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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Tools of the Trade

From the whimsical to the downright frivolous, no matter how well-intentioned, holiday gifts all too often stray into the realm of triviality. Rounding out my unplanned posting week of festive shopping suggestions, I’d like to remedy that dilemma with a battery of truly useful toys, all crafted for the avid cook, baker, and gadget geek at heart. Thermoworks has long been serving professionals in the culinary industry with better methods of temperature measurement, and that very same attention to detail, quality, and durability has been applied to all of their consumer offerings. The beauty of their myriad thermometers is that they’re simply designed, and they simply work.

Whereas the handyman might have his arsenal of home improvement tools, I now have my very own formidable array of food improvement tools. A rainbow of color options draws these diverse offerings out of purely utilitarian territory, injecting a bit of personality into each one. From oven probes to pocket thermometers and everything in between, even I hadn’t realized how many different ways one could take a basic reading for heat. Best of all, each and every model is lighting-fast, delivering the numerical verdict within seconds; a true luxury compared to traditional mercury- or alcohol-filled thermometers that move at a snail’s pace.

If I had to pick just one stand-out kitchen wizard, I’d have to say that the ChefAlarm is my tried-and-true workhorse thermometer. It comes complete with a timer to indicate when your desired temperature is reached, and easily clips to the side of a pot for flawless candy making. Plus, it folds up into a neat little travel case complete with space for the included probe, making it ideal for travel. Perhaps it wouldn’t be at the top of the list for most people planning their vacations, but I already know what I’m packing away into my suitcase for upcoming adventures.

While the precision implied for a recipe requiring a thermometer scares away a good number of cooks, it really shouldn’t be any more cumbersome than breaking out a set of measuring cups and spoons. Thermoworks takes the hassle out of getting an accurate reading, at price points to fit every budget. Now there’s no more excuse for soft-set jellies or burnt hard candies!

These products were all furnished by Thermoworks over the course of a number of years, but all opinions, photos, and recipes are completely my own.

Uncommon Excellence

‘Tis the season of giving, although in this modern age it may be more accurate to say that it’s the season of shopping. Judging by the influx of gift guides already lining the pages of blogs both big and small, I’d have to assume that everyone already has more ideas for their holiday handouts than they know what to do with. If you’re anything like me though, these lists serve not to inspire better offerings to share with loved ones, but to capture my own desires. No matter if I’m looking at suggestions geared towards photographers or lumberjacks, I promise you I’ll find at least one purchase to add to my personal wish list, coming up empty handed yet again for my family and friends. Am I just easy to please, or has it become more difficult to shop for others, with all of their particular preferences? Nothing ever seems like just the right kind of gift, balancing gracefully between the grey areas of useless junk and utilitarian items for work. How can I inject a bit of whimsy into the everyday, and where on earth can I find such a rarity?

The internet holds the key to solving this conundrum, of course. Online shopping has become an increasingly popular pursuit, if not a genuine sport at this point. Questions of quality still remain, and sketchy merchants can ruin the most thoughtfully planned out gifting procedure, so the real question isn’t “what should I buy” for the holidays, but “where should I buy from?” Well, allow me to introduce one of the most fun stores on the web: Uncommon Goods. Perhaps you’ve heard of it before, and rightly so. They’ve been in the biz for over 15 years and feature some of the most unique, charming offerings I’ve seen all in one place. They truly live up to their title, working with small artists to furnish their catalog with handmade, one-of-a-kind items along with fun gadgets and toys that you may not have seen before. They too have many gift suggestions built in for the well-meaning but clueless shopper, although of course I was immediately drawn to the dishware section instead.

Given a generous stipend to test out their services and report back on the results, I certainly did take away an incredible haul. Shipping out with speeds that rival the gold standard set by Amazon, I’d wager to say that their packing is even more secure. Despite the weight and fragility of my items, not a single piece was dinged, scratched, or anything less than ideal. So, what presents did I give myself for the holidays this year? Primarily, lots of rocks.

Stone slabs in the form of cheeseboards, to be more precise. The granite cheese board with spreader was my real trophy gift, a luxurious hunk of glossy granite complete with a charming wooden knife. The dark coloring was in sharp contrast to the photo featured online, but that variability only added to the appeal. Even if you’re ordering for yourself, you may be in for a happy surprise!

Another excellent pick for the host or hostess with everything would be the slate cheese board with soapstone chalk (chalk not pictured.) That rich burgundy stone is absolutely stunning, and such an unusual shade to find in the typically drab category of grey slate serving pieces. This is one versatile plate that will no doubt make many more appearances in my photos for years to come. Best of all, it provides a spacious 10×16-inches for all of your appetizer needs, making it a genuinely excellent value, especially compared to what you might find in comparable houseware boutiques.

Moving deeper into the pages of dishes and utensils, the udon noodle bowls captivated me at first sight. Beautifully crafted and a true pleasure to use, this is one of the rare pieces that enjoys a place both in my prop closet and on the dinner table. It’s a perfect example of form and function working together, creating a vessel that holds an ideal amount of noodle-y goodness with an ergonomic handle and built-in chopstick rest. My only regret is not purchasing one in every color.

Finally, as a fun little toy to play around with in the kitchen, my final choice is one that my loved ones will actually benefit from as well. Churning out dozens of holiday cookies for annual swaps and parties alike, mine are guaranteed to stand out from the pack this year thanks to my brand new customizable cookie stamp. Infinitely adaptable to all holidays an occasions, the edible messages that it creates are sure to impress- Yes, pun intended. My fool-proof gingerbread cut-out cookies have never looked better, and there’s certainly no mistaking who made these sweets, even amongst a mountain of homemade holiday desserts.

Rather than give you more lists to look up or my own favorite holiday selections, I just want to give you this entire website for inspiration. Better yet, I want to give you a bit of holiday cheer in the form of a $50 gift certificate to spend however you please in this wonderland of shopping. To enter, hop on over to Uncommon Goods and browse about. Tell me what you would order, and who you’re ordering for (I’ll admit, I’m just nosy and want to know!) Make sure you include your name and email in the appropriate boxes and log your response before midnight EST on December 15th. Sorry to my international friends, but you must be a resident of the US to enter.

Treat yourself, spoil your friends, indulge however you want just as long as you enjoy!

UPDATE: The entry period has ended and the good old random number generator has smiled upon one lucky reader. That person happens to be the owner of comment #24…

Panya! You’ve won the giveaway and will be hearing from the folks at Uncommon Goods shortly. For everyone else, don’t despair; the next opportunity to take home a fun or tasty prize package is never too far away, so stay tuned.

This post and giveaway was made possible by the kind folks at Uncommon Goods. All opinions, photos, and recipes are completely my own.

A Cut Above the Rest

Ask any chef about what is the most important tool any cook can own, and I promise you that the first words from their lips will be “a sharp knife.” So critical to every sort of kitchen task, the true value of this most common utensil can not be overstated. It may seem like a strange thing to propose as a prime holiday gift to some, but anyone that likes to bang around in the kitchen even a little bit should undoubtedly be thrilled by such a useful present.

For many years, my everyday, prized knife was a flimsy santoku, purchased at TJ Maxx for a whopping $15, accompanied by a sadly pitted and stained plastic cutting board that came from the dollar store many years prior. Never could I have dreamed of how much use both items would get, or considered investing in something a bit more substantial. Merely basic tools to get me through some meal prep while living on campus, they seemed like more than enough to get the job done at the time. Oh, how little I knew about knives.

Not that I can claim to be an expert now, but after taking a trip to the Korin store in New York City, I can tell you what a real knife should feel like. Evenly weighted, from the handle to the tip of the blade; light-weight, but still with enough heft to feel substantial in the hand; and of course, very, very sharp. Let me tell you, the knife that I set my sights on, the Togiharu Cobalt Damascus Santoku, was like nothing I had ever used to butcher vegetables before. A beauty with a fearsome edge, this powerful blade wasn’t even in the same category as the flimsy metal stick I left at home. Walking out of the store with my dangerous new toy in hand, provided for the sake of a review, it felt like stealing. I raced out of there before they could change their minds.

An excellent option for both chefs and amateurs alike, I immediately felt the difference upon upgrading to a real knife. Prepping mis en place was suddenly no longer a chore, and it was a snap to power through towering stacks of veggies without any strain. Amazingly for a clutz like me, I haven’t even managed to slice off my fingers yet, which seems highly possible considering the blade on this monster. “Sharp” doesn’t begin to describe it, as is evident by the gossamer-thin slices of lemon it was able to produce above, breezing straight through rind, fragile segments, and pips altogether without a snag.

Though still slightly intimidating to use due to the comparatively extreme increase in chopping power, it really does make a world of difference to have the proper tools for a job. As an item that will get daily attention, an upgrade could be a worthwhile idea for Santa to explore when shopping for your favorite cooking enthusiast.

And I did take it upon myself to also step up my cutting board options; investing in a simple but sturdy little bamboo number was the least I could do for this serious santoku.