Monday, January 28, 2008

Playoffs? Who Needs 'em?

Saturday Sportscast

Playoffs? Who needs ‘em

Every year as the college bowls come to an end with the BCS National Championship game, the playoff cries crescendo. It is only heightened as the NFL playoffs get underway. I, for one, do not believe a playoff system is best for college football.

I also do not think they BCS system we have in place at present is best for football either. As bad as this sounds, too much emphasis is placed on wins. If true equity were achieved in college football, wins would matter, but when some conferences like the Big 12 and especially the SEC contain so many superior teams who spend a season beating each other up, a perfect season does not mean so much – especially when it comes from another conference.

LSU and Hawaii proved the point decisively this year. Despite two losses (both in triple overtime), LSU was in the National Championship game after winning the SEC conference title. There, they demolished an overhyped Ohio State team from the Big 10 conference. Ohio State experienced their second throttling in as many years from a SEC team in the championship game.

With the outcry at the exclusion of Hawaii, who had a perfect seaon, ringing louder than the cheering of their fans, they went into the Sugar Bowl to face Georgia, third in the SEC. Those outcries stopped in the first quarter and were forgotten by the time Georgia walked out with a 41 -10 win.

Clearly, the best record does not make for the best team.

If the best record really indicated the best team, the New York Giants would not be in the Superbowl where they face the undefeated New England Patriots. If the best winning record were the indicator, either the Dallas Cowboys or the Green Bay Packers would be there to challenge the Patriots. As it is, the Giants defeated both the Cowboys and the Packers to reach the Superbowl. Along the way the Bucs, Steelers, and Colts lost in games when they were the “better” team.

Although professional sports leagues actively strive for equity; each season lately has proven how much like the college conferences the different professional division are.

There is an old saying that “on any given Sunday (Saturday)” any team can win. With the division of talent as it currently stands, that statement cannot honestly be said.

Next season when the cries for a college playoff begins, keep in mind that a few conferences are going to internally damage one another so much that the win-loss record is going to disqualify some teams that are quite likely stronger than teams the BCS (or a playoff system) may pick. However due to the same inter-conference inequities, the best teams may or may not make it through the playoffs.

And most importantly, we must keep in mind that college sports are played by student athletes. They are not professional. First and foremost, they are students. A playoff scheme only increases the time they are missing class. Tutors and academic assistance are no equal for the time spent learning and having a student life. Is it any wonder these athletes are so quick to bolt from college at professional prospects? They have not connection to the college outside the locker room.

I’ll leave it to those who are smarter than me to come up with a better system for college sports. For now, I’ll just sit back in my recliner, with my laptop, and watch the games on my 50” HDTV.

Friday Foodie - Chocolate Mayo Cake

I'm a few days late: blame the cold I have...

Friday Foodie

Chocolate Mayonnaise Cake

Flavor: Rich chocolaty goodness for all chocolate freaks. One of my favorite comfort desserts.

Texture: Heavy sponge-cake feel

Satisfaction: Among the best of chocolate cakes I've ever tried.

Ingredients: 4 C Four, 2 C Sugar, 8 TBL Cocoa, 2 TSP baking powder, 2 TSP baking soda, 2 C Mayonnaise, 2 C Cold Water, 2 TSP Vanilla

Discussion: I hesitate to even put the central ingredient in the title because it is such a turn-off to many people, yet our grandmothers knew the secret of mayonnaise: mayo = egg + oil, so a recipe with those ingredients could have mayo as a replacement.

Mayo has an effect on some people much as mustard has on other people – you like it or you don’t. A friend I grew up with was so freaked out by mayonnaise, Miracle-Whip, or whatever incarnation it had, he would become physically ill at even smelling it. As kids we had great fun putting mayo in the most unexpected places just to make K. hurl.

Hurling is not generally a topic one brings up in a food column; however, this is the cake I served at my 40th birthday party. K ate some and I’m happy to report – he did not hurl; he didn’t even realize what was in the cake. The flavor is disguised by the rich chocolaty character of the cake.

This is a favorite cake to take to picnics and parties because it travels well and does not need frosting. It comes out much like a pound cake in texture and so is ready to serve right out of the pan. I often lightly glaze the cake, bur rarely frost it since I prefer to bake it in a bundt pan.

As I mentioned, the cake has the texture of a pound cake in density and moistness. It is also one of the easiest cakes I know to make from scratch as the measures are straightforward with no 1/3’s or 1/5ths. The cake can even be easily halved. Just mix, pour, cook, and serve.

I mix together the dry ingredients with a wire whisk to get all the ingredients thoroughly combined. Once these ingredients have been mixed, I add the wet ingredients. Beat for two minutes. Pour into a greased 9 x 13 or bundt pan and bake for 40 to 45 minutes or until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean.

The cake can be frosted, but as I said, I prefer to cook it in the bundt pan and lightly glaze the still warm cake.

From time to time I will pour the batter into the pan in layers. Between the layer of batter I will add chocolate chips (milk chocolate are great) or peppermint chips (easily made by pulsing peppermint candies in a blender or food processor).

WARNING: Do not use fat free mayonnaise or Miracle Whip. Trust me on this one! (The cake will come out about the size and texture of a spare tire.)

Eat up – and let your belt out a notch!

Friday, January 11, 2008

Friday Foodie - Taco Soup

Friday Foodie

Taco Soup

Flavor: spicy with a hint of salty

Texture: substantial soft chunks with contrasting crunch

Satisfaction: in the cold of winter, this treat fills the stomach and takes the chill right out of your body

Ingredients: ground beef (or sausage), taco seasoning package, ranch dressing package, can pinto beans, can hominy, can diced Mexcian stewed tomatoes, can green chilies, onion, grated cheese, tortilla chips

Discussion: The first time I was exposed to taco soup was at an office meal. We had a monthly birthday luncheon and the food was pot-luck. On the cold, rainy, winter day, the soup hit just the right spot and has been on of my favorite winter foods since. I look forward to a cold spell so I can break out this incredibly simple and fast recipe. It is one of the dishes that is as hearty and satisfying with or without the meat.

To begin, brown the meat if you choose, then add some diced onion until they are translucent. Add the package of taco seasoning spice and package of ranch dressing mix and stir together until the meat is covered. Then simply add the can of pinto beans (with jalapenos), can of hominy, can of diced tomatoes, and can of green chilies with the juices from the cans. You may need to add one can of water, but generally do not. Heat all thoroughly over medium heat.

While that is simmering, I dice some more onion, grate the cheese, and crush tortilla chips for serving the meal.

In serving the soup, I place a layer of crushed tortilla chips on the bottom of the bowl and ladle the soup on top. Then I will add some more tortilla chips on the top of the soup with cheese and diced onion.

Some variations I make include using two cans of pinto beans (or pinto beans I had made previously and frozen) instead of meat; using one can of white and one can of yellow hominy for the variety of color; or adding a can of tomato sauce to give it a sharper, more tomatoey flavor.

Taco soup makes a sizable dish any time you make it and it can easily be expanded to make more – just at more cans. As with many dishes with so many flavors, I always find it to be better on the second and third days, so I look forward to the extended cold spells when I know I’m going to look forward to a warm, very flavorful dish that I’ll enjoy having for several days. This is on of the dishes I never get tired of having in left-overs.

Have a good week with lots of good food!

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Vicks Trick

There is an old home-remedy that I have found to work exceptionally well in the last few days. For those with allergies or a cold that causes you to cough uncontrollably, get some Vicks VapoRub and rub it on the bottom of your feet and then wear socks. For me it works especially well at night. However, if your partner, spouse, or hook-up has a foot fetish, you may want to give them a warning.

I don't know why it works, but it has almost stopped my coughing. With all the drainage, I still cough some, but it is nothing compared to the non-stop hacking I had been doing.
I do not do what my grandfather used to do and that is heat it to a liquid and drink a teaspoon full. I just have not been able to bring myself to do that.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

The Gay Sports Challenge

Saturday Sportscast

The Gay Sports Challenge

I think the gay gene is a bit broader than just Broadway musicals and interior decorating, but very often it just gets blocked when it comes to sports. I am certainly not the most athletic guy around and anyone who has ridden in my car lately knows that with the satellite radio, I’m either listening to showtunes or dance music.

But on weekend afternoons, you are as likely to find me in front of the television watching football or basketball. Fortunately, there are only about six weeks in the summer when neither is on (sorry, arena football does not yet count). I enjoy baseball if I can attend the game, but I have not found a sportscaster who can bring baseball as alive on television as the old radio announcers did in the generations when television was in its infancy. Football and basketball I understand enough that I don’t need an announcer telling me what is going on – I did do football play-by-play (and track) for almost ten years.

Last week a friend asked me to watch one of the college bowl games with him and made the suggestion that we could watch it at his house or go to a bar. I killed the bar idea because I talk too much during the games. Those ten years of play-by-play are hard to give up. I’m calling the play, where the ball is downed, and all the details ahead of the announcers on television. I don’t have the rosters memorized like I used to do when calling the high school games, but I do know most of the key players by the end of the first quarter in college games.

It was a pleasure to spend the game with him because I have such a struggle finding a gay friend with whom I can watch sports. Despite the striving for physical perfection in the gay community, a certain disdain for actual athletic competition comes up when a reference is made to professional sports. It is one thing to spend hours in the gym each week but quite another to enjoy men who spend even more time in the gym challenging each other on the playing field. I have always been challenged to understand that disconnect.

The disconnect continues when it comes to participation – there are gay sports leagues in most major cities for softball, volleyball, rugby (yeah rugby men!), and basketball. They Gay Games traditionally follows the Olympic calendar and the Olympic host cities. Even many of those participants do not follow professional sports. Every good friend I have who is active in any of the gay sports leagues (and who have competed in the Gay Games) still reject professional sports.

In the past year there have been rumors or professional athletes who are gay and one former professional basketball player actually came out as well as former professional football players. Sadly, no currently active team male athlete has come out as gay. The lack of active gay athletes is costing the leagues the gay support.

I think the lack of out gay players has created the gay sports challenge. Despite the quest for physical perfection and the enjoyment of playing sports with other gay men, the absence of gay athletes has turned off the connection to professional sports. When we have a superstar quarterback or power forward or home-run slugger come out as gay, to put it in economic terms, the gay dollars will come flowing into that sport.

The gay community has made remarkable progress in almost every aspect of society but sports remains a frontier to be crossed. I am not a fan of outing people. Coming out is too personal to be forced (unless you are a homophobic homosexual politician who is doing harm to the community by your lies). Professional athletes, performers, and each of us has the right to make that decision, but I do implore the gay athletes to take that stand and begin to change the attitudes affecting homosexuals in sports. It has worked in politics, entertainment and in most professional settings. It is time for gay male athletes to step up to the plate, so to speak.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Friday Foodie - Mac and Cheese #1

Friday Foodie

Mac and Cheese #1

Flavor: varies based on the spices

Texture: see discussion below

Satisfaction: see discussion below

Ingredients: Pasta, cheese sauce (cheese, butter, cream, spices)

Discussion: I think the food that ended 2007 as my new fascination will be the food of 2008. When I was a child, the only type of macaroni and cheese we ever ate was from the blue box. The next nearest thing to mac and cheese was a casserole with pasta, ham (or spam), and velveeta. As a result, I grew up thinking macaroni and cheese was a salty unsatisfying food.

Anyone who knows me well, and my Friday dinner companions generally do, knows that I sometimes like food or drink with my salt, so for me to call a dish “salty and unsatisfying is really saying something.”

However, in 2007, I started reading Eric’s comments about S’mac in New York I begged him to take me there. I was so anti-macaroni and cheese, that I couldn’t imagine the journey he would make across town to eat at a restaurant that only served mac and cheese. When I made the visit to New York in October he took me and I discovered macaroni existed outside the blue box and it opened my mind to the possibilities.

Since that visit, I have spent considerable time in the cheese aisles at the grocery store and have started experimenting with good sauces. Do some reading about cheese to see what you like and what your wallet and diet can afford. To date, I have avoided anything premade, as part of the joy in cooking is manipulating the taste to just what you want it to be.

The basic cheese sauce includes milk, cheese, and butter. Many of the recipes I’ve found call for egg to be added, but for my taste that creates too much of a custard feel to the sauce and when baked it becomes to solid and fluffy to be anything I would continue to call “sauce.” From there it can be taken myriad directions with the selection of cheeses used, spices added into the mix, and level of creaminess. All in all, a sauce can be made that matches your taste.

When selecting the ingredients, do not skimp and do not attempt to be too healthy with it. Low-fat and fat-free cheeses do not melt well and end up creating a trans-fat-full greasy mess. Macaroni and cheese is a home-style comfort food and deserves to have full taste and texture which you do not get from substandard ingredients. When you eat mac and cheese be prepared for a meal full of carbs and fat and just accept it for it’s pleasing goodness.

Making the sauce does take time. Don’t rush the process and use the proper tools. I rely on the double boiler to make my cheese sauces, sure the microwave will melt the cheese and other ingredients, but cooking it in the double boiler where you have to stir and mix the ingredients as they melt gives that “grandmother’s touch” to the food and makes it taste so much better. Melting the cheese on direct heat offers too great a chance for scorching and thus ruining the entire pan.

It is also important to select good pasta. When making macaroni and cheese, it is not always necessary to stick with the namesake pasta, I have tried a variety of pastas with it and found that it works others as well, but they need to be a pasta that has a shape to collect the cheese – not a flat pasta like fettuccini or solid like spaghetti. Now that most grocery stores are selling pastas made from a variety of grains, be aware that changing the grain changes the flavor and the pasta may not meld with the cheese in the same way. Last week I used a whole wheat penne with a spicy muenster/mix cheese sauce; it felt like cornbread in my mouth. The taste was awesome, but the texture caught me off guard, so be prepared for any kind of change when you experiment with the pasta because that is what gives the dish its substance.

Prepare the pasta according to package directions prior to mixing with the cheese sauce. Generally macaroni and cheese is baked after the ingredients are put together, so I like to leave it somewhat al dente so it can continue to absorb some of the liquids from the sauce.

A basic cheese sauce can be made from 1 cup milk or half-and-half, 2 cups grated cheese (or small cubes), and two tablespoons of butter. Mix all together in the top of a double boiler and melt. If the cheese is a very dry one, sometimes I will cut the amount to 1 ½ cups and use ½ cup of cream cheese as that helps the sauce reach the creamy texture I like. I have found some of the drier cheeses can maintain a gritty texture even after melted. The cream cheese minimizes that grittiness without influencing the flavor.

As I perfect some specific recipes, I will be including them throughout the year. Until then, welcome enjoy playing with the basics on your own and create your own signature mac and cheese and enjoy hearty eating through 2008!

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Big A** Hole

For many in education, the winter break is a time to really relax and get recharged before the long spring semester and sprint to the end of the year. I’ve spent the break working on a long-overdue project: installing the hot tub!

My back yard is now a big hole or mound of dirt. The hole is 69” X 69” X 21”. Now I’m working on the plumbing, electrical work, and construction of the deck around the tub. But getting it the way I wanted took some real digging, and I have to give credit to my buddy C. for doing at least ¾ of the work on the hole.

Yes, it’s a big a** hole!

Monotechnical Again

I’m back to being monotechnical again. In August, I was actually happy to have branched out and attempted to move from pure PC by purchasing a Macbook. The going was rocky because the operations truly are so different, but I figured that with time, I would be as proficient with Apple as I am with PC.

Four months later and I’m doing well not to throw the Macbook at a wall every time I try to use it.

I didn’t know there was something I couldn’t learn, but I have found something. The Macbook is a pretty looking machine, but that is the only nice thing you will hear me saying about it.

The Mac fans (freaks) brag about the simplicity of the machines. After four months I have yet to find anything simple about the Apple. The logic behind Apple programs does not match my logic. I learned to use computers on Apples and never liked them. Nothing has changed in the intervening fifteen years.

From the first time I began work on a PC, it worked beautifully for me. The logic behind it matched my way of thinking and I was able to fully use it right away.

So, last week, I ordered another new laptop – a Dell again because of the professional discount I get. It took me just a little while to get it set up the way I wanted and I was off and running with it and am happy.

I admit when I’m beat – and Apple beat me. I simply cannot use them and have no desire to try them again. Check out Craigslist – there will be a barely used Macbook for sale cheap!