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.

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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!

The decision to become vegetarian or vegan

Kids are stubborn. Duh, right? I’m sure I’m not the only one who has tried to argue reason with an 8 year old and wound up wanting to just bang my head on the table. The amazing little humans can in one argument sound totally reasonable and come up with completely rational arguments and then in the very next discussion argue that fairies really exist even though they can provide no reasonable evidence with ardent passion.

So my reason for dwelling on this stubbornness was inspired by a little girl who looked to be about 5 years old. I was getting out of my car next to one of my favorite neighborhood restaurants, Rockwell’s, and a family was sitting on the patio. The little girl was saying “Would you like it if someone killed you? So, why do we kill animals just to eat them?” By the response, her parents were obviously not vegetarians. But the simple logic just struck me.

Now, I’m not a vegetarian, and I don’t judge if you choose to eat meat or not eat meat or if your diet consists of candy bars, for that matter. However, it made me think about my girls and the various dietary habits we have cycled through over the years. My Katie, who now is a complete omnivore for the moment, decided to be vegetarian when she was about 8. As a non-vegetarian family, we accommodated this by experimenting with vegetarian dishes or by providing alternative proteins such as beans or tofu if we were having a meaty main dish. This lasted about a year.

Then a few years ago, Katie and Melanie both decided to go vegan. Katie’s stint here was short lived. She then decided to be pescatarian. That lasted until recently. About a year ago, she slowly started adding meats back into her diet. Melanie has remained dedicated to being vegan, despite the occasional reminiscence about meat dishes she once loved.

But the thing is, they came these decisions on their own. No one told them what their food choices would be. I provided the food I like in life until they asked for something different, and then I have tried to accommodate wherever I can so that we can enjoy meals together.

Now, our youngest is 9 and a vegetarian. However, she was born to two practicing vegetarians. Her mother is still vegetarian. However, her father went back to eating meat a couple years after she was born and I am a total meat eater. She’s very insistent that she’s a vegetarian. Now, as with our other girls, I totally respect her right to choose. I would just argue that she has not yet made that choice. Her current vegetarian diet is more a result of that childish stubbornness we all know and love and less a choice. Someday, I am confident that she will make a conscious choice about this issue, and I look forward to seeing how that plays out. But for now, I do enjoy challenging her rationalizations on the issue. (Don’t worry, I don’t challenge them by not offering her as much good, healthy, vegetarian food as I can!)

With each of the girls and each of their experiments toward discovering their dietary decisions, I like to ask questions and challenge the rationale. For example, if you aren’t willing to eat an animal but you take no issue with animal made products, this is a questionable position. Also, I never understood the rationale of eating fish but not other animals. Or if the issue is that you have a problem with animal cruelty, are there alternative decisions such as being conscious of where the meat is from and just avoiding those parts of the industry that practice methods you consider cruel. Or one of my favorites with the little one, if you say you don’t want to kill animals but you are willing to flood the world with ocean-life killing glitter.

Now, depending on at what age you are having these conversations, obviously the rational quality of the conversation may vary. However, it can be fun and stimulating as long as handled in a “explain your side to me” open way and not an “I’m right, you’re wrong” manner. Does it help them decide? I don’t know. I think they eventually develop a set of ideas and beliefs based on the totality of their experiences in life. I think I’m part of that totality, but only a small part. But either way, it’s been a fun and interesting journey so far.

Instant Pot

An acquaintance told me about her Instapot recently. It definitely sounded like something I would love to try out. Luck would have it that the husband and I stumbled onto a Macy’s going out of business sale and there was an Instant Pot (not the “Instapot”, another brand). This has to be one of the most amazing inventions ever.

First, you can do all the things. Think one pot meal and this is your best friend. You can saute, slow cook, steam, warm, pressure cook…I mean the thing specifically has a risotto setting! Also, unlike most other kitchen gadgets you find, this one can eliminate other items in your kitchen! I’m going to keep my crockpot, but I COULD get rid of it.

The first thing I made with the Instant Pot was my risotto. I was skeptical, but it came out awesome. The best part was that the risotto normally takes over and hour and I’m stuck standing over a hot boiling dutch oven for most of the time. While the work out to my arms is awesome, it’s also exhausting. In the Instant Pot, I sauteed the shallots, wine, garlic and rice, and then just added my saffron, salt, pepper and vegetable stock. I set the pot in the steam function for 20 minutes. The risotto was awesome!

As weird as it sound, I love the Instant Pot for making pasta. It’s really the equivalent of one pan as far as dishes are concerned, so while it sounds like too much for such a simple dish, it’s worth it. The pasta comes out perfectly done. I’ve done a recipe where you make the sauce first and add the pasta and steam. I’ve also done pesto by cooking the pasta in the pot and adding the pesto after it’s done to the hot pot. In both cases, the pasta was delicious.

My next adventure is going to be chicken. I have some chicken thigh thawed and I’ve found several good looking recipes online. I don’t think I’m going to use one of the recipes, but I will use some ideas I got from them. I’m thinking of a garlic, onion and white wine chicken preparation. I’ll try to remember to update you on how it came out!

Pesto Experiments

It turns out that while, yes, the classic pesto sauce we all think of is basil, garlic, olive oil, pine nuts and Parmesan, you can make many varieties of pesto. I mean, we all know this because we’ve seen them on various menus or in jars at the grocery store, but I hadn’t really thought of experimenting with them.

However, the other night, we were out at Pasta Passion, a new place in the neighborhood, and a member of our party had the Genovese pesto, which was made with walnuts…I think. So I made a basic basil pesto, but instead of pine nuts, I used ground almonds. It came out delicious. There’s definitely a flavor difference because pine nuts have their own particular taste, but it was good. I am super curious to try it with walnuts!

You can also make pesto from a ton of other things. I learned from one of my beloved cookbooks, East Like a Gilmore, that all you need is 1) an herb or vegetable, 2) a nut or seed, 3) cheese, and 4) oil. Most people stick with olive oil, though I have seen some recipes with avocado or grape seed oils. Just use an oil you would eat as a salad dressing.

For herbs, you can stick with basil or use cilantro or mint. Anything that has that same texture profile works. Or, you can use a vegetable like sun dried tomatoes or roasted red or yellow peppers. If you want an Italian flavor, Parmesan is good, but so is Asiago or Romano. But you can go a little Mexican or Greek using cotija or feta. You just want a cheese that is a little harder like the texture of Parmesan. And you can add to these four basic ingredients, if you want for a little sweetness, a little honey. If you want a little spice, jalapenos or red pepper flakes.

Anyway, there are no rules for pesto. Feel free to experiment with flavors you love. Your family is nothing if not your own little focus group. I have to avoid the spicy, but I think I could do almost any other crazy combination of the above basic four categories and throw it on pasta, and my kids would all eat it. But we’ll see…in any case, trust me that it is worth it to make your own pesto. Nothing in the store will ever compare, and it’s super easy. Check out my basic Pesto Sauce recipe.

Penne with Vodka Sauce

Yes, the blog title sounds like a recipe. And the recipe can be found on my recipe page. However, penne with vodka sauce is more of a bonding experience with my daughter Katie.

The first time I tried to make this dish was a total disaster. No one, not either of my daughters or their father would eat it. This wasn’t one of those things where people politely pretend to eat it or peck at it. It was terrible. The sauce was so bad that I heard about it for more than a decade after that awful dinner episode. It took years before Katie would even try vodka sauce in a restaurant. She discovered, as we all suspected or knew, that it was her mother and not the dish itself that was to blame for that traumatic dinner experience.

A year or so ago, I decided to try this dish again. This time, I used Anthony Bourdain’s recipe. It was fantastic. Since then, my Katie has periodically requested this dish and, between the story and her love of the dish itself, this has become more of a bonding experience than just a simple dinner.

I recently acquired an instant pot, and there will be an entire separate post on that soon, but I tried making the penne with vodka sauce in it. It was a raving success. And it combined my love of experimenting with cooking with being totally lazy. Throw all the stuff in a pot and see what happens. Add a couple of ingredients and serve.

The best part about making the dish in the instant pot is that I got to just hang out with my daughter, who is going off to college soon, for a half hour and just chat. And when it was ready, we had a classic Italian dinner on the patio with great conversation!

Oops, I totally botched dinner!

I love to cook. I pride myself on being an excellent home cook. I can cook lots of different cuisines, though Asian has mostly alluded me. I am working on that one. But last week, I totally botched the easiest possible dinner. I had purchased a couple of bags of frozen pasta dishes from Trader Joe’s. This is an easy dinner, right? All you have to do is heat and eat. Somehow, I messed that up, and it worked out great!

I steamed cauliflower to go with the pasta, which was a basic tomato sauce penne type dish. We had cauliflower, and it was going to go bad if not cooked soon. I normally roast it, but it was hot out, and I try not to run the oven. The cauliflower turned out to be the star of the evening.

We sit down to dinner and start to dig in, and the pasta is cold. I cooked it for more than the recommended times. It looked warm. The bowl felt warm. But I didn’t try it before putting it on the table. (All the Food Network judges would be cringing about that one.) I don’t mean it wasn’t quite warm enough. It was cold. It was like I took it out of the refrigerator and put it on the table. But here’s the good part. The sauce was also spicy. It had a zing that I knew the youngest kid was going to be extremely “anti” about. But because it was cold, that never came up. She ate all her cauliflower and then had two more helpings. She claimed she just didn’t really like cold pasta.

I seriously did some victory laps here. Don’t get me wrong. She eats cauliflower. She loves cauliflower and pretty much most vegetables. Getting her to eat a veggie you put in front of her is not a problem. But she also is a breaditarian. She would take pasta, bread of any ilk, and rice, over all other foods. We struggle to make sure she isn’t just carb loading on a daily basis. I messed up pasta in a way that made it so that she ate it like it was the side and devoured the veggies and fruit. I am calling that a big win.

Sometimes we all really mess up dinner. I could tell you some stories about my early days of cooking. But sometimes, a mistake leads to a victory or a great work of art, so we shouldn’t beat ourselves up. Also, as a side note, never trust the package instructions. Taste your food, even if it wasn’t your own creation before putting it on the plate!