Thursday, October 30, 2014

Gravy 101

We've all been there. The turkey is done, resting on the cutting board and begging to be divided up and devoured. (by the way, don't you dare tent that thing with foil or the skin will turn soft like a wet microfiber rag.) Now it's time for the gravy. And somehow it turns out to be bland and lumpy. Not to worry my fellow cook; Swen to the rescue. This is Gravy 101 so come on in and take a groovy gravy lesson. You're going to walk out of here with your head up high, struttin' like you just won the lottery, and saying, "Dang! I'm the gravy master. I master that gravy."

The first thing you need to remember is the formula and you won't go wrong. Follow the formula and you will have basic gravy. From there, depending on how much adventure is in your soul, you can make it a smackin' work of art. I'll give you some ideas later but now for the formula.

The formula is 2-2-1. Two Tablespoons of butter, Two Tablespoons of Flour, 1 Cup broth. This will give you one cup of simple gravy. If you need more, double it. Now, get your apron on and come here to the stove.

In a skillet or saucepan, heat the butter until the foaming begins to slow down. That means it's hot. Keep the burner just below Medium or you'll burn the butter.
Sprinkle some flour into the skillet and whisk it into the butter. Then, add some more, about half a teaspoon at a time until it's all used up. Keep whisking, baby. The butter will absorb the flour and, PRESTO; no clumps of flour. Want to learn some French? OK. You are making a Roux (pronounced Roo, rhymes with Shoe). Roux is fat and flour mixed in just about equal amounts, depending on how thick you want what you are making. OK. Back to the gravy.

Keep whisking and, when the Roux (I capitalize it because I love it. Maybe some French guy, Pierre Roux invented this. Thanks, Roux.) starts to turn toasty brown, start adding the broth, a little at a time (a couple of table spoons at a time) and keep whisking. You're going to be a whisk master. Have fun with it; go clockwise, counterclockwise, right to left, and left to right. Whatever, but whisk, baby, whisk or that gravy is going to lump up like milk left outside on a Kansas summer day.

At first when you add broth, it will seem like all the liquid will steam away. Not to worry. Just keep going and, at some point, it will start turning to liquid. When it does, add the rest of the broth and whisk baby, whisk.

Now here's a key point. Turn up the heat a little to bring the gravy to simmer (little bubbles, not boiling). Gravy will only thicken at the simmer point. Keep whisking baby, ......

"When do I stop?" you ask. You stop when the gravy is a little thinner than you want to serve it. Why? Because it will cool down when you put it on the table and it will get thicker. Salt and pepper to taste and you have simple gravy. Nice? Nice!

OK. Do you want to kick this up a notch? Here are some ideas.
Add a sache (mesh bag with fresh thyme, bay leaf, and parsley stems) and let the flavors go in.
Add a touch of white wine or sherry for depth.
Add pan drippings (maybe half a cup) but remember to discard the fat. Do you have a fat separator? Shame on you! Get one. They are cool and will impress your guests. "What is that thing?" "It's my fat separator, dude. Don't worry about it." Use the wine to mix up the drippings so that all those brown bits are saved; they have all the flavor. Or, use apple cider instead of wine. Mmmmmmm.

You have graduated from Gravy 101. Remember 2-2-1 or 4-4-2 if you have more guests.
Go get 'em and happy Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Grantland Rice was a sportswriter during the Great Depression.

The Great Competitor
Grantland Rice

Beyond the winning and the goal,
Beyond the glory or the fame,
He finds a flame within his soul,
Born of the spirit of the game.

And where the barriers may wait,
Built up by the opposing gods,
He finds a thrill in bucking fate,
And riding down the endless odds.

Where others wither in the fire,
Or fall below some raw mishap,
Where others lag behind and tire,
And break beneath the handicap,

He finds a new and deeper thrill,
To take him on the uphill spin,
Because the test is greater still,
And something he can revel in.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Maria's Birthday

It's just another school day, or is it? Maria, a fifth grader, is having a birthday. She received a special greetings this morning from her family at breakfast. That felt good. But school had just started and Maria is about to experience something that will change her life. 

She's normally very quiet and reserved, raising her hand barely above shoulder level when she knows and answer, unlike some of the others who shoot their fingers to the ceiling and raise up in their seats as high and tall as possible to get noticed. Maria just can't do that. And she's not very outgoing at recess and lunch, staying pretty much to herself. She's OK with who she is because she can't imagine being like some of the other more gregarious types. She's fine although sometimes she wishes the teacher would give her equal attention. But, even if she doesn't, Marian won't change. She'll remain with herself and that's OK.

It's 8 in the morning now and roll has been taken. The teacher speaks, "Class, I'm handing out the Language Quizzes you too Friday so you can see how you did. Maria, will you please help me hand these out?"

Maria sat frozen in shock. The teacher had never asked her to do anything, much less do something that would create direct contact with half her classmates. She got up slowly and the teacher said, "Come on Maria! I need your help." She shifted into second gear and handed out half the quizzes. It wasn't as difficult as she thought it would be although she received some weird, perhaps envious, looks from some of her classmates.

Then it happened. As Maria started back for her seat (and she was very anxious to get there), the teacher said, "Maria. Please stay up here. Class, may I ask you what day this is today? The entire class burst into a very good rendition of "Happy Birthday," complete with "Maria." She turned red but somehow she began to focus on each singing face. They were OK even though she had not liked some of them. They were OK.

For that moment, for that day, for that school year, and for that lifetime, Maria was OK too. She began to believe, even though she reserved and shy, she was "somebody," somebody with a birthday. That class taught her, they believed she belonged in this world and it made all the difference.


Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Four Ways to Engage Students, From the Students

Four Ways to Engage Students, From the Students

Since the day the first student was noticed to be uninterested in the subject matter, looking around the room for something more interesting like the radiator popping as it warmed up, teachers have been asking, "How can we get students eagerly-engaged?" I taught college Algebra so I understand.

Do remember a boring class? Do you remember a teacher who made a subject, which by nature was not interesting, appetizing? My English teacher was a magician. She actually got me so excited about conjugating sentences, I found myself doing it to Kennedy's, "Ask not what your country can do for you." This is TMI, but I also did it once with something someone wrote on the bathroom wall.

How do they do it? How do those teachers make class so cool, you can't wait to get there and when the bell rings, you say, "Oh no!"? I'm not a researcher so I don't have a paper on the subject, complete with "researchy" words, but, from experience, I can tell you, there are four things you can start doing right now that will begin to change things. How do I know those four things? All three come right out of the mouths of students. I've heard them talk. 

Before I list them, let me make one thing clear. The answer has little to do with you uncomfortable-morphing into a flailing clown who thinks he has to entertain to be heard.

One: "Class was fun."

Two: "The teacher showed me how to do things."

Three: "The teacher never gave up and kept telling me how I was doing."  

Four: "I got to use my talents in class."

How you pull this off is up to you; I'm just saying.


Friday, October 17, 2014

Multiplication Mania

I call the method, "Multiplication Mania (MM)," because it's wild and crazy and puts healthy pressure on students of one elementary school classroom, to learn the multiplication problems they have trouble with. In a nutshell, it is one hour of drill but it is much more than that. In MM, I break the times table into two parts (1-6 and 7-12) and work on them separately. With the problems and answers written on the board, the children chant them in unison, along with me. Then, they write the complete problem and answer on paper, saying the numbers as they write. We chant and write/say two or three times, depending on how well the class knows the table.

Then we do a mixed test, where the problems are not in order. I say a problem (e.g., 7x3), and the students write the problem and answer down (no chanting). We do all six of the subset (entire table). I will ask one student to tell us his or her answers, students check to see how many they got right. I will ask some of the students if they missed one and to tell me so I can help them.

The help comes through the "30 Second Sweat Competition."  For thirty seconds, students write down, as many times as they can, the one problem (and answer) that is giving them the most trouble. I always know what students are working on what problem. When the drill is over, students count how many times they were able to write the problem and answer and we declare a winner. But they all know, success is doing a little better than the last time.

I will also do the Mixed Test with the students writing down only the answers, not the problem. At this stage, they are really working hard to remember because I will do this drill several times, picking up speed as I see they can handle it.

So, for about 15 minutes, we chant, write and say, do mixed tests, and 30 second drills. We then go on to the seconds subset and do that for about 15 minutes. We always have extra pencils and paper available for they will go through them quickly.

We then do the same for the entire table, with the exception of the 30 second drill. This will take 10 minutes.

The final part of MM is  the Game. It's a Mixed Test for the entire table with students writing down the answer only. After a test, students exchange papers, someone calls out the answers, and the papers are graded. I start out giving the problems slowly, three seconds apart or even more, depending on the class and the students who are having trouble; I want them all to get a perfect score on this first test. Then I pick up the speed as we do more tests. If a student misses one problem he or she is out of the competition. We eventually end up with one winner.

But I have conducted a different version of the Game, where no one is eliminated. I do go faster and faster however, putting pressure on their recall. For this version, we pre and post test and the winners are those who improved and those who got a perfect score. Of course, I don't tell them this until just before the Post Test.

There's more to MM but you would have to see me perform to understand. For example, I offer little tricks to help the students remember a problem/answer some are having difficulty with. On one occasion, the teacher told me, "I always had trouble with 7  x 8." From that point, during mixed tests, when I got to that problem, I said, "the teachers." This association helped many of them learn.

After a drill, I might point at a student who, for example, was having trouble with 7 x 9 = 63 and ask, "7 x 9 equal what?" I may do this for two or three students, bam bam bam. This component is essential for success. Please don't forget about it.

Lastly, we always have fun. It's not drill,  drill, drill. It's a blast. I even hold a box of Kleenex, offering one to a student and saying, "If you are going to fold to the pressure, take one." I know exactly which students can handle this teasing and which can't. I may tell a joke (why was 6 afraid of 7? Because 7 ate 9. Ha Ha).

Have fun running MM and let me know if you have any questions at


Friday, October 10, 2014

Jonn Wooden and Details

The Difference is in the Details

Coach Wooden told me, "The difference between the champion and the runner up is often found in the details." Everyone who knows Coach, knows he was a stickler for detail. He had a nauseating contempt for sloppiness and a failure to execute anything "properly." For example, after releasing the basketball for the jump shot, the hand and arm must come back down the same way they went up. In other words, if the shot was filmed and then run backwards from the point of release, this is exactly how it should look. And he always had reasons for his details. The reason for this one was, bringing the hand and arm back in this way ensured the elbow would continue to elevate throughout the shot, a major factor for effective shooting.

In this blog posting, I want to share with you another detail of his that few know about. Adidas came out with it's first basketball shoe in the late 60s. Up to that point, Converse had dominated the market; almost every basketball player in the world was wearing the Chuck Taylor Converse shoe. It was heavy but no one paid attention to that because we didn't know the difference. The Adidas shoe was half the weight. Most of this was due to the invention of the polyurethane sole. It was an amazing shoe; it felt like you weren't wearing anything at all. The only problem with the sole was that it came with a coating on it and was a bit slippery until it was worn and used for some time.

When the shoe came out, Coach Wooden immediately saw the advantage but knew he had to do something about that slippery bottom. He solved the problem. Personally, he rubbed the sole of every shoe with steel wool. 

This blog would be ten pages long if I were to share with you all the details I remember. Suffice it to say, Coach Wooden addressed every single detail. I'll share a few more but there are many.

While most teams used nylon, sleeveless, practice shirts, Coach had us wear cotton T-shirts because they absorbed and disseminated perspiration much better and kept us dryer during the workout.

Pre-game meals consisted of a 16 oz New York steak, baked potato with one TBS butter, peas, melba toast, a mixed fruit cup, and hot tea.

Coach showed us how to put our socks on properly to avoid blisters. If the sock is pulled, it is stretched. A stretched sock will clump in a stretched area and that ball of sock will rub against the foot, causing a blister.

The difference is often in the details.