Naturally Gifted

This blog post is sponsored by iHerb but as always,the opinions and experiences expressed in this post are my own.

There’s an art to gift-giving, whether you’re treating a close loved one or casual acquaintance. What do you get for the person who never asks for a thing, yet deserves the world? How can you decide what’s the very best option, from the overwhelming catalogues of diverse options out there? Where do you find the best prices to fit your budget, be it generous or more modest? When do you have time to do all this legwork, on top of all the usual festive responsibilities?

Calm down! There’s an easy answer for all of these burning questions. Just make your list, check it twice, and hop on over to iHerb.

Based in California but reaching customers in over 150 countries all around the world, iHerb boasts over 30,000 brand name natural products, guaranteed at the highest quality and lowest prices possible. Free or discounted shipping ensures that your presents will arrive on time for the big event; no excuses, no empty stockings. Plus, do I have to remind you that all this shopping can be done from the comfort of your own home, far from the maddening crowds and happily ensconced in slippers and pajamas? That’s a big present you’re giving to yourself right there.

So we’ve got a plan of attack now, but with such a huge number of promising gifts, what makes the cut for your lucky recipients? Everyone loves food, so that’s always a safe bet. Break it down into three categories of food enthusiasts and you’ll have impressive, indulgent, yet practical gift baskets to spread joy with ease.

Some people seem like they were born with a chef’s knife in hand, dominating the kitchen at dinner time with ease like a seasoned pro. The Vegan Cook can be the hardest to shop for, claiming that they have all the pantry staples and tools they need, but I’m willing to bet they don’t even know about the treasures they’ve been missing…

  • Lotus Foods Jade Pearl Rice cooks up to a brilliant pastel green hue, infused by the chlorophyll of tender young bamboo. Toothsome yet slightly sticky, it’s a nuanced, subtle side dish without any added spices, but works just as well in all your favorite recipes. Imagine jade green sushi, paella, or for the more adventurous, bamboo burgers.
  • La Tourangelle Artisan Oils are the foundation of countless recipes, but simply picking the best bottle from their diverse array of offerings can be overwhelming. This particular trio of aromatic basil oil, garlic oil, and herbs de Provence oil puts a world of flavor right at your fingertips to start, or finish, strong.
  • Better Than Bouillon No Chicken Base has seen me through the toughest winters, imbuing all manner of soups and marinades with an impossibly rich poultry flavor, the likes of which all other dusty powders can only dream of. Add a dab of this golden elixir to your average pot of noodles and like magic, you’ve have a taste of long-simmered chicken soup to rival grandma’s.
  • Eden Foods Shoyu is for so much more than Japanese cuisine. For that instant hit of umami, a little splash goes a long way. Not all soy sauce is created equal, so when you want something more than just a salt lick in a bottle, this is the stuff for you.
  • Fini Balsamic Vinegar with Porcini Mushrooms drizzles rich, thick lines of Modena’s claim to fame, reduced down to a nectarious sweet and sour syrup. The subtle earthy aroma of porcini mushrooms compliments without overwhelming the blend. The saying goes that you’ll catch more flies with honey than vinegar, but I promise you’ll tempt more taste buds with the opposite approach.
  • Gustus Vitae Black Truffle Salt really needs no explanation. Truffles in any form are a luxury, something special to savor that wouldn’t typically make the weekly grocery list. Don’t splurge on diamond or gold jewelry; truffles are always dressed to impress, and they go with every outfit.

For The Vegan Baker, you might be surprised to see that not all my recommendations are simply sugar and spice. There’s a bold new world of flavors out there, waiting to be unleashed by the kiss of the oven.

  • Cultures for Health Real Sourdough Bread is the equivalent of that shiny new big kid big you’ve coveted for ages, but with training wheels. Sourdough is a particular challenge I’ve always aspired to, but failed miserably at. Taming wild yeast can be much more daunting than it seems on paper, so for those who want to roll out some serious dough, this is literally the starter for you.
  • Nutiva Organic Coconut Oil provides all the health benefits touted by the tropical fruit, the functionality of gee, and the rich flavor of butter. This could also slip seamlessly into the snacker’s pack (read on for more about that) as it’s the secret ingredient for truly perfect movie theater popcorn!
  • Barney Butter Blanched Almond Flour is the cream of the crop (or perhaps, top nut of the tree?) when it comes to pantry staples. Almond meal has long been an essential component of my gluten-free baking repertoire, and this fine, even consistency of this grind is second to none. Whip up French macarons without even needing to sift, or bust out the most tender, flavorful tart crusts you’ve ever tasted.
  • Enjoy Life Semi-Sweet Mini Chips are not your average chocolate morsels. Noteworthy for their rich flavor, balanced sweetness, and smooth, creamy melt, they’re also the only dairy-free mini chip on the market that I know of. These diminutive cocoa cones will take your cookie game to the next level.
  • Dandies Mini Marshmallows are a particular weakness of mine. If I can resist eating those fluffy little vanilla pillows straight from the bag, they will inevitably work their way into all sorts of sweet recipes, like my Impossible Fluffernutter Pie, Pumpkin Spice Blondies, and Grasshopper Pie, just for starters. For that instant injection of childhood whimsy, it’s hard to beat the gooey, chewy delight of fresh marshmallow.
  • Color Kitchen Rainbow Sprinkles finish off your grand creations with a cheerful splash of color, minus the traditional chemical cocktail and unsavory shellac. Truly vegan sprinkles are tough to come by, when you consider the questionable waxes and glazes, which makes this assortment of organic hues shine all the more brightly.

Not everyone is as savvy behind the stove or at the oven, but no one can resist a good snack. For The Vegan Snacker, temptations are particularly great around this time of year, but there are a few things you can bundle together that really stand out from the crowd…

  • Dr. Kracker Seedlander Crispbreads have occupied a place of honor at snack time since I first crunched into a box well over a decade ago. Time sure does fly, but the quality of these nutty, seeded wheat planks hasn’t changed one bit. They’re fancy enough to serve when unexpected company drops by, hearty enough to hold you over until dinner, and versatile enough to pair with absolutely any dip or spread.
  • Nutzo Peanut Butter Pro happens to be just one of my favorite things to slather on top of the aforementioned crackers. A fitting match with just as many crisp, fresh nuts and seeds mix within, it’s the kind of nut butter you could find yourself eating at midnight with a spoon. Speaking from personal experience, there are far worse late night cravings to indulge in, so you might as well spread the good stuff on thick.
  • Earth Balance “White Cheddar” Puffs are compulsively munchable, even for those who don’t regularly define themselves as dairy-free. Light as air, impossibly cheesy, I dare you to limit yourself to just one serving. No matter how big they make these bags, it would never be enough for my cravings. Though it’s been many years since I last had the florescent orange variety, I daresay these are a big upgrade on the original, especially since they won’t stain your fingers and clothing to coordinate with the color of a traffic cone.
  • Quinn Vermont Maple & Sea Salt is like kettle corn that grew up and went to college. Microwave popcorn gets a bad rap for releasing dangerous airborne chemicals when heated, to say nothing of the unsavory oils, but that needn’t be the case! Satisfy that craving for perfectly fluffy, crisp kernels with all natural ingredients, and apply seasoning from separate packets to suit your exacting demands. As if that wasn’t impressive enough, the bag is even compostable, if you want to impress the especially eco-conscious.
  • Sahale Pomegranate Vanilla Cashews take buttery, jumbo cashews and tumble them with a tangy-tart pomegranate glaze, contrasted by floral vanilla sweetness. Rarely do pomegranates get prime billing in any snack, which makes this blend all the more extraordinary.
  • Cocomels Sea Salt Coconut Milk Caramels are bites of pure indulgence, plain and simple. Soft, chewy nuggets of burnt sugar bliss, coated in dark chocolate and finished with a touch of salt to accentuate the combination, this is the cherry on top of the proverbial 16 scoop sundae. Anyone who doesn’t go crazy for these dairy-free delights is of questionable character and shouldn’t be on your gift list to begin with.

Never run the risk seeing your painstakingly selected goodies re-gifted ever again. Selectively bundling only the best bites and gourmet ingredients covers all tastes, appealing to even the pickiest, trickiest recipients. It’s impossible to miss with any of these choices, although the greater difficulty may now be relinquishing those sweet and savory favors to their intended beneficiaries…

When in doubt, double up, and give yourself a little holiday cheer, too! All customers get 5% off their order, and new customers get an additional $5 off their order of $40 or more by clicking here!

UPDATE: Now, for a limited time, new customers can get $10 off their orders of $40 or more, only until December 24th! Jump on it and give your wallet a little gift, too.

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Can You Hack It?

The following text is an excerpt from my latest cookbook, Real Food, Really Fast. Get more speedy tips and tricks, along with over 100 delicious, lightning-fast recipes inside! Better yet, if you’re in the SoCal area this weekend, catch me at the California Vegetarian Food Festival on Saturday, September 29th, where I’ll be demonstrating my infamous Garlic Bread Soup. Come early to snag a seat, and come hungry for generous samples!

The single most important ingredient in any recipe can’t be measured in tablespoons or cups, nor can it be bought, borrowed, or stolen. That extra piece of the puzzle that most cookbooks fail to address is you, the intrepid cook, boldly venturing forth to explore new culinary territory. Anyone can read a recipe and it doesn’t take a classically trained chef to chop an onion, but there are certain steps that can be taken to speed through prep work in record time. To better prepare your vegetables, you must prepare yourself. Move with intention and a sense of urgency; know your next step before you get there to keep dancing through the routine with grace. That also means reading through each recipe from start to finish so there are no surprises halfway through the hustle.

Whether you’re a seasoned pro or a new cook, the following suggestions should help tune up your techniques to get food on the table faster than ever before.

  • Citrus: Always zest lemons, oranges, and limes first, before slicing or juicing. While they’re still whole you’ll have more surface area to work with, and a better base to hold so you’re less likely to grate your fingers at the same time. Then, to extract the most juice as possible, microwave for 10–15 seconds to gently warm, and roll them firmly against the counter to break down some of the cell walls before cutting in half and squeezing.
  • Garlic: Separate the cloves and give each one a sharp whack with the side of your knife to instantly loosen the skins. You should be able to pick the peel right off. Once cleaned, you can continue smashing and mashing them with the side of the knife, rather than the blade, to yield a quick, coarse paste that can be used instead of a fine mince.
  • Ginger: Don’t bother breaking out the peeler to remove the tough outer skin. Use a paring knife to shave away the exterior if needed, but better yet, buy very young, fresh ginger that doesn’t need to be peeled in the first place. In Japanese markets, this is referred to as “myoga.”
  • Cauliflower or Broccoli: Pare away the leaves and trim down the excess stem. Place the head in a large, clean plastic bag, and twist it closed. Bang the whole thing down on the counter repeatedly, stem-side first, to easily break it down into bite-sized florets.
  • Cherry Tomatoes: Instead of chasing around each tasty red marble and slicing them in half one by one, slash straight through a whole batch in one fell swoop. Place a generous handful between two plates and gently press down to keep them all stable and still. Use an exceptionally sharp knife to cut horizontally through the center to cleanly halve tomatoes.
  • Corn: Once cooked, shuck corn quickly by slicing off the bottom of the husk and simply pushing the ear out, leaving the messy silk behind.
  • Cherries (and Olives!): Don’t bother with a unitasking cherry pitter if you’re unlikely to use it more than once or twice a year. Place each cherry on top of an empty glass soda or beer bottle, and use a chopstick to poke out the pit, pushing it straight down into the bottle.
  • Non-Dairy Milk: Whip up an instant dairy-free beverage by simply combining 2 tablespoons of your favorite nut butter (almond and cashew are my favorite options, but sunflower, peanut, and pecan are also excellent alternatives) with 1 cup of water in your blender. Blend until smooth and use as is for savory cooking or baking, or add up to a tablespoon of sugar, agave, or maple syrup to sweeten it for drinking.

Why cut and chop with conventional techniques when you can hack your way to faster food prep? Some specific foods hold secret shortcuts that will leave traditional methods in the dust.

Thrill of the Grill

Labor Day is right around the corner, signifying the dwindling days of summer while offering one last chance to celebrate. That means it’s time to gather up all your friends, neighbors, and coworkers, throw down an ice bucket packed with refreshing beverages, and uncloak that glorious grill in the heat of the midday sun. It’s your last best chance to fire that baby up, so make it count!

I’m probably the last person to ask about expert grilling practices, but I’d like to think that my novice status is actually my greatest asset here. I’m not about to pull some crazy, unreasonable, daredevil tricks when the metal grates get hot and the smoke starts blowing. While I can’t weigh in on the timeless debate of gas vs. charcoal, steering clear of debates over specific fuels or equipment, it shouldn’t be so complicated just to start a fire and get cooking outdoors. No matter what that means to you, even if the party gets rained out and you use a simple grill pan over the stove instead, it’s still important to start searing and making a mark!

Speaking of which, there are a few key principles to remember for emblazoning perfect stripes every time:

1. Start with a VERY hot grill. Give it at least 15 minutes, if not 25, to preheat before lubing up. If the food is par-cooked or semi-cooked (like meatless hotdogs or burgers, fruits or softer veggies,) aim for about 400 degrees.

2. Grease well to prevent sticking but do NOT use an aerosol non-stick spray over a hot grill! Trust me, you don’t want to light your backyard up like a torch here. Opt for an oil with a high smoke point, like rice bran oil, avocado oil, or peanut oil.

3. Don’t walk away, but don’t fuss with your feast either. Once you throw something on the hot grates, leave them there! Don’t start pushing them around, flipping again and again, repositioning them closer or farther apart. To leave a dark, solid mark, you need to allow full, uninterrupted contact. Yes, the food does still need to be turned over to even cooking, but just once, and only after a solid 5 minutes at minimum.

4. Use tongs. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve chased around ears of corn with a flat spatula because I was too stubborn to go back inside to get the right utensils. Seriously, save yourself the frustration, potential burns, and charred food. Just use the right tools for the job.

5. Go ahead and grill EVERYTHING! Once you’ve made the effort of dragging that beast out of storage, cleaning it up, and bringing it back to life, keep it busy from noon to night. Grill your tofu pups and corn on the cob, of course, but don’t stop there. Grill the buns! Grill the avocados! Grill pineapples and watermelon for a palate cleanser! Keep the party going and grill s’mores for dessert! Heck, if you’ve still got fire to burn and time to spare, grill any leftover veggies in the fridge to start meal prep for the coming week. After all, Labor Day is but a short respite from the daily grind… It’s right back to work tomorrow, ready or not.

Do you have any simple grilling secrets to share? I’m all ears, and not just with yellow kernels of corn. There’s a wide world of charbroiled delights to discover; I’m just getting started.

Many thanks to LightLife for simply providing meatless dogs to inspire this post. All content remains my own original creations, free of bias, and dedicated to an honest appreciation of cruelty-free food.

Sushi Cups for the Rest of Us

Love sushi but hate the fuss and mess of making it at home? You and me both. Despite best intentions, such ambition inevitably leads to walls spackled with sticky rice, sesame seeds burrowed deep within kitchen tiles, and nori plastered across the table. Rolling up the compact parcels isn’t such a demanding task on paper, but in real life when deadlines loom and hunger gnaws with terrifying ferocity, all bets are off. If it’s still reasonably edible by the time I give up and scrape the mangled scraps into a bowl, I’d consider the venture a reasonable success.

For anyone else in the same sort of sushi boat, I’d like you to meet your new life (and sanity) preserver. Edible cups made of classic nori seaweed, crisp and delicate, in addition to more avant-garde carrot and daikon papers, are here to save the dinner. Swaddle your rice in flavorful wrappings without the need to roll. More elegant than the usual mess of fillings dumped into a bowl, these savory cupcakes are just as charming as they are delicious. Feed yourself or a number of last-minute guests with ease, even if some visitors aren’t fond of the “fishiness” that traditional maki rolls possess. Pale orange carrot cups have a subtle, natural sweetness that makes them an ideal offering for more picky eaters or younger palates, white the daikon option has a slightly bitter edge, perfect for cutting the richness of creamy avocado or a generous drizzle of miso mayo. In both cases, the only additional ingredient in the mix is agar, holding these thin edible vessels together.

It’s with equal parts excitement and frustration that I share this fantastic innovation, though, if you might have guessed from the previous product links. I first encountered these savory sushi cupcake papers at the Winter Fancy Foods Show, and regrettably, have yet to hear a word from or even about the company since. Why on earth hasn’t this concept caught on to spread like wildfire? There might be more competitors on the horizon, which is a relief, since my small stockpile has long since been exhausted. It’s an idea that’s just too good to keep to myself, regular availability not withstanding.

In lieu of perfectly formed nori, carrot, and daikon cupcake papers, what’s your quick fix solution when sushi cravings strike? Temari sushi or larger onigiri are probably the most direct conversions, offering single-serving bites of rice and vegetables without the need to roll, while temaki would be ideal finger foods to pass at a party.

Though this feels like another tale of “the one that got away,” I’m holding out hope that these sushi saviors will make a big splash on the market in the days to come. Either that, or someone will devise a press to turn nori into cupcakes at home. A hungry but lazy cook can dream, right?