Thursday, September 29, 2011

Best Staged Plans by Claire Cook

I was in our local library a couple of weeks ago, browsing through some of their new book offerings and was drawn to this book by it's very attractive cover and intriguing title. I'm glad I decided to add it to the pile of books I had already chosen that day.

Best Staged Plans is the first Claire Cook novel I've read but it certainly won't be my last. Not only is this book an entertaining story from start to finish; it also has some life lessons for readers to consider personally and long after the last page has been turned.

Sandy Sullivan, the main character in the story is a home stager, living in Boston. In case you aren't familiar with this occupation, it's a person who helps to bring a house/property up to speed and looking it's best, before putting it up for sale. Well, right off the bat, the author had my attention.

Home staging is something I've been doing for years, on a free basis for friends and family. I have a knack for this it seems as in every case the seller made (a lot) more money on the sale of their homes than they or the realtors had initially anticipated. It's something I love to do!

Back to the book...when there's something that I can relate to this closely in a story, it usually follows that the book will definitely pique my interest. Reading about Sandy's experiences helping various clients throughout the book and some staging tips as well, brought back some good memories for me.

But staging homes and quirky clients are just a small part of what makes this such an enjoyable read. Sandy struggles with a number of challenges in her family relationships and is badly in need of a break from the routines of her everyday life. A trip to Atlanta to work with a boyfriend of her best friend, who is getting a small hotel ready for sale ends up only complicating things further. Along the way, she meets and befriends a homeless woman and here's where the story takes yet another interesting turn. One that brought tears to my eyes. And later, smiles. But I won't spoil the story by saying too much!

This truly is a wise, witty and well-written story. Author, Claire Cook's personal story is very interesting and inspiring too. Stop by Claire to read about her own journey from being a teacher to becoming a novelist in mid-life. A dream that she had on the back-burner for many years. A re-invention story that has inspired me so much, as I work on my first novel. My first novel I'll actually finish, I should say!

Satisfying, funny, touching and with a message about homelessness that can't be expressed enough.

There is a lot more to this book than just a great cover. Good to the last page!

Overall rating for this book: Excellent. 5 out of 5.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Sol Cuisine Original Burger (meatless)


If you've been stopping by recently here at My Real Life Reviews, you'll already know that I've been on a quest to find a better commercial meatless burger. You can read about some of the challenges I've encountered in this search at this previous post.

I'm happy to share that my search appears to be over after trying Sol Cuisine Original Burger, last night. I am impressed by this product.

Here's the good news about Sol Cuisine Original Burger:

  • A great taste. Not over the top, spiced just right.
  • Nice meaty texture. Meat-lovers would like these too I think. 
  • Only a 109 calories per patty/burger.
  • A generous size patty, over 3 oz. each.
  • A good vegetarian protein source with 15 gr. protein per burger.
  • Sodium content acceptable at 290 mg. per burger, much less than most commercial veggie burgers.
  • An ingredient list that's easy to read and to stomach. Check out the U.S. and Canadian links here for specific ingredient list depending on where you live. They do vary a bit.
  • No trans fats.
  • Easy to prepare.
  • Reasonably priced. 4 burger pack was $6.19 at our local food co-op.
  • 100% Vegan.
  • Wheat and gluten free.
  • Minimal and recyclable packaging.

Did I find anything that I didn't like about these meatless burgers?

 Well, a couple of things but both rather minor, considering all the pluses.

First, could not find a "best before" date anywhere on the package. I like to see an expiry date on products and on both boxes I purchased, couldn't find this information.

I also cooked the patties longer than was suggested on the package. I used a grill, oiled with vegetable oil and cooked product from frozen state as suggested. I allowed about 4 minutes at medium-high heat on both sides of burgers. I don't think the 2-3 minutes suggested is quite sufficient, when you are starting with a frozen patty that's fairly thick (about 1/2") .

The burgers stayed together nicely (no crumbling edges!) after they were cooked and for taste-testing purposes I did not add any sauces or spices while I was cooking them or afterwards, to ensure that the actual taste of the burgers was what I'd be able to share here. I'm happy to say that the taste stood up well, all on it's own!

If you've been looking for a tasty and satisfying alternative to meat burgers or you are already a vegetarian or vegan and want to have a convenient and delish burger choice, ready to cook from your freezer, give Sol Cuisine's Original Burger a try.

 I've tried a lot of commercial veggie burgers over the years. By now, I can definitely spot a winner, when I taste one!

Overall rating for this product: Very Good. 4 out of 5.
Updated rating ( Feb. 2013...see comment below): Unsatisfactory. 1 out of 5.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Way of the Peaceful Warrior by Dan Millman

I finally got around to reading this book, after hearing so much about it (mostly good) for a long, long time. Make that "attempted" to read this book. After the first couple of chapters, I just couldn't waste any more time with it.

You guessed it.... just plain BAD!

I had heard about Dan Millman's story and his chance meeting with the mysterious and wise man: "Socrates" several times. I had been under the impression until I began reading the book itself (and not just snippets of reviews etc) that this was a completely authentic life story. It is not.

In Millman's own words from the preface of the book: "This story is based on my adventure, but it is a novel. The man I called Socrates did, in fact exist. Yet he had a way of blending into the world, so it's been difficult at times to tell where he left off and other teachers and life experiences began. I have taken liberties with the dialogue and some time sequences and have sprinkled anecdotes and metaphors into the story to highlight the lessons Socrates would want me to convey."

Ummm...already the alarm bells were going off for me.

Yes, it's fine to write a novel. But is it still ok if that novel is based almost completely around the author's interactions and conversations with a main character who actually lived? Where does reality fade and the fantasy begin? Make up your mind Dan Millman!

The credibility issues were already there for me. Add to that, Millman's own life story (the undisputed real one!) struggling for years to make ends meet. Dead end jobs that left him financially strapped and looking for ways to improve his lot in life.

Presto: the Peaceful Warrior has certainly done that for him and then some. Millman has gone on to write a number of follow-up books too including a companion edition to the Peaceful Warrior. Seems this whole magical experience of interacting with his buddy Socrates has paid off very well indeed. No more struggling! And as far as his writing abilities, this is written at about a pre-teen level. It's choppy, amateurish and pretentious. No....make that grade-school level. Especially for fairy tale lovers.

Here's a (oh so candid) review of this book, from Amazon:

 Way of the Peaceful Warrior: A Book That Changes Lives (Paperback):

Way of the Peaceful Warrior changed me. It transformed me into a being who will never trust the title of a book again. The degree pseudo-intellectualism and ridiculous insight within the pages of this book are only surpassed by the one-dimensionalness of the characters. I was forced by an employer to read this book and it only took a glance at the cover art and quick scan of the blurb to blow the top off of my lame-o-meter. The "sage" is a rude mystic who seems to hide every nugget of insight within a crusty coating of belittling insults. The progagonist is a somewhat dense, however sexually satisfied jock, who undergoes supernatural experiences vaguely reminiscent of peyote induced spirit quests. The entire time I read this story, I felt like I was listening to the ramblings of a person who has been brainwashed by a cult. If I were less opinionated, I would say that this book is not for me. Because I AM so opinionated, I'd say this book is not for anyone. If you haven't bought it, don't. If you have already purchased it, you could use it as a coaster. Aaron Boyd.

Aaron...I gather this book won't be on your Christmas gift-giving list either?

There are all sorts of fans of this book over at Amazon but also a lot of people who thought it was just another "get rich quick" venture for the author as I unfortunately have to agree with. I had high expectations for this book. It's sad that they were dashed before I got very far reading it. Definitely NOT what I hoped for or expected.

Overall rating for this book: BAD. 0 out of 5.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Food for Life Organic Sprouted Whole Grain Tortillas

I've been looking for a good alternative to the chemical-laced tortillas that are available in most grocery stores, for quite a while. When I don't want to take the time to make my own tortillas, it's nice to know there is a good commercial choice that doesn't make a person cringe, reading the ingredient list.

Food for Life to the rescue!

Not only do these tortillas have a better than average list of simple, natural ingredients; they also have a wonderful, nutty flavour that works well with all kinds of wrap/tortilla fillings. I recently made a batch of summer veggie wraps using these tortillas and they were oh, so delish. A quick warm-up on the grill (a couple of minutes on each side) really adds to the flavor these tortillas. They have a great aroma too.

Some additional information about this product from the Food for Life Website:

Inspired by the Holy Scripture verse "Take also unto thee Wheat and Barley and Beans and Lentils and Millet and Spelt and put them in one vessel and make bread of it." - EZEKIEL 4:9

INGREDIENTS: Organic Sprouted Whole Wheat, Filtered Water, Organic Unhulled Sesame Seeds, Organic Sprouted Whole Soybeans, Organic Sprouted Whole Barley, Organic Sprouted Whole Millet, Organic Sprouted Whole Lentils, Organic Sprouted Whole Spelt, Sea Salt.

Food for Life makes a variety of wholesome products in addition to tortillas, including: breads, English muffins, hamburger and hotdog buns, cereals, pasta....check out their complete product line at their colorful website.

Only a couple of things about these tortillas that I think could be improved upon. I'd like them to be just a bit bigger (they measured about 9") and a little bit thinner would make them easier to use as wraps. I also prefer the taste of very thin tortillas. Other than that, I think this company has made a good product and a definite improvement compared to what's on the market as competition.

Here's the ingredient list (by way of comparison) for Dempster's Whole Ancient Grains:

Whole grain whole wheat flour including the germ, water, vegetable oil (canola or soybean), ancient grain blend (flax seed, hulled millet, spelt flakes, kamut flakes, barley flakes, poppy seed, amaranth whole, whole quinoa), wheat gluten, flaxseed, glucose-fructose/sugar, salt, sodium acid pyrophosphate, potassium sorbate, sodium bicarbonate, sodium propionate, monoglycerides, sodium stearoyl- 2-lactylate, fumaric acid, cellulose gum, carrageenan, maltodextrin. May contain sulfites and milk ingredietns. [B805].


I definitely prefer the list for the Food for Life brand , don't you?

Overall rating for this product: Very Good. 4 out of 5.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Yves Prima Veggie Burgers

I was planning to write a complete review about these veggie burgers from Yves Veggie Cuisine. But after reading this report (one of several that I found this past week online) about hexane used in the process of making some popular veggie burgers on the market, this is going to be a short review. And I won't be going  into the details about taste, price or sodium content. Not really of interest or importance compared to the bigger issues in these reports.

And here's another report, this one from Mother Jones. This one goes into more detail about the dangers of hexane.

I shudder to think how many of the "bad" brands on that list I've eaten in the past. But live and learn. That's one of the best things about the Internet and ingredient lists on packages, we can buy products as informed consumers. And we can make decisions based on our own research.

Ingredient list for Yves Prima Veggie Burgers from their Canadian website:
Water, soy protein product, onions, canola oil, natural flavour (including natural cheese flavour), modified cellulose, cornstarch, egg albumen, hydrolysed soy and corn protein, evaporated cane juice, torula yeast, salt, caramel colour, carrageenan, spices, yeast extract, vitamins and minerals (thiamine hydrochloride, riboflavin, niacinamide, pyridoxine hydrochloride, cyanocobalamin, calcium pantothenate, reduced iron, zinc oxide, wheat starch).

Ingredient list for their Meatless Beef Burgers from their U.S. site:  
(and how's that for a strange product name? Oxymoron anyone!!!)

 Water, Textured Soy Protein, Vital Wheat Gluten, Expeller Pressed Canola Oil, Onions, Cornstarch, Natural Flavors, Fruit Powder (Pear, Apple, Plum), Modified Vegetable Gum, Malt Extract, Salt, Hydrolyzed Corn Protein, Torula Yeast, Dextrose, Carrageenan, Onion Powder, Hydrolyzed Soy Protein, Spices. Vitamins & Minerals: thiamin hydrochloride, riboflavin, niacinamide, pyridoxine hydrochloride, cyanocobalamine, calcium pantothenate, reduced iron, zinc oxide). CONTAINS: SOY and WHEAT. Manufactured in a facility that uses peanuts, dairy and egg ingredients

I'm not planning to use any commercial veggie burgers, until I find some brands I can actually feel good about buying. And of course to buy them more than once, they've gotta taste good too!

 I'm working on some new recipes for homemade veggie burgers right now. Made some this week with lentils, veggies and a blend of herbs  (I'll share that recipe soon at my cooking blog) and they came out great. Delicious and made with no questionable ingredients.Yes, it took some time for prep work and certainly not as convenient as picking up a box of veggie burgers from the store but it's time well spent I think. I made a big batch and froze the burgers, individually wrapped so they are now just as convenient as the store-bought varieties. Much cheaper too, added bonus!!!

I will keep you posted on my quest to find a good commercial veggie burger that is not only great-tasting but healthy too. As of today, the search is still on. I will be reading those labels! Hope you are too.

Overall rating for this product: BAD. 0 out of 5.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Down & Dirty! 43 Fun & Funky First-Time Projects & Activities to Get You Gardening by Ellen Zachos


First off, let me say that I am no expert when it comes to gardening. Far from it actually. But I love the idea of being a better gardener, expanding on what I do know already. Gardening is considered the most popular hobby in the world apparently and it's not hard to understand the appeal for people of all ages, for so many reasons.

 As an amateur gardener, I've had my share of garden plots and patches over the years. And oh what fun it was to see even the "simple stuff" that I was not intimated to try: like potatoes, carrots, onions, tomatoes....come "shoosting up" through the ground. Shoosting btw is a Green Acres gardening/farm term from the old  TV series. Highly technical! LOL  

So, in spite of the fact that the summer is coming to an end right now, here in Canada. And in spite of the fact that I had no garden plot to cultivate this year...I still love to read about the process and dream of a groovy green garden in the not too distant future. That's where this fun book comes in: Down & Dirty! 43 Fun & Funky Projects & Activities to Get You Gardening, is a terrific book for gardeners and wannabees, like me. And it is rather unique too.

Author Ellen Zachos demystifies the process of gardening for those of us who are rather new/challenged when it comes to all things green-thumb related. Unlike so many other gardening books I've read/browsed over the years, this one is not only easy to understand; it is divided into 43 diverse, all-inclusive and eye-catching projects, with something for everyone, even the kids.

A sampling of the projects:
  •  A Cutting Garden for All Seasons
  • An Evening Garden that Glows in the Dark (how cool does that sound)
  • A Garden of Feline Friends
  • A Dinosaur Garden for Kids of All Ages
  • A Garden to Delight Your Senses

Some easy and yummy-sounding recipes included too:
  • Strawberry Sorbet
  • Ratatouille (aka Summer in a Jar)
  • Elderflower Champagne (a fun story to go with that one)
  • Blueberry Sauce

Each project gives detailed information for: suggested plants, planting and care instructions, fun facts, large colorful photos and many helpful tips to get your own gardening adventure in full bloom. And in a highly entertaining and readable way.

By next spring/summer, I definitely hope to be getting "down and dirty" in my own special garden patch again.It is something I have been thinking and dreaming about for too long already. And when I do, this book will be the gardening guide I will have, close at hand.

The only problem I can foresee is making a decision what to start with. I find the majority of these projects very appealing so it's going to be tough to narrow it down to 2-3 to begin with. But it will be a whole lotta of fun, that I am sure of!

Overall rating for this book: Excellent. 5 out of 5. 

(or should I say: 5 Green Thumbs UP!)

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Kashi Organic Cinnamon Harvest Cereal

I'm not a big fan of most types of cereal but once in a while, kind of like "it's gotta be KD" I do crave a bowl,  especially the shredded wheat types. And it's definitely got to be a cereal without a lot of added sugar and other unhealthy ingredients.

On a recent shopping trip, I noted a new cereal from Kashi: Organic Cinnamon Harvest and thought I'd give it a try. The photo on the box showed a bowl of small, tempting squares of golden shredded wheat. And when it comes to all things cinnamon, I'm a believer. I love it!

Turning to the side of the cereal box I was also pleased to note this very short list of ingredients:

Organic whole grain wheat, organic evaporated cane juice, organic cinnamon, natural flavor.

That was it! My kind of ingredient list. If you've been checking out cereal boxes lately, you'll already know that even a lot of so-called "healthier" choices available are still an ingredient nightmare. Sugar, sugar and more sugar in all it's cleverly-worded forms. Colors, additives. BHT added to the packaging for freshness.... NO THANKS!

How did it taste? Maaarvelous darling, just marvelous! A definite cinnamon boost (and not artificial tasting either) in every bite. Lightly sweetened, not over the top. And oh so crunchy good.

This cereal is a keeper. I'm guessing it would also appeal to a lot of finicky eaters (ie: kids) who may be in the process of getting weaned off some of the junkier cereals that are still standard fare for so many families. Give this one a try. It really is different and it really is good.

I've tried some of Kashi granola type bars in the past and I was not impressed. I'm glad I gave this cereal a try though. And I'll certainly be buying more when this box is empty. Actually it's already almost empty, sigh...

If you stop by the Kashi website to read more about this cereal and all there products, it's a bit tricky to find all the cereals they have available. Click on the brown button/scroll bar across the top of the cereals shown and it will take you to the next set of choices. Kashi, ya gotta work on that! Not a good way to display your products to the best advantage.

BFN.I'm heading to the kitchen to fill up a bowl with Kashi Organic Cinnamon Harvest. Yummm...

Overall rating for this product: Excellent. 5 out of 5.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Clorox GreenWorks Laundry Detergent

A few weeks ago, CBC TV,  here in Canada broadcast a report about their findings, after checking out three popular "green" laundry detergents and the claims of plant-derived ingredients these companies were making.

You can read the (very interesting) full report and viewers reactions at:

CBC report re: "green" laundry detergents.

What I was pleased to note was the green detergent that I personally prefer: Clorox GreenWorks Laundry Detergent came out with top marks. The others: Sunlight Green Clean and Purex Natural Elements tested were both "wash-outs" based on this report.

I've tried a number of green laundry detergents in the past few years. Some good, some not. For me, a big part of what makes a great detergent (green or otherwise) is it's cleaning ability. Yes, I always prefer green products but if it doesn't do a great job, then all the "greening" in the world isn't going to make it a product worth buying.

Clorox GreenWorks Laundry Detergent delivers on it's promises. Their laundry detergents are 97% plant derived, biodegradable, phosphate free, free of harsh chemicals, not tested on animals, reasonably priced. Best of all:  IT REALLY CLEANS! Even tough stains come out, without the use of additional stain removers, bleach etc...when using this product. I've noted this again and again.

I use the non-scented (Free and Clear) type of this detergent as I don't like scents of any kind in detergents and that's what you get. Clean, fresh clothes without any scent.

There is a lot of information over at the GreenWorks site about all their products including page after page of customer reviews. I've also previously reviewed their dish soap here.

I was sold on GreenWorks Laundry Detergent after the first couple of uses. Seeing/reading  the CBC report made me feel even better about finding and buying this product.

From the GreenWorks website re: GreenWorks Free and Clear Laundry Detergent:

It’s tough on dirt and stains — and dermatologist-tested for sensitive skin.* A powerful combination of naturally derived cleaning ingredients will leave your clothes, towels and linens fresh and clean — without phosphates, optical brighteners or harsh chemical residue. Formulated for both standard and high-efficiency (HE) washers.    

If you are making the effort to provide  a greener home environment for you and your family, GreenWorks Laundry Detergent is definitely worth a try. It's a great product even if you aren't.  But there's really no excuse not to "go green" when there are products this good on the market!
Overall rating for this product: Excellent. 5 out of 5.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Mrs. Dash (Original Blend) Seasoning Blend

As an avid cook and cookbook author, I try and use a lot of herbs and spices when preparing recipes.I like to have a wide variety of spices and herbs on hand, to experiment with flavour blends for various dishes. I usually have a well-stocked selection of the dried/crushed/ground varieties that tend to change with the seasons and my cooking preferences, as well as fresh herbs when they are more suitable for a dish. Some come, some go....

One seasoning that is always in my kitchen cupboard is: Mrs. Dash Original Blend.

This is an all-around great product:
  • It adds a significant flavour boost to most savory dishes.
  • It is salt-free.
  • Contains no MSG or other questionable ingredients.
  • Colorful. Adds an eye-appealing finishing touch. And how a dish looks is a big part of how it's perceived and enjoyed.
  • It's very reasonable price-wise considering the number of herbs and spices it contains.
From the Mrs. Dash. com website: 

An all-natural, salt-free herb and spice medley, Mrs. Dash® Original Blend brings amazing flavor to any recipe. So go ahead and add some of this perfectly balanced blend of onion, black pepper, parsley and basil to your dishes and watch them turn into truly delicious delights.

Original Blend Ingredients: Onion, spices (black pepper, parsley, celery seed, basil, bay, marjoram, oregano, savory, thyme, cayenne pepper, coriander, cumin, mustard, rosemary), garlic, carrot, orange peel, tomato, lemon juice powder, citric acid, oil of lemon.

Check out their easy-to-navigate and informative website to read about all of their products and browse a variety of recipes too.
Mrs. Dash comes in 2 sizes of containers: 192g. and 71g. The larger size is my preference and a more economical choice at about $9. here locally; that may vary depending where you live. And unlike some seasoning blends that I've purchased, then rarely used and left to get stale in the cupboard, that certainly hasn't been a concern when it comes to Mrs. Dash. I use it every day!

I'm including a recipe that includes Mrs. Dash as an ingredient, from my cookbook: Cream of Carrot Soup . With Autumn on the way and the root veggies at their peak, it's a great time to try this soup!

Mrs. Dash comes in a variety of seasoning blend choices. I've tried a couple of the others too but I always come back to the Original Blend. It's the best all-around seasoning blend that I've ever tried so why mess with a good thing!

Only one thing that I can think of that would make Mrs. Dash Original Blend even better and that's an Organic version. Perhaps it's something the company is already considering given the current and growing interest in all things organic. I hope they are.

Overall rating for this product: Very Good. 4 out of 5.
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