Saturday, July 31, 2010

products i love: back to school

Sigh. Today is the last day of July, which means the end of summer vacation is near. One thing I have always enjoyed about the end of summer is buying brand new school supplies. Sharp pencils, fresh markers, crisp notebooks. Here are some of my favorite supplies.

Moleskine Soft Cover Weekly Planner + Notebook
This is the best planner out there. It's plain, but functional. The format is handy, with each week on its own page and a ruled notebook page opposite. Great for making to-do lists or reminders. I like how you can personalize and make it your own. It's sturdy and durable, the perfect size to slip into a purse or bag.
Purchase here: Moleskine Planners

Papermate Clear Point Mechanical Pencils
These are my favorite mechanical pencils. They are a bit chunky and fit nicely in your hand. The clicking mechanism is at the bottom and the eraser can be twisted to reveal more.
Purchase here: Paper Mate Clear Point 0.5mm Mechanical Pencil Starter Set
Staedtler Triplus Fineliners
These are great pens with great colors. They write smoothly and effortlessly. I use them to doodle in my planner, but they are excellent for color coding your notes. They have a very fine felt tip and if you happen to leave the cap off, they won't dry out. Added bonus: they come in a useful plastic case.
Purchase here: Staedtler Triplus Fineliners

Pilot Dr. Grip Gel Pen
This is my number one choice in pen. The fineliners are great, but I'll use my Dr. Grip Gel as my go-to writing utensil. I like chunky pens and this one is, with a jelly grip. It's heavy and writes very smoothly. You can also buy refills for the pen.
Purchase here: Pilot Dr. Grip Gel Ink Rolling Ball Pens

Stabilo Swing Cool Highlighters
These are the best highlighters in vibrant colors. They dry very quickly and aren't likely to smudge. They have an unusual rectangular shape.
Purchase here: Stabilo Swing Cool Highlighters

 Moleskine Cahiers
I use these notebooks in place of your average ruled notebook. They are sturdy and small. You can purchase them with ruled paper, squared paper, or plain. The squared paper is kind of fun, but I prefer the ruled. They come in sets of three in three different sizes. I recommend the large or extra-large.
Purchase here: Moleskine Cahiers

 Bic Ecolutions Wite-Out Tape
This stuff is great. I will never use liquid Wite-Out again. It's made from recycled materials and comes with a cap that will snap on the end during use. The size is conveniently small. The type glides on smoothly and is easy to write over.
Purchase here: Bic Ecolutions Wite-Out Tape

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Friday, July 30, 2010

tgif links: july 30, 2010

It's Friday! Do something FUN!

Go back to the 80's with some Sixteen Candles inspiration.

Take time to make a thoughtful gift for a family member or friend.

Use Froot Loops to make French toast and Rice Krispies as a crunchy breading.

Make your own Gatorade.

Do a little snipping and clipping to make those too big jeans the perfect size.

Drool over these gluten-free raspberry-oat scones.

Stick to your weight loss goal and try these tasty, healthy recipes.

Find a dog park in your area and bring your furry friend along for the fun.


Wednesday, July 28, 2010

my yarn stash

I am currently working on establishing a good yarn stash, so I never run out of a knitting project.

I keep my small stash in this cloth shopping bag from Sweden.

This is a very luxurious baby alpaca yarn that I think I'll use to make a scarf. It is incredibly soft and warm, without being itchy. The colors are a beautiful grey-blue.

This yarn by Paton is a soy/wool blend that is supposed to be excellent for felting. I love the colors, they remind me of a sunset. I'll probably use this to make a couple felted pot holders.

Isn't this a pretty pink? It makes me think of watermelon. It's an alpaca yarn and I'll probably use it for a scarf.

I'm not sure what this yarn is...probably wool? I love how chunky it is. It's not very much, so I'm not sure what I'll do with it.

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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

felted soap

I recently discovered a new craft I wanted to attempt: felted soap. What exactly is felted soap, you ask? You start with wool roving (combed wool, often dyed and used most frequently for spinning into yarn) and felt it around a bar of soap. Why would one want to do this? It's like having a washcloth and soap in one. The wool helps the soap lather nicely and exfoliates as you scrub. As you continue use, the felt shrinks around the soap until it is all gone, so you aren't left with tiny unusable shards of soap. I love crafts and bath products, so I purchased a kit off of Etsy to try my hand at felting soap.

You don't need many materials, only hot water, soap, towels, and wool roving. The idea is simple enough. You wrap a few different layers of wool around the soap, making sure the corners are covered. Next, you saturate the bar with hot water (I used a plastic squirt bottle filled with boiling water) and start rubbing with your hands until the wool has turned to felt.

It's not quite as easy as it sounds, but once you get going, it is more doable. The key is to get the bar really wet, rub really hard, and get a good lather going. The soap helps the wool to felt.

I can't wait to try this again with different colors and different soap. It would make great gifts, but I think I'll keep my first two bars for myself. :)

You can check out a couple different felted soap tutorials here:

Wool roving is widely available from many online retailers like Amazon, Etsy, Jo-Ann, and even Wal-Mart. You can find it at yarn shops or craft and hobby stores (like Jo-Ann or Hobby Lobby).

Or you can buy a kit like I did:
I used this one, but you can find a couple others here, here, and here.

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Monday, July 26, 2010

knit, purl

While in Muscatine, IA, I had the opportunity to try something I've been wanting to learn for a long time. I learned how to knit!

At the Serendipity Yarn Shoppe, I picked out my first pair of needles (Brittany Art Deco birch needles, size 9) and a ball of yarn. I sat down with the shop owner for a few minutes while she showed me how to cast on and knit. I started my very first scarf.

The motions were awkward at first, and the needles unyielding, but by the time I was on a plane back to State College, it felt natural. A few days after arriving home, I finished my lumpy, holey scarf.

My first scarf. Isn't the yarn wonderful? It's Plymouth Encore Colorspun worsted weight with 75% acrylic and 25% wool. The color is 7511.

But after starting my second scarf, tragedy struck. I left my needles on my bed and when climbing in that night, I sat on one of the needles and snapped it clean in half. I was so sad! Not only did I lose my beloved needle, but my bottom had obviously reached epic proportions to snap wood in half. This now brings the total of things I've broken with my butt to 2.

I looked up the Brittany website to see where the nearest dealer was located. Not anywhere near me, it turns out. I did notice their product guarantee, offering to replace any broken needles at no charge. I e-mailed them and waited impatiently for a response. I received a reply a couple days ago informing me it would be "no problem". What great customer service! I can't wait to receive my new needle.

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Sunday, July 25, 2010

book review: "chic shopping paris"

I hope no one is tiring of my seemingly endless posts relating to Paris and France. I can't help it; I am smitten.

Today I'll review a wonderful book I picked up at the Prairie Lights bookstore in Iowa City. They had a table full of cookbooks and travel books on sale. You can imagine how long I toiled over this table. So many books to choose from! I picked up this great little book called Chic Shopping Paris.

The book features the author's bonnes addresses (a personal list of one's favorite shops) arranged by Parisian arrondissement. Paris is arranged into 20 neighborhoods, or arrondissements. Each has its own unique culture and shopping. For example, the 4th arrondissement is home to the Marais district, with a lively gay culture and the center of Paris's Jewish community. the 18th arrondissement, my favorite, is where Montmartre is located and known as the artists district.

This book contains lively descriptions and beautiful photographs, highlighting some of Paris's greatest shops. Each shop featured lists an address, nearest metro stop, phone number, hours, and website (if available). The book was published in 2008, so it may be somewhat outdated, but it makes a great coffee table book if nothing else. It's a handy size, easy to pack in a suitcase and carry in a purse. There is also an index in the back listing shops by type, making it convenient to find whatever you're looking for. Since it is a bit outdated, I would recommend looking the shops up online before visiting them.

While skimming Chic Shopping, I really noticed how specialized shopping can be in Paris. Astier de Villatte sells only rustic, white dinnerware. Causse sells only handmade gloves. Laguiole sells knives. La Petite Robe Noire focuses on "the little black dress". Alexandra Soifer is a store that sells only umbrellas. Cire Trudon is a candle shop that was once the royal purveyor of candles for Louis XVII. I could go on and on. Shop owners often pick one thing they do well and stick to it. It's an idea so far removed from the big box stores and concrete shopping malls that are part of the American culture. It feels distinctly European.

This book has reawakened my desire to go back to France. I recommend it to any lover of France, anyone traveling to Paris and anxious to shop, or those who are just addicted to shopping.

I just had to add some photos of the inside of the book to highlight the beautiful photography.

A two-page photo of the little black dress shop.

A children's shop.

And here's an example of the information provided for each shop.

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Saturday, July 24, 2010

hotel review: hotel palomar chicago

The Hotel Palomar in Chicago's River North neighborhood was the perfect vacation retreat. Unfortunately, our last night there, I forgot to take pictures of the room. You would too if you had spent 12 hours baking in the sun on an aluminum bench and inhaling all varieties of smoke. Okay, so the Crossroads Guitar Festival was a blast, but I was in no position to do anything but collapse on my bed with a bottle of aloe in my hand. I slept in the next morning and allowed myself exactly 30 minutes to pack, shower (ouch), slather myself in a layer of aloe (ahh), and inhale my cup of tea. This was a very long explanation of why I don't have pictures of my wonderful hotel room.

The location was just fantastic: two blocks from the Magnificent Mile and one block from the new Trump Tower. Right in the heart of the city. The lobby was great, lots of leather and gleaming marble. Palomar is a dog-friendly hotel and I was impressed with the dog bowls out front filled with water and dog biscuits.

The staff was extremely helpful, even sending a brand new hair straightener up to my room since I had forgotten mine. They upgraded our room to the luxury suite since our booked one-bedroom suite wasn't yet ready.

The hotel room was on the 9th floor and we had a great corner room with tall windows and wonderful city views. There were three rooms: a large bedroom with a king bed, a bathroom with a small sitting room outside, and a living room with a pull-out bed (my room). The decorating could be described as modern and warm. The furniture was sleek and trendy with plasma TVs in both rooms.

The bathroom was the best part of the room. Everything was covered in marble and there was a huge glass shower. The bathtub was practically a swimming pool, with jacuzzi jets and a self-cleaning feature. There were two sinks and a mirror that took up practically the entire wall. It was stocked with L'Occitane bath products (shampoo, conditioner, lotion, soaps) and had the perfect make-up mirror. The room had three ample closets, one even stocked with plush animal-print bathrobes.

Our room was great, but the rest of the hotel had some great amenities as well. If I had brought my swimsuit, I would've loved to spend some time on the rooftop pool and terrace. If I wasn't lazy and full of good food, I would've worked up a sweat in the huge fitness room (personal trainer available if you wish). I did enjoy the wine reception in the lobby a couple nights, and a delicious breakfast in their restaurant, Sable.

Overall, the hotel was spectacular, quiet, and comfortable. It was within walking distance to pretty much everything we visited. The staff was very helpful and if you have a dog, it's a great place to bring them along.

Palomar is owned by Kimpton, which has great luxury and boutique hotels across the country. You can check out the Hotel Palomar website here and Kimpton's website here. The pictures I added are from Expedia, not ones I personally took.

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Friday, July 23, 2010

tgif links

Yum! Spice up your popcorn by adding truffle oil and parmesan.

Amazing and hilarious: fast food made to look like gourmet dishes.

Sew a neck cooler for those hot summer days.

Knit your own washcloths.

It takes only 16 minutes to make these mini Mexican flatbread pizzas.

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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

rick bayless's frontera grill

Rick Bayless is an American chef specializing in Mexican cuisine. He has written several great cookbooks and has appeared on Iron Chef, Top Chef, and won Top Chef Masters in 2009. More recently, he gained public attention as the guest chef for the White House state dinner in May. Barack Obama is a fan, and so is my dad.

Rick Bayless owns three restaurants in Chicago: Frontera Grill, Topolobampo, and XOCO. My dad likes to visit celebrity chef restaurants when he has the opportunity. He's been to Emeril's NOLA in New Orleans, Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill in New York City, Mario Batali's Babbo in New York City, and of course, Rick Bayless's restaurants in Chicago. He was very excited to take me to Frontera Grill.

Frontera Grill doesn't take reservations, so there is often a long wait. We chose to eat at the bar instead of waiting 1 1/2 hours for a table (when my dad's hungry, he's hungry). Even though we sat at the bar, the service was superb. Our waiter was attentive and helpful, despite being very obviously busy.

The decor was bright and bold, with lots of Mexican and Southwestern art along the walls. There was a fantastic tiled backsplash and a cool iron dragon sculpture. Great vases full of bright, fresh flowers were all over the tables and bar. It was noisy and dim, but not unbearably so. It's to be expected for such a popular restaurant.

To drink I chose a pineapple and cucumber cooler. It was pleasantly sweet and very refreshing. The margaritas looked great, but I wasn't in the mood for liquor, so I stuck with my cooler and iced water. It was much harder to choose what to eat for lunch. Everything on the menu sounded delicious, but I was in the mood for some fresh fish. The downside to living in a small town in the middle of a landlocked state is the unavailability of really fresh, delicious fish. State College, PA has no fish market. I take advantage of being in big cities and try to eat as much seafood as possible.

I finally decided to order the fresh catch of the day: swordfish. We did have a bit of wait for our food, but nothing too bad. My mouth was positively salivating by the time our waiter put my plate in front of me. The swordfish was grilled to medium-rare and served in a pureed sauce of green vegetables, herbs, and cream. It was accompanied by grilled asparagus and fingerling potatoes.

That first bite was phenomenal. The fish was cooked to perfection and it melted in my mouth. The sauce was vibrant and light, with a gentle peppery bite and essence of cilantro. It paired very well with the fish and potatoes. So often, fish is overcooked, dry, and overly flaky. I can't describe how fresh and buttery the swordfish really was. Since it was cooked to medium-rare, by the time it reached the table, the middle was just opaque. I was pleased and surprised at how light the meal was, not heavy like you would expect something with cream and potatoes to be. I think this dish could convert a seafood hater to a fish lover. It was my favorite meal I had in Chicago.

Unfortunately, the restaurant was dim and I have a simple point-and-shoot camera, so it was difficult for me to capture a good picture of the food. The picture does not do it justice.

If you are in Chicago, I highly recommend a trip to Frontera Grill. You will not be disappointed. If you wish to save a bit of money, I suggest going for lunch. With drinks, appetizers, and an entree, we paid about $30 each. I don't find this unreasonable for a delicious meal at a famous restaurant. Keep in mind that the wait will be lengthy. But enjoy the wonderful food!

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a summer picnic in versailles

When I studied abroad to France a few years ago, I was surprised at some of the similarities between my culture and the French culture. One thing we have in common: picnics.

I was fortunate to be in Paris for Bastille Day, France's celebration of the storming of the Bastille prison, and a symbol of the beginning of modern France. Celebrations are much like our Independence Day festivities: parades, flags, firecrackers, and picnics. My French host lived in the town of Versailles, home of the famous Palace and an important site during the tumultuous years of the Revolution. I was invited to a barbecue picnic at his home on Bastille Day.

French picnics seem to be similar to the ones I am accustomed to in the United States. Our host grilled chicken, steaks, and lamb. His wife made vibrant chilled salads and vegetable sides. But what makes French picnics unique is the bread, cheese, and wine. An improvement, I'd say.

Everyone's favorite dish seemed to be a simple vegetable salad dressed with a tangy vinaigrette. I was too shy to ask for the recipe, but our host's wife did tell us that what made the salad so delicious was the addition of French mustard into the vinaigrette.

On the metro ride back to my dorm in Paris, I scribbled down the bare bones of the dish in my little notebook I always carry with me. When I arrived back in the States, I attempted to recreate the dish myself. It wasn't quite as delicious as I remember, but it turned out very similar.

It is a great summer salad--as all the vegetables are in season during the summer months--served alongside a good piece of grilled meat or fish. The key, I think, is to use a high quality French mustard, and to let the dressing marinate with the vegetables for a couple hours.

Bon Appetit!

Versailles Salad

2 cucumbers, roughly chopped
3 tomatoes, cut in small wedges
1 bag frozen corn, defrosted -- may substitute fresh grilled corn if desired
French mustard (Dijon works fine)
White wine or Champagne vinegar
Extra virgin olive oil
salt and fresh ground pepper

Whisk together the mustard, vinegar and oil to make a thin dressing. I never measure the amounts; I always just guess and adjust the ingredients as necessary. To make a rough guess, I would suggest starting with 1/3 cup oil, 3 tablespoons vinegar, and 1 teaspoon mustard, but work with it until you get the desired taste. Season with salt and pepper.

Arrange the chopped vegetables on a platter in rows: 1 row with tomatoes, 1 row with corn, 1 row with cucumbers. It should resemble the French flag, but in different colors. If this is too fussy for you, you can simply toss the veggies together in a bowl.

Pour the dressing over the vegetables and refrigerate for a couple hours. Serve cold. I recommend using a piece of crusty bread to soak up the leftover dressing.

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Sunday, July 18, 2010

prairie lights

I love books. I love the smell of them, the covers, and most of all, the words inside. Bookstores are a paradise for me. A Borders or Barnes & Noble is nice, of course, but I love those quirky local bookshops with hidden nooks and crannies. Webster's in State College is a great example.

The University of Iowa in Iowa City is home of the famous Writers' Workshop and it's considered by many to be a literary university. The result is some great bookstores. During my visit, I spent a couple hours inside Prairie Lights. It was three-and-a-half floors of heaven.

They have a coffee and wine cafe, which means there's a great coffee smell following you around as you look at books. And boy, do they have a lot. They have a great selection of sale books (more on those later) and gifts for book lovers. They have a section of local reads and art as well. If you're lucky to be there at the right time, they host frequent author readings. And I don't mean one of those local aspiring authors who prints their own books off, I'm talking about well-known, published writers.

I would go to the University of Iowa just so I could spend my days here.

Check out their website here:

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did someone say vichyssoise?

It's no secret that I love all things French. But the problem with French food is that it can often be full of butter and cream and cheese. It is all so delicious, though--buttery croissants that flake apart in your mouth; warm, nutty chocolat au pain that dribbles chocolate down your chin when you take a bite; onion soup chock full of smoky sweet onions and crunchy toast with Swiss; and cool, creamy vichyssoise. No wonder Louis XVI was so portly in his later years.

Vichyssoise is a chilled soup made with potatoes, leeks, chicken stock, and of course, butter and cream. It's one of my favorites, but does no favors for the waistline. I found this great alternative online and it has become a family favorite. It's not a traditional vichyssoise by any means. I actually prefer this version served hot, but it's great cooled as well. This recipe serves 4 people and contains 7 grams of fat per serving and 265 calories.

Healthy-ish Potato and Leek Soup (Vichyssoise)

4 leeks, white parts only, well-cleaned and chopped
4 green onions, white parts chopped and green parts reserved
3 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1 lb. yukon gold potatoes, peeled and diced
1 1/2 tablespoons butter
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper (white pepper if you have it)

In a saucepan over medium-high heat, combine the leeks, green onion whites, and 1/2 cup of chicken stock. Bring to a boil and reduce heat to low. Cover and cook until the vegetables are soft, about 8 minutes.

Add the diced potatoes and remaining chicken stock. Cover and cook until vegetables are very soft, about 20-25 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in butter until it melts. Leave standing without a cover for about 15 minutes, until slightly cooled.

Very carefully transfer the hot vegetable mixture to a blender and puree until very smooth. Do this in batches if needed. Season with salt and pepper.

If eating hot: Garnish with chopped green onion tops and serve in individual bowls.
If eating cold: Allow to cool to room temperature before refrigerating for 4+ hours. When ready to serve, taste and adjust seasoning as needed. Believe it or not, but when chilled, the seasoning can become less pronounced. Garnish with chopped green onion tops and serve in individual bowls.

Goes great with a slice of crusty French bread!

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Saturday, July 17, 2010


Unless you're from the Midwest--or know a Midwesterner--you might not be acquainted with Maid-Rite, the original loose meat sandwich with a cult following. California has In-N-Out, Kansas has White Castle, Connecticut has Ted's steamed cheeseburger, and Iowa has the loose meat sandwich.

I might be unfamiliar with the Maid-Rite if 1) I didn't watch so much food television or 2) I didn't know an Iowan. The Maid-Rite is a burger made with a specific cut and grind of beef and a secret blend of spices, but isn't formed into a patty. Some have said it's like a sloppy joe without the sauce. The first Maid-Rite was opened by a butcher in Muscatine, Iowa, but the restaurant is now a franchise chain. You can find their diner-style restaurants across the Midwest, and now in Texas and Colorado.

They come plain, with no condiments or toppings, but you can order your preferred toppings if you wish. I ordered a Cheese-Rite (a Maid-Rite with cheese, if you couldn't figure it out) with pickles and a side of onion rings. They always come wrapped in the red and white paper with a long spoon tucked inside. It was delicious, but the "cheese" was a Cheez Whiz type concoction, not the slice of American I had expected. The sandwich was tender, with just the right amount of spice and a mild beefy flavor. It was soft and yummy--not at all greasy, though slightly hampered by the gooey glob of cheese. Next time, I'll order the plain Maid-Rite.

Overall, I was pleased and satiated by my first experience with the famous Maid-Rite. It may look unassuming, like something you might find on a grade school cafeteria tray, but sometimes the simplest things are the tastiest. If my future endeavors take me to Iowa, I might be in trouble...

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she's alive!

I'm back! I have been away on a lengthy hiatus (that's a word you don't get to use often) while traveling, being sick, cleaning, packing, and admittedly--being lazy. I haven't forgotten about my blog and I'm excited to share lots of new things with everyone.

Chicago was great, and surprisingly Iowa was as well. After my last few trips being abroad, it's really nice to experience my own country's heartland. This was my first visit to Chicago (outside of O'Hare) and my first trip to Iowa. I have pictures, hotel reviews, food reviews, and more to share from my travels.

To ease back into the blogosphere, I'll start with a shop and product review. My travel stories will be a bit disjointed--it's just how I roll.

While in Iowa City (home of the University of Iowa Hawkeyes...more on this later), I did some shopping downtown in the wonderful, unique boutiques. The first one I checked out was the very aptly-named Soap Opera. In case you couldn't tell, I love bath & beauty products, so I naturally loved this store. An entire shop full of soap!

Not only do they carry some more well-known brands like Crabtree & Evelyn and L'Occitane, they also feature organic and local products. You can find any soap with any possible ingredient. In case soap isn't your thing, they also sell bath toys, loofahs, nail care, moisturizers, face care, hair care, lip balm, fragrance oils and more. They even have their own line of bath and beauty products.

I had to limit myself to one bar of soap and it took me a long time to find that one special bar. Did I want one shaped like a Chihuahua? I couldn't justify spending $20, even if it did look like Carmella. Did I want one of those big bars of lavender L'Occitane soap? No, L'Occitane is readily available. An Iowan-crafted one? An organic one? A goat's milk one?

I ended up choosing a bar made by Vivo Naturals. It caught my eye because of the ingredients (100% African Shea Butter and bamboo) and the slogan of "Personal Care. Global Impact." They purchase their ingredients from a collective farm in Togo run entirely by women. Rather than donating proceeds directly to charity, they are directly improving the livelihood of people who need it.

I chose the Green Tea + Mint bar. I love the scent of mint and this one had crushed bamboo added for extra exfoliation. I was intrigued. This soap ended up being a godsend for my sunburned arms. It makes a rich, silky lather that is lightly scented. The bamboo, as promised, exfoliates very well, leaving your skin soft and smooth. The soap rinses clean, but moisturizes without leaving any film. I was very pleased with this product, especially for only $4.75.

This brand is surprisingly easy to find. They sell their products on their website, even offering a special of 10 soaps (and these are BIG) for $30 with free shipping. They are sold at Whole Foods and even, but I think I would feel most comfortable ordering from them directly. They offer five different formulas: Green Tea + Mint, Brazilian Acai + Pomegranate, English Lavender, Lemongrass + Verbena, and Rose Water + Jasmine. Another plus: they are packaged in 100% recycled materials.

Check out their website here (they're also on Facebook):

Visit The Soap Opera's website here:
You can order online from them!

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