Raaka Unroasted Vegan Chocolate Review

Among Steven’s many excellent qualities is one that makes birthdays and holidays extra fun: He is a terrific gift-giver. He’s the type of person who keeps a running list all year long, adding ideas gleaned from offhand comments or the merest suggestion. His gifts are always thoughtful and frequently generous. For my 25th birthday — a year in which I’d come up with a list of 25 goals to accomplish — he made what was essentially a birthday advent calendar, with one box for each goal. Once I accomplished the goal, I’d open the box to find a trinket to commemorate my success: a sachet of saffron for a cooking-related goal, that sort of thing. For my 30th, he gave me a generous gift certificate to a local photography school so that I could take classes, a nod to my desire to improve my photography and to my desire to focus more on experiences than physical things. Steven derives genuine joy in giving the perfect gift, without expecting the recipient to reciprocate with something equally perfect. (Although I was pretty proud this Christmas when I got him a handmade Slytherin robe, which seemed to delight and surprise him.)

All this is to say that even my stocking is a thrill to open come Christmas morning. This year, along with some other lovely stocking stuffers, Steven included three chocolate bars from Raaka, an ethical chocolatier that produces some truly wonderful vegan chocolate bars. The gift ticked all the boxes for me, a lover of high-quality dark chocolate who tries to support small companies that incorporate transparent, ethical practices in their supply chain. I hadn’t heard of the brand before I received Steven’s gift, but I was glad to learn about them.

Raaka differentiates itself from other chocolatiers by focusing on single-origin unroasted beans and by being truly transparent about their processes. I received three bars, which came packaged in a nice little muslin bag I’ll happily use to stash toiletries during my travels. Here are the bars I tried. Spoiler: I love them all.

Vegan Raaka chocolate bars


Bourbon Cask Aged

Raaka describes this bar as their “tuxedoed sophisticate,” and they’re not wrong. The company barrel-ages their single-origin cacao in bourbon casks, imbuing the chocolate with a deep, rich, complex flavor. Would I have described this chocolate as bourbon-infused had I not read the label? Probably not. Is it still delicious? Yes, it is.

Pink Sea Salt

I am fully here for the trend of sprinkling salt atop an otherwise sweet chocolate! This bar fulfills all my salty-sweet dreams, with a grains of sharp pink salt liberally dashed onto a 71% cacao bar of chocolate. It’s utterly delightful.

Coconut Milk

This is easily the best vegan chocolate I’ve had in a long, long time. It hits a perfect balance between milk and dark chocolate, melting on the tongue like a milk but with the complex flavors of a dark, and very little actual coconut flavor. It’s light and smooth, a creamy delight that goes down easy. I’m exercising restraint and making this bar last as long as I can!


Vegan Raaka chocolate bars

If you can’t tell, I’m officially a Raaka convert. This is quality chocolate prepared with love and respect. I’m not sure that I’d identify it as unroasted if I didn’t know it in advance, but whatever they’re doing, they’re doing right. Plus, the labels are pleasing to look at and the price is comparable with other artisanal chocolate bars (which is admittedly steep). It’s chocolate to be savored, eaten slowly a square at a time. My kind of chocolate.

Raaka has quite a few other flavors, and I’m looking forward to trying them. I love the idea of the cab sauv bar, and they just introduced an oat milk bar (!?!) that sounds really interesting.

Let me know your favorite ethical vegan chocolate brands… if only to give Steven ideas for my March birthday! :D

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Ethical Product Review: Will’s Vegan Shoes Dock Boots

You can take one of two perspectives when it comes to finding vegan shoes. One, that it’s a frustrating endeavor because you have limited options — and especially limited budget options — and you will likely have to order online, with no chance to check sizing in person. Two, that it’s freeing! Rather than suffering from the paralysis of choice, with literally thousands of options at big-box shoe stores and hundreds of online shopping sites, you have a select few vegan shoe brands from which to choose. You can just put on your blinders, ignore the non-vegan options, and not have to stress out about which of 284 nearly-identical pairs of trendy black Chelsea boots is the “right” one for you.

I’ve decided, unsurprisingly, to take the latter perspective. Once I know that I want cruelty-free vegan shoes that are also made ethically, my options are, frankly, slim. Not many brands meet both those criteria, although I have seen more and more pop up over the last couple years. But one long-time purveyor of ethical vegan shoes has long been on my radar: Will’s Vegan Shoes, AKA Will’s of London. And this brand has a lot going for it.

Will's Vegan Shoes dock boots review // govegga.com

Here’s what makes Will’s Vegan Shoes great:

  • Ethics. All shoes are 100% vegan (and labeled as such!), and the company manufactures them under fair labor conditions in Portugal.
  • A commitment to the environment. Will’s just rolled out a new carbon-neutral delivery process, and they are moving towards using more eco-friendly materials in their actual shoes.
  • Free shipping. Not only do U.S. orders get free shipping from this UK-based company, but you can return or exchange your shoes FOR FREE if the sizing doesn’t work! This is a huge benefit. Shipping shoes across the pond can be expensive, often running between $15 and $20. Knowing you can exchange or return your shoes if they don’t fit is massively comforting. Plus, the shipping is fast — see below for details. (Note: Arguably, shipping shoes back and forth across the ocean is not super eco-friendly, so keep that in mind if you’re the type who likes to online shop just to “try things out” without an intent to keep the product.)
  • Stellar customer service. If you follow Will’s on Instagram or elsewhere, you’ll frequently see Will himself (yes, he’s a real person) responding directly to questions. Reviews confirm this observation: The team is truly invested in keeping customers happy and will do what it takes to get you shoes that fit and that you love.
  • The price. Although you may balk at spending ~$100 for a pair of shoes if you’re used to, say, Payless prices, ethical vegan apparel is not cheap. Yet the prices at Will’s are actually quite affordable compared to similar ethical shoe brands. And the free shipping mentioned above really helps reduce the cost.
  • The shoes themselves! Will’s has a truly impressive range of both women’s and men’s vegan shoes, a rarity in this already small world of ethical vegan shoe brands. Choose from the formal (faux-suede heels) to the casual (biker boots) to the eminently versatile (ballerina flats). I particularly love the more androgynous women’s styles, like the sleek work boots and dapper derbys.

Although Will’s had been on my radar for years, I never really *needed* to buy from them until last fall. At that point, my new commitment to buying ethically produced clothing meant I couldn’t settle for big-box store specials when I wanted a pair of leather-free boots, so I pointed my browser to Will’s with the intent of making my first purchase.

I’d been eyeing the super-snazzy dock boots for a while and finally pulled the trigger. Steven and I were preparing for our vegan cruise to Norway, where I knew we’d spend our shore days doing some (relatively light) hiking. I wanted to have an alternative beyond the vegan Jambu sneakers I was also bringing, and the stylish chestnut dock boots fit the bill. Here’s how my purchase turned out.

Note: I also recently purchased a (gently used) pair of Will’s sneakers on eBay (and got a great deal). They seem to be this style, but in a grey color that’s not in stock at the moment. So although my review here is primarily of the dock boots, I’ll also draw on my experiences with the sneakers for added anecdata!

Will's Vegan Shoes dock boots review // govegga.com

How do Will’s Vegan Shoes fit?

Given that Will’s is a British brand, its sizing doesn’t correspond directly to American sizes, so I had to guess and hope for the best. I usually wear a U.S. 7.5 and opted for a European 39 in the dock boots. I’ve seen a 39 equated to both a U.S. 8 and an 8.5, but it fits me perfectly, so take that as you will. This is true for both the dock boots and the sneakers.

The good news, of course, is that Will’s generous return policy takes some of the stress out of the size conversion. If your shoes don’t fit, you can exchange them at no charge.

How is Will’s Vegan Shoes quality?

Both my dock boots and sneakers seem well-made and thoughtfully designed. Neither pair is remotely flimsy or cheap; and the faux leather on the dock boots is really nice — none of that flaky stuff you find on cheap vegan shoes. I bought the sneakers (gently) used, and they really have no marks on them. I’ve now had the dock boots for about five months and they’re also in great shape, although admittedly I don’t wear them all that regularly. But they certainly didn’t sustain any damage from my Norwegian hiking endeavors!

Are Will’s Vegan Shoes comfortable?

Here’s where my answer gets a little complicated. Yes… ish. I made sure to break in the dock boots before our trip since I knew they might irritate my ankles, and that definitely helped. Neither pair is remotely uncomfortable, and I did not get blisters from them, but I do notice I’m wearing them, if that makes sense. With some shoes, they’re so comfy you feel like you’re just wearing an extension of your own feet. That’s not the case with my Will’s shoes, and I think it’s because the soles are quite flat and very inflexible; I have high arches and prefer soles with a little more shape to them. I’ll probably need to add inserts to both pairs just to make them a little comfier. I also noticed that both pairs of shoes are quite stiff — I think the high-quality materials they use are just a lot sturdier than the cheaper shoes I’m used to!

Where can I buy Will’s Vegan Shoes?

I’d start with their official site for a list of all available styles, the best prices, and that unbeatable free shipping. But I have occasionally seen them at other vegan shoe retailers, although most don’t carry every style. If you are in the UK, I believe some brick-and-mortar shops stock them as well. There are even some styles on Amazon, but I would exercise caution there — it’s unclear who’s actually selling them. Finally, check out eBay — like I mentioned, I got my sneakers there and got a great deal!

Where can I find other Will’s Vegan Shoes reviews?

Other than the short reviews on each product page on the official site, truly informative and comprehensive reviews are sparse. Mihl of Seitan is my Motor has a review of three separate styles, which I found quite helpful when considering my purchase, and The Spooky Vegan reviewed two styles here. Vegan Miam has a great review of both the desert boots and work boots, and it includes an interview with Will himself.  I also just found this “test” of the brand over at Gentleman Buddha, which includes five separate pairs.

The lack of plentiful comprehensive reviews is one reason I decided to write my own. If you’re going to invest in a quality vegan product, you should be able to read other folks’ experiences! I hope this is helpful to other potential Will’s customers. :)

Would I buy Will’s Vegan Shoes again?

Yes, definitely! The Will’s Vegan Shoes dock boots are beautiful, well-made, ethical footwear, as are the sneakers. I think I just need to figure out how to make the flat soles work for my feet! I’ve got my eye on a few other styles as well, and I’ll continue to monitor eBay for more affordable gently used pairs.

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Will's Vegan Shoes Dock Boots Review // govegga.com

Disclaimer: I was not provided with free shoes from Will’s nor compensated in any way for a review. (Although I would happily try another pair to review!) I simply bought the shoes and wanted to share my thoughts in a Will’s of London shoe review.

Ethical Product Review: Oka-B Taylor Flat Review

I am not exactly a shoe fiend. Sure, I like shoes, I admire different styles, I enjoy wearing everything from cute heels to kick-ass boots, but I’m not the type of person who gets buried under an avalanche of footwear when opening her closet. I prefer to keep things minimal and to identify gaps in my footwear wardrobe before buying another pair. My desire to purchase only ethically made, cruelty-free, vegan footwear* certainly helps; there are fewer options that fit those criteria, especially affordable ones.

So when I realized I was sorely lacking in work-appropriate shoes for summer, the search for a pair of flats commenced. I have very few light-colored shoes (beige or tan), so I focused my search on that color.

Oka-B Taylor flats in blush. Image copyright Oka-B.

Oka-B Taylor flats in blush. Image copyright Oka-B.

Eventually I settled on the Taylor ballet flats by Oka-B, and here’s why. Oka-B is a woman-owned company that produces affordable shoes in the United States and has a real focus on sustainability. What I really love is that they’re recyclable: You can send your worn-out Oka-B shoes back to their factory, where the company will recycle them and use the material in new products. This sort of closed-loop production really gets me excited. What makes this possible is that the shoes are made of a patented plastic blend. Yes, I know — plastic shoes. I realize that for many folks, this might put you off if you try to avoid plastic altogether or if you’re worried about sweat. I am #blessed with feet that are never particularly sweaty, so I wasn’t too worried about any stink. And the plastic does have an up side: You can wash these babies in the sink or in the dish washer with just water and soap.

Although there are Oka-B reviews (and some Taylor flat reviews more specifically) floating around the internet, none are particularly comprehensive. So I ordered the Taylor flats in blush and tried them for myself. Here’s my experience.

How do Oka-B Taylor flats fit?

The best I can say is, “They fit OK.” Unfortunately, Oka-B does not offer half sizes. This is a real bummer for those of us whose feet fall smack-dab between two whole sizes! I typically wear a 7.5, so first I ordered a 7. I’d read that the shoes can sometimes stretch, and I have narrow feet, so that seemed like a safe bet.

It was not a safe bet. I should not have taken that bet. Oh man. The first time I wore these all day long, I was in pain by 5:00. They squeezed, they pinched, and I was in agony. Instead of stretching, they seemed to contract, while my feet swelled in response. The result was… not good. That night, I gave the pair a thorough cleaning and immediately exchanged them for an 8.

Oka-B Taylor flatsAhh, [relative] bliss. Or so I thought.

Unfortunately, the 8s are just a smidge too big for my feet, just a little bit too loose. They’re serviceable, though, so I kept this pair. But when I’m walking downhill they sometimes slip off my heels, and overall they just don’t feel perfect.

If Oka-B would only offer half sizes, this would not be an issue. I hope they consider doing so in the future!

How comfortable are Oka-B Taylor flats?

My experience with the Taylors has been mixed, even aside from the sizing issue. Although the site’s ad copy touts “soothing massage beads” and “premium arch support,” anyone with high arches (me!) will unfortunately not notice these perks. My arches sit well above the massage beads, although they do look comfortable. To be clear, though, these shoes are definitely more comfortable than cheaper ballet flats I’ve owned in the past, the ones with totally flat footbeds and no cushioning to speak of.

Unfortunately, I also experience toe pain with these shoes. Although these flats are somewhat flexible, the tops of the shoes dig into the bone of my right big toe. Though the pain isn’t acute, after a full day of wear, I’m definitely ready to take my shoes off. This seems to be a very specific problem though; if you read the reviews for the Taylor, many people find them absolutely comfortable.

One aspect I do like is the sole: These shoes have nice grippy soles; no slipping here!

Are Oka-B Taylor flats a good value?

With a list price of $40 (less on Amazon), I’d say the Taylors are a great value for made-in-the-USA vegan shoes! They come in a ton of colors, so if you find a size that fits, you could get a few pairs.

Oka-B Taylor flats

Would I buy them again?

Honestly, no. The size is not perfect and my stupid toe anatomy means these are comfortable only up to a point. (A day in the office is fine; two days in a row, not so much. And I would not walk long distances in them.) I’m disappointed; I’d hoped they’d fit well so I could buy a second, more colorful pair at some point.

I might experiment with another Oka-B style. I think I might be able to get away with a 7 in the open-toed wedges, for example.

Would I recommend the Taylor flats?

I recommend at least giving them a try. Thousands of positive reviews should count for something, and perhaps you can find a size that fits. (Want to try them for yourself? Get $10 off your first Oka-B order using this link!)

Note that Oka-B has a sister company, Okabashi, that makes casual sandals; I have a three-year-old pair that’s still going strong. So the quality seems good! (Get $5 off your first purchase at Okabashi using this link!)

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All in all, I’m glad I tried the Taylor flats, even if they weren’t a perfect fit for me. Let me know if you’ve tried them or other Oka-B styles!

*I’m not perfect. Desperate for shoes to match a specific dress for a wedding, I’ve purchased heels that were likely not made ethically. Vegan, yes, but not necessarily cruelty-free if you consider unfair working conditions a form of cruelty (and I do).

~~~

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Oka-B Taylor flats: an ethical shoe review on govegga.com~~~

Disclaimer: I was not provided with free shoes from Oka-B nor compensated in any way for a review. I simply bought the shoes and wanted to share my thoughts in an Oka-B shoe review. This post does contain affiliate links, which come at no additional cost to you.

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Review, Interview, and Giveaway: A Better Batch

Picture this: You’re sitting in a conference room after a daily hour-long meeting ends, catching up on a few emails and chatting with a couple coworkers. In walks another coworker, Sarah.

“Hey, do you guys want a brownie?” Sarah asks.

Something to note about Sarah: She and her husband Hanes run a vegan baking company.

With that in mind, is your answer going to be anything but a resounding YES? I think not.

You proceed to try the fudgiest, chewiest brownie you’ve had in ages. You tell Sarah how amazing it is.

“Oh, yeah? This was Hanes’ first attempt at a brownie!” she says. “Thanks so much for the feedback! We’re hoping to add it to the line soon.”

Jaw. Drop.

~~~

One of the little perks of my job is getting to meet people like Sarah and Hanes, entrepreneurs who offer quality cruelty-free products to the world. Their company, A Better Batch, sells ready-to-bake vegan cookie dough in three delectable flavors, and they occasionally have fully baked products for sale at events like vegfests. If you’re a VegNews reader, you might’ve seen A Better Batch reviewed in the “Cookie Dough Taste Test” in the April 2016 issue! (Read on for a chance to try them yourself!)

A Better Batch -- Photo by Rebekah Collinsworth

Although A Better Batch is based in Maryland, their cookies are available to anyone in the United States thanks to their unique business model. ABB sends you frozen cookie dough that you can bake in your own kitchen. By shipping the dough quickly and packaging it with dry ice, Hanes and Sarah make sure that it will arrive still frozen and ready to bake.

Right now, ABB offers three flavors: mocha oatmeal, lemon poppy seed, and classic chocolate chip. I can say with no reservations that their Lemon Poppy Seed cookies are the best I’ve ever tasted. Bursting with bright lemon flavor, they’re absolutely fabulous. Hanes and Sarah have managed to distill this flavor combination into a perfectly chewy, moist cookie that’s not to be missed. Mocha oatmeal is probably my second favorite — it’s another beautiful cookie, bursting with chocolatey goodness. Chocolate chip comes last, but not because of any defect — it’s a darn good classic cookie that anyone would enjoy.

A Better Batch -- Photo by Rebekah Collinsworth

But good-tasting cookies aren’t all that ABB offers. What sets A Better Batch apart from its competition is Hanes’ and Sarah’s dedication to providing the best possible products for people, the animals, and the environment. Here’s how:

  • Hanes and Sarah carefully source their ingredients, using fair-trade and organic options whenever possible. And by virtue of being vegan, these cookies are free of cholesterol.
  • Everything is vegan — no animals harmed here!
  • The cookies are shipped in biodegradable packaging instead of styrofoam containers, which we all know are horrible for the planet. And the individual wrappers are recyclable.

I’ve had the pleasure of trying ABB’s cookies a few times, but I wanted to know a little more about their business. So I reached out to Hanes, and he graciously answered all my questions and sent me a box of cookies to sample. Read on for his thoughts!

A Better Batch -- Photo by Rebekah Collinsworth

 

~~~

Kelly: Let me start by saying how much I LOVE your lemon poppy seed cookies — they’re the best! Right now, you only have them and two other flavors available (chocolate chip and mocha oatmeal). I like that you have a few flavors that you do really, really well, but are you planning to expand your products in the future?  
Hanes: I’m glad to hear you love the Lemon Poppy Seed cookies! Yes, we do have plans to add more flavors and possibly different products such as brownies in the future. In fact, we just re-released a Peanut Butter cookie that we featured back in August for a limited time; it was a crowd favorite, so we brought it back!

K: Why vegan cookies? How did you get started?
H: My passion for baking started when I was growing up. I loved helping my Mom in the kitchen, and this carried over into adulthood. On the weekends I would get in the kitchen and make biscuits, cakes, cookies, pancakes etc. from scratch. I enjoyed it and found it to be a great creative outlet for me. About 9 years ago, my wife stumbled upon some information online about factory farms and how we treat animals in the current agricultural system. It was pretty shocking and we were completely ignorant to it before that. She started reading more about the subject and sharing a lot of the practices and statistics with me. Over the following few years we both continued to decrease our consumption of animal products and eventually went vegan.

This created a new challenge for me: how do I continue to bake and enjoy a lot of the comfort foods that I love making so much without animal products like butter and eggs? I got in the kitchen and got to work. I tried lots and lots of different recipes and found that I love vegan baking! I find that the vegan baked goods taste even better than the traditional counterparts, and they’re certainly better for animals, the environment, and even our health. I received rave reviews for my vegan cookies. They were being requested anytime we would go to friends’ houses or events. A couple of years ago, I started A Better Batch to make them available to people seeking amazing plant-based desserts everywhere.

K: What makes your batches better, i.e., what distinguishes your cookies from similar brands? 
H: At A Better Batch, we work hard to make sure that our cookies are the best vegan cookies on the market — not only in flavor but also in all aspects of our decision making. We are constantly seeking the best ingredients, which to us means using organic, GMO-free, and socially responsible products. For example, the coffee we use in our Mocha Oatmeal flavor is made by Brewing Good Coffee Company which is organic, Rainforest Alliance certified, and UTZ certified (a sustainable farming certification that covers farming practices, environmental impact, and social and living conditions). Also, their company donates a portion of proceeds to animal charities each month — how great is that! We refuse to use palm oil because of the devastating impact its production has on orangutan habitat. Our sugar, vanilla, and salt are all fair trade. Our boxes are made of 100% recycled material, and we don’t use Styrofoam in our shipping boxes; instead, we use an eco-friendly, biodegradable insulation. We take the taste of our cookies seriously, and we also take caring for the environment and animals seriously.

K: What’s the process like for developing new products? How long does it take?
H: It usually starts with me wanting a particular flavor and then I try and think about how that would look. Then I get in the kitchen and try to make it happen, which really is the fun part, as I get to eat lots and lots of test cookies. Sometimes it’s a very quick process, as with my Peanut Butter cookies (it was the very first attempt that I ended up going with!). Other times, it takes much longer. I’m currently working on a refrigerated cookie dough that you could either just eat with a spoon or bake; it has taken over 3 dozen attempts so far.

K: If you could select any flavor cookie to magically have developed and ready for production, what would it be? 
H: Salted Caramel! This is a cookie I have worked on before and plan to return to. It has proven tricky. I would like a nice soft sugar cookie that has little bites of gooey caramel with a slight sprinkling of sea salt on top to bring it all home. I’m a huge huge caramel fan!

K: I noticed that all your packaging is eco-friendly — how is that tied to your business as a whole? Does that ethic inform everything you do?
H: We want to be the best vegan goodie, not only in flavor and quality, but also in all the little decisions in between such as the packaging.  It’s important for us to make our products the very best way we can and that includes taking our impact on the environment into consideration.

K: Are you a full-time cookie baker, or do you have a(nother) day job?
H: I work during the week as an accountant. A Better Batch is my passion project, which is what I work on in the evenings and on the weekend. It does create a busy schedule sometimes, but the cookie business doesn’t really feel like work!

~~~

I really appreciate how much thought Hanes put into his answers — and I’m dreaming of the day those salted caramel cookies become a reality! (Not to mention those brownies I tried a few months ago.)

Happily, A Better Batch generously offered to share the vegan goodness with one reader. Just visit the ABB website and let me know in a comment which flavor you want to try! One lucky winner will receive a box of all three flavors (worth about $58 including shipping). Sorry, my international friends — U.S. readers only this time! I’ll randomly select a winner at 5:00 PM Eastern on Wednesday, May 4, 2016.

If you don’t win but want to try these yummy cookies anyway, just sign up for the ABB newsletter to receive 15% off your first order. You can also check out ABB on Facebook and Twitter.

~~~

*Disclaimer: After tasting their cookies on a few occasions throughout the past year, I reached out to A Better Batch and asked if they’d like to be profiled here. Although they did provide me with some cookies to taste for this post, all opinions are 100% my own. I enjoy supporting local, vegan-owned businesses and will never promote a company I don’t believe in just for the sake of some free samples.

All photos in this post courtesy Rebekah Collinsworth.

Food Monster: A New App from One Green Planet

If you’re a regular over at One Green Planet, you might have seen some of my recipes published in their Recipe Monster section. And if you’re not a regular, you should check it out! OGP is a fantastic resource for all things animal- and eco-friendly, from tips on living consciously to sweet animal stories to brighten your day.

Recently, my contact over at OGP let me know about a brand-new iPhone app they’re launching on Earth Day (April 22) and asked if I wanted to try it early. Um, yes please! I’d just gone through the arduous task of making space on my phone, so I figured I might as well fill up that space with an all-vegan recipe app. Read on for my thoughts!

Food Monster app opening screen

When you first open the Food Monster app, you’re treated to a stunning photo overlaid with the OGP logo. (See screenshot above.) I like the simplicity of that opening shot (which varies each time you open the app), but I wish it stayed there longer and that you could access a menu from that open screen. Instead, the app quickly jumps you right into the main page, and not quite seamlessly — there’s a little lag, and the image gets stuck for a second.

Once you’re into the app proper, here’s what you can do:

  • Review the latest recipes from the home screen. Tapping a recipe brings you to a screen with more info, including the ingredients, prep steps, and even comments for that particular recipe. You can also add the recipe to your favorites or send it to someone using the standard iOS sharing options.
  • Access “features,” which are OGP’s Buzzfeed-style lists (e.g., 15 Ooey-Gooey Caramel Recipes), and then follow links to the recipes listed in those features.
  • Search for recipes by ingredient, name, or other keywords. There’s also the option to search within your bookmarked recipes only, which is handy if you know you saved something and want to find it quickly.
  • Browse recipes in a variety of ways, including by season, meal, ingredient, or diet (e.g., high-protein, gluten-free).
  • Peruse collections of recipes, like “American Fusion” and “Single Serve.”
  • Stay on top of what’s hot with easy access to popular themes and recipes that are currently going viral.
  • Bookmark your favorite recipes to use later.

Food Monster app collections

What I like:

  • The integration with OGP’s lists (aka the features). The OGP editorial team must have it pretty good — they get to compile lists of mouth-watering recipes and share them with hungry vegans! I always enjoy their lists and I like that they’re included in the app so that users have a different way to access content (rather than just searching or browsing recently added recipes).
  • The multiple ways of finding content. I appreciate that you can browse pre-made collections (see screenshot above) or narrow down your search using keywords.
  • That the collections aren’t just simply based on type of meal or ingredient — they’re more creative than that. Having pre-made lists of budget-friendly recipes or quick recipes is really handy.

What I don’t like:

  • In the recipes themselves, fully half the screen is taken up by the bottom of the featured photo, the author’s name, recipe tags, and tabs for ingredients, preparation, discussion, and similar collections. So you’re losing half the screen real estate for what’s arguably the most important feature of this app — reading the recipe itself! When I’m cooking, nothing is more annoying than needing to scroll down after every little step. I’d prefer to see the entire recipe on my screen, or at least most of it. (See first screenshot in the gallery above.)
  • The way the menu bar at the top requires you to manually scroll to see the different links (i.e., on the homepage, the word “Features” is cut off in the default view). It’s not intuitive to have to manually scroll to the right — it feels like the app was designed as a recreation of the desktop site, which is not the best way to design for mobile. (See second screenshot in the gallery above.)
  • The animations are in general a little clunky — they often lag or stick a little bit, which detracts from the overall user experience.
  • The fact that you can’t access the home screen by tapping the Food Monster logo at the top — that’s how I intuitively want to do it, but it doesn’t work. Instead you have to tap the hamburger button, which opens a menu on the left side, and tap Home from there.
  • Within a recipe, there’s an option to favorite the recipe with a simple heart icon or by tapping a bookmark icon, which opens a menu and lets you categorize it by meal or diet right then and there. Having two ways to save a recipe seems unnecessarily confusing.

My overall opinion is that this app was generally well-thought-out, but it has some implementation issues. The design mixes very modern, clean images (i.e., the opening screen) with a slightly dated design on the interior screens. I can tell that the developers and UI team wanted to mimic the look and feel of the OGP website, but I’m not convinced it fully works on mobile. The laggy animations are distracting, and it’s a little buggy — I had trouble getting links to work a few times.

Is it worth $19.99? I don’t think so. Few apps are; twenty bucks is super steep and is not at all in line with market prices. All the content on Food Monster is available (for free!) on OGP’s website, making it difficult to justify the high price tag.

That said, I’m looking forward to using it more thoroughly over the next few months to get a better sense for how well it works when I’m in the kitchen. In the meantime, I’m saving all sorts of delicious-looking recipes for later use!

~~~

The Food Monster app will be officially released on 4/22, but you can purchase and download it early using this link. If you do, let me know what you think!

~~~

*Disclaimer: I was given a free one-year subscription to the app (valued at $19.99), but all opinions are thoroughly my own.

Product Review: Candle Cafe’s Tofu Spinach Ravioli

Orange rectangular banner that says "Vegan MoFo" and "Vegan Month of Food 2011."

As a brown-bagger lunch-boxer who brings a lunch to work 90% of the time, I’m a big fan of leftovers. Rarely do I prepare a sandwich or salad for lunch; instead, I just take whatever dinner leftovers are hanging out in my fridge or freezer. Sometimes, though, I like to take a turn down Lazyface Road and buy a frozen meal for lunch. My company makes it easy; our on-campus “general store” stocks a plethora of Amy’s frozen foods, a few of which are vegan. They’re my go-to option when I forget my lunch or didn’t have a chance to prepare anything. But last month I forewent the ease of purchasing my lunch at work and instead went grocery shopping with a meal in mind. I’d heard buzz in the blogworld about the new line of Candle Cafe frozen entrees, and I was intrigued.

So, armed with a Whole Foods LivingSocial voucher (woo!) and a $1-off coupon from the Whole Foods Web site, I perused the frozen foods aisle and eventually choose the Tofu Spinach Ravioli. I’d already decided against the mac and cheese after reading a review at The Noochy Noodle and discovering that the cheese was basically Daiya, of which I am no great fan. The other options (Seitan Piccata and Ginger Miso Stir-Fry) sounded tasty, but I make stir-fries fairly frequently and I wasn’t in the mood for seitan. Ravioli it was! Based on the packaging, it looked pleasant enough:

Image from the Candle Cafe's Tofu Spinach Ravioli packaging. A pile of circular ravioli are heaped high on a white plate. Each ravioli has a light coating of red sauce, and the plate is garnished with basil. No Daiya cheese shreds are visible.

Image courtesy the Candle Cafe Facebook page.

I lunched on the ravioli on a Tuesday, and I’ll admit to feeling slightly shameful as I quickly scurried from the kitchen back to my office – I pride myself on eating healthy, homemade meals, and I felt a little silly walking around with a microwave-cooked bowl of pasta. Once I reached my desk and was in the clear, I went to town with an open mind, ready to enjoy and appreciate my nearly effortless lunch. Unfortunately, things didn’t shake out that way.

The ravioli itself was just okay. The pasta was perfectly tender, but the filling lacked luster – I could barely taste the spinach, mostly because it was overwhelmed by the marinara sauce. And by “marinara sauce,” I mean Daiya cheese. Mislead by the frozen meal’s packaging (see above) to expect a humble sprinkling of Daiya shreds atop a judicious serving of sauce, I was disappointed to instead discover an underwhelming red sauce covered in a patchwork blanket of squishy, half-melted cheese. Although that image might appeal to the Daiya-lovers among you, it gave me a faint feeling of pre-eating queasiness. But I persevered, and the few ravioli I found that weren’t drenched in Daiya-infused sauce were unobjectionable.

Unfortunately, most of the ravioli were bathed in cheesy sauce, and I just found the greasy, fatty flavor of Daiya to overwhelm all the other flavors in the dish (such as they were). My attempt to eat around the Daiya was a spectacular failure, so – much like with my previous Daiya experience – I ended my lunch with an unsettled stomach and a lingering distaste for the meal I’d just finished. Outraged by the misrepresentation of their product on its packaging, I modified the image I showed you earlier to more accurately depict the package’s contents:

Same stock image as before, except this one's been Photoshopped with little yellow lines and a haze of yellow to represent cheese.

Appetizing!

Heh heh. Clearly I wasn’t a fan of this meal, and I can’t see myself ever buying it again. Nor will I try the plain mac & cheese, especially if it’s basically Daiya + pasta. I might give the other cheeseless meals a chance, but only if they’re on sale or I have another coupon – their size (and, as far as I know, quality) doesn’t justify their price.

Have you tried any of the Candle Cafe meals? Have you eaten at the real Candle Cafe? I can only assume that their in-house meals are much, much better than their frozen options!

Note: This is a scheduled post, because I’m currently in Italy. Apologies for any weirdness with auto-publishing!

Vegan Product Review by Way of Label Snobbery

I’m a bit of a snob.

I know what you’re thinking: “Kelly, you write a food blog. Duh; obviously you’re a major food snob.” Truthfully, though, I’m only a food snob internally. Outwardly, I don’t judge Joe Coworker when he thinks a wilted piece of iceberg lettuce makes his triple bacon cheeseburger a tour-de-force of healthy lunching. Unless Joe Coworker and I happen to be on friendly terms, I’m not going to make some snarky comment about how he’s on a fast track to Heart Attack City. Recently my boyfriend commended me on what a nonchalant vegan I am, on how I don’t expect anyone to cater to me and how that really makes it difficult for anyone to apply the “picky, hard-to-please, snooty vegan” stereotype to me. And that’s really what I’m going for – my veganism is a part of my life – a big part! – but it’s not the entirety of my life. It’s a choice I made. I believe that it’s the most ethical, healthy lifestyle, but I’m not going to push it on anyone or get in Joe Coworker’s face and tell him I’m better than him because I’m eating tempeh for lunch.

But I am a snob. More specifically, a label snob. But not the type of labels you’re imagining. Heck, my favorite place to buy clothes is the thrift store – my closet is quite free of designer labels. What I’m saying is that I am snobby about literal labels, the kind you find on any pre-packaged product. I just like things to be aesthetically pleasing, well-designed, and free of hideous fonts (Comic Sans, I’m looking at you). Is that so much to ask? I know it’s somewhat irrational, but if I’m perusing the racks and see a product with a label that’s covered in Papyrus (which sucks), I give it a withering look and move on. Newsflash: using Papyrus does not automatically infuse your crappy funeral-parlor-scented candle with some sort of exotic, mystical flair. It’s so overused and unoriginal! And if your label boasts blinding neon colors, beveled text, and drop shadows, I’ll be equally unimpressed. Closing your eyes, opening Photoshop, smashing your fists against the keyboard and blindly clicking does not a beautiful design make. So you don’t have the budget to hire a graphic designer? Fine! Just keep it simple! Use a nice, unobjectionable sans serif font (Helvetica is popular for a reason) and a tasteful color combination. Nobody will object to that! Nobody!

Image links to its source. :)

If you can’t tell, I get a little passionate about this stuff. I’m not shallow when it comes to people, but I’ll admit to being quite judgmental about graphic design. So when I recently needed to replenish my lip balm stock and decided to do it via Etsy, I found myself in quite a quandary. See, I love Etsy. I love supporting people who use their talents to make a living and who share their fun, handmade products with the world. I especially love supporting people who do this using cruelty-free ingredients. But I’m not gonna lie – some Etsy products are just plain ugly. When I searched for vegan lip balms, I saw so many ugly labels and hideous fonts that I felt like giving up the search entirely. I persevered, however, and eventually settled on two tubes from DressGreen, which feature simple, modern, and attractive labels.*

Delightful simplicity.

They arrived a few days later, in all their tastefully-labeled glory. I chose vanilla and grapefruit, and both are perfectly scented – recognizable, but not too strong. I have to use a gentle touch with them, however, because if I apply them too thickly, they occasionally leave a bit of white residue. Other than that minor downside, I’m perfectly happy with my purchase. These are free of animal products and unpleasant chemicals, and I definitely recommend them next time your sweet vegan lips feel a bit chapped.

Score one for being shallow and judging things by their labels. ;)

P.S. Check out the links in this post. They’re funny, I promise.

* I just noticed that a couple of DressGreen’s other products have Papyrus on the labels. Um. I’ll just pretend I didn’t see that, because the rest of their labels are quite pleasing to my eyes!

Two Cashew Reviews for You (Woohoo)

Wow, sorry about that title. It’s day 24 of MoFo and I’m clearly going a little nuts. GET IT?! NUTS?? Because this post includes product reviews of two nut-related items. Hilaaarious.

So – at work we have this little general store where we can purchase fruit, frozen meals, drinks (including organic soy milk!), granola bars, candy, and various small toiletry items. They make it so easy to spend money, because you can just swipe your ID card and it gets automatically deducted from your next paycheck. Yowza. I work on the other side of campus, though, so I rarely make the trek over to the general store to buy a snack I don’t really need.

Today, though, I had limited food supplies and wanted something yummy to tide me over until lunch. Recently they started carrying vegan cookies made by the Simple Soyman, a Milwaukee-based company. So far I’ve only seen the Sesame Circle (made with peanut butter) and a Mexican hot chocolate-type cookie, both of which are excellent. Today I noticed that there’s a version of the Sesame Circle that features cashew butter instead of peanut butter. Consider me sold!

True to the Simple Soyman’s name, their products contain only the simplest ingredients. Check it:

It was a circle until I started eating it... oops.

I can get behind a product with only 8 ingredients! By which I mean, I can happily stuff said product in my piehole for a deeelicious midmorning snack. I love the Sesame Circles because they’re crispy and crunchy and just a little sweet. I think I prefer the cashew variety to the peanut one… peanuts are kind of overused, y’know? But cashews and sesame? That’s a less common combination, and a winning one at that.

Now, I didn’t intend to eat something cashew-y twice today, but I’d brought along a cashew-based soup for lunch, so that’s how the cashew cookie crumbled! I remember reading a review for various vegan soups on someone’s blog (if it’s yours, let me know!), and Pacific Natural Foods’ Cashew Carrot Ginger soup received top marks. When I saw it on sale for $2.50, I picked up a carton and saved it for a rainy day. Or, y’know, a cold day that eventually turned rainy, although it wasn’t raining when I ate this soup. Full disclosure; you haz it. Anyway, I gave it a try today.

Sittin' on my food shelf at work!

My verdict? Eh. I think it’s partially because I still don’t totally care for soups with noticeable coconut flavor, but I was not in love with this soup. I also realized that I have a slightly less than high tolerance for very liquid-y soups – I like pureed soup, but it needs some texture! This was nearly drinkable, and that didn’t do much for me. I did enjoy the otherwise pleasant flavor and the delightful back-of-your-mouth, slowly-building spiciness – mild but enjoyable. Would I buy this again? Probably not. Do I regret trying it? Nope.

Have you eaten anything cashew-y and delicious lately?

If you’re celebrating Thanksgiving tomorrow, happy cooking & eating & giving thanks! I am not doing anything, and I’m actually quite relieved. I didn’t want to fly to RI for a long weekend, because that would’ve required taking Friday off work and I want to use my vacation days for Christmas. A friend invited me to her family’s celebration, but they live ~2 hours away and I didn’t feel like driving there after work tonight and then leaving tomorrow night so I could be at work on Friday. I also received an invitation from the Madison veg meet-up group for a big veg potluck with any displaced Madisonians, but honestly, the thought of socializing with strangers for an entire day was too exhausting to contemplate (yes, I know that’s an issue). So – the roomie and I will chill out and enjoy our day off work. If I could Apparate and celebrate with my family, I totally would, but as it stands, I’m excited to spend the day knitting and watching movies. Anyway – happy Thanksgiving, again!

Teesin’ It Up: Eggplant & Mozzarella Sammies

Years before I moved out here to America’s Dairyland, I was an unashamed, unabashed cheesehead (and not the football-fan type). I enjoyed the tang of provolone, the creamy richness studded with bites of spice in a slice of pepper jack, the sharp saltiness of cheddar. Like so many vegetarians, I pulled the “I could never go vegan – I love cheese!” card for more than a few years. Once I opened my eyes and learned about the cruelty involved in dairy farming, though, I realized that I was being selfish. I’d gone vegetarian because my personal ethics and morals told me that eating animals wasn’t right, so how could I continue to support a system that inflicted cruelty on animals? How could I justify the momentary pleasure of a cracker spread with brie or a salad laden with feta when I knew the pain that had gone into creating those cheeses? I couldn’t. In my “effectively vegan” phase, I didn’t eat cheese, and I found that, hey, I didn’t miss it! Once I made the “official” switch to veganism (which, after all, wasn’t so different than the other phase), I realized that saying goodbye to cheese hadn’t been nearly as bad as I’d thought it would be. It was a clean break, so to speak; no tears were shed on either end and no angsty poetry was written about our split.

The idea of vegan cheese (or cheeze, or uncheese) is something I’ve sort of glanced at out of the corners of my eyes; I know it’s there, and I nominally acknowledge its existence, but I’ve never faced it full-on. Early in my days of effective veganism, when I was testing the waters, I bought what I thought was a bag of shredded vegan cheese, only to discover casein lurking in the ingredient list. Hmm, no wonder it melted so well! Other than that and the occasional tub of Better than Cream Cheese, though, I’ve not ever been truly tempted to try a vegan cheese. Sometimes at the grocery store I’ll linger by the Follow Your Heart or the Tofutti slices and imagine quesadillas and grilled cheese sandwiches and eggplant parmesan, but ultimately the price tag sends me down another aisle, cheese-less. I’m a cheapskate; what can I say?

And beyond my feelings that the price tag doesn’t justify whatever tiny desire I have to try a vegan cheese is the thought that it’s just really unnecessary. I get by damn fine on a diet that’s heavy on healthy and whole foods, so why throw something processed into the mix when it’s not necessary? Vegan cheeses aren’t exactly what I’d call health foods, and if I don’t particular crave them or want them, why would I buy them for novelty’s sake? That’s silly.

And now I’m going to contradict everything I just said. :) When Chicago Soy Dairy twittered about a contest to try one of their new products, I was intrigued. I retweeted their post, and by some luck of the cheezy gods, I was one of the winners. And by winners, I mean “people who got to try Teese’s new mozzarella recipe.” Ooer!

As my previous ramblings may have indicated, I’ve never actually tried Teese’s *old* mozzarella recipe. So, really, I had no point of comparison when giving this stuff a shot. Chicago Soy Dairy just wanted my honest opinion on the product. I figured, coming from such a vegan-cheese-virginal standpoint, I would not be tainted by any pesky intimate knowledge of other cheeses.

A few days ago a box arrived from Chicago, and along with a sticker and some cute pins (woo!), I received my first-ever tube of vegan cheese. Now, I’m not gonna lie – that tube freaked me out a bit. Unrefrigerated, tubular cheese? Umm… eek! But I was game for it, so after dropping off/checking out some library books, I picked up some supplies at the local grocery store. For my first-ever vegan cheese experience, I made something I’ve been craving for a while.

"Yeah, I'm a sandwich, chillin' on the floor. What?"

Eggplant sandwiches, with tomatoes and basil and – whoa there! – mozzarella! My dad used to make these every so often, and they were always so. freaking. good. that I couldn’t resist trying my hand at them. I’ll admit that I forgot to buy fresh tomatoes, so I used some leftover Muir Glen fire-roasted tomaters, and that actually worked just fine. And the mozzarella?

Well. Welllll, I’m going to be honest here. When I opened up that tube, I was met with a powerful odor that was eerily reminiscent of dairy cheese and that freaked me the crap out. I almost chickened out at that point! But I persevered, cut some slices of the mozzarella, and threw them on my sandwich. Unfortunately, I had to take my sandwiches out of the oven before they burned, so the cheese didn’t get super melty.

And the taste? Well – it was mild, and pretty similar to the mozzarella I remember, but definitely not identical. By itself, I don’t think you’d confuse it with the “real” thing. It worked well in the sandwich, though; as I sort of forgot what I was eating, I had this weird sensory-memory where I felt as if I were chomping on one of the  sandwiches of my youth – the flavors all blended together, and when I didn’t think about the cheese as a separate entity but as part of the sandwich, it added that perfect bite of creamy saltiness to the combined flavors. Y’know what I mean? Good.

I will also say that when I reheated the other half of the sandwich the next day at work, the cheese melted and looked so legit that I felt compelled to hide it from view – what if people thought I was eating rEaL cHeEsE?!? Silly, I know, but the idea of the occasional vegan who makes exceptions for cheese is not one I want to associate with myself.

So, overall? This cheese can play a very particular role very well. I bet it’d be great on pizza with lots of yummy vegetable toppings, when all the flavors can mix and meld. That’s when it works best. Hmm… maybe that’ll be my next Teese endeavor. I’ve still got 4/5 of a tube left, after all.

I feel like I’m supposed to make some sort of disclaimer here. Chicago Soy Dairy sent me their cheese to try, but I was under no obligation to blog about it – they just wanted honest feedback. Okay, um, disclaimer = made.

Product Review: Sesame Seaweed Rice Balls

I woke up this morning with the intention of doing my first ever “daily eats” post – I was going to photograph everything I stuffed into my gob today, and then share it with y’all tonight. But then I got lazy, and then it got all grey outside and the lighting in my kitchen was horrible, so… I gave up. Instead, I need to – need to – tell you about my new favorite thing.

YUMMY.

Forget cream colored ponies and crisp apple strudel, I’m talkin’ about these SESAME SEAWEED RICE BALLS, people. Trader Joe’s had a bag of these intriguing specimens on sale for somewhere in the region of $1.50, and I had to try them. In two days’ time, this is what remained of my bag:

DONE.

A whole lotta NOTHIN’. These lil guys are like CRACK. They’re not overly salty, but they have little flecks of seaweed that give them little bursts of yumminess. And the sesame flavor is understated, but in the best way possible. Basically, they’re tiny little balls o’ deliciousness. I’m pretty sure I could’ve eaten the entire bag in one sitting, but somehow I managed to make it last two days. Small victories.

Anyway, if you’re in the market for a relatively cheap snack food, give these little guys a shot! They’d make great travel food, I bet. They’re easily munchable yet they won’t leave you feeling all gross like you would if you downed a bag of chips or something. Plus, they’re vegan AND gluten free! Everyone’s a winner! Yeehaw.