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A Smorgasbord of Spice of Life Reviews

December 14, 2009

Do you like my imagery? Or maybe it’s a pun? I don’t know. (Btw, did you know smorgasbord was Swedish? I didn’t!) Well last month, I upgraded my participation in the Spice of Life Challenge from a Sampler (four books) to a Feast (six to eight books). Because that’s the kind of challenge addict I am! ;) Anyway, I’ve been good about reading books for the challenge (I’m at six right now, and I plan to start my seventh in the next couple of days), but not so good at reviewing…I’ve reviewed precisely two. So today I’ll be talking about four food-related books: Like Water for Chocolate (a novel), Chocolate: a Bittersweet Saga of Light and Dark by Mort Rosenblum (a nonfiction book…what can I say? I obviously have a favourite food group! hehe) and two cookbooks. A note on the cookbooks: I read two new ones from the library (I’m one of those weird people who read cookbooks cover to cover) and tried out some recipes from them. But then I had to return them to the library, and I was silly and didn’t write down any recipes to share with you (which is part of the recommended review style). So intead, I’ll be reviewing two of my favourite vegetarian cookbooks! But if you’re looking for a great first-time cookbook for veggie Indian food, definitely try out The Spice Box Manju Singh.

I’m in a rambling mood today, aren’t I? I’m thinking in sentences that would rival James. :) But I’ll try to stay focused! To jump to a particular review, use my handy-dandy internal links:
Chocolate: a Bittersweet Saga of Light and Dark by Mort Rosenblum
Like Water for Chocolate by Lara Esquivel
Moosewood Restaurant Daily Special by the Moosewood Collective
A Year in a Vegetarian Kitchen by Jack Bishop

Like Water for Chocolate by Lara Esquivel
This was a reread for me; I first read it maybe four or five years ago, when I was in college. I had watched the movie version with one of my friends (who was assigned it for her Spanish class), and I really enjoyed it. So of course I wanted to read the book! I remember being disappointed on my first read; it felt a bit thin. Now that I’ve reread it, I’m still not a huge fan, though I would like to try out another of her books in the future. But this is a really slim book, and it tends to jump years at a time. That kind of plot almost never works for me; I find it jarring to skip twelve years between one chapter and the next without warning, and it makes it more difficult for me to connect with the characters. And while the book is short, Esquivel creates a large canvas…I think that’s the source of the thinness. It’s like she’s trying to spread a limited amount of paint over too large of an area. That, and the love story that is the center of the whole book feels fake to me…there’s a different, quieter love story that felt true, but it gets pushed aside. So, there are my problems with the book. But they were good bits too! She writes gorgeous imagery, to begin with. The book is centered around food (each chapter begins with a recipe…they almost all involved meat, so I didn’t try any of them) and the kitchen, and I could almost smell the dishes cooking. And Tita, the main character, is wonderfully drawn; perhaps not realistic but definitely charming. I was looking up something about the book, and I just discoered that Esquivel is a screenwriter; that might explain why this doesn’t feel like a full novel or short story or anything. It feels like the blueprint of a story, and in this instance I think the movie was much better. I wanted to reread this, thinking maybe in my callow youth I had judged it hastily, but in this instance there simply wasn’t enough substance for me to sink into.

Chocolate: a Bittersweet Saga of Light and Dark by Mort Rosenblum
This was a fun, light nonfiction look at chocolate, in pretty much every aspect. Rosenblum does a lot of travelling and interviewing (vs. say, library research), which keeps the book readable and interesting. And the chapters are a good length, which I always appreciate in nonfiction books. :) He visits everywhere from Hershey, PA to Oaxaca, Mexico (in search of the best mole sauce) to Cote d’Ivoire (looking at cocoa tree plantations) to several European countries who claim the best chocolates. And while he talks to quite a few chocolate snobs, the book itself never feels snobbish…Rosenblum points out that there isn’t much actual cocoa in mass-produced chocolates by Hershey and Nestle, but to millions of people they still taste good. For full disclosure, I’m a bit of a chocolate snob myself: I love dark chocolate, I make sure to buy chocolate from ‘Fair Trade’ style companies (I prefer to read more about that, though, rather than just depend on the label), and as a result I tend to eat a lower quantity of high quality chocolate (both bar and hot!). I loved learning more about the process of getting from a cocoa seed to chocolate, I found several of Rosenblum’s destinations fascinating (he goes to Sao Tome & Principles!), and the small bits of history and science scattered throughout made me feel more knowledgeable about my favourite indulgence. If you love chocolate, or just enjoy foodie travel books, I’d highly recommend this one!

A Year in a Vegetarian Kitchen by Jack Bishop
I received this for Christmas a couple years ago (after some strong hints on my part, hehe), and it’s become one of my go-to cookbooks. It’s organised seasonally (Bishop lives in New England, where there’s four distinct seasons, but people who live in the Southern hemisphere and have four seasons could follow this too), which I really love. Bishop assumes you’re most interested in cooking meals around the produce naturally available in any given month, instead of buying out-of-season stuff that’s travelled thousands and thousands of miles. Not that he gets political at all…he eats seasonally because it tastes best. Anyway, most of these recipes take less than an hour from start to finish (and some take thirty minutes or less), although there’s the occasional one that I’ve spent longer on. They tend to have a pretty short list of ingredients, and while sometimes a more ‘gourmet’ ingredient may show up, Bishop has notes to explain it or suggests substitutes. This cookbook is full of the kinds of recipes you can build on and easily customise, which is part of why it’s so versatile! It covers a pretty wide variety of ethnic foods too, from Italian to Tex-Mex to Chinese to others. The physical book is marvelous too; it’s a beautiful format, with pretty in-text sketches and several pages of full-colour photographs in the middle. In addition to the table of contents, sorted by season, and the index sorted by both ingredients and recipe names, there’s also a list of recipes by category (i.e.: “main-course salads,” “pasta and noodles,” etc.). I think a beginning cook would be able to follow Bishop’s recipes easily, especially with his various helpful notes, and the joy of food and cooking really comes through. :) Oh, and he has fourteen suggested menus in the front, in case you want to put together several courses but aren’t sure where to begin.

I’ll share two of my very favourite fast recipes, which I’ve made more times than I can count! The first, Tortilla Soup, is a recipe my mom often asks me to make for guests, and they always want to bring the recipe home. :) It was difficult to pick only two though; many of the recipes from this book have become part of my regular repertoire. I didn’t include the interesting introductory paragraphs or helpful notes attached to the recipes, because that would be a lot of typing. But you should check the book out for yourself. ;)

Tortilla Soup (from the Spring category; serves 4 as main course)
Ingredients:

  • 4 corn tortillas
  • 3 tbs extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 lg onion, finely chopped
  • 3 med garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 sm jalpeno or serrano chile, stemmed, seeded if desired (reduces heat), and minced
  • 2 14.5 oz cans diced tomatoes
  • 3 c vegetable broth
  • 2 tbs fresh cilantro leaves, minced
  • 1 lime, quartered [the lime really makes the soup! -Eva]
  1. Move an oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 425 degrees. Place the tortillas on a rimmed baking sheet. Brush both sides of the tortillas with 1 tbs of oil. Bake until lightly crisped, about 6 minutes. (Don’t let the tortillas become overly crisp and stiff or they will shatter when you try to cut them into strips.) Cool the tortillas slightly and then use scissors [aka kitchen shears -Eva] to cut them into 1/2-inch-wide strips (it’s fine if some of the strips break apart). Set the tortilla strips aside.
  2. Meanwhile, heat the remaing 2 tbs oil in a large saucepan over medium heat until shimmering. Add the onion and cook until golden, about 5 minutes. Stir in the garlic and chile and cook until softened, about 1 minute.
  3. Add the tomatoes and broth, raise the heat to high, and bring to a boil. Stir in the tortilla strips and cilantro and cover the pan. Remove the pan from heat and set aside until the tortillas soften and start to lose their shape, about 5 minutes. Adjust the seasonings, adding salt to taste.
  4. Ladle the soup into bowls and serve, passing the lime wedges at the table.

Black Sesame Noodles (from Winter, serves 4 as main course)
Sauce Ingredients:

  • 1/4 c black sesame seeds (see page 34) [page 34 includes a note saying black sesame seeds are common in Japanese food, that you can buy them in an Asian grocery store, and keep them in your freezer indefinitely. I’ve used both white and black sesame seeds in the recipe, so don’t stress about it! -Eva]
  • 1/4c smooth natural peanut butter (without sugar or additives)
  • 2 med garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tbs fresh gingerroot, minced
  • 1 tbs sugar
  • 1 tsp hot red pepper flakes [I like my food spicy, so if I’m making this for just me, I add a lot more! -Eva]
  • 1/4c hot water
  • 1/4c soy sauce [if you’re gluten free like me, sub in Tamari sauce -Eva]
  • 2 tbs rice vingear

Dish Ingredients:

  • 1 tbs salt
  • 1 lb fresh linguine [I always just used dry, because it made it a pantry dish. Now that I’m gluten free, I use rice noodles. -Eva]
  • 1/2 med English cucumber, scrubbed and grated [I just use a normal cucumber and use whole thing. -Eva]
  • 1 med carrot, peeled and grated
  • 4 med radishes, scrubbed and grated [I’ve also been known to skip the grated veggies, if I didn’t have them in the fridge, and add some steamed broccoli from my freezer instead-any Asian style veggie will work)
  • 2 tbs minced cilantro leaves
  1. Bring 4 quarts water to a boil in a large pot for cooking the pasta.
  2. For the sauce: toast the sesame seeds in a small skillet over medium heat until fragrant, about 2 minutes. (Don’t let seeds burn.) Reserve 1 tsp sesame seeds. Place all sauce ingredients, including the remaining toasted sesame seeds, in a food processor or blender [I just use my immersion blender in the plastic jar it came with]. Process, scraping down sides of bowl several times, until sauce is smooth, about 1 minute. Scrape the sauce into a bowl large enough to hold the cooked pasta.
  3. Add the salt and pasta to the boiling water and cook until al dente. Drain the pasta and toss it with the sesame sauce in the large bowl until coated evenly. Add the cucumber, carrot, and radishes and toss to distribute the vegetables evenly. Divide the noodles among individual bowls and sprinkle with reserved sesame seeds and cilantro. Serve immediately.

Moosewood Restaurant Daily Special by the Moosewood Collective
I think every vegetarian has at least one Moosewood cookbook in their kitchen! I have three, and I love them all (a note for fish-eaters: every Mooswood cookbook also includes a fish section). This one is devoted to soups and salads, with a few extra garnishes and sandwich advice. I’m a huge fan of soups and salads, and before I become gluten free I loved me a good sandwich too. This cookbook has more than 275 recipes (according to the subtitle), so it gives you a huge variety to choose from! The beginning of the book includes a list of recipes by chapter, tips for lowering fat, and advice on transforming leftovers (as well as the standard introduction), then there’s the Soups section (including homemade stocks, vegetable soups, bean & grain soups, creamy dairy soups, chilled soups, and seafood soups), the Salads section (main dish salads, simple vegetable & side dish salads, and seafood salads) and Accompaniments (dressings, breads & biscuits, tempting extras). In the book, there’s a glossary of ingredients and techniques, an index that lets you search by ingredients, recipe name, etc., a conversion chart, and several pages of ‘menus’ (really lists of ingredients that fall into certain categories) including Children’s Favorites, Festive Brunches and Buffets, Healthy Low-Fat Favorites, Low-Carbohydrate, Quick & Easy (30 minutes or less), and Vegan. Oh, and each recipe has a suggested list of other recipes to serve with it at the bottom, including the page numbers to find those other recipes. In other words, there’s a lot of information in the cookbook to help beginning cooks meal-plan and try out any recipe that strikes their fancy! While the cookbook doesn’t contain any colour pictures of dishes, it has lots of cute line drawings and food scattered throughout and is just really beautiful to look at. Oh, and it contains all the nutritional info with the recipe, which I think is helpful.

I’ll be sharing a soup recipe and a salad recipe. Whenever I make the salad, I always have to double the recipe, and we still eat it all within two days! It’s really addictive like that. :D The soup is quick and satisfying, and what I would call a ‘pantry dish,’ in that you’re likely to have all the ingredients already on hand, so I turn to it when I haven’t been grocery shopping for awhile. :)

Baked Bean Soup (serves 4-6)
Ingredients:

  • 2c chopped onions
  • 1 tbs olive oil
  • 1/2c diced celery [I just add another 1/2c of carrots, because I hate celery, and add a sprinkle of celery salt, which I like, with the rest of the spices. -Eva]
  • 1c peeled and diced carrots
  • 1 tbs chili powder (note: chili powder can be replaced with 1 1/2 tsp paprika plus 1/8 tsp cayenne pepper)
  • 2-3 tbs Dijon or German-style mustard
  • 2c water
  • 1 1/2c undrained canned stewed tomatoes (14 1/2 oz can)
  • 1 2/3 c cooked white beans (note: 2/3c dried navy (pea) beans brought to a boil with 3c of water and the simmered for 1 3/4 hours yields that. Or a 15 1/2 oz can of cannellini or Great North beans, rinsed and frained works fine.)
  • 2 tsp cider vinegar
  • 2 tbs unsulphered molasses
  • 1 tbs soy sauce [sub in Tamari sauce to make it gluten free! -Eva]
  • salt and ground black pepper to taste

In a soup pot on medium-high heat, saute the onions in the oil for about 10 minutes, sitrring frequently, until the onions are translucent. Add the celery, carrots, and chili powder and continue to cook until the vegetables are tender, about 5 minutes. Stir in the mustard, water, tomatoes, beans, vinegar, molasses, and soy sauce. Cover and bring to a oil. Then lower hear and gently simmer for about 15 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Variation: For a thicker soup, puree about a cup of the vegetables and beans in a blender or food processor with just enough broth to keep things moving. Stir the pureed mixture back into the soup.

Greek Chickpea Salad (serves 4)
Ingredients:

  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1 tbs chopped kalamata olives
  • 1 1/2 c cooked chickpeas (16 oz can, drained)
  • 2 tbs chopped red onions
  • 2 tbs chopped fresh parsley
  • 2 tbs chopped fresh mint
  • 2-3 tbs fresh lemon juice
  • 3 tbs olive oil
  • 12-14 sun-dried tomatoes (not oil-packed)

Place the sun-dried tomatoes in a heat-proof bowl with 2c boiling water and soak for about 15 minutes, until softened. Drain well, chop, and set aside. In a large serving bowl, toss together the olive oil, garlic, chickpeas, olives, softened sun-dried tomatoes, red onions, mint, parsley, and lemon juice. Serve on a bed of fresh lettuce garnished with 1/2c grated feta cheese and a few fresh tomato wedges. [I’ve always ignored that last sentence! The salad doesn’t need any garnishes, in my opinion. -Eva]

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37 Comments leave one →
  1. December 14, 2009 6:35 pm

    Ah it’s too bad Like Water For Chocolate wasn’t better for you this time around. Jason and I both went into it without any real expectations and ended up enjoying it a lot. We rarely agree on books, so it was even more fun to share that together.

    • December 15, 2009 4:12 pm

      That’s neat that you both enjoyed it! :) I expected to like it more this time around…I think maybe if I hadn’t seen the movie first, I might have liked it more.

  2. December 14, 2009 7:08 pm

    What great recipes! We love tortilla soup (it’s sort of the Official Soup in Tucson!) so it’s always fun to see new recipes. I have 3 of the Moosewood books – I like reading them almost as much as using them!

    • December 15, 2009 4:13 pm

      lol @ an official soup of Tuscon! I don’t think the Springs has an official soup…I agree, the Moosewood books are always fun to read!

  3. historyofshe permalink
    December 14, 2009 7:33 pm

    I felt the same way about Like Water for Chocolate when I read it this past summer. Kinda disappointing after hearing about it on Top Chef! ;p

    • December 15, 2009 4:13 pm

      I’m glad I’m not the only one. I think this was Esquivel’s debut, so I’m curious to see how she evolved as a novelist (vs. screenwriter).

  4. December 14, 2009 7:46 pm

    i read Like Water for Chocolate in high school and i really enjoyed it. i was disappointed that most of the recipes were meat-laden as i really wanted to try one. i rented the movie after i read it and enjoyed it as well. but now you have me curious to re-read it to see if i would feel differently.

    thanks for the recommendation of The Spice Box. i will definitely have to check that out as i have been searching and searching for a good vegetarian indian cookbook.

    i must be a weirdo vegetarian because i don’t have any of the moosewood cookbooks although i always see them at the bookstore.

    i also like to eat seasonally. mostly i just find that my body craves in season food. i love mashed potatoes but i only crave them in the winter. i don’t want to eat them in the summer. in the summer all i want to eat is fruit, fruit and more fruit. :)

    well, i know this is long, but there were so many things i wanted to comment on. i always enjoy reading your posts, eva. :)_

    • December 15, 2009 4:16 pm

      It is annoying, but then Mexican food isn’t known for its veggie cuisine! The Spice Box is a bit bare-bones in that it doesn’t have any cute sketches, pictures, etc. But every recipe I tried, as a newbie to Indian cooking, was delicious. And the author had cute little paragraphs leading into the recipes which were great fun. :) You should check out a Moosewood cookbook at some point-many of the recipes that the omnivores in my life love come from them.

      And never apologise for a long comment!

  5. December 14, 2009 11:28 pm

    I will definitely be trying some of your recipes out! I’ve been trying to add more vegetarian meals into our routine which can sometimes be challenging with a five year old. But I’m sure that he would like the sesame noodles! I need to pull out my Moosewood cookbook and look at it again from a kid perspective!

    • December 15, 2009 4:16 pm

      Since my niece is visiting, I’m seeing firsthand what it’s like to try to get little kids to eat ‘complex’ food. It’s weird; when she was younger, she pretty much enjoyed anything I did. But now she doesn’t even want sauce on her noodles, lol: everything has to be as simple as possible.

  6. December 15, 2009 2:11 am

    My (Swedish) first years think that the fact that Sweden has given the world smorgasbord is hilarious, although they are a bit dubious as to the way it is used. They were flabbergasted by the fact that ombudsman was Swedish too :)

    I love to look of the Tortilla soup and A Year in the Vegetarian Kitchen. My mum’s best friend is a vegetarian so we are always looking for new recipes to serve. Thanks for the recommendation!

    • December 15, 2009 4:17 pm

      There are lots of great vegetarian cooking blogs online too if you’re ever looking for individual recipes! In fact, I stopped asking for cookbooks when I discovered cooking blogs, lol.

  7. December 15, 2009 6:20 am

    Oooooh, I want that A Year in a Vegetarian Kitchen soooooo much!!! Rich WILL be buying me that for my birthday! (I’d have said Christmas, but I suppose it’s a little late to be asking for things now, huh?)

    • December 15, 2009 4:18 pm

      I think you’ll really like it Debi! When you get it, and you have some free time, you HAVE to make the Carmelised Onion Enchiladas…they’re to die for. :D

  8. December 15, 2009 7:09 am

    Oh no such a shame you didnt enjoy Like Water For Chocolate any more on the second read. I read this years and years ago and I utterly loved it, I think I was about seventeen. Maybe now older and wiser I wouldnt so much.

    • December 15, 2009 4:18 pm

      That’s always my fear of rereading books I loved when I was younger. :)

  9. December 15, 2009 8:06 am

    I didn’t really enjoy Like Water For Chocolate either. I really didn’t like the ending. I found it quite bizarre. I love the sound of these recipes – especially the Tortilla Soup.

    • December 15, 2009 4:19 pm

      It was pretty bizarre, lol. It just felt a bit too random to me. ;)

  10. December 15, 2009 1:11 pm

    I just love the name of that chocolate book. A bittersweet saga of light and dark! Fabulous play with words! :)

    And yes, our neighbours in Sweden gave the world smorgasbord.
    It’s actually smörgåsbord in Swedish. In Swedish as well as in Finnish our alphabet ends not with z but with å, ä and ö. :)

    Greetings,
    Tiina

    • December 15, 2009 4:19 pm

      You and all those fancy accent marks! ;) Although I didn’t realise they were at the end of the alphabet! And yep, the subtitle to Chocolate is quite fun, and a good indicator of his writing style.

  11. December 15, 2009 1:32 pm

    If you’re looking for another food-related book, I strongly recommend Aphrodite: A Memoir of the Senses by Isabel Allende. It’s actually all about, er, um, ah, romance-related foods and the various romantic stimuli they provide. It’s a thoroughly enthralling and delightful work.

    • December 15, 2009 4:20 pm

      I’ve got that on my Women Unbound list-I’ll pop it up a few places! :)

  12. December 15, 2009 3:47 pm

    Ooops, I forgot to mention also the work of M. K. F. Fisher, perhaps the finest essayist to have written on the subject of food in the past 100 years. She has a collections of her essays on eating and food available. Her works aren’t cookbooks but explorations of the pleasures of food and dining. There’s a large collection of 5 of her books published by Wiley Publishing entitled The Art of Eating which includes some of her best work.

    • December 15, 2009 4:20 pm

      I had that on my Year of Reading Dangerously list this year, but I didn’t get to it. The one thing that worries me about her writing is that I’m sure she wasn’t a vegetarian…that’s why I tend to avoid foodie writing in general.

  13. December 16, 2009 5:22 am

    Now I’m hungry!

    I loved Like Water for Chocolate but it was about ten years ago that I read it so my opinion probably will change on a reread.

    Tortilla soup is soooooo good.

    • December 16, 2009 11:46 pm

      I think if I hadn’t seen the movie first, I would have loved it. :) And yes, tortilla soup is magical!

  14. December 16, 2009 3:17 pm

    I think I liked Like Water for Chocolate because it was thin. I felt it was a fairy tale, and I don’t expect characters to be all fleshed out in fairy tales. But for me, it was just an edible fairy tale. Ok that doesn’t make sense…

    I think I’m a little of a chocolate snob. Hersheys’ doesn’t always tempt me. Don’t get me wrong, I like it, but um, I like the better stuff much better. I don’t like Dark Chocolate at all though, just tastes off to me.

    I love cookbooks that give menu ideas! That’s always my problem: tying a meal together. And yum, that Moosewood soups book sounds great! I’m trying to go for more soups. They are so easy and filling!

    PS. I read cookbooks cover to cover too, sometimes!

    • December 16, 2009 11:47 pm

      Now why didn’t you tell me that before I reread it?! That makes perfect sense, and now that you said that, I want to reread it again with THAT attitude. lol

      I’m usually too lazy to make more than a couple dishes for one meal…part of why I love soup is that I can add a simple green salad and some easy carb and I’m done! :)

  15. December 16, 2009 5:51 pm

    If you’re looking for an interesting and strictly vegetarian cookbook, you might look at World Vegetarian by Madhur Jaffrey (Clarkson Potter Publishers, 1999). It’s great; I use it regularly.

    • December 16, 2009 11:48 pm

      Ohhh: thanks for the rec! That sounds like fun. :D

  16. December 16, 2009 11:51 pm

    Wow. Now THAT was a post!! I find it really hard to review cookbooks, and I really don’t READ them. But I love to flip through them, espcecially if they have good pictures!! (You would LOVE the Chocolate Cake cookbook I got for Christmas last year…with 150 different recipes!!)

    I love Tortilla soup, but the one I make has chicken. So…meat-eater, here! The Greek Salad sounds fantastic, though!

    • December 16, 2009 11:52 pm

      I don’t know why I read them…but I love snuggling up with one, lol. That chocolate cake book would make me sad unless it was gluten free friendly! I REALLY miss baking, so I finally picked up some gf flours, and I’ve actually been pleasantly surprised by the results. :)

  17. December 17, 2009 9:09 am

    I’ve been looking at Like Water for Chocolate for years. My lit class in high school didn’t read it, but the other section of my class did. And I’ve been intrigued ever since. I need to read it in 2010.

    Those cookbooks look amazing. I need to see if my library has them. I especially like the idea of sorting by season. Not only does it taste better, it’s cheaper to buy what’s in season. :)

  18. stacybuckeye permalink
    December 20, 2009 8:42 pm

    I remember reading Like Water for Chocolate many years ago and really enjoying it. Maybe it’s time for a re-read. I never did see the movie, so I guess I could do both.

  19. December 27, 2009 5:27 pm

    I’m not a vegetarian, but I have 3 Moosewood cookbooks on my shelf. Their recipes are straight-forward and delicious; I’ll be trying this soup, and checking out the book … thanks!

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