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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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!

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!

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.