Sunday, November 15, 2009

Relish Review & Giveaway

I was recently contacted by the owners of Relish! Menu Planning website to see if I was interested in reviewing their website. I have *long* been trying to get better at menu planning, so of course I jumped at the chance. They provided me with one month's access to their site so I could really get a feel for how it worked. Below is my review!

Being good at menu planning is a skill. You have to set aside time to plan out your weekly dinners and shopping lists, and sticking to it can be tricky. When I've done my own weekly menu planning in the past, I've been *so* happy with the results....I love knowing that I have a week's worth of delicious dinners planned, and that my one or two grocery trips have procured all the ingredients I need for the week. It's a satisfying feeling. However, I'm not great at remembering to do it, and even when I do remember, sometimes picking recipes can be overwhelming. Enter Relish!, the meal planning website!

Their concept is simple: have a list of varying recipes that subscribers can pick from, then compile the recipes (and the shopping list!!) into an easy to print PDF format. Their execution of this idea is fantastic. To begin, there is a list of 15 or so dinner recipes, and you check off the five you are interested in. There are vegetarian options, seafood options, and traditional meat options ( they even have a gluten-free menu planning site!). Then, you can go print off the menus and best of all, the shopping list! The shopping list is wonderful; the ingredients are separated into sections that include things you probably already have in your home, things you may have in your home, and then the rest of the ingredients. Each ingredient also has a letter designation next to it that corresponds with the recipe that it's for; that way, should you decided not to make a certain recipe, you can easily find the ingredients and cross them off the shopping list.

Each recipe has been tested and tried to make sure it's tasty. There are kid-friendly options as well as lower-calorie recipes, and nutritional information is provided for each recipe. There's even a way you can save your favorite recipes so you can add them to any weekly menu! Also, there's a freezer recipe section that allows you to print out recipes that you can stock in the freezer. I'm telling you, the layout and design of this site is really great.

The two things that I thought could be improved upon are recipe variety and also good use of leftovers. For frugal use of leftovers, maybe something along the lines of being able to choose roast chicken as a meal, and then have a subsequent meal made from the leftovers, like chicken enchiladas, soup made from the stock of the chicken bones, etc. Or have grilled steak one night, and then choose a steak salad recipe for another night. As far as recipe choice, I would have like slightly more options to choose from. The selection is still pretty good, but a few more would have been even better. Sometimes I found myself choosing meals that didn't sound all that appealing just so I could finish out my 5 recipes.

All in all, though, I think this is a good website with a great idea and wonderful execution. And.....Relish! has provided me with a one year subscription to their website to give away ($58.80 value)! Awesome!

Here's the skinny:
How to enter: leave a comment on this post telling me what you are making or having for dinner tonight (I'm a total food voyeur and I'm always looking for ideas!). I'll close comments at 11:59 p,m. mountain time on November 20th, 2009 and I'll have pick a number for a winner. I'll email the winner (so leave your email in your comment or make sure I can access it via your profile!!) and they will have 48 hours to get back to me, if they don't, will draw a new number. One comment per person, and entry is limited to those with US shipping addresses. Good luck!

***Comments are closed and a winner has been chosen! Congratulations to number 10,
I'm Anitra!!***

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

A few hikes with my girl

Lila and I went on a few short hikes this week (1.6 miles and 1.8 miles, respectively) to try and enjoy the last of this beautiful fall weather! I love rain and snow, but these warm fall days have been so lovely.

Lila *loves* the outdoors; she really connects with all aspects of nature. She loves to stop and inspect bugs and rocks and's truly a joy to be in the outdoors with her. Although she seriously scared me today--we were exploring some scenic flat rocks next to the trail, and she said "ooh look a snake!" I looked closer and it was a baby rattlesnake! It was curled up, sunning itself on the rock. Whoa!

Anyway, here are some picture highlights from our adventures this week:

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

My Little Pony: Twinkle Wish Adventure DVD review and giveaway!

****Contest closed, winner chosen, details at bottom of post*****
We just received 2 copies of the upcoming release, My Little Pony: Twinkle Wish Adventure DVD: one to review and one to giveaway! I'll give you my review first, and giveaway details will be after that. First, let me tell you a little more about this DVD. From the website:
"All the ponies can’t wait for the Winter Wishes festival where the Wishing Star grants each pony one special wish. But when the Wishing Star disappears, they go on a journey to find it. But will they make it back in time for the festival? Join Pinkie Pie and all her pony friends on their journey as they discover that friendship can make wishes come true!"
It will be available for purchase on October 13, but you can win one now, from moi! Lemme review it, and then I'll get to the good part (free movie!).

Lila enjoyed the movie, but I mean, there was nothing wrong with it, I just found it a little cutesy and nothing special. There are some shows and movies that I love watching with Lila, shows that I find smart and cute and funny and enjoyable for all age levels, and this one doesn't quite fit the bill. I guess my best description is that it's nothing above average; a lot of children's tv is like that, in my opinion, so this is nothing unusual. However, like I said, Lila enjoyed it, so it was a hit there! I'm sure kids around her age would enjoy it very much. Her favorite parts were the songs; she liked those the best by a long shot. And the songs are catchy, I'll give them that! Another thing that I did like was the color of some of the scenery....beautiful muted pastels in some of the scenes, very nice to the eye! Also, there are a whole bunch of extras on the DVD, including all the songs that are in the movie as well as different activities (coloring sheets, a letter to Santa, things like that).

Should you want to purchase this DVD from Toys R Us, Shout Factory has nicely provided a coupon for you to print out (click to make it bigger):

Now, would ya like to win your own copy for a little one in your life? Read on!

How to enter: leave a comment on this post telling me your favorite movie from your childhood. I'll close comments at 11:59 p,m. mountain time on October 7th, 2009 and I'll have pick a number for a winner. I'll email the winner (so leave your email in your comment!!) and they will have 48 hours to get back to me, if they don't, will draw a new number. One comment per person, and entry is limited to those with US shipping addresses. Good luck!

(oh, and I have two favorite movies from childhood: The Last Unicorn and an obscure anime version of Swan Lake)

***And the winner is....#57, Tiffany819! Thank you all so much for participating!***

Cook Street School of Fine Cooking

**UPDATE at the end of the post! All's well that ends well!**

Cook Street School of Fine Cooking in Denver, CO is run terribly, and I would recommend that you stay far away from them! Here's my story:

Okay, so. 2 years ago I received, as a present from my Dad and Terry, a gift card to Cook Street School of Fine Cooking in Denver. I was so excited because I had never taken a cooking class but had always really wanted to. I looked through all of their classes, and decided that I wanted to sign up for some of their holiday cooking classes. I had to wait until they were offered again, though, so I bided my time until they were available again. Last November, just about one year ago, I signed up for two classes, Holiday Candy and Holiday Pies. Cook Street ended up canceling the Holiday Pies class, and said they would refund me for that class on a new gift card since they don't refund money to an existing gift card, they just give you a new one. When I attended the Holiday Candy class, I got my new gift card, which had $79 on it. I also had about $40 left on the original gift card that was left over after initially paying for the 2 classes up front. So I had 2 gift cards, one with $79 and one with about $40 on it. With me so far?

I decided a few weeks ago that I wanted to take a class called Steak and Scotch. I emailed Cook Street with my card numbers and info, and asked to sign up for the class. One day later, I get a call from an assistant to a manager, informing me that gift cards are only valid from one year of purchase (which I did not know, their policy was unclear) and that my first gift card with the $40 on was expired. The second gift card was fine, I was told, but it didn't have quite enough on it to cover the class...I would need $10 more. I was unhappy that I had been unaware of this policy, and told her I was not interested in paying anything for the class, and to cancel my enrollment. A few minutes later, her boss, the front of house manager, called me back to explain that she would go ahead and apply $10 from my expired gift card to the class, and I could still take it if I wanted to. I thought that was great, and was very happy that they decided to work with me on this. I signed back up for the class.

The next day, I get a call back from the manager, Tina. She said she was having trouble with the accounting on their end and it appeared that the money on my $79 card wasn't really there, or had been used, or had never been applied, or something. I explained to her exactly what happened with the Holiday Pies class, and she said she would check with her accountant and get back to me. We had several back and forth communications about this because she apparently was having a lot of trouble figuring out her end, and I just kept telling her what I knew and what had happened from my end. She did check her records and finally found that what I told her was exactly what happened, and she informed me that she'd okay me for the class again. I was getting the opinion that their records weren't in the best shape, though.

This morning, I get an email from Tina saying that their records are now showing that my $79 gift card paid for a Wines of Spain class for someone named xxxx(not gonna post this poor lady's name). She said I could pay $46 from my own pocket if I still wanted to attend the Steak and Scotch class. I have never heard of the person who attended this class, I never signed up for or paid for that class, and none of this is my fault or my job to figure out. I am livid. I replied to Tina the following:

On second thought, maybe we should just cancel everything. I have never heard of [redacted] and I never paid for or signed up for the Wines of Spain class. I feel like this is too big of a hassle, when all I wanted to do was use my remaining money on my gift cards, that were a gift to me from my father, to take the Scotch and Steak class but this is really turning into much bigger of an issue than I want to be dealing with. I paid for and attended Holiday Candy last year. I signed up for Holiday Pies last year as well, but Cook Street canceled that class, so I should have been refunded for that class. I have not purchased anything else from your establishment. All of the other issues are on your end.

I would like to make sure that I get the $79 from the gift card, though. I will spend it in your shop so I don't lose the value entirely. However, I am left with a very bad taste in my mouth regarding all of this.....the mess ups on your back end are not my fault, yet I feel like I am "to blame" or left to try and figure out what happened. I should have money on my gift card, number [redacted], please make sure that I will have $79 to spend on it.

Cancel my enrollment in the Steak and Scotch Class.

Ugh. In conclusion, Cook Street does NOT have their crap together, and I would recommend that you stay far far away from Cook Street School of Fine Cooking in Denver.

I received an email from the COO of Cook Street, who told me that they would make everything right, and she apologized for all of the issues. Apparently a staff member somehow ran my card number to pay for some random person's purchases. I don't know how or why that happened, and I don't care. Cook Street is willing to make this right, and they apologized. That is all I wanted, so I'm very pleased! Thank you, Cook Street COO, for your quick response and for making things right!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

My longest blog post ever.

Uh oh, I think I'm on a crusade. You've been warned. I just finished reading “$20 Per Gallon” by Christopher Steiner, who is a civil engineer and senior staff writer for Forbes magazine, and it has me in a tizzy. I'm about to evangelize, so grab a mug of your favorite drink and pull up your chair....Ready?

I won a copy of this book a few weeks ago, (it had actually been on my library list for awhile, since I heard an interview with the author on NPR) and I'm enthralled.
The book deals with what our world might look like as the we run out of oil and the price of gasoline climbs steadily higher. It's broken down into chapters that address how each new raise in price, in increasing increments of $2/gallon, will change our world and our lives. The book starts out with what life might be like when gas reaches $6/gallon, which seems to be just around the corner.

First, let me say that Christopher Steiner has really done his homework. He's traveled all over the world and interviewed so many different people and accumulated a whole bunch of data. He's not some nutter going off with half-baked ideas....this is a well-reasoned, well-thought out, well-researched book. Let's begin:

He details exhaustive research which supports the idea that our world's supply of oil is going away. Steiner thinks that world oil fields are either at the peak of production (meaning the only way to go is down) or are already in decline. There are no more mega-fields left to discover, and the enormous explosion of the middle class around the world (for example in China, India, and other emerging economies) means demand for oil is only going to go up and up and up. People who are becoming middle class and who have more money to spend want cars and cheap plastic goods and oil to heat their homes, just like we in the US have, and their numbers are multiplying exponentially. The world has less oil, yet demand for oil will only go higher. All of this means prices are going to go steadily up, and we'll probably be seeing $6/gallon in the next few years (in fact, Jeffrey Rubin, an economist and chief strategist/managing director for CIBC World Markets, has predicted we'll see $7/gallon by 2010) Many refineries and wells around the world are old and in bad condition—they need fixing and retrofitting. The cost of upgrading old, breaking down refineries and extraction wells and squeezing every last drop of oil from the earth is VERY expensive. Guess where that cost ultimately goes? Yep, to the consumer, making the price of oil go up. The mega-fields, like in Saudi Arabia, are not as expensive to extract oil from, but Steiner believes that those fields are either at peak production now or are already in decline.

Currently, we rely on oil for heating our homes, for making all the cheap plastic goods that litter our lives, for transporting goods and people, for keeping our military running (the military spent more than $7 BILLION on jet fuel in 2008) for making asphalt*, etc.; our modern society is pretty much built on and around oil (amazing to think this has really happened in the last 75 years or so....we've become so utterly dependent on oil, which is a very finite resource, in a breathtakingly short amount of time). We will find new ways to deal with some of these issues.....but probably not until we have to, because people do not change until forced, as any quick glance at history can show you.

The most obvious result of high oil prices is going to be no more cars as we know them. However, the more interesting changes will be ones many people haven't thought about:
People will want to move back to urban centers where they can walk, bike, or take public transportation to where they need to go. (In 2008, when gas hit $4/gallon, public transport systems in the US had 300 million more uses than the year before. That happened at only $4/gallon! ) All of the trips and errands that make up our daily lives will have to be easily accessible without using a car. Grocery stores, restaurants, doctors offices, nail salons, schools, gyms, liquor stores.... all of these places and more will have to be easy to get to without using a gasoline-fueled car.** Suburbia will mostly disappear, thinks Steiner, because that kind of lifestyle will be unsustainable. I can believe him. Where we live now, in a heavily suburban area outside of Denver, it's over a mile to the nearest grocery store and restaurant. After that, it's about 5 miles to the town center where most of the shops and offices are located. When gas gets to $6/gallon and above, it will be VERY expensive to sustain our lives will simply cost too much to get around to all the places we need to go. We have a light-rail train that can take us into Denver, but other than that, there is no public transportation system to speak of-- certainly nothing we could rely on to get us where we need to go around town. Putting something like that in place would take lots of time and loads of money, neither of which are in abundance.

More changes: we'll have to get used to no more air travel, except for very special occasions (although the very rich will still be able to afford it). All but a very few airlines will become extinct in a very short time--they almost couldn't survive @ $4/gallon last year, and even when prices fall below $4, most are not profitable.*** How we make plastic goods will have to change---current plastics are made from petroleum. There are new, biodegradable plastics (bioplastics) made from bacteria and sugar that are already on the market, in fact. They are expensive to make and produce, but once gas hits about $10/gallon, they will be the plastics of choice. The foods we eat will largely be locally farmed and raised (sushi will be a treat of the past for many people, and when sushi is splurged on in one of the dwindling remaining restaurants, it will be filled with fresh local fish instead of ahi or bluefin caught and shipped from halfway across the globe). Wal-Marts and other big box stores will either become extinct or will change so much we'd hardly be able to recognize them in their new forms—no more cheap plastic junk, no more crap throwaway furniture made in China. We'll be thinner and healthier, our air will be cleaner, we'll take high-speed trains and ships for long distance travel and public transportation or walking and riding bikes for shorter distances, we'll be forced to find alternate methods to heat our homes, and on and on and on. (oh, and hey all you sail-boaters, kayakers, and'll be getting your lakes back! Noisy motorboats, jet-skis, speedboats and the like will be gone.)

One small tidbit that might demonstrate how quickly these changes could start occuring:
In 2007, the Houston Police Department spent $11 million on gasoline. (Its budget for gasoline that year was “only” $8.7 million.) For the sake of argument, let's say that the average price of gas for that year was $3/gallon. When gas goes to $6/gallon in the next few years, Houston will have to spend $22 million on gasoline--I doubt they'll be able to afford it. More officers will have to walk or ride bikes. Now think about that on a large scale....what a HUGE change that will be for our police departments and our cities, and that's just talking about how police will patrol!

(As a side note, one of the things the author mentions will happen will be the rise of clean diesel. Diesel can get about 50% more mileage out of a gallon than gasoline can. This can't last for a long time because diesel is made from oil, but in the very short term we'll see a huge rise in clean diesel cars and trucks. Just last week, I saw a commercial for new clean diesel Volkswagens, and watching ESPN2 today I saw a commercial for BMW's new line of clean diesel cars. It's happening now!)

But this is not a gloom and doom, “the sky is falling” book. Steiner is saying things are gonna change and change big, but it's nothing to be afraid of. Thousands of less deaths from car accidents will occur each year, much less pollution will fill our air and water and lungs, we'll be thinner and healthier, and we'll be witness to the flourishing of so so many new inventions, research fields, and technologies. We'll invent a new future because we'll have to. Hopefully by the time gasoline reaches $20/gallon, we won't be relying on oil. We'll have changed how we live. New industries and technologies and inventions will have sprung up everywhere because of the enormous void left by oil. Human ingenuity will rise to the task! Of course, Steiner is going to be wrong about some stuff...he's not psychic. However, I think he'll be correct about a lot more than he's wrong about. All in all, I'm left with feelings of excitement and anticipation....the future picture that Steiner paints looks great to me.

*Asphalt is made from the crud left at the bottom of the container once oil has been refined and mined for gasoline, diesel, etc. Most houses are shingled with roofing tiles made from asphalt, which is cheap (for now) but inefficient—it needs replacing ever 10 to 15 years and is awful at insulation. Our roads are covered in asphalt; 94% of all roads in the US are covered in it---that's more than 4 million miles.

** Christopher Steiner seems to think that electric cars are the most likely option for our future. They allow us to retain the things we like about our cars, meaning the little luxury items like power locks and stereos and heaters and such. Some of the other alternative-fuel cars that are being invented, like a French inventor's car that's powered by air, will be too small and not workable enough for US car consumers. It, and others like it, will probably find a niche market but won't sell millions of units. However, electric cars can fit comfortably with what we like. One major problem: there's no network or infrastructure in place to accommodate re-fueling of electric cars, and putting one in place is insanely expensive. That problem will have to be worked out before we become a nation filled with electric car drivers.

***Most airlines' budgets are comprised of a staggering 60% allocation for fuel. Money for insurance, unions, advertising, etc....all of that is included in the 40% left in the budget after fuel costs. It is easy to see how these giants will fall, and fall fast.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Peter Rabbit Organics Review

A few weeks ago, I got the opportunity to review Peter Rabbit Organics Fruit Pouches. I'd been hearing/reading about them for awhile, and was excited to get the chance to try the product for myself.

First, let me share with you a little about this U.K.-based company. From their website:

PR Organics is a small, privately-owned company; we are passionate about what we do and we have a lot of fun working together.

The company was founded by Elizabeth and Mark Buxton for the simple reason that they couldn't find organic children's food with no added sugar in the shops. Elizabeth and Mark are now proud grandparents to Finlay, and they have passed the carrot-baton on to us.

And now, onto the fruit pouches! I'm going to copy and paste from their website again to describe the pouches:

Our fruit pouches contain organic fruit with no added sugar or artificial ingredients. Similar to squeezable drink pouches, they’re easy to drop into a diaper bag, lunch box or purse without breaking like glass jars or spilling like other snacks. Unopened pouches don’t need to be kept in the refrigerator, so they’re great for car trips and play dates.

Peter Rabbit Organics pouches contain a full serving of fruit and are ideal for babies ready for solid food, as well as toddlers and elementary-aged kids. Kids will enjoy the fruit straight from the pouch – no spoons required! They have a thick texture, which kids love, as we don't dilute them with water or juice. Plus, choke-free caps make them safe for the little ones.

Okay, finally, what I (and more importantly, Lila) thought about them!

We received 3 flavors:

- Strawberry and Banana

- Mango, Banana & Orange

- Apple and Grape

and my first thought was that I *loved* the packaging. It's small, it's portable, it's re-closeable, it DOES NOT need to be refrigerated until it's opened, it's not messy....seriously, this packaging is great. Lila gets so tired of raisins or fruit leather as our go-to "on the go" snack. (You know, like you've got 5 minutes until you have to leave and the shoes aren't on and the hair hasn't been brushed and you still need to find a snack to take with you) I'm happy that I can add another easy "take it and run" snack to our stash, and that it's all natural, no sugar added, and organic!

Lila really like the flavor of the Strawberry & Banana and Mango Banana Orange pouches, but she wasn't at all into the flavor of the Apple and Grape package. However, our neighbor kiddo (who is 4) loved the Apple and Grape, he thought it tasted like applesauce (which I guess it kind of is!).

All in all, I think these are a great new addition to the snack shelf. I'm pleased I got the chance to review them! Thanks, Peter Rabbit Organics!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

What's On Your Nightstand?

This is my first time participating in What's On Your Nightstand, and I'm pretty late (everyone else did theirs in June). But I'm here!

I'm reading 2 historical nonfictions right now, and am loving one and think the other is okay.

The first is The Devil In The White City by Erik Larson. This one is for book club with my neighbors. It's about the World's Fair in Chicago at the end of the 19th century, and about one of America's first serial killers, H.H. Holmes, who was operating in Chicago at the same time. The book is completely fascinating, and it is so well written! I'll be sad when this one is over.

The second book I'm reading right now is The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale. The subject is so engrossing: it's about a murder mystery in mid-Victorian England, and is pretty much what all the subsequent mystery books about country-house murders are based from. The case was covered extensively at the time, so there is loads of historical details, which is great. And like I said, the subject is so interesting, but I'm finding the writing to be a little lackluster. I'll finish it, because I cannot wait to know how it all turns out, but it will be despite the writing, not because of it.

A fabulous book that I just finished, and MUST MUST recommend, is called The Name of The Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. It is by far one of the best fantasy novels that I've read in years. I was spellbound from the first chapter. I am *so sad* that the second book in the series isn't out yet! Also, the author is very, very cool. He's a sci-fi convention loving geek, he used to be an advisor to the feminist club at his local college, and he loves TV. I mean, seriously. How on Earth could I not love this guy??

So, what's on your nightstand??