Bundles of Joy

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

Pandemic or not, the holidays must go on. They may look a bit different, but the sentiment is all the same. We’ll spend time together, even if we’re physically far apart, spreading joy, creating memories, and of course, giving gifts. The beauty of online shopping is that your selections can arrive on your loved ones’ doorsteps with contact-free, hassle-free delivery. What can you send that will satisfy the foodies in your life, and where can you find it all? Consider iHerb your personal Secret Santa, or perhaps, Mystery Maccabee.

Delivering holiday cheer to over 180 countries across the globe, iHerb boasts over 30,000 natural products, from supplements to pantry staples, 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. If you ever need help, you can talk to customer service 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, in 10 different languages. Plus, do I have to remind you that all this shopping can be done from the comfort of your own home, happily ensconced in fuzzy slippers and warm pajamas? That’s a big present you’re giving to yourself right there.

After almost a full year under varying degrees of quarantine, we’re all getting a bit restless. Anyone who enjoys spending time in the kitchen is undoubtedly clamoring for a new project. After you’ve made your hundredth batch of banana bread and thousandth dalgona coffee, what’s left to try? Here are some fun foodie bundles to kick start brand new edible adventures.

Sourdough is almost too obvious to include, but still, too good to ignore. There’s a reason why this once uncommon approach to bread baking has risen to mainstream fame in recent months. The satisfaction of cultivating wild yeast, kneading dough by hand, watching it slowly come to life and rise of its own accord; the whole process is incredibly soothing, gratifying, and of course delicious in the end. Sometimes it’s not easy to create your own starter though, which is where the handy Cultures for Health Sourdough packets come in. They have options for Whole Wheat, San Francisco-style, and even a Gluten-Free blend! Pair that with some fun flours for your budding baker to experiment with, like rustic spelt or rye from Arrowhead Mills. Don’t forget to include primo sourdough food, since these yeasty beasts thrive on sugar. Consider Madhava agave nectar to develop a greater depth of flavor while fueling that starter the right way. Accessory options are endless, from nice bread knives to cutting boards, but you can never go wrong with a nice pack of colorful Full Circle dish cloths to both cover the growing dough and clean up after. Bonus points if you can rustle up a proper banneton bead proofing basket for fun and functional packaging.

Cheese making may not be the first activity to have crossed your mind, especially if you too have vegan leanings, but fear not! The handy Real Cheese Kits from Cultures of Health can be made with dairy-free milk, too! Take your pick from Paneer & Queso, or Mozzarella & Ricotta, or both, because you can never be too cheesy. Make the process foolproof by including Now Foods Soy Milk Powder, so your lucky recipient doesn’t need to worry about schlepping home a few gallons of liquid before getting started. Soy is also a great option for this kind of application, since it has more protein to better mimic that of cow’s milk, creating better curds. Add in a lovely cheeseboard or slate along with a cheese knife to really fancy up the package, along with snacks to pair with the completed cheeses. I happen to love the contrast of sweet, chewy dried fruits, particularly Made in Nature Dried Apricots, but do cater to your beneficiary’s tastes. All-fruit preserves could be a nice alternative, as would a bottle of tangy pomegranate nectar for a bolder acidic hit. Crackers are mandatory; Simple Mills makes a variety of flavors, but I happen to love the basic Sea Salt variety to let the cheeses themselves shine. Now that’s a [small, outdoor, socially distanced] party waiting to happen!

Kombucha is also bubbling up to greater acclaim lately. Every state can boast local, micro-batch brewers, and your lucky friend could soon be one of them! Procuring a proper scoby is more than half the battle. Happily, Cultures of Health has got this one covered too, with a Kombucha Start Culture to begin the process from scratch. Every bit as easy as making pickles, it doesn’t take much to kick off a bubbling batch of fermented tea, though there are certainly some particular additions that can make the process even easier. Simple cane sugar is essential; no fancy alternative sweeteners need apply. Go for Wholesome’s Organic Sucanat to take advantage of the rich molasses flavor and trace minerals to bolster the brew. The options for tea are truly limitless, so it’s nice to include a variety of options to provide a range of different tastes to try. The Fruit Tea Sampler from Celestial Seasonings is a great place to start, offering five distinctive herbal teas to chose from. Contain your excitement, and presents, in a handy Now Foods Sprouting Jar, which is ideal for housing the budding beneficial bacteria, too. The mesh top will allow the scoby to breathe while keeping bugs out, so there’s no risk of infestation.

Make a list, check it twice, and then visit iHerb. Shop now to get 5% of your purchase, no minimum order. Spread joy, not germs, and give a gift that everyone will happily stay at home to enjoy.

10 Out of 10, Would Bake Again

Cookies, cookies everywhere, and not enough time to bake! We’re in the final stretch of the Christmas preamble, which means it’s now or never for holiday cookie platter planning. The options are truly endless, as every blogger and their best friend has the “perfect” recipe that will change your life, must go on your list right this minute, and may very well be the secret to world peace. Hyperbole aside, there are really no bad cookies out there, especially when given as a gift of good will, so we can all take a minute to review the options calmly, methodically, without going down the rabbit hole in search of the mythical “best” Christmas cookie.

My criteria for determining the ideal Christmas cookie assortments are slightly different from everyday cookie rules:

  1. They must be somewhat sturdy to keep their composure in transit.
  2. Nothing excessively messy, sticky, or smelly, so they don’t contaminate other cookies on the same tray.
  3. Festive, seasonal flavors always get the edge, of course. They should be special, to suit the occasion, after all!

So without further ado, here are my top ten recommendations for holiday cookie supremacy. Are they the very best out there, bar none? I’ll let you decide for yourself…

Brownie Crisps are like chocolate cookie brittle; the perfect mashup between classic peppermint bark and baked goods is waiting to happen if you just swap the chopped walnuts for crushed candy cane pieces.

Ultimate Vanilla Bean Cut-Out Cookies definitely make the cut, because it wouldn’t be Christmas without some sort of sugar cookies. Soft and tender yet structurally sound to meet the demands of more complex shapes, they’re the optimal blend of form and function.

Pumpkin Spice Blondies sing with warm spices to complement everyone’s favorite orange gourd. That said, try switching it up with sweet potato puree if you’ve already had your fill of pumpkin by now.

Persimmon Oatmeal Cookies are a slightly unconventional twist on the classic, which is always appreciated in a sea of unchanging traditional treats. Lightly iced, soft and sweet, it’s an easy way to introduce a new fruit to recipients yet to venture outside of the tried-and-true assortment.

Maple Ginger Sandwich Cremes will satisfy the sweet teeth of everyone on your list. Rich maple flavor carries these surprisingly soft cookies, accented by the subtle warmth of ginger.

Gingerbread Cut-Out Cookies with either chai or classic spicing are boldly flavored, crisp, and sturdy cookies that retain their shape when baked, travel well, and make a solid foundation for edible buildings. Make a village or just a herd of fawns; they’ll all be demolished in short order.

Pistachio Praline Linzer Cookies are dressed to impress, glittering on the outside with decorative pearl sugar and glittering on the inside with caramelized pistachio paste. These are real show-stoppers that could proudly crown any platter.

Christmas Popcorn Bars are a quick and easy way to add color, texture, and a dash of fun to your assortment. Like popcorn balls but more consistent in shape, and fewer sharp kernels to contend with, they’re a great option to have the kids help create, too.

1-2-3 Peanut Butter Cookies are clutch when you’ve run out of time, ingredients, and energy. They literally take just three ingredients that are probably already sitting in your pantry, are gluten-free, and universally loved. You can even transform them into classic Peanut Butter Blossoms by sticking chocolate nonpareils in the center before baking.

Chocolate Spritz Cookies take advantage of those old-school cookie presses that only come out once or twice a year, but their effortless elegance will make you reconsider that limited utility. Candy cane filling glues these cocoa morsels together, but if you’re already over “minter” (mint-winter,) omit the candies in favor of orange zest for an invigorating citrus punch.

I could go on, but sometimes it’s better to keep it simple, limiting the options to only the best, rather than exploring the full scope of wildly divergent possibilities. See anything here that catches your eye or makes your mouth water? Do you have your holiday baking game plan down pat?

So with these aces up your apron sleeves, preheat your ovens and start softening your vegan butter… The baking season is here, and it’s time to make to make the days sweet!

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!

My Milkshake Brings All the Vegans to the Yard

And they’re like,
It’s better than green juice.
Damn right it’s better than pond scum.
I can teach you,
But we have to get takeout.

While I can appreciate a tall glass of savory vegetable juice every now and then, I never got into the juice cleanse craze and still bristle slightly at the suggestion. As the summer heat intensifies along with a powerful thirst, I look to the offerings at local cafes with equal parts lust and skepticism. Whenever I see those emerald brews, freshly pressed, full of verdant vitality, I project my own true desire on that glass: Mint. All I crave on the hottest of days is a creamy, cool, mint chip milkshake. Thus, the swampy melange I end up with is inevitably disappointing, more often tasting of apple than anything else, leafy or otherwise.

Milkshakes are the easiest things to make at home, but real luxury is being able to get them on the town, prefab and instantly gratifying. Besides, if I have ice cream in the freezer, it’s a hard sacrifice to plop a scoop into the blender when I could just eat it straight. When in the bay area, there are a wide range of options to get that satisfying minty-fresh fix.

Elixiria‘s Last Samurai Shake is my gold (or more accurately, green) standard for mint chip milkshakes. Cashew-based and tinted pastel green with a touch of matcha, it’s sweetened with coconut sugar and is infused with peppermint essential oil for a bright, bold flavor. Cacao nibs add crunch, without a ton of chocolate taste, granted, but the texture gets the point across sufficiently. This formula was actually the essential inspiration for my Cashew Milkshakes in Real Food, Really Fast, for anyone else who can’t just pop into the shop.

For a superfood fix, I’m impossibly addicted to Mint Cacao Chip at Urban Remedy. I can rationalize the indulgence because it employs pea protein powder and really does drink like a meal. On busy days when I can’t stop to sit down for a proper lunch, you can bet this is my first choice for refueling. Although it’s not quite the same as what you’ll find in the refrigerated cases, Urban Remedy also offers a homemade solution that approximates the refreshing experience.

Incredibly similar to the previous pick, Project Juice is also slinging a bottled Mint Chip Shake, but ranks ever so slightly lower by employing dates for an earthier sweetness, and quite frankly, not enough of them. I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that I’ve snuck in packets of raw sugar on occasion to spike my drink.

Moving on to a no-holds-barred, full-throttle dessert indulgence, Saturn Cafe has you covered. The Thin Mint Milkshake was a limited edition special to coincide with the annual girl scout cookie inundation, but a simpler mint chocolate variation is available all year round. Locally made Double Rainbow non-dairy ice cream provides the thick, rich base, which always exceeds the generous old-fashioned soda fountain glasses, filling much of the metal mixing cup which is provided on the side, as if one mountainous milkshake wasn’t enough. Whipped cream, cookie chunks, and chocolate syrup complete the drinkable dessert. Better yet, Saturn is open late everyday, with a full menu of hot food available, which means you can get my all-time favorite milkshake pairing: French fries, hot, extra crispy, and lavishly salted.

Next Level Burger deserves a shout-out for the effort, but truth be told, this isn’t a blend worthy of a repeat order. Where was the mint? Where were the chips? All I could taste was syrupy sweetness; not even a modest hint of vanilla came to the fore. It’s cool and refreshing, fine pairing for a burger, but you’re better off opting for a different, stronger flavor.

Finally, one more runner up to add to the list is CREAM, with multiple locations scattered across the bay area. Vegan options are limited to just two soy-based ice creams, but as luck would have it, one is the illustrious mint chocolate chip of my dreams. Milkshakes are available, and I’ve been promised there’s non-dairy milk behind the bar as well, although that’s as far as my inquires have gone. Let’s be honest: When you’re offered chocolate fudge cookies and rainbow glitter sprinkles as garnishes, what rational person could really order otherwise?

Plenty of other competent milkshake makers are blending up the goods on a daily basis across the bay, but no one else seems to have a minty melange on the regular. Given such superlative options already, it’s hard to branch out beyond this crave-worthy sip, but do tell- What’s your favorite milkshake flavor, and more importantly, does it bring all the vegans to the yard, too?

Dip into Summer

The original significance of Memorial Day has become lost to most modern revelers, happy enough to celebrate a day off of work for any reason. According to the tireless research of WalletHub, 60% of Americans are eating at barbecues, beer sales will be higher than any day except the Fourth of July, 41.5 million people are traveling, and about 41 percent of us are shopping Memorial Day sales.

Over the years, it’s become a joyful day demarcating the unofficial beginning of summer, as we cast off heavy knit sweaters and relegate plush quilts to the back of our closets at long last. Even for those still dutifully clocking in today, there’s a sense of optimism in the air, looking ahead to the long hours of sunshine. Most importantly, though, is the promise of fresh produce both sweet and savory; an abundance of seasonal fruits and vegetables, and all the culinary possibilities they bring. Hard-hitting journalism by the New York Times uncovers and ranks the tastes of summer, and while I might dispute many of those findings, it’s a good indication of what might be on grocery lists and dinner tables in the coming months. To that questionable index, I’d like to suggest another category to consider: The essential dips of summer.

Here’s what you’ll find on my table as the days heat up:

Hummus-Tzaziki, otherwise known as Hummiki, blends the best of both worlds with a refreshing crunch of cucumber woven in. Zesty lemon and dill brighten the flavor profile further, imparting a bold and sunny flavor throughout.

Composed of rich, creamy chunks of avocado, contrasted by crunchy cubes of jicama, this Chimchurri Avocado Salsa is a clear departure from the more typical tomato-based dip. Peppery, lemony, herbaceous, and vinegary all at once, it’s perfectly suitable to serve with with chips, crowning soups and salads, or an hors d’oeuvre in and of itself.

Take advantage of the tender baby spinach shooting up from gardens across the nation and use it in this creamy Saag Paneer Dip! Impressively cheesy, the cashew base carries delicately nuanced spices that put bland old sour cream spinach dips of yore to shame.

Back in the dark ages when eggplant was my foe, I invented this zucchini-based work around to babaganoush, dubbed Zukanoush. Even though my intolerance seems to have died down and I can enjoy the purple nightshade again, I’m still hooked on this version, packed full of everyone’s favorite green squash. You’ll never feel overwhelmed by a glut of zucchini with this formula on hand.

Caramelized Onion Dip is really a staple food all year long, but it’s such a crowd-pleaser, it should have an automatic, honorary invite to every party. If you can get past the terrible photos from over a decade (!) ago, you’re in for a real umami treat.

Given all the delicious options, how are you celebrating the start of summer? Do you have the day off, or are you quietly plotting your next adventure for the coming months?