts, Sliced
1 pound Penne Pasta, Cooked Until Al Dente
1/2 stick Butter
3 whole Lemons, Juiced
3/4 cups Heavy Cream
1/4 cup Half-and-half
1-1/2 cup Grated Parmesan Cheese (or Romano)
Salt And Freshly Ground Black Pepper, To Taste
20 whole Basil Leaves, Chopped

Cook pasta, reserving 1 cup of hot pasta water when you drain. Set pasta aside in a colander.

In the same pot, melt butter over medium heat. Squeeze in the juice of 3 to 4 lemons. Whisk together. Pour in cream and half-and-heat. Whisk until hot. Dump in cheese and whisk until melted. Add salt and pepper. Check consistency, adding some of the hot pasta water to loosen the sauce if needed.

Pour pasta and sauce into a large serving bowl. Sprinkle remaining basil all over the top, then add sliced chicken breasts. Serve immediately.

Bell Pepper Nacho Boats
This "skinny" variation of stuffed peppers tastes plenty rich and flavorful for me. You can use ground beef instead of ground turkey, but I find the mild flavor of the turkey lets the spices really shine through!
1 pound lean ground turkey (or beef)
1 teaspoons chili powder
1 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
3/4 cup salsa
1 cup grated cheddar cheese
3 bell peppers
Optional toppings: jalapenos, avocado chunks or guacamole, sour cream, green onions

Remove seeds, core, and membrane from peppers then slice each one into 6 vertical pieces where they dip down. Set aside.

Cook turkey over medium-high heat, breaking up as it cooks. Once cooked through, drain off any fat. Combine with spices and salsa. Evenly distribute mixture into the pepper boats and top with cheese. Bake on a parchment lined baking sheet at 375 for 10 minutes or until cheese is melted and peppers are hot.

NOTE: If you prefer much softer bell peppers, add a few tablespoons water to the bottom of a large casserole dish, add filled nachos, cover tightly with foil and bake 15 minutes.

Serve with additional toppings, if desired.

Honey Mustard Grilled Pork Chops
Pork chops are a hearty fall meal in my house, but throw them on the grill with some fresh summer veggies and they make a great hearty summer meal, too.
4 (6 ounce) pork chops
1/4 cup honey
2 tablespoons dijon mustard
2 tablespoons grainy mustard
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 cloves garlic, chopped

salt and pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients except chops in a large ziplock bag or lidded Tupperware container. Add pork chops, turning to coat, and marinade in the fridge for 30 minutes to overnight. Grill over medium-high heat until lightly golden brown, about 3-5 minutes per side (longer if using thick-cut chops). If you like the chops with extra sauce, either set aside some of the marinade before adding the chops, or bring the leftover marinade to a boil and simmer for a few minutes to thicken while the pork is cooking.

Steak Kebabs
Steak on the grill is my favorite hearty dinner any time of year, but combining it with sweet, fresh bell peppers and onions makes it deliciously summery yet still hearty.
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 cup soy sauce
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon black pepper
2 pounds sirloin steak, cut in 1-inch cubes
1 red bell pepper, seeded and cut in 1-inch pieces
1 orange bell pepper, seeded and cut in 1-inch pieces
1 green bell pepper, seeded and cut in 1-inch pieces
1 red onion, cut in 1-inch pieces

In a medium bowl, whisk together olive oil, soy sauce, garlic and black pepper. Add the cubed sirloin steak to marinade and toss to coat. Cover with plastic wrap and let marinate for 30 minutes to 1 hour.
Once the meat has marinated, thread it onto metal skewers alternating with pieces of bell pepper and red onion.

Grill kebabs over medium heat, turning often, until all sides of the meat is well brown and vegetables are tender (about 12 to 15 minutes). Serve over rice.

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