Make a Splash at Neverland

Equal parts spring cleaning ritual and biggest water fight on earth, Songkran marks the Thai New Year with a splash. Tradition mandated trips to the local monasteries to pray, present offerings, and to wash the Buddhas residing within. Water was being thrown well before that, of course, symbolizing sufficient rain for the crops as part of the springtime rites. Now kids (and kids at heart) simply take this opportunity to make a splash and douse one another with Super Soakers, water balloons, and the long-reaching spray of hoses. These antics may sound mean-spirited, but given the sweltering temperatures of mid-April, it would actually be a relief to get nailed with a bucket of ice water!

Even when I visited in late January, the midday heat was astonishing. Stepping out from an air conditioned building onto the hectic, humid streets could knock the air right out of your lungs. While friends back home donned puffer jackets and knit scarves, even a light jacket was unthinkable in this climate. More mind-boggling was the notion that just around the corner, a pack of three dozen huskies, clad in thick fur coats, lay waiting for visitors bearing cool ice to crunch on. Though Songkran is going on right now, from April 13th – 15th, it very well could have been on the day of my visit from the looks of things, too.

Everyday seems like a water festival at TrueLove Cafe at Neverland, a quirky cafe in Bangkok drawing dog lovers from around the globe. Cooling humans and canines alike, all take refuge underneath the giant humming propellers of fans spinning throughout the property. Crunching contentedly on frozen cubes while gamely posing for selfies with tourists, it’s a surreal scene that defies explanation, despite the cute introductory video shown before letting visitors in for playtime.

Neither a zoo or an exhibit, Neverland seems to have grown from one woman’s love of huskies and her inability to let any suffer the heat of Bangkok alone. To keep these majestic beasts impeccably groomed, well-fed, and healthy, tickets could easily be considered a charitable donation, if you feel as silly as I did waiting over an hour to play with the pups, while a line stretched out behind me.

Surrounded by such a friendly herd of fluffy goofballs, it’s hard not to revert to childhood for at least a few minutes. Do I look happy here, maybe just a little? Perhaps the promise of finding true love is more than just a quirky cafe name…

As with the Songkran celebration, food is certainly never far from reach at the cafe, but there are no specific dishes that mark this occasion. Most memorable are the drinks, particularly the shocking aquamarine blue soda, though it tastes mostly of sugar with a hint of citrus. Go for the dogs, stay for the selfies, and not for the cafe. Just be kind and share that ice water with the dogs, no matter how tempting it may be to jump into a bucket solo.

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Ready… Set… Dough!

Can you imagine a time when a flavor as ordinary as cookie dough ice cream would have been deemed controversial? The year was 1984 when Ben & Jerry’s shocked the world by dishing out scoops of vanilla ice cream riddled with unbaked batter. We’ve certainly come a long way, but the drive for sweet innovation remains the same.

Unafraid to venture off the eaten trail from day one, Ben & Jerry’s has been pushing frozen boundaries as open-minded eaters grow more adventurous, and diverse diets pose unique challenges. The game-changing release of four non-dairy pints almost three years ago was just another chapter in this never ending story. Now the full lineup stands eleven tall, as two new doughboys join the ranks. Classic Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough, described as having “gobs of chocolate chip cookie dough and fudge flakes,” answers the demand for this familiar childhood staple, while Chocolate Caramel Cluster treads a new path along a cocoa terrain, littered with peanuts, fudge chunks, and salted caramel swirls.

Ben & Jerry’s has been seriously rolling in dough recently, starting with the limited release of Snackable Dough Chunks back in fall, followed by the line of Cookie Dough Core ice creams in their original dairy base. Amidst all of that dough-licious decadence, it only stands to reason that vegans should get to enjoy “the number one global flavor” at long last.

Made with a blend of almond milk and pea protein just like its predecessors, the cookie dough ice cream scoops easily right out of the freezer, soft and smooth, with a premium texture that translates into a rich creamy sensation on the tongue. The buttery, warm vanilla base is rounded out by a marshmallowy sweetness that strikes me as a marked improvement over the first submissions to the dairy-free field. Each spoonful is pockmarked with shatteringly crisp stracciatella chocolate shards, rather than rock-hard chunks. As promised, Ben & Jerry’s delivers the goods in great abundance. Dense nuggets of dough with a fine grain, dominated by brown sugar flavor, turn up in every bite.

Even for an old-school omnivore, it would be hard to find fault in this pint. If you’re already a cookie monster, you know exactly what to expect here: it’s a simple concept, simply done right.

This post was made possible thanks to Ben & Jerry’s, but all content and opinions are entirely my own.

Breaking Breakfast News

For anyone who ever wanted to skip the formalities of a balanced breakfast and dig straight into the cookie jar first thing in the morning, you’re in luck! Voortman Bakery, better known for their crisp wafer cookies, understands that impulse well, no doubt through decades of temptation by their own treats. Only that kind of experience could yield such sweet results, without actually adding any sugar or compromising on flavor. Voortman’s Breakfast Biscuits satisfy that early cookie craving while delivering all the nutritional benefits of a bowl of oatmeal, without the need for a spoon.

Brand new on the market, two of the three offerings in this fresh lineup are 100% vegan, which presents a more difficult choice than you might imagine! Rest assured that no matter which fruit calls to you first, there’s no risk of disappointment here.

Crisp, with a soft bite and slight chew, these are no mere granola bars presented in a new circular format. Not the least bit dry and crumbly as I had initially feared, these treats gain a uniquely coarse, toothsome texture from oats, as promised by their titles, but also rye flakes and buckwheat to round out the base. Surprisingly satisfying and hearty for two little cookies, they’re sweet enough for the kids, and healthy enough for adults.

Cinnamon Apple proved my favorite of the two, bursting with assertive, bright apple aroma as soon as I opened the pouch. Contrary to the norm when it comes to spiced treats, the cinnamon actually takes a backseat to the sweet but tart apple flavor. Sizable chunks of dried apple introduce another dimension of texture. You can actually see and taste the whole fruit here! Blueberry Oatmeal is no slouch either, with cobalt sprinkles of ground berries present throughout, but the flavor is admittedly a bit more subtle. If you want to ease into your morning with a bit more of a gentle taste, this is the biscuit for you.

While they’re called breakfast biscuits, they’re smart snacks, too, earning stellar grades in the nutrition department. Easily graduating at the top of their class with an A+ for fiber, they’re the crunchy cookie that every healthy eater has been dreaming of. Now the time has come to finally wake up and chow down!

This post was made possible thanks to the support of Voortman Bakery and Towers Marketing Group. All content and opinions are unbiased and entirely my own.

Healthy Morning Habits

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

When no two days are the same, a consistent, reliable morning routine keeps chaos at bay, no matter what insanity lurks ahead. Will it be 10 hours straight, on my feet in front of the stove? Is there a cache of a thousand photos to sort through and edit? Does a photo shoot on location call for a mad dash all around town for that perfect background? One of the great joys and pains of freelance life is the predictably unpredictable workflow.

Essential for a complete approach to well-being, the few constants in my own rituals appear unrelated at a glance, but all add up to a full spectrum of self-care practices crucial for success in any endeavor. Many years of trial and error have shaped my personal approach, and this everyday habit has been made possible by iHerb. Their encouragement to share a few of my favorite things was a true windfall, since it’s the only online shop that carries everything I need to make it happen, with over 30,000 products that can be shipped to over 160 countries, and representatives that offer support in 10 languages.

Everyday, be it a weekend, weekday, or holiday, starts at 6AM sharp with the wail of my alarm clock. The thing is, I never set a timer; it’s the insistent yipping from Luka that shakes me from the deepest of slumbers. We both bolt out of bed and head straight outside for a brief jaunt around the block, still bleary-eyed and clad in pajamas. A man on a mission, he heads back inside without delay, anticipating breakfast with a beastly appetite. Only after he’s fed and satisfied can I address other matters.

Skin care is incredibly important, but also very uncomplicated for me. It just takes a vigorous scour with Acure Organics Facial Scrub and a schmear of Shikai Hand & Body Lotion to wash away the nightly grime and instantly rehydrate. A tall glass of cool tap water is soon to follow or else I’ll start croaking like a frog before noon.

One of the biggest dilemmas I faced when first going vegan was sorting through all the supplements and misinformation that came with them, painstakingly sorting through the options to determine what was important to add, what genuinely worked, and what was affordable. Nature’s Way Multivitamin checks all of those boxes, handily beating the competition with a single daily dose that includes everything I might lack from food sources, like B12, iron, and vitamin D. One tablet down and I’m ready for breakfast.

Coffee comes first, but it isn’t my end-all, be-all hot beverage anymore. Caffeine is no longer the benign energizer it used to be in my youth, preventing me from indulging beyond a single cup if I want to keep the walls from vibrating all day. Teeccino, an herbal alternative made from chicory, fills the remaining gaps, creating a brew that’s richer and more satisfying than the typical tea bag. The Dandelion Caramel Nut is my current jam, and I further sweeten the deal with a drop of KAL Pure Stevia Extract, since I’m liable to eat my weight in sugar through recipe testing later in the day.

Oatmeal has been the single, solitary breakfast option on my menu through most of my 20’s, but slowly, that commitment has started to sway. Especially as the weather warms, I find myself craving cooler staples, switching to a high-protein bowl of yogurt or tofu cottage cheese, Nature’s Path Pumpkin Seed + Flax Granola, and fresh fruit. More important than the actual food itself though, is the act of eating it with Luka at my side or in my lap, slowly mulling over emails, readying myself for a new day. In fact, my mom captured a candid shot of exactly this ritual while I visited for all of two days.

Once Luka realizes I’m done eating and haven’t yet started doting on him again, he can get a bit punchy- literally. To fend off his loving attacks, I’ll throw him a Dr. Harvey’s Sweet Potate’r Chew which will keep him happily occupied for a good long while. They’re just dried sweet potatoes, nothing added, nothing removed (except water), and they really do hold up impressively well through some very aggressive teething. The pieces can be a bit big for my guy so I tend to cut them in half with kitchen shears, getting twice as much value from the same package.

Inevitably, I fall down some information rabbit hole, catching up on social media or fake news, giving myself a dangerously narrow window of time to get out the door before missing my regular BART train out to the city. With little time for regular meals and no set schedule to count on, I truly am powered by snacks; I’ll quickly toss a Sunwarrior Sol Protein Bar into my bag, knowing that I’ll need it later. All three flavors are fantastic, the single servings travel well, and always keep hunger at bay during critical times, so it’s one of my top picks. Aside from the manufacturer’s website, iHerb is the only place I can reliably purchase them, which always keeps me coming back for more.

Stepping outside of my orderly, comforting morning routine, I have no idea what sort of craziness may await me, but at least I’ll know that I’m fully fueled and equipped to tackle it, head-on.

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The Meat of the Matter

Order a veggie burger at any restaurant and steel yourself for a surprise- Whether or not it’s a good one. What might arrive at your table could be anything from a verdant green mash of chickpeas and spinach, or a “bloody” meat-facsimile so authentic that some carnivores wouldn’t know the difference. The humble vegetarian staple has undergone a stunning evolution in a very short amount of time, thanks to the spread of veganism, but also increased health and environmental concerns. Not everyone wants to eat legume patties when they’re craving beef, which is what makes this latest round of plant-based innovations particularly encouraging. I’ve long said that you don’t need to be vegan to eat vegan, and these more accessible, familiar options make the concept considerably more feasible. I’ve already covered the Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger here, but they’re far from the only players in this game.

Tofurky, proud meatless proponents for over 2 decades, has managed to maintain their space in this competitive market while winning over new fans. Their copious and diverse offerings are a testament to that, providing something for everyone. Now, that includes the staunch meat-eaters among us, thanks to their newly launched line of Do-It-Yourself grinds, approximating the look, texture, and of course, flavor of traditional ground beef and/or pork, depending on your seasoned kit of choice. Today, with grilling season right around the corner, I’m talking burgers.

Molding easily into patties, no additional binders are necessary for sound, solid construction. They hold together beautifully through the entire cooking process, never once threatening to crumble under pressure. Before long, a distinctly meaty aroma will fill the air, but the scent also has a also wheaty aspect, like good old glutenous seitan.

Cooking quickly, it takes only 3 – 5 minutes per side to achieve a nice sear; a satisfying transformation that creates a crisp crust and seals in a juicy, tender interior. Hearty, satisfying, but not fatty nor greasy, this is the midway point between old school and new tech. Beefy without the overwhelming sensation of sinew, it’s an ideal savory, neutral foundation to build upon. You can truly make it your own with herbs and spices, or keep it simple for the classic backyard BBQ experience. It’s not a perfect dupe for the animal it was made to imitate, but I believe it comes close enough to quell a craving, without turning away those repulsed by the reminder of the flesh inspiration.

Best of all, the DIY format allows you to depart from the typical patty path and forge your own culinary adventure. Crumble the grind and cook it with a healthy dose of spice, load it into a crunchy corn tortilla, and taco night will never be the same again. That’s just the tip of the meatless iceberg, as they (might?) say. Think meatloaf, bolognese sauce, stuffed pasta and casseroles galore. Pick out any recipe your stomach desires and simply substitute this plant-based protein in a 1-to-1 ratio for ground beef. Anything meat can do, Tofurky can do better.

Spring Cleaning

Spring cleaning typically entails a purge of non-necessities, ousting not only the cobwebs but the excesses that support their tangled strands. Taking out the old and broken, the useless and the antiquated, the pieces that no longer serve their intended purposes, is just as important as any efforts made towards vacuuming and polishing hardwood floors. The rationale is that with fewer things to collect dust, there are fewer things that need dusting.

What that doesn’t mean, in most sane approaches to organization, is adding to that collections of odds and ends- but who ever said I took that conventional route for anything? Determined to lighten the load in my cramped quarters, I first set about letting go of the warped, beaten, and rusted pans that always gave me grief for even the simplest of recipes. One can’t simply go without proper cookware though, so immediately I set off on a new spring cleaning mission of renewal, rather than removal.

Admittedly, this kitchen equipment renovation began months ago, giving me time enough to torture test these new tools for all they’re worth. Now that this season of revival is upon us, it’s with great pleasure and confidence that I can trash the previous set of decrepit pans in favor of my gorgeous 10-Piece Circulon Baking Set, in a very fetching shade of chocolate brown, no less. What could be better for a dessert fiend?

Not all baking sheets are created equal; a critical element that’s sadly overlooked when it comes to most recipe disappointments. Having a reliably non-stick surface that cooks evenly, browns properly, and retains heat as expected is the single most important component of any edible creation that goes into the oven, sweet or savory. For baking dishes of any depth, having wide enough handles for easy removal is also key, lest you plan on feeding your latest creations directly to the floor below. From the loaves to squares to sheets, this new set has proven its worth through every trial by fire, coming clean with equal ease once its duty is done. The matching cooling rack and covered rectangular lid for easy transport are truly the icing AND cherries on the heavy-gauge steel cake.

Equally matched in beauty and functionality, my gleaming behemoth Anolon Vesta Cast Iron Umber 12-inch Skillet has the capacity to feed an army with a serious sweet tooth. This workhorse is truly a beast, with the weight and heft to withstand any amount of heat. Transitioning from stove top to oven like a champ, I’ve used it to make everything from glorious golden brown pancakes, crisp grilled cheese sandwiches, juicy fresh fruit cobblers, and far beyond. The porcelain enamel exterior adds flair to this kitchen essential, adding a touch of personality without compromising performance.

Is it time you considered an equipment refresh of your own? When was the last time you examined your arsenal of tools with a critical eye, taking stock of their true shortcomings? Pots and pans aren’t forever, and making one small upgrade can have a huge impact on all of your culinary exploits.

These pieces were provided for the sake of review, but there was no obligation nor expectation of a feature. All opinions and content are my own.