Road Trip to the South with Mixed Eaters

So we had to go to Arkansas for a wedding. We rented a massive vehicle (bare in mind that I’m a girl who would prefer something the size of a bicycle, so my perspective may be exaggerated) and loaded up myself, the hubby, all three girls, and one boyfriend and headed south. Knowing we had a vegan, a vegetarian and then four omnivores, we were prepared for this to be an adventure when it came to food, or so we thought.

I prepared! We packed sandwiches, PB&J for the vegan and vegetarian, and meat and cheese for the meat eaters. I kind of overdid it on sandwiches, but hey, we ate all but three of them. We packed dried fruit, cereal bars, pretzel thins, goldfish, hummus, crackers, fruit…all the things! This worked out great on the trip down. We also packed plenty of bottled water. This saved money and stops, which was awesome.

The first failed meal came on our stop overnight in Missouri. The hotel breakfast had nothing a vegan would touch except an apple. Luckily, we still hand PB&J for her when we got on the road. But little did we know that this theme would carry through every meal until we headed home. But our prepacked road snacks carried us through lunch and we made it to Arkansas.

During the road trip, I researched places to eat in Conway that offered vegan options so we could have dinner before the wedding. We had a place all picked out. After settling into our AirBNB, I call ahead to make sure they are open because the website was confusing. Turns out they aren’t even open for business yet. So again, I have to research. Finally, we end up at TGI Fridays because they have the Beyond Burger. The vegetarian ordered buttered pasta and replaced the broccoli that is supposed to come with it with fruit, which she did not eat. Minor fail on nutrition, but overall, a successful meal.

My parents and grandparents wanted to have a big family breakfast the next morning, so I again researched to find a place everyone could eat. Reading online reviews, Golden Corral seemed to be the best option. There were all these posts about them having lots of fresh fruits and such on the bar. Well, they did not. They had like 4. All the breads had butter or milk or egg. It was unclear if the hash browns had been cooked with lard or bacon fat or such. So the vegan basically had a plate of fruit and some tater tots. The vegetarian had pancakes, waffles and a giant yeast roll. Epic nutrition fail. I did try deep fried bacon. That was awesome.

Saturday evening, we headed to Searcy to a catfish house for dinner. You can imagine how well that goes over with both the vegan and vegetarian. We hit Burger King on the way for the vegan, and she just passed on the buffet. But the vegetarian ate some okra, of course a bunch of bread, and ice cream. So, we totally won on the nutritional meter with this one! It also turns out that the hubby does not love southern style catfish. Finally, we headed back north Sunday morning. We left at about 5 am, so we did not eat prior to hitting the road. We decided to stop at Burger King to get food. I didn’t want to waste the time, so we decided we would get it to go. We chose Burger King because they have vegan options, including the Impossible Whopper and French toast sticks (which are accidentally vegan). However, it turned into a minor disaster at first when we told the 9 year old she couldn’t have french toast sticks because she couldn’t have syrup in the rental car. There were tears. It took much convincing, but ultimately, she chose an egg and cheese croissant sandwich. We got an egg in her! She ate the whole thing, so evidently, it was not bad. We stuck with snacks the rest of the way back.

All I have to say is thank goodness for Burger King and that Impossible Whopper, because there is very little vegan food available in Arkansas. And we really had to amp up our vegetable and healthy food intake this week to make up for the nutritional void of the weekend.

.

Fall Foods

I love fall. It is my favorite season. I love the cooler temperatures and the beautiful changing leaves. I love my fall wardrobe, and I love fall foods. I am not one that necessarily believes certain foods should be relegated to certain weather conditions. I will make chili in the middle of summer. But let’s face it, there are some foods I will cook more when the temperature drops. For example, I will go great lengths to avoid my oven when it’s hot out, as I am also a cheapskate and don’t want to pay to run the air conditioner any more than required. So here is an “ode” to my some of my favorite fall dishes.

Anything in the crock pot is a winner for me. I currently have a cut of beef in the fridge waiting to make a variation of the NYT Mississipi Mud Roast recipe. I’m making mine in an instant pot, but still planning to use the slow-cooker function for the actual roasting. I also am planning to add red onion. I also love a simple slow-cooked pork loin with onions and herbs. I’m currently in the market for a trivet for my instant pot so I can experiment more with things like roasting chicken and such in it.There is also a paella planned in the near future using the instant pot.

My chicken pot pie recipe is a go-to in cooler weather. It’s gonna heat up the kitchen and it’s a very hearty dish, so it really does get mostly relegated to cooler temperatures. Roasted vegetables also make a more frequent appearance, along with more scalloped potatoes or potatoes au gratin. I love potatoes, but definitely like them better when I can run my oven longer. I’m also thinking of playing with an old shepherd’s pie recipe I used to get at one of my adopted “moms” dinner tables when I was younger.

And breads! I love baking breads. I am thinking the next several months I am going to do a lot more bread experiments. My husband loves more complex breads like ryes and such, and our youngest loves croissants, baguettes, and basically any bread. I have a focaccia recipe I’ve been meaning to play with. I may try something easier than the Julia Child’s french bread recipes this year as her croissants took me two full days to make. But they were so good! Oh, and bierocks! If I haven’t yet, that recipe will definitely be forthcoming as it gets cooler out!

Finally, soups! I have never been a crazy soup fan, but then I discovered all these very hearty, thick, flavorful soups. I love a loaded baked potato soup. I also have a broccoli-cheese soup I made from adapting a Wisconsin beer cheese soup recipe that is delicious. Of course, my chili will make frequent appearances. I’m also looking to experiment with some mushroom soup recipes since the little one loves mushrooms.

The cooler the temps get, the heartier the food becomes. By mid-winter, my oven practically groans from all the use, and we probably gain a few pounds. I have weekend days where it looks like I’m cooking all the things like I expect a great snow-in or something, but I am so happy when my counters and table are covered with cooling breads and my refrigerator and freezer are filled with leftovers!

Women in BBQ

I remember when I was a kid. Dad did the grilling. I’m not even sure if my mom knew how to work the grill. (Before she yells at me, I’m sure she could, I just don’t remember it happening.) The first grill I ever had at my house as an adult was my former husband’s grill. I think I used it once, and it took some work to figure out. But for some reason, at least where I have lived, the grill was a man’s arena. Mom cooked the indoor sides and such, but never the steaks!

But, a couple of years, I got the idea in my head that I wanted to a grill. I was frustrated with trying to use one of those indoor grill pans in an apartment with no real ventilation over the stove, and it was tough to clean. I shopped around and ultimately bought a Weber charcoal kettle grill. In my research, I discovered the chimney lighting method would relieve me of the lighter fluid smell/taste. So, I got a chimney and some charcoal and started grilling. About a month or so into my adventure, I researched how to turn the grill into a smoker. Now, I mostly smoke, although I do occasionally grill say a hamburger or bratwurst or such.

Here’s the kicker: I’m a woman. My husband has never used the grill to cook. As a disclaimer, he does clean it for me periodically because he’s awesome. I really thought nothing of this until I participated in a BBQ competition recently. There were 22 teams with 4-6 members average on each team. The number of women actually on BBQ teams was minuscule to say the least. And to my knowledge, not a single team was led by a woman. There was one team from a restaurant that I believe is husband-wife owned.

Then, I’m watching Food Network’s new show BBQ Brawl and Michael Symon actually points out how amazing it is that 3 of the last 4 contenders are women. I realized I’m not the only one that sees that the BBQ world is very male dominated. If you check out shows like Pitmasters or any of the other televised BBQ competition shows, you won’t see many women, especially not leading teams. I just can’t decide if this is a result of an old fashioned idea that the grill was a man’s arena or some other bias. I’m not sure if women don’t want to go to these things, don’t know that they can, or if they really aren’t welcomed into the arena.

I will say that I did not feel at all odd about being on a BBQ team, and I didn’t feel like the other team leads and members I spoke to thought anything of a woman being a pitmaster. But still, even at this simple, local event, there were only a handful of women working any of the pits.

More women are definitely entering the world of BBQ competitions, and you can tell that the younger generation has no fixed ideas of gender when it comes to BBQ. But then again, the world of chefs, despite the likes of Julia Child, used to also be a male dominated field as far as the most elite were concerned. Maybe this is just one more way we are removing gender barriers in our society.

Vegetarian/Vegan Smoking

So many of you know that I turn my Weber grill into a smoker on a regular basis and smoke a lot of meats! But I also smoke mushrooms and tofu for my little veggie eaters. However, I hadn’t really experimented with a lot of vegetables. So I decided to do a complete vegetarian smoke. Here’s my review of the things I tried:

Corn on the cob was delicious, but I opted to smoke them in the husks, and I think the taste was not much different than when you grill it this way. It didn’t really pick up the smoke except near the tip where it may have been a bit out of the husk or the husk opened. I will be retrying this without the husks to see how that works. However, the corn was sweet, delicious and the perfect texture.

Smoked mushrooms were a hit with the 9-year old. I’ve done portobella mushrooms in the past. This time, I found some larger baby portobellas. I skewered them and coated them with olive oil and some salt. I don’t like mushrooms, so I have to trust the kid’s opinion here. She said they picked up a lot of smoke.

Smoked red, yellow and orange bell peppers were delicious, and my tiny food critic agreed. They were sweet as you’d expect, but they also picked up a substantial amount of the smoke.

Zuchinni also picked up a substantial amount of smoke. It was not squishy soft like squash can get, so some might like it cooked longer, but I loved it. It was no longer “crisp” like eating it raw, but not to the squishy point either. It had the zucchini flavor along with the nice amount of smoke. As a note, I cut them in half length-wise and added olive oil and salt before putting on the grill.

Smoked red onion is delicious! The 9-year old wouldn’t try it. She has a fear of spice, and at the mention of the word “onion,” she acts like a vampire around garlic. Someday, I’ll get her to see the beauty in onions. Luckily, she doesn’t recognize that they are in a lot of the foods we eat and does not realize shallots are in the same family!

Smoke cauliflower was not good. I followed an online post I found, but I may not have done it right. However, to both myself and my husband, there was an intense smoke flavor but it completely overwhelmed the cauliflower. Also, the cauliflower did not soften the way it does when you roast it.

Overall, I would say dinner was a success. (Just a disclaimer, I grilled a few bratwurst after the veggies were all off the grill which us meat eaters had with the vegetables.) I would definitely be willing to try more vegetables in the smoker. I’m also considering trying cold smoking in the near future, and I think tofu may react well to such a process!

Breakfast is Complex

My husband loves breakfast. I mean really loves breakfast. He has a crazy obsession with eggs in most any form. However, I’m really not that into breakfast. Most days I don’t eat it. If I am hungry in the morning, I’ve been known to order the lunch dish if available at local restaurants.

When I was a kid, I remember breakfast for dinner being a big thing in our house. We loved having pancakes for dinner. I don’t even like pancakes at breakfast now. I like eggs, and I occasionally like toast or hashbrowns. However, that is about the extent of my breakfast likes. I mean, I can eat a good frittata or omelet on occasion, but it’s definitely not something I crave or go out of my way for.

I think part of my ho-hum feeling for breakfast is that I find it to be too complex with our multi-diet household. For example, if we make eggs in the morning, my husband turns into a short order cook. He makes fried eggs for he and I and something that resembles the flavorless egg in your fried rice for the little one. If we’re doing scrambled eggs, they either have to be boring and plain or again, we are eating them with ham and cheese and the kid is eating the “flat eggs” referenced in the last sentence.

If we decide to make waffles, pancakes, french toast…all kid favorites, I just suffer through as I’m not particularly a fan and later will supplement with some cheese or meat as a snack. I am also always majorly conflicted on the healthiness of eating a meal that consists of nothing but carbs and sugar. We do things like adding chia seeds or flax and yes, some of the recipes contain egg. But I’m always concerned about carb overload and balancing the diet, especially with kids that would joyfully live on carbs and sugar alone if we didn’t push other things on them. Luckily, they do eat vegetables, but it’s really hard to incorporate broccoli into pancakes!

Going out for breakfast usually makes meeting everyone preferences easier, though if all the kids are with us, we do have to be cautious that the place offers vegan options. It is very challenging to find a place that offers both vegan and carnivorous dishes. There are some places that offer vegan, vegetarian and such that aren’t just solely dedicated to those diets these days, so it’s getting easier. However, the above concerns about the kids diet still exist in that case. I’m just getting more of the food I want to eat, while they’re eating their sugar covered bread.

And don’t even get me started on muffins and donuts as breakfast. Taking the icing off a chocolate cake does not make it a meal. It’s still a cake. And donuts are also covered in icing! These are desserts or snacks, not breakfast. I’m not saying you shouldn’t have them as treats, but these are definitely not what I consider a meal, unless of course, you’re doing something like my Morning Glory Muffins and kind of tricking the eaters!

I do love brunch because it incorporates both breakfast and lunch dishes. I’m sure you can guess which I migrate toward. But if you love breakfast, as my husband does, please enjoy it. Just don’t cringe when I’m eating a steak taco instead of a breakfast burrito! Maybe I can experiment more with making dishes more like my gallette or french toast casserole, which I think both manage to incorporate more brunch like flavors and still have a lot of protein!

Ten Things I’ve learned about food and cooking

This could be a multi-edition posting, as I’ve learned so much over the years. However, these are just a few valuable things I have learned about creating amazing flavors.

  1. When sauteing mushrooms, you need to sweat them first. You need them to release all their natural juices, and then you can sear that off for an amazing sauteed flavor. Put your mushrooms in a pan with your oil or butter (butter is always better, but it’s okay if you want to be healthier) and cover with a lid. Wait until you have a pool of juices bubbling, then remove the lid and cook away the liquid.
  2. Fresh ground spices are better. This isn’t always easy to do, and for some spices it makes more of a difference than others. Grind your own cumin. It adds a couple of minutes to the process, but the amazing smell and flavor will take you to new places. Pepper is another one. Pepper starts losing flavor immediately after grinding. It is well worth it to invest in a pepper grinder. Talk at length to your spice dealers. There is a reason they carry some spices whole.
  3. Chicken fat is gold. I know, I know, we are all supposed to be low-fat and all. But chicken fat is delicious. You can use this to flavor anything. Don’t drain it off when making broth. I freeze the chicken broth and leave the fat in with the broth. This adds rich, amazing flavor to soups and stews. You can also cook anything in chicken fat. I’m telling you that it is almost as good as bacon.
  4. You can roast any vegetable. We frequently roast broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and potatoes. Cut them up and toss them with olive oil and kosher salt. I usually add rosemary, garlic, onions or shallots, depending on my mood and what is lying around. Put in an oven preheated to 450 degrees and let it roast. For most of them, I roast until there starts to be a little blackening, so just past where I’d have thought them done. It’s a delicious side dish to anything!
  5. Potatoes are not just potatoes. It really does matter what kind of potatoes you use, depending on what you want to make. For a nice scallop dish, you really want Yukon gold. Also, I’m pretty sure russets are not good for anything other than a baked potato because you can cover it with everything in the fridge. Yukon golds make way better mashed potatoes. Red potatoes are great for roasting and homefries. And any of the tiny potato varieties are great for roasting!
  6. An instant read thermometer is invaluable. I really knew very little about cooking when I first left my parents’ house. There were some pretty awful disasters as I began to self-teach. My biggest frustration was chicken. I swear it would look beautifully golden brown, but we’d sit down to eat and cut into raw chicken. My instant read thermometers are also invaluable for smoking and grilling all sorts of foods. Also, when a recipe calls for a certain temp on the milk or water, it really does help if you get it right.
  7. Patience. Those that know me will tell you that this is not my strong suit. My first cooking adventure that began to teach me patience in the kitchen was alfredo sauce. You cannot rush it. Hollandaise also had some lessons to share on that subject. I’ve had to develop lots of coping techniques to force myself to allow my flavors to develop and certain foods to come out as they should. Smoking meat has by far been my Yoda of teachers on this subject.
  8. Some people think it is possible to have too much garlic or onion. I am not one of those people. Well, not if your using raw garlic or onions. Dried, granulated, jar stuff you find in the spice aisle can definitely be overdone.
  9. Mise en place is for real. I’m a terrible person about following directions in life, and my mother will surely tell you I tend to dive in headfirst and then worry about whether there are hazards in the water. But all those chefs on Food Network are not making it up. Making sure you have everything before you start will save you so many headaches. There is nothing like being halfway into a dish and discovering you forgot a key ingredient. Going all out, including measuring out spices and such, is also super helpful if you are cooking with a tiny human.
  10. Balance is key. I like hot. I don’t mean I’m a crazy fanatic eating all the ghost peppers and such. Frankly, my stomach couldn’t handle it. But I like spice. However, you want flavor, not just heat. At some point in adulthood, I just stopped liking sweets most of the time. However, if you balance heat, sweet, acidic, etc., you get amazing flavors.

These are just a few things I’ve learned. Most of these more recently (like last decade). I could write a novel on some of the more basic concepts I had to figure out early on in learning to cook. But there are all kinds of cooking for beginners books out there that probably cover those. I probably should have picked up a few!

Meat Alternatives

Having vegan and vegetarian children, I have done a lot of exploring of meat alternatives. From your very basic tofu to more adventurous options. I have to say that even I, the very carnivorous one, have found some truly tasty vegetarian and vegan options. And thanks to all the popularity of such lifestyles, there are so many variations of meat substitutes out there now.

When Katie was around 8, she decided to be vegetarian for a brief period. At that time, the options out there were still pretty slim, and I had very little knowledge of cooking vegetarian. I experimented with tofu. By experimented, I mean I googled some recipes and basically cooked marinated tofu in stir fry. I did discover tofu parmigiana, which was good enough that even my very carnivorous father-in-law at the time liked it. I tried a chocolate mouse but never had any success with preparing soft tofu.

I later experimented with TVP. I failed. I have yet to find a way to prepare that in any form I truly find edible. I know it’s quite popular, so obviously it is the cook in this case. Mostly, my vegetarian involved just leaving meat out of foods such as pastas, frittatas, etc. I did discover baking and frying tofu for various recipes. I also discovered beans as a nice alternative, especially chickpeas and black beans.

I’ve found most of the commercial meat substitute products lacking. I didn’t hate soyrizo, but I’ve tried some Italian sausage and chicken substitutes that I thought were pretty awful. I did learn quickly that you cannot go into eating these products expecting them to taste anything like the meat they are supposed to substitute. They are their own products, kind of like how Taco Bell isn’t really anything close to authentic Mexican flavors.

Most recently, I tried jack fruit. I had heard a lot about this product. My Melanie has raved about it as bbq. I found a recipe for jack fruit and black bean enchiladas on Well Vegan’s site. The recipe had some things I knew our youngest would not eat. I think I have mentioned her aversion to “spicy” and how low that bar can be. So, I adapted the recipe to what I knew I could get away with but took the basic principle of the recipe. I had Melanie and her friend Megan, who is also gluten free, over for dinner. It went over like gangbusters with the two of them. The youngest still didn’t love it, but she didn’t cry or spit it out, so minor victory. And I loved it! We’ll definitely try it again in more recipes.

This definitely inspired me to keep exploring new and exotic meat substitute ideas that are out there. I also just love cooking things I’ve never had before!