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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Short, Sweet, and Sharp

This is not a gift guide. To call it as much would be self-congratulatory exaggeration, promising far greater shopping insights than such a short list could deliver. The truth of the matter is that every year, I dream of highlighting my favorite products, sharing them far and wide, but every year I find that proposition entirely overwhelming. A serial online shopper, I’m guilty of stuffing my virtual cart all year round, amounting to scores of marvelous new finds that go entirely unsung, despite best intentions.

Besides, I’m not about to declare how you should be spending your hard-earned money, whether it’s on gifts for loved ones or yourself. Rather, this is just a short, sweet, and sharp round up of just the latest things I’m loving, and think that you might enjoy, too.

Short: Microplane has become synonymous with the product they’ve innovated, and for good reason. They continue to produce the incontrovertibly best tools for removing zest in short, attractive, and flavorful little strips, but that doesn’t even scratch the surface of their range. All graters are not created equal, and now that Microplane offers a wide variety of shredding textures through their attractive Master Series, I could never go back to my cheap dollar store stand-in. From fine to extra coarse, these sharp tools are a simple but drastic upgrade for anyone who likes to zest it up in the kitchen.

Sweet: Opening up this box on Christmas Day really would be pretty magical for recipients of any age. Custom made to your tastes, the Magic Candy Factory lets buyers pick out flavors, shapes, and glittery finishes to fabricate their very own 3D-printed gummy candies. All vegan, delicious, and beautifully rendered, this just might be the big winner of the gift giving season. After all, who could ever be disappointed by a mango-flavored, sparkling, gummy octopus?

Sharp: They say you should never give a knife as a present because it will sever your relationship with that person, but I’m not buying it. I am, however, buying this Wüsthof Epicure 9″ Double-Serrated Bread Knife, which cuts through even the toughest crusts just like… Well, you know. Those pointed teeth really dig right in and create clean slices with little effort. Leave your dull knife in the dust and consider upgrading your current arsenal with this well-balanced blade.

Now tell me, what are you currently loving, coveting, and craving? There’s always space for more on my wish list…

Keep Calm and Shop On

The array of online retailers available for 24-hour, worldwide, no holds barred means all of your shopping whims can become downright dizzying after just a few cursory searches. Such a wealth of options should be a boon to the average consumer, seeking the best deals and widest selection, but the incessant promotions seem to pull in all directions at once. Overwhelmed rather than empowered, I find myself simply closing my browser and walking away more often than not, too frazzled to make a purchase for even the simplest of needs.

Seeking to filter out the extra noise, I’ve found true solace in the less celebrated, smaller virtual retailers, offering only items that meet a higher standard for quality. That means only vegan products can make the cut, to say nothing of the longevity, versatility, and visual appeal of the items themselves. She Is Worth It is a rising star in this field. If you haven’t yet surfed over to this shining outpost of cruelty-free goods, get ready to watch your wish list grow.

Offering products that are kind to the animals and your wallet, She Is Worth It features just three focused categories of top notch products: Cosmetics, bags, and sunglasses. For the indecisive or merely undecided, this selection makes shopping for a loved one with discerning tastes easier than ever, since you can’t go wrong with any of the options.

Don’t forget to treat yourself while you’re there! As my travels demand a wider variety of bags, I’ve indulged myself in some more stylish carry ons, which is why I was irresistibly drawn to the gorgeous quilted faux-leather backpack above. A rotating selection of items means that this particular option is no longer available, but even more dazzling purses, clutches, and handbags have been added to take its place.

As a special holiday treat to readers, She Is Worth It and I have joined forces to offer a mini shopping spree to one lucky patron. The winner can select either one beauty product or pair of sunglasses, just for giving this new online retailer a shot. Please visit the GIVEAWAY FORM HERE to log your entry, and don’t forget to start shopping now! The holidays aren’t too far away, after all…

Hello, Hilo

By contrast to the hustle and bustle of Honolulu, Hilo is a sleepy little town tucked into the lush countryside. Compared to the rest of the country though, it’s still a lively and fully urbanized city. Condensing the majority of its shops and eateries into just about a dozen square blocks, almost everything is immediately accessible without hopping in a car, despite the lack of a comprehensive public transit system. For those seeking a tropical “escape” that still has all the amenities of home, Hilo should be at the top of your list. Pick your arrival time wisely, however, and don’t do as I did by landing on Sunday. Just a whisper above a ghost town, most of Hilo either takes Sunday off completely or closes up shop early, leaving those seeking shopping or structured entertainment to fend for themselves. Bear in mind that the listed hours for businesses here are generally more of a rough estimate than a precise time to set a watch by on any day, so always call in advance to confirm that the hits on your list are actually open when you drop by. Luckily, there are still a handful of eateries putting out their best dishes well into the evening. It was the small farmer’s market that shocked me, generously pointed out by an effusive shuttle driver on my way out of the airport.

The Hilo Farmer’s Market website states Wednesday and Saturday, 6:00 AM to 4:00 PM in no unclear terms, and yet there it was, gently humming away into the midday heat of Sunday afternoon. Though more modest in size and selection than the “big” days, this was no ramshackle assortment of venders here. Hidden on the corner just behind the KTA grocery store, skip the shopping cart to find more locally produced items just a few steps away. Piles of fresh produce overflowed out of baskets, fresh flowers sat in carefully arranged bouquets, and a good handful of homemade jams and syrups were available for tasting, to boot. Better than the selection that I’d find at my own local markets in the height of summer, this was a true boon to discover. Now that I had a full kitchen back at my hotel, I shamelessly stocked up on fruits and vegetables, stuffing the fridge as much as one can for such a brief stay.

Little did I know what hidden treasures lay barely a foot outside my hotel room door. For the first time using the descriptor of “homey” as a positive thing, I would recommend the Dolphin Bay Hotel to absolutely anyone. Walking into my comfortably furnished studio apartment, it really did feel like my own, happily lived in space. Offering bottomless cups of coffee in the morning far better than the average bitter brew, that generosity is only topped by the readily available papayas and finger bananas 24/7. Sitting right out in the hall, everyone is encouraged to eat as many as they can, and I did indulge quite a bit. Best of all, however, is their impossibly fruitful backyard. A quick stroll outside brought to light more edible delights than I could count, including but not limited to starfruit, oranges, ginger, bread fruit, mountain apples, and yes, avocados. It simply boggled my mind that all of this could be grown in the comfort of one’s home.

Though I now had plenty of food to survive through my single full day stay, there were a few enticing gustatory leads worth investigating nonetheless. All of my original points of interest were unavailable, but I struck solid gold after glancing into Le Magic Pan‘s open door. One of the rare establishments open until 9:00 PM everyday, they’re your best bet for a memorable vegan meal. Admittedly, options are slim, with your only real choice being the chickpea flour or buckwheat Vegan Crepe, but the mere existence of vegan crepes should be enough to encourage a taste. Go for the “half salad, half crepe” option, as portions are generous and the salad is far better than mere iceberg shreds with a token cherry tomato on top. Wildly varied and colorful throughout, the seemingly disparate ingredients came together to create a delightful little starter to whet one’s appetite.

Crispier than the average pancake, my chickpea-based crepe reminded me more of dosa than any French fare, but that didn’t detract from my enjoyment one bit. Tucking artichoke hearts, creamy avocado chunks, and the salty pops of kalamata olives into that blanket of batter, the whole thing is topped off with an artful drizzle of “magic sauce,” which was appropriately surprisingly and mysteriously delicious. A must-try for any vegan in Hilo, budget travelers can play their cards wisely to get the best deal: The very same dish is on offer for breakfast, but at $2 cheaper.

Though I did have grand plans to visit a sushi joint offering up some creative vegetarian rolls, alas, bad timing thwarted my attempts. A full day tour kept me away from the downtown area until most places had closed up shop for the day, and then little was open the following morning of my departure. My greatest regret is missing out on trying shave ice… But I guess that’s just one more reason I’ll need to return, and soon.

Photos are still being uploaded to my Flickr set everyday, so keep clicking by to see the full scope of my trip. Coming soon: waterfalls and craters and vog, oh my!