Friday, September 28, 2012

Shutterfly Update - Two Thumbs Down to Their Customer Service

Well, I don't want to waste much more time on this topic, but since I put up the previous post, I will give a brief update on what transpired since.  I find it exceedingly frustrating to be offered a "deal" and then find out that the conditions to fulfill that so called "deal" are so frustrating that it turns out to not be worth my time or effort.  Such was the case with this one.  After I used the link from Shutterly to embed the book I made into my blog, I went back looking for the e-mail address that I had seen so that I could send in the link to my blog post.  After talking with a customer service representative from Shutterfly online who had no idea what I was talking about, I ended up calling their customer service phone number.  Can I just say, "complete nightmare!"?  I was literally on hold for 45 minutes just to get an actual human being on the line (don't worry, I didn't waste any time; I just put the cell on speakerphone and went about my usual business while waiting) and then when I finally did get a response, the lady put me back on hold for another 15 minutes so that she could find a manager to ask about my inquiry.  And the not-so-amazing answer to all of this is that the deal was actually through Blogger (or so they say) and was just being offered with Shutterfly on their website after you make a purchase.  At that point, I was so fed up by having even wasted my time to not be helped, that I decided the $10 credit I could receive wasn't worth the effort and I'd stop wasting anymore time on it.  It still irks me, though, that companies will offer "deals" to customers or collaborate with other companies on these "deals" but still have no idea of what it actually is and fail to inform their customer service representatives about it.  Based on this experience, I will need to find some pretty good coupons online before I purchase another item from them again because any product could arrive at my house defective and I wouldn't want to encounter that same customer service situation that I've already experienced.  Snapfish, as I mentioned before, won't combine coupons, but in all my dealings with them and various requests for them to replace items that did not come out with good printing quality, they have always responded with wonderful manners and the attitude that the customers is right - I like that!

Saturday, September 22, 2012

A Photo Book Gift made on Shutterfly

Shutterfly offers exclusive layouts and designs so you can make your book just the way you want.

Here's what I made for my hubby for his birthday.  I took some pics that he took this summer when we were out on a hike and put them together in a themed book.  Hopefully, he doesn't see it on here and take a peek.  I can get a $10 credit at Shutterfly, though, for putting this up on my blog so I thought that I would give it a go.   I usually use Snapfish, but I had a $20 credit on my account at Shutterfly, so I decided to try them out this time around.  Something that was different and really cool is that they let me combine my account credit and a coupon code from their website in the same order making it a really great discount.  I've tried that on numerous occasions on Snapfish and it never works; you can use one coupon code or promotion per order.  I hope this looks as good when I receive it as it looks on the computer!  

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Oil-Free, Vegan, Banana Chocolate Chip Muffins

One of our all-time, family favorites for breakfast is a banana muffin recipe that I have been using for years.  My mom made these for us as kids and we always loved them, and I continued the tradition with my children.  Lately, I've been tinkering with the recipe to make it not only vegan and fairly healthy, but to also preserve the taste we love and get the texture as close to a "regular" muffin as possible.  This morning when I made them for breakfast, we all agreed that they tasted great and were what we expect out of our banana muffin recipe.  So, I had better get this down on "paper" before I forget what exactly it was that I put in them this morning.

Vegan Banana Chocolate Chip Muffins

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

Mix together in a bowl by hand or on the lowest mixing setting of a stand mixer:
3 mashed, ripe bananas
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup applesauce
1 portion of egg replacer equal to 1 egg*

After these ingredients are mixed together, sprinkle over the top of the dough:
1 tsp. baking soda
2 tsp. baking powder

Pour 1/4 cup of sparkling water over the soda and powder so that they are mostly dissolved and the mixture is bubbling a bit.  Mix it all together again, mixing as little as possible.  Add in the amount of vegan chocolate chips that you desire and mix very gently one last time (or fold them in gently with a spoon).  I use the semi-sweet chocolate chips from Trader Joe's that have no dairy in them.

Fill 12 muffin tins with the muffin batter and bake between 18-20 minutes, or until an inserted toothpick comes out clean.  (There is not oil in the recipe, but I do lightly grease my muffin tins or muffin cups before filling them.  Using either silicone muffin tins or non-stick muffin tins is also a good option.)

*A friend gave me a good tip for the egg replacer and that is to make sure the water is very hot (not boiling) before mixing in the powder.   For the Ener-G replacer the formula is 2 Tbs. of water to 1 1/2 tsp. powder. 

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Making the Most of the Dog Days of Summer

Although we live near the ocean, the water temperature doesn't often rise up or above 70 degrees.  Having grown up in the tropics in Panama, I can hardly contemplate putting a toe in the water for most of the year here in San Diego.  But, come August and September, the water finally warms up just enough that I will venture in.  Once you get adjusted to it, the water begins to feel really good, especially on some of our hottest summer days.  This year, we have been to the beach several times in the space of a few weeks and hope to go a few more times before the weather changes to fall temps.  My older 3 girls are acquiring quite a passion for boogie boarding and once they get in, it is hard to pull them back out of the water, even when their lips are blue and they are shaking like a leaf.  The younger 2 enjoy the very shallow water, the sand, and making sand castles.  There is something so wonderful and carefree about going to the ocean and taking a few hours to just kick back, relax, and detach from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.  I feel so blessed to live in a place where this is possible!

Friday, September 14, 2012

Around My Yard

A couple of weeks ago, as I drove across the bridge over our creek, I noticed something surprisingly beautiful that I wasn't expecting.  It was a feathery-like extension growing out of a grass that had been transplanted twice on our property.  The grass originally came from my parents' old condo and my dad put in in a pot and brought it out to me and planted it first behind our house.  Then, we decided it needed to be moved, so my dad was nice enough to plant it down by the creek (he planted 2 of these grasses, but only 1 survived).  To be honest, I wasn't a big fan of this plant because the grass is sort of like a razor grass that can give you a cut as bad or worse than a paper cut, but now that I see it in its full glory, I've decided it is definitely a keeper.  This time of year in inland southern California is rather dry and naturally brown (unless you irrigate which is costly), so this was a welcome sight when I came upon it.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Truly, Guilt-Free Tortilla Chips

A favorite snack in our house is tortilla chips with salsa and/or homemade bean dip.  The dilemma, though, is that store-bought tortilla chips are not all that nutritious (despite the whole-grain corn status that they have) because of the oil content.  While looking through the McDougall's recipes, I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw this super simple and easy solution to store-bought tortilla chips.  And, the results are wonderful, too, because they come out crispy, taste great, and make the idea of nachos at home (at least, vegan nachos) a healthy and fun dinner and snack alternative.  I also love that the tortillas chips are a whole-grain starch!  Here is the process:

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.  We like the Guerrero brand of white corn tortillas.  I stack a few up and use my kitchen scissors to cute them into triangles (I divide the tortilla in sixths).  Then, I lay them flat on a non-stick, ungreased cookie sheet and put them into the oven.  The other day, I made these and used three cookie sheets, rotating them in the oven with 2 in and 1 ready-to-go.  

Here they are about half finished baking.
 Bake the chips for approximately 5 to 7 minutes (a few minutes more may be needed depending on your oven), just until the chips start turning a very light brown and are crispy.  Also, you can sprinkle salt on before or after, if so desired (I think the salt sticks better put on before baking).  

 And there you have it!  Tortilla chips with no oil that are still crispy and taste great with your salsas and dips.  If all the chips do not get eaten, just be sure to store them in an airtight container.    Who knew eating healthfully could be so delicious!

Monday, September 10, 2012

Grape Stompin' Fun

Arianna, stomping grapes.

This past Saturday, we were invited to a neighbor's house for their own grape festival.  These neighbors are in their 70's and have been holding this event for 30-some years, starting with an interest in wine-making, then growing their own grapes, to having a sizable home vineyard with excellent wine-making results.  My hubby was put to work providing manpower to haul grapes just cut off the vines up to the yard to be processed, and he and the girls got the chance to stomp grapes and crank the grape press.  This along with an outdoor potluck and water play for the little ones made for a wonderfully adventurous Saturday filled with fun and enjoyment.
Isabella, cranking the grape press.

The hubby.

Augustus, getting into the action.
Ready to be bottled from last year's winemaking.

Dakota and Livia, staying cool.

Selah, taking a break in the hammock.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Funny Snacks

This is my girls' idea of fun with food.  They asked me to take pictures for them.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Garcias Going Vegan

When we spend our summer in our North Dakota house, we have plenty of time to think, talk about our life goals, read books, and try out new things.  It seems we make end up making some sort of life-changing decision while we are there.  Last time (in 2010), we decided that we really needed to make the leap from our small mobile home that has an even tinier yard in the suburbs to a house with a little more room and a piece of property in the country.  So, when we got back to So.Cal., we started our house hunt right away and had found the right place for us in about a month's time (of course, it helps immensely having a mother for a realtor :-).  This summer (2012), we were already focused on health issues due to Selah's hospitalization last spring and diagnoses of bronchiectasis.  We had brought along a book to read called, McDougall's Medicine, a book that was written quite some time ago, by Dr. John McDougall (McDougall's Medicine: A Challenging Second Option).  We also watched a fascinating documentary at the beginning of the summer while in Oregon on our Amazon Prime account (thanks to my father-in-law for recommending it as being extremely interesting!) called Forks over Knives in which several renowned scientists and physicians discuss the ill effects that animal proteins have on our bodies and their link to many of the diseases of affluence that are all to common in the U.S. today.  This led us to delve further into this topic and at our North Dakota house, we purchased two other e-books from Amazon to do further research.  The China Study was one of the books discussed in the Forks over Knives documentary; it is written by Dr. Campbell and I found it very compelling because he presents his scientific research done over decades which have led him to the conclusion that a whole-foods, plant-based, very low fat diet are the most beneficial for one's health.  The cardiologist, Dr. Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr., and a California-based physician, Dr. John McDougall, also appear in the documentary and talk about the ways in which their patients bodies have actually healed themselves through a change in diet in everything from heart disease and diabetes, to obesity and M.S.  We decided we wanted to read one of Dr. McDougall's more recent books, so we purchased The Starch Solution and read that as well.  

As a family, we have never been big meat eaters, eating maybe a few meals a week that included meat.  We were much heavier dairy consumers, though, and loved eating cheese and, also, eggs (as evidenced by having 11 laying hens).  But, given our daughter's chronic lung condition, my hubby's pre-hypertension blood pressure reading, and our oldest's propensity for coughing and congestion as well, we decided that a change in the way we ate would be worth the try.  We had begun to make changes little by little even as we began our summer travels, but on our wedding anniversary, July 21, of this year, my hubby and I decided that it would be our official date to go vegan.  I know there are plenty of connotations that go with the term vegan and I'd venture a guess that we don't fit most of them.  We haven't made this decision based on the ethical treatment of animals, but rather based on our own conviction that this will improve the overall health of our family.  Because of this, we aren't just looking for vegan foods (there are many junk-food vegans and junk-food vegetarians that avoid many foods, but still aren't "healthy"), but rather ones that fit the suggestion given by the doctors referenced above which really means it is a whole-foods, plant-based diet that is very low in fats.  Being that we didn't start out trying to lose weight, though, we don't eliminate all fats and definitely let our children have healthy plant-based fats such as avocados, nuts, nut butters, etc.  

So far, we have been very pleased with the results of this way of eating, and also our own enjoyment in the type of eating.  My hubby's blood pressure lowered considerably, and Selah was able to stay healthy and antibiotic-free during the summer months.  Recently, Selah caught a virus at school and despite being sick at home for a few days, she has been improving on her own without antibiotics.  I am pleased to see that her body seems to be building up its natural immunity by taking the nutrients it needs from the foods that we eat without being obstructed by a lot of the foods that might stand in the way of improved health.  From the materials that I have read on bronchiectasis, many individuals experience difficulties with dairy, eggs, wheat, and soy, anyway.  So, it seems we are on the right track  As far as the potential for boredom with solely vegan foods or the problem of missing foods we used to eat, I think we are doing rather well.  We thoroughly enjoy the whole-grain starches, eating lots of fresh produce, and eating beans and legumes, all foods that we enjoyed eating earlier and still enjoy.  Thankfully, I'm quite an experimenter when it comes to cooking and baking, so I'm doing a lot of improvising in my food preparation and most items have been a success.  I also have been using the recipes in the McDougall books that I own to help stimulate new and different ideas for meals.  And, of course, I'm looking at many blogs and websites to find tips and recipes for vegan cooking and baking.  I will be blogging about this topic along with all the other regular stuff so that you can follow along with us on our new vegan journey. 

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Nostalgic Musings on the Charms of a Small American Town

People are many times surprised and curious when we tell them that we are going to our house in a very small town (pop. 102) in North Dakota to spend our summer.  For starters, we live in Southern California which is a tourist mecca year round; so many people pay good money to come and visit the area in which we live.  Why would we purposely leave it during the summer?  (1) So.Cal. is a very populated region and sometimes it's nice to get out of town and see the wild blue yonder.  (2) It's really hot here during the summers, especially since we live inland and not on the coast.  95 -105 degrees days are common, and bearable, but not necessarily comfortable.  (3) Whenever we have our summers at home, inevitably, we focus more on home improvement projects and the like instead of taking family outings and doing fun activities.  When we are away from home, we have left that behind and can focus on having an adventure.  (The work will always be there, anyway, right? But, the years will pass quickly with our children and if we don't take advantage of our time together now, one day we won't have that opportunity.)  And, then, the other question is:  Why go to a small town in the middle of farm land in the northern part of North Dakota that isn't your typical "vacation" spot and just hang out for a month or so?  (1) We own a house in a little town in ND that came about as part of our summer adventure 2 years ago when we bought a house on e-bay in that town.  (The house that we live in and the house that we bought are on adjoining lots, but are not one in the same. For more on that topic, see the beginning of my blog.).  (2) There is something wonderful about really disconnecting from the worries of one's daily life for a time, stepping back and being able to evaluate the year or past years, and not having the chance to daily connect with technology and the like.    (3) There is the harder-to-describe qualities, the je ne sais quoi aspect, of living in small town America that inevitably draws us back after we have been gone for awhile.
Sunrise over the grain silos.
 Here are some of the reasons I love our little town in North Dakota that we are privileged to be welcomed into as very part-time residents:
  • Truly genuine friends and neighbors, that are without pretense, and are friendly, kind, generous, and caring.  This is demonstrated in so many ways, but one that really stand out to me is watching a neighbor to houses down that is in his 80's come over to the neighbor's house across from ours and mow her lawn because she is a widow, they are all friends, and it is a great help to her.  Such simple gestures say so much.
  • The easy way in which neighbors drop by each other's houses and ours to simply say "hi", bring by some fresh veggies to share, or hang out with each other on their lawn chairs for a chat in the evening.  (This whole concept is completely lost on the Southern California culture in which people are almost always offended or surprised that others don't call ahead to be sure it is okay to stop over.)  I can't even count the number of bags of delicious, fresh-from-the-garden greenbeans we enjoyed during July courtesy of our neighbor's gardens. 
  • Attending  church gatherings or town gatherings in which everyone pulls together to make it happen, fun is had by all, and even the out-of-towner's from California (us) are genuinely welcomed into what is going on.  Our kids make friends and play with which ever kids are around and it is as simple as that.  
  • Being able to walk (or job) anywhere in town and it only being about a 1 mile loop around the circumference.  
  • Having a playground kitty-corner across the street from our house where the girls can go play whenever they want (at the old school yard) and just enjoy being kids.
  • Seeing sights that are uncommon to our everyday life in California: tractors driving through town, people driving Arctic Cat and Polaris utility vehicles and four wheelers as in-town transportation, the more senior crowd getting a ride behind an antique tractor on a trailer retrofitted with old school bus seats drinking their Bud Lights as they enjoy each other's company on a ride around town in the evening, driving past the beautiful crops (wheat, canola, sunflowers, flax, corn, barley) every time we go out to the other close by towns for a shopping trip, seeing the combines out in the fields harvesting the winter wheat in July, and the list goes on. 
  • The peacefulness that settles over us as we take our own personal retreat from our "other", normal life and take the time to pray, read, be with one another, and just be.  
So, even if we can't make it back to our North Dakota house every summer or if it seems like not one of the smartest investments ever, we will be back and enjoying all of the aforementioned delights for many years to come.  Investments can't just be measured in monetary terms and this is one of those cases.  This experience for our family is priceless.