Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Out and About: Charging Up

Gone are the days of traveling with nothing but a paperback book.

When I started packing for my month away from home, I packed heavy. With substantial time in Minnesota, which would be warm(er) and then a week in Alaska, which will be pretty cool and damp, I wanted to prepare for every contingency. I packed ALL my summer clothes and shoes and then a bunch of warmer layers for the 50-60 degree dampness in Juneau.

But really the one thing I was most concerned about forgetting was some charger. Sure, you can find places to charge devices, but if you don't have the right cable with you at the right time, you are in for some frustrating moments. I needed cables for my phone, Kindle, laptop and tablet. I also packed my small portable charger. I can use it during the long trip on the plane and in airports tomorrow, when I go from Minneapolis to Juneau.

But. The charger has to be charged too. And for a while this morning I thought I was missing a way to make that happen...the charging cable! So I sat down and started working on other projects, sipping my coffee, and figured I'd have to go get another one somewhere today. I'll be traveling around 13 hours tomorrow, when you count the several-hour layover in Seattle. As I sorted through all the wires and plugs, I discovered that the plug for the tablet would fit! That little cheap, free Verizon tablet has come in handy more than I like to admit. 

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Book Review: All the Things We Never Knew: Chasing the Chaos of Mental Illness, by Sheila Hamilton

All the Things We Never Knew is without a doubt one of the best books about mental illness I have ever read. In fact, I'd go so far as to say it is more informative than the Mental Health First Aid class I took this winter at work.

Sheila Hamilton was married to her husband for 11 years. It wasn't until she was well into the marriage that she learned that the cause of his erratic, unusual (and rather jerky behavior) was his undiagnosed Bipolar Disorder. I'm not ruining anything by tell you he ultimately committed suicide. She reveals this at the beginning of the book.

Hamilton alternates chapters in the book, covering the story of their life and information about Bipolar Disorder. She gives a very detailed account of the toll this illness has on the sufferer, their family and work life. But she also gives excellent advice for those who are caught in this nightmare.
I especially appreciate how she talks about educating her daughter about Bipolar Disorder. Her daughter is at risk for the disease, and Hamilton is careful to teach her about that.

I told my counselors at school that I think this should be required reading. I'd recommend this book to anyone, though. It's engaging and informative at the same time...which always delights me as a reader.

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

First (Well...Second) Visit: Gusto!

The school year was winding down and one day we just needed to go out for a tapas and wine wind-down after work. Since I get off at 3:30, and my friend, a teacher, gets off at 4, it's a good time of day to hit a restaurant that will most likely be crowded a little later. We chose Gusto! in Ballantyne.

Bruschetta Barcelona-kale pesto, goat cheese, garbanzos, and tomatoes

My friend is not a fan of goat cheese, but she's willing to give things a try. I didn't push her. She kind of pushed it herself. I love all things goat cheese and she was willing to try it again, thinking she may not have had good applications. This was an excellent appetizer, and she definitely came over to the goat side. 

Let me say here that the most memorable part of this experience at Gusto! was NOT the food. It was the service. Actually no...not the service...which was excellent. It was the server himself. He brought the food, suggested the wine, gave us good ideas on the apps. All that was good. BUT HE WAS ANNOYING. He was a pure salesman. And it was not about what we were ordering. It was about what we were NOT ordering. Namely, the pasta. 

Gusto! prides itself on their house-made pasta. Every noodle, every sheet, rolled out by hand. The dough made from the finest semolina flour. "Have you tried it?" he asked. "Yes, I have," I said. "But today we are here for light appetizers and drinks. Thank you." 

He was relentless. 

Seared tuna crusted with sesame seeds. I am just now realizing the menu says there is avocado. Maybe they were out that day? No matter, because this was absolutely ravishing. It was all I could do stop myself from pulling the entire plate of tuna to my side of the table!

This was my second visit. I visited Gusto! one Saturday morning with another friend and we had an early lunch. My companion that day had a pasta dish. I don't remember what I had. We tasted each other's. Yes, the house made pasta is good. So is Oggi's. And so, for that matter, is mine. 

Stuffed zucchini with roasted veggies and orange almond sauce

We ordered our apps all at the same time, but they came in a succession. Which was fine. He paced them rather well. We were not quite done with the first when the tuna arrived, and then the third arrived as we were savoring the tuna. I thought it was cool, how he did that. I thought, "This is nice. Sort of a progression." But the problem is that, each time he came back to the table he would try again to get us to order a pasta entree. More rhapsodizing about their pasta. 

I was getting more and more dismissive. My friend was backing me up, but not quite as vocal. When he said, "Have you had homemade pasta before?" I said, "Yes." She said, "She makes it." He said, "Oh, but the semolina flour..." I cut him off and told him "I KNOW". 

As we wound down our visit, my friend looked at me and said, "Would you come back here again?" And I honestly can say I don't know. The food was delicious. Fresh and light. The wine was good, the time of day was wonderful for a sit-down after work. 

Maybe I should drink a glass before I go. Then maybe the hard-sales waiter might not bother me so much. 

Sunday, June 05, 2016

First Visit: Sabor Latin Street Grill

We need to go back to Sabor. This food was good, but I think I made a mistake with my choice. I should have just had tacos. Instead I ordered Dominican Nachos and, while it tasted good, it really turned out to not be what I wanted. 

Sabor Latin Street Grill in the Elizabeth neighborhood, is very close to the Grady Cole Center, where we see the Charlotte Roller Girls. We love to eat in Elizabeth or Plaza Midwood after the bout. It also turns out that Saturday night around 7 or so, parking around Sabor kind of opens up a bit, and there are no long lines at the counter. There was a steady stream of customers, but they were not slammed.

We liked how approachable the staff are. They were patient with the people in front of us, who asked several questions about the menu. Even the bus people were friendly and eager and to help us be comfortable. 

Bob had an empanada and a ground beef taco. The empanada was huge, so he felt like he had plenty to eat. 

I had the Dominican Nachos. The nachos were well seasoned and there was a LOT. It didn't help that the nachos were made on yucca fries, rather than chips. The fries were large wedges. There was a ton of wonderfully seasoned chicken layered next, and then all the toppings...cabbage, onions, salsa, cotija cheese and rosada sauce. It was all very flavorful. Just too much food. And I think the yucca wedges added a sorty of mealy texture that I didn't really love. I think if I made something like myself, I'd make yucca chips, crisply fried, and serve them on the side. 

I think we'll try it again.

Friday, June 03, 2016

First Visit: Brazwell's Pub-Ballantyne (Veggie Burger Quest)

This is a clear winner in my quest for the ultimate veggie burger. Not THE winner...there will be many winners...such as Emma's of Salisbury, Bang Bang Burger, and The Cafe @ Williams Hardware. Today I was pleased to find a fantastic, house made black bean burger just a short distance (albeit long drive, with Ballantyne traffic) from my house.

I heard about Brazwell's Pub last week, when a former student stopped in at school to pick up a transcript. He said he's one of the chef's at this pub in Ballantyne. His story is like many great chefs: he started as a dishwasher and his boss found he had talent in the kitchen. This was not news to his Foods teacher at school. 

This loosely formed(which, to me, proves it's house made, and not full of fillers and commercial additives, like this place), well-seasoned black bean mixture overflows a wonderful bun that has been lightly toasted to a pleasing crunch. It's topped with melted pepperjack cheese, sour cream, slices of avocado, a pretty decent tomato slice, lettuce and red onion. Even the red onion won me over. Often people serve too much red onion on their salads and sandwiches, causing them to overwhelm (and maybe mask?) flavor, dry your mouth out, and cause you to burp onion for the rest of the day. This one had two slices of onion. I still took off one, but I wasn't shoveling ring after ring to the side of my plate. 

And the FRIES! They were well-salted and had a couple other seasonings on them. They were slightly wilted, but forgivable. These are the fries that come with the sandwich and I can't imagine wanting to pay more to take them off and sub for something else. 

As a side note: that beer is Old Mecklenburg Brewery's Hornet's Nest. It's the brew in season right now, and it's very delicious.

Back to the food: both my lunch companions had the black and blue burger and loved it. The Friday special was fish & Chips and I'll probably have to go back for that. They are often my bar food of choice.

Monday, May 09, 2016

First Visit: JJ's Red Hots

This review might surprise you for two reasons. Actually, maybe three:
1. What am I doing at a hot dog joint?
2. Why would I say "meh" about a place that is a Charlotte favorite?
3. Why am I saying I'll try it again?


Ok. I went to the hot dog joint because I live with two people who will eat meat, no matter where it came from. Do they discriminate between "humanely-raised" meat and other? No. Do they love ground meat with seasonings and anything else that might get swept up from the floor? Yes. But also, I'd heard so much about JJ's and how great it is, and that they have a veggie dog that even non-vegetarians would eat. So why not?

On to the "meh" part:

First of all, I pretty much think the joint is inappropriately named. I really should be "JJ's Hot Dog Fixin' Joint." Because, based upon my veggie dog and the guys' meat dogs, I'd have to say the hot dog is really just a filler. They have several choices on their menu for how you want your dog decorated, and it's clear that it's pretty much all about that. In the case of our dogs, it's all about mustard. Ballpark mustard, actually. We all ordered the first item on the menu, the JJ's "No. 1 Red Hot." To me, it makes sense to order that item because it seems that's where this whole venture of theirs probably started. They use Sahlen's Hot Dogs, which I've never heard of before. 

When I visited the Sahlen's website, I found that this company has been around since 1869, and they boast about their "signature smokehouse flavor."  What we got was mustard. Mustard and mustard and mustard. The guys were not impressed with the smoky flavor of their hot dogs (they didn't detect any), and I'm still not sure what the veggie dog actually tasted like. 

Now, I am a lover a mustard. Don't get me wrong. In fact, I've been known to snarf down 2 or 3 Hormel Wrangler or Nathan's hot dogs with nothing but ballpark mustard on them. But those dogs are fatty and have a robust flavor and texture and snappy skin that can hold up to a nice, thick line of mustard. These dogs couldn't cut it. They are meant for a finer hand, I think. 

I'll try it again. I'm not sure when and I'm not sure what I'll have. I don't know if I'll throw out my questions about the sources of the meat and just eat a meat dog or sausage, or if I'll try the veggie dog again but with different fixin's. I will try it again because hundreds (maybe thousands) of people can't be wrong. I'm willing to guess that we just chose the wrong dogs. 

Oh. And we like the hot dog with the roasting fork. Cute.

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Book Review: Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, by Jane Hawking

 Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen

Before picking up this book, my knowledge of Stephen Hawking could fit into maybe two sentences: He has something like ALS. He's a super-genius science guy who talks about black holes. 

Both of those are true, but of course there is so much more. This book, written by Jane Hawking, is a fascinating story about Stephen Hawking's meteoric rise to scientific fame, as well as his descent into physical immobility. 

Ms. Hawking details how they met in their later teen years (through Stephen's sister) and their decision to marry, despite his diagnosis of motor neurone disease, with it's bleak prognosis. Through years of struggling to obtain disability assistance from Britain's National Health Service, and navigating the globe without the handicap accessibility we take for granted these days, Stephen thrived in academia and the Hawking children grew under Ms. Hawking's steady and constant care. 

Hawking's struggles are detailed and persistent in this book. She pulls no punches, calling out people and institutions who failed to offer support. But she also heralds the many people and institutions who provide unflagging encouragement and assistance. The book is not bitter, but one can not fail to wonder how she managed to escape developing an entirely bitter outlook on life. 

The edition I read had two postscripts, written as the book was re-published after it's original 2007 release. The story has also been made into a movie, "The Theory of Everything," which came out in 2015.