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I started switching out conventional body care, skin care, and cosmetic products for healthier alternatives long ago, but one major hold-out has been mascara.  It’s my favorite cosmetic by far, and I just couldn’t believe that a healthy one could do the job.  Recently, though, I impulsively added two of the more popular “natural” options on the market, Ecco Bella and Reviva, to my cart while placing an order with Vitacost.  Some persistent eye burning and itching over the previous few weeks nudged me over the edge.

My experience with these products has left me with mixed feelings.  One one hand, I am encouraged that less toxic mascaras can perform really well.  Not only do these mascaras not irritate my eyes, but they really do thicken and lengthen my lashes without clumping.  (I’ve noticed that they perform better after about a week of use than right after opening, by the way.)  I can’t tell a major difference between my old favorite and these new brands.  I can even use multiple coats for a more dramatic effect.  Yippee!

On the other hand, I’m quite annoyed that I didn’t do more research first.  The ingredient lists on these brands are not ideal, dumping both products into the Skin Deep Cosmetics Database’s “moderate risk” category.  Argh.  I like to keep the things I put on my body in the “low hazard” zone, but given that my old favorite mascara rated a 9 out of 10 (yikes!), I’m looking at this as a major step in the right direction.  Now that I’ve had a positive experience with alternative products, I’m willing to go out of my way to seek out purer options.  Since Ecco Bella and Reviva are so much healthier than most drugstore and department store options, and since they’re also easier to find than a lot of healthier brands, they make a great baby step for those of us who can’t quite pry our fingers off that magic wand.  Thus, here are my thoughts on these two brands:

Ecco Bella

Cost: $9.57 through Vitacost; more through retail stores

Risk: 3 out of 10, according to the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database (if you’ve never visited this site, I highly recommend doing so; it’s quite an eye-opener)

Pros:
Has a nice mirror on the side of the tube
Lower hazard rating than Reviva
Seems quite resistant to wear and tears (though not at the level of a waterproof product)

Cons:
About twice the price of Reviva
Creates a stiffer, less natural texture than Reviva

Reviva

Cost: $4.59 through Vitacost; more at retail locations

Risk: EWG gives it a 5 out of 10, again naming it a moderately risky product.

Pros:
My lashes feel softer and more natural with this mascara than with Ecco Bella
Resistant to wear and tears
Half the price of Ecco Bella
Washes off more easily than Ecco Bella (I see this as a pro because I don’t want to use eye makeup removers)
Seems to create a little bit more volume and oomph

Cons:
Higher risk rating

Honestly, even though I know I should be using the lower-rated Ecco Bella, I favor Reviva for its softer texture, better results, and easier removal.  Next time around, I’m going to order a product called Ultra Lengthening Fruit Pigmented Mascara by 100% Pure.  A blogger I follow said she found it on eBay and that it’s a dream to use.  Its ingredient list is pristine, so I hope she’s right!

Do you use, or have you ever used, natural mascaras?  What is your experience?  Are there any brands you recommend?

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Life is finally approaching a sense of normalcy around here.  After two and half months and countless games of merry-go-round with the couch in the living room, all the public areas of our apartment — living room, dining room, kitchen, and bathroom — are finally decluttered, organized, and properly arranged.  Just having clean, orderly space to breathe in has done wonders for my sanity.  Our bedroom and the sunroom remain war zone-esque, but I’m slowly conquering that territory too.  At least now I can retreat to safer ground when I need a break.

We’ve been enjoying some of the special features of our area too.  I am now toiling through my third week of art classes at the Glassell School of Art, which, along with the Museum of Fine Arts, is all of 5 minutes from my apartment.  I’ve wanted to take art all my life, and I finally get the chance!  Unfortunately, “life-long art interest” doesn’t translate to “instant art genius.”  Imagine that.  It turns out I have to live by the same rules as everyone else.  Why are we humans surprised when we run into, um, human limitations?  Tears of frustration aside, I think I’m enjoying the experience (dare I sign up for another in the fall?), and, if nothing else, it’s a wonderful opportunity for exploration and self-knowledge.  I just don’t always like looking in the mirror.

J and I have been exploring other art forms as well.  We’ve hit up Miller Outdoor Theater several times for free, top-notch performances of various kinds.  Here we are hanging out on the green, eating our picnic dinner with friends, waiting for the Houston Ballet to begin a mixed repertory program:

miller

It was fabulous!  They performed a heart-stoppingly beautiful pas de deux to Tchaikovsky, as well as a contemporary piece set to the music of Mediaeval Baebes that I loved and a stunning all-male piece called Solo.  I’m amazed that we can see this quality of performances for free.  Unfortunately, we missed the Houston Grand Opera’s night at Miller, but we did catch Nrityagram Dance Company, an Indian dance group that performs Odissi, one of the world’s oldest dance forms.  That was a fascinating show.

We’ve also bought tickets to a few shows, and even though I chose the cheaper tickets, we’ve been pleasantly surprised by our views.  It seems the Wortham Center’s theaters are well-designed.  Here we are right before we crashed a preview party of a new exhibit at the art museum, which I totally didn’t “get,” and then moved on to see a splendid program called the Power of Movement:

orange dress edited_edited-1 compressed

The Houston Ballet’s Swan Lake last Friday rounded out our dance marathon.  Next up is the Houston Symphony’s free performances at Miller.

Seriously, if I hadn’t been so sick, I don’t know how I could have survived in the suburbs.  We couldn’t be more thrilled with this move, even though it’s been a tough one.

Well, this is about as anti-climactic as news gets, but that $50 Craigslist freezer does, indeed, work — and beautifully at that.  Sixteen half gallons of raw goats’ milk from Miabella Farm line the top shelf, cooked quinoa in hubby-sized portions waves from the door, and I’m chewing my lower lip over the exact composition of the fifty pound grass-fed beef and lamb order I’m about to place with Paidom Meats to fill up the bottom of the freezer.  What next?  I must say, life with a deep freeze suits me just fine.

On another note entirely, here’s a quick and easy recipe that I’m totally digging right now.  I love the lemony zing, and basil always seems just right in the summer.  It’s also a great way to use up the summer squash spilling over the farmers’ market stands — an annual dilemma for me (I wrote a whole post on the subject here).  Costco’s frozen wild-caught salmon filets keep the dish reasonably priced.  I eat it alone or with hemp seeds because my body still doesn’t love grains, but J enjoys it over quinoa or brown rice.  If you keep individual-size portions of cooked quinoa or rice in the freezer, this dish becomes a one pot meal.  Nice!

Baked Lemon-Basil-Garlic Salmon and Vegetables

4 pieces of salmon filet (4 to 6 oz each)
2 large zucchini, shredded (yellow summer squash would work too)
4 medium-large carrots, shredded

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice (if your lemons have a dull flavor, you’ll need more juice)
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 cup dry white wine (e.g., chardonnay or sauvignon blanc, not riesling or zinfandel)
10 medium cloves of garlic, crushed
1 tablespoon dried basil or 3 tablespoons fresh basil
sea salt
freshly-ground black pepper (I like to pepper pretty generously)

Preheat oven to 450.

Spray a 9×13 glass baking dish with olive oil and strew shredded zucchini and carrots in it.  In a measuring glass, whisk together the lemon juice, olive oil, wine, basil, salt, and pepper.  Pour half the mixture over the vegetables and stir to combine.  Cover tightly with foil and bake for 12 minutes.

Remove the foil and lay the salmon filets on top of the vegetables.  Pour the rest of the lemon juice mixture over the fish and veggies.  Recover and bake for 10 to 15 more minutes, depending on how done you like your salmon.  Serve with hemp seeds, rice, quinoa, potatoes, or all by its sweet self.

Serves 4 to 6, depending on size of salmon filets and appetites.

*Note: If you don’t want to deal with adding the salmon later, you can put everything in the dish at the beginning and cook for 25 minutes.  The downside is that you’ll get overcooked fish.

Oh boy, oh boy!  Guess what I found on Craigslist?  A 55″ tall, 4-year-old, upright, self-defrosting  Frigidaire freezer for only $50!  Based on the picture, I thought it was one of the really small ones that stands about 3 feet tall, so I was shocked when I arrived.  No, make that horrified.  I thought there was no way I could get it home, and I had driven over an hour to the person’s house (Houston is ridiculously big).  But with my muscle-man brother’s help and some creative rearranging, we squeezed it into the minivan with four of the five back seats still in place and about 30 collapses moving boxes piled all around.  Shocking.  We all stood around shaking our heads in disbelief for a minute before I remembered to pay the man.

freezer

When I triumphantly arrived home, I found my husband collapsed on the bed, exhausted from a new plyometrics workout his trainer cooked up that morning.  He described his legs as “jelly-like.”  Uh oh.  With a little sweet-talking, however, he rallied, and we gamely wrestled the freezer up the staircase into our unit.  It was quite a perilous endeavor, and if our neighbor’s daughter had not shown up for a surprise visit and helped us wriggle the appliance around a tight corner, it would still be downstairs.

Now I’m just holding my breath, praying that it will still work after turning it on its back.  You aren’t supposed to do that to refrigerators or freezers, apparently, but it was the only way I could get it home.  The man told me that if I leave it upright for a full 24 hours before plugging it in, it should be okay.  My brother agreed, so I decided to risk it.  I thought it was worth it, given how much I could gain by having a freezer.  I’ll let you know what happens when we plug it in tonight!

This review might seem redundant given yesterday’s overall (wildly favorable) Coconut Bliss review, but I thought it was worth following up on this particular flavor because, if you’re anything like me, the thought of mint and coconut together falls rather short of appealing.  Coconut and vanilla?  Sure.  Coconut and chocolate?  Gimme more!  But coconut and mint?  Blech.  I hastily skipped over this combo on our first two forays to the store.  The “on sale” sticker in front of it only inflamed my suspicion.

Serendipitously, however, my hubby suggested a sweet treat last night as a reward for…wait a minute, what was it a reward for?  Maybe I unpacked another box?  (There’s a reason I haven’t posted pictures of our new place.)  Or maybe it was a thinly veiled excuse to try more Coconut Bliss

Nah.

In any case, I agreed and promised to return from Whole Paycheck with a new flavor in tow.  With only two more to try, Mint Galactica and Naked Coconut, I decided to be bold and save a buck on the marked-down one.  How very frugal of me.

I’m so glad my tightwad leanings kicked in at that moment.  Mint Galactica turned out to be delightful!  It was everything mint chocolate chip ice cream should be — smooth and refreshing with real mint flavor, real rich chocolate, and none of the crazy-scary food colorings so often observed in this classic combo.  Only the tiniest tinge of coconut came through and only at the end.  It was very subtle.  I think only the seriously coconut-averse would dislike this ice cream. 

The only downside to this Coconut Bliss flavor?  It feels lighter than the others because the mint makes it so darn refreshing, so I wanted to eat more.  In other words, it didn’t “do me in” quite as quickly as the Chocolate Hazelnut Fudge.  Hm.  I think my hips will forgive me.

But will my fabulous new jeans?

coconut bliss compressedBelieve it or not, I still have a pulse — and taste buds.  And those taste buds have been dancing with delight over a new discovery.  Have you heard about Coconut Bliss?  If you haven’t, allow me to share the good news.  It’s a dairy-free ice cream made from coconut milk that you can buy in your health food store, and it’s oh-so-heavenly.

See, I’m on a dairy-free kick for a bit to check for sensitivities, and I really wanted an ice cream fix the other day.  I needed ice cream.  While I’m all about making coconut ice cream at home (hats off to Kimifor that brilliant idea), my new itty-bitty freezer doesn’t provide sufficient room for my Kitchen Aid ice cream maker bowl.  Oh woe.  Until I procure an additional freezer, then, I have to buy my frozen treats in the store. 

Fortunately, I remembered seeing an ad for coconut ice cream and decided to check out Whole Foods’ offerings.  Sure enough, both Nada Moo and Coconut Blissgraced the shelves.  We nabbed Maple Pecan Nada Moo (giggle with me over their tag line: “When Having a Cow Is Out of the Question”) and Vanilla Island Coconut Bliss.  We needed one of each.  For research purposes, you see. 

The Nada Moo was yummy, yes, and far better than rice milk ice cream, but it didn’t come close to touching the profound excellence of Coconut Bliss.  CB was rich, velvety, full-flavored, sweetened perfectly, and just plain fabulous.  My mother-in-law said she might like it even better than regular ice cream.  We all agreed that we’d consider it on even footing with gourmet ice cream. 

Because I wanted to be absolutely sure about this recommendation before posting it, ahem, I bought another pint over the weekend, this time of Chocolate Hazelnut Fudge.  Studded with gorgeous chunks of hazelnuts and a thin fudgy ribbon, it was heaven on a spoon.  I’m so hooked.

So if you’re dairy-free, vegan, or if you’re merely an ice cream fanatic looking for the next thrill, you musttry this stuff.  It costs a pretty penny ($5 to $6 a pint), but it’s made with only organic and fair trade ingredients, and the dessert is so rich, a pint can satisfy four people.  Even once I get my home ice cream maker up and running, I’ll indulge in CB’s version regularly.  You simply can’t get that knock-your-socks-off texture at home.  Check out CB’s website for more info on their ingredients, story, and where to buy their products.

One last thought: The Vanilla Island flavor was awesome topped with fresh, local peaches.  Mmmm!

cake-slice-compressed

When I first started this blog, I sang the praisesof Ina Garten’s Double-Chocolate Layer Cake.  It is, indeed, to die for.  My husband declared it his favorite cake, and he requests it for his birthday and Valentine’s Day.  Unfortunately, it is also chock-full of gluten, so I regretfully retired the recipe when I got serious about my allergy.

Last November, though, because I couldn’t bear to see my dear J go cakeless on my account, I created a gluten-free, slightly healthier version of Ina’s masterpiece.  It was my first effort in converting a regular baked good to gluten-free baked good, and it was a huge success.  No one guessed it was gluten-free.  It was awesome!  In fact, this small triumph boosted my courage enough to attempt that gluten-free carrot cake at high altitude over Christmas (also a total success).

Starting with Ina’s recipe, I substituted Pamela’s Ultimate Baking Mix (found at Whole Foods, Amazon.com, and health food stores everywhere) for the flour, switched vegetable oil for coconut oil and white sugar for Sucanat, altered the leavening ingredients, and increased the frosting to cake ratio.  For what it’s worth, I also used duck eggs, which are supposed to be superior for baking, and I froze my layers before frosting them. 

I wish the pictures did the cake justice, but I had to take them after dark.  Still, if you want a rich, moist, deeply chocolaty, not-too-sweet cake that you can serve to anyone, regardless of health/allergy needs, you need to try this. 

whole-cake-compressed

 

Decadent Gluten-Free Chocolate Layer Cake

Cake
1 3/4 cup Pamela’s Ultimate Baking Mix
2 cups Sucanat or Rapadura (unrefined sugar, different from turbinado)
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon sea salt (I like Real Salt and Celtic Sea Salt)
1 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup coconut oil, heated just until melted
2 large eggs (I used duck eggs with fantastic results; they’re especially good for baking)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup freshly brewed hot coffee

Frosting
9 oz bittersweet chocolate
3 sticks (3/4 pound) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 large egg yolk (actually, I used 1 1/2 yolks, but you could get away with 1)
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
2 cups plus 2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar, sifted
1 1/2 tablespoons instant coffee granules
4 teaspoons hot water

Cake
Preheat oven to 350.  If you’re using high quality nonstick pans, simply butter and “flour” (using Pamela’s or cocoa) two 8-inch round cake pans.  If you have regular pans, butter the pans, line with parchment paper, and butter again.  Then dust them with Pamela’s or cocoa, tapping out the excess.  

In an electric mixer fitted with a paddle, mix Pamela’s, Sucanat, cocoa powder, baking soda, and salt at low speed.  In medium bowl, whisk buttermilk with melted coconut oil, eggs, and vanilla.  Slowly beat the liquid mixture into the dry ingredient until just incorporated, then slowly beat in hot coffee until fully incorporated.

Pour batter into prepared pans.  Bake for 30 minutes, or just until a toothpick comes out clean.  Be careful not to over-bake them or the cakes will be dry.  Cool cake in pans 30 minutes, then invert on rack to cool completely.  Peel off parchment paper, if using.

For best results, individually wrap and freeze the layers for 24 hours, removing shortly before you wish to frost them.  This step isn’t necessary, but it seems to produce a moister final product, and it makes frosting easier (something that can be difficult with gluten-free cakes).

Frosting
Melt chocolate in a double boiler or over very low heat, stirring, until melted.  Set aside to cool to room temperature.

In an electric mixer fitted with a paddle, beat butter at medium speed until pale and fluffy.  Add egg yolk and vanilla and beat for 1 minute.  At low speed, slowsly beat in confectioners’ sugar, about 1 minute. 

In small bowl, dissolve instant coffee in 4 teaspoons of hot water.  Slowly beat coffee into the butter mixture.

Mix the cooled chocolate into the butter mixture until just combined.

Assembly
Set a cake layer on a plate with flat side up.  Spread 1/3 of the frosting on top.  Top with the second cake layer, rounded side up.  Finish frosting.