Three Weeks of Mostly Vegetarian Dinners (winter, in a pandemic)

If you’re just skimming for some new ideas on what to eat, skip down to the Week One headline.

It’s been a long time since I’ve done one of these posts!  The last time I posted a multi-week menu with fully elaborated details, Lydia was a toothless baby going to childcare while I worked full-time in an office, Nicholas had just turned ten years old and was going to school, Daniel was cooking dinner almost every night from a menu I planned, and about once a week we went to a restaurant or party.  We’re living very differently now!  Even my most recent really real-life meal plan, showing the actual sheet of paper on which we scribbled ideas for some of our meals over the course of seven difficult weeks, was almost five years ago….

Now Lydia is six and a half, Nick is sixteen, and we’re all home all day every day while the kids log into distance learning and Daniel and I are underemployed–which is fortunate because we’re available to supervise the kids and to plan and cook and clean up after more homemade meals than ever before, while minimizing the number of stores we visit and frequency of shopping trips.

We have not eaten in a restaurant in eleven months.  We did not get any take-out or delivered food for the first five weeks after the pandemic shutdown, until we’d seen multiple sources reporting that prepared food and food packaging do not spread coronavirus.  I was sick that entire time, but somehow we muddled through and even managed to celebrate the spring holidays with some special food–although it was different from the celebrations we’d normally have with relatives and church.  Even now, we’re getting take-out less often than we used to go to restaurants, because having fewer places to go gives us more opportunity to cook.

Our system of planning our dinner menu a week at a time, on Wednesday because that’s the day we get our farm share (from June through October), and writing our plan on a paper posted on a kitchen cabinet, continues to work well . . . when we do it.  In the past five years, who’s responsible for menu planning and who’s responsible for cooking have blurred, as my longtime job ended and I’ve had periods of unemployment, two full-time office jobs that lasted less than a year each, freelance work, and a stint of Census enumeration.  Daniel said he wanted to do less cooking and be more involved in planning; that’s worked out better some weeks than others.  Sometimes we’ve gone several weeks in a row figuring out the dinner plan one day at a time, using our well-stocked pantry and freezer for inspiration.

One change we’ve made during the pandemic is that we now cook chicken sometimes.  We still eat a lot of vegetarian meals, but during the period of total abstinence from restaurants and school lunches, both kids begged for chicken!  They certainly need plenty of protein and iron: Nick may have reached his final height, but he’s very thin; Lydia is growing rapidly.  Lydia no longer likes beans or nuts or eggs or cheese in most contexts, so that really cuts back on the vegetarian proteins we can serve her, although it doesn’t stop the rest of us from eating those things.  She does like fish and tofu.

So, now we make chicken once every week or two, fish a little more often, and the rest of our meals are vegetarian.  Here’s what we ate for dinner for three weeks in January, beginning with a meal anyone can make!

Week One:

  • Thursday: Breaded chicken strips baked from frozen, crescent rolls from a can, Brussels sprouts from frozen, fruit cocktail from a can.  American food!  Just take it out of packages and follow directions!  I chose this menu in response to Nick’s complaints that I “never make normal food,” and he happily agreed that this was a normal dinner.  The chicken and rolls were supposed to bake at the same temperature for almost the same time, so that was easy, and then since I had the oven on anyway, I roasted the sprouts rather than steaming them; I rolled them in olive oil, salt, and granulated garlic.  Starting from frozen, the sprouts took a few minutes longer than the chicken.
  • Friday: Baked salmon.  Roasted broccoli and cauliflower, from frozen, seasoned like the Brussels sprouts.  Leftover rice.
  • Saturday: Tart & Tangy Baked Beans from the recipe in The Moosewood CookbookPumpkin Bread made with the last of the butternut squash from last year’s farm share–we had baked all our squashes in November, made pumpkin pie (technically squash pie, but that doesn’t sound as tasty) for Thanksgiving, and packed away the rest of the purée in handy portions to freeze for later use.  This meal was a lot of work but resulted in 2 quarts of beans and 3 loaves of bread, so it went on beyond this dinner to give us plenty of lunches plus some pumpkin bread for snacks and breakfasts!  (Lydia had leftover salmon instead of beans.)
  • Sunday: Veggie burgers, the purchased frozen kind; we had 3 flavors, so Daniel made each of us the kind we wanted.  He also cooked homemade French fries, starting from whole potatoes.  (They were delicious, but boy do I wish we had a stove vent fan!!  That’s one of the top priorities when we get our kitchen renovated after the pandemic.  It is no fun having the window wide open in January, and even that didn’t dispel all of the greasy smoke!)  We also had tomato slices on our burgers because I just couldn’t resist when I saw them on sale on Thursday…but winter tomatoes tend to be disappointing, and waiting three days between buying and eating them does not improve them.
  • Monday: Spaghetti with Marinara Sauce left over from the big batch I made for our Christmas dinner of Stuffed Shells.
  • Tuesday: Our menu paper says, “sandwiches w/avocado.”  I don’t remember what else anybody else put in their sandwiches.  Mine was Notcho Nocheez, a locally-made vegan product that is mostly almonds, red peppers, and nutritional yeast flakes blended into something that’s supposed to substitute for nacho cheese dip.  It is nothing like cheese, but it is tasty enough, in my opinion.  (Nobody else in the family likes it.)  It’s sort of like hummus.  It’s okay as a dip for corn chips, but I think its best use is in a toasted sandwich with some vegetable, in this case avocado on a tortilla.
  • Wednesday: Baked tofu, steamed broccoli (from frozen), and rice.  Lydia really likes tofu baked in soy sauce and sesame oil.  She likes it so much that I’ve decided it’s best to bake two pounds of tofu at once so we have some left over for her lunches.  As I started preparing this meal, I realized we were very low on sesame oil and didn’t have a spare bottle, so I made one pan the usual way and the other pan with oyster sauce and avocado oil.  Lydia liked both flavors so much that she made me a First Place Cooking award!

Week Two:

  • Thursday: Soba noodles with stir-fried spinach and red peppers and Spicy Peanut Sauce.  (Lydia ate only a few bites of vegetables, then asked for leftovers from the night before.)
  • Friday: Pasta with mushroom cream sauce and peas.  Nick loves a creamy sauce, and we all like mushrooms a lot!  Peas are convenient because, even if they’re frozen, you don’t have to cook them separately.  I don’t use a recipe, but here’s the general procedure: Cook pasta.  Meanwhile, dice mushrooms and cook them in a saucepan over medium heat with some olive oil, butter, salt, and pepper.  When they darken in color, mix in the peas.  When the peas are thawed and mushrooms are reduced in volume (they get smaller as the water cooks out), drop in a glob of cream cheese and a glob of sour cream, and stir constantly until melted and thoroughly mixed.  Add broth (I mix up some of the powdered vegetable broth we buy from the co-op bulk section); season with salt, black or white pepper, oregano, and tarragon; turn up heat until it’s bubbling, then turn down and simmer for a few minutes.
  • Saturday: Daniel made Cuban sandwiches for himself, Nick, and me because we had both ham and turkey slices (the kids occasionally ask me to get sandwich meat for their distance-learning lunches) as well as sourdough bread.  Lydia asked for a tortilla pizza instead: black olives from a can, a couple mushrooms from the bag that was mostly for Monday dinner, provolone cheese, and marinara sauce on a flour tortilla, baked in the toaster oven.  Apples were the side dish for everyone.
  • Sunday: Vegetarian potsticker dumplings from Costco.  More apples.
  • Monday: Baked potatoes, roasted red peppers and onions, and sautéed mushrooms, with nutritional yeast flakes added to each portion as desired.  The way to make this meal come out right is to scrub the potatoes, stick them in the oven and turn it on, cut up the peppers and onions and put them in pans with oil and put them in the oven, and then cut up the mushrooms and cook them.  You’ll have to divert yourself from the mushrooms to stir the peppers and onions every 10 minutes and take them out before they burn, but everything will be ready at approximately the same time!
  • Tuesday: Daniel asked me to make a “Mexican casserole” and was very happy when it came out almost exactly like he wanted, so now it’s a recipe!  (Of course, Lydia didn’t like it because of the beans and cheese, but we gave her some leftovers.)  I also made Cinnamon Apples because some of the apples in the bag I’d bought on Thursday were bruised and were now starting to go bad–I just cut out the icky parts and cooked the rest.
  • Wednesday: Masoor Dal, rice, and yogurt.  (More leftovers for Lydia.)

Week Three:

  • Thursday: Our menu planning had been interrupted, so I went to the store with only a partial plan…and I noticed a sale on fresh cauliflowers, so I bought two.  I roasted them with olive oil and garlic, and meanwhile I cooked some whole-wheat couscous and warmed up the leftover mushrooms.  Some of us added nutritional yeast flakes.
  • Friday: Take-out sushi from Atarashi.  Nick drove us over there as his driving practice for the day and wound up with quite a challenge, as a lot of people were picking up from various restaurants at dusk and simply wandering into the street in random places rather than going to the crosswalk and waiting for the walk signal!  It was nerve-wracking but very good practice of visual attention, braking, and temper control….
  • Saturday: Fish sticks (still one of Lydia’s favorite foods), hash browns, and roasted Brussels sprouts.  The previous Wednesday, when Nick and I were arguing again over how he repeatedly says, “There’s no food in the house!” when we have tons of food and he can’t even articulate what it is he’d like to be eating…at one point he suddenly ranted about how he had put “hash browns” on his list of things he’d like to have with lunch, at the beginning of the school year, yet more than five months later I had not bought any frozen hash browns!  Well, that was because I had thought he wanted me to make hash browns (which I did, at least once), but I told him that if he wanted frozen pre-fried patties of grated potato, I could get those–and, indeed, I bought a 20-pack at Aldi the very next day, so there!
  • Sunday: Creamy Tomato Soup from The Novice Chef’s Panera copycat recipe (but with dried basil instead of fresh, no red pepper flakes, and homemade croutons from bread heels) and grilled-cheese sandwiches on sourdough bread.  This was so good we didn’t at all regret not getting take-out from Panera, which would have been cold by the time we got it home, and anyway we’ve heard they raised their prices….  We think the croutons are essential, and this batch came out really well; I used a little smoked paprika.
  • Monday: Baked tofu with rice again, but this time I stir-fried frozen spinach with bits of green onion (I’d bought a bunch of those for upcoming enchiladas) and mixed up a gochujang sauce, so it was kind of like Bee Bim Bop although we didn’t have all the ingredients.  Lydia wanted her tofu and rice separately (soy sauce on the rice) and an orange instead of spinach.
  • Tuesday: Daniel made tuna salad sandwiches for himself and the kids.  I ate leftovers, as there were many to choose from!
  • Wednesday: Enchiladas, or actually a layered casserole containing all the ingredients of cheese enchiladas, because I find it too difficult to roll them up.  See below for digressive rant about this recipe.  Lydia does not like enchiladas because “too much cheese,” so I put together a variety plate for her with leftover sautéed mushrooms (from last Monday, but they were still good!), cauliflower (from Thursday), and Brussels sprouts (from Saturday).  She liked the variety and ate quite a bit.

Visit Hearth & Soul for more great ideas on what to eat and other things to do while staying safe at home!

I will now take a moment to address the topic of Ree Drummond.

This comes up far more often than it should, in my opinion.  (It does relate to enchiladas, eventually; bear with me.)

Yes, I am a graduate of Bartlesville High School in Oklahoma.  No, I do not know Ree Drummond.  She is four years older than I am.  I never heard of her until her blog, The Pioneer Woman, became extremely popular about a decade ago and people started asking me about her.  (The thing about moving far away from Oklahoma is, whenever something happens in Oklahoma, people will be eager to ask how it affects you, because they don’t know anyone else from Oklahoma.  The way I first heard about the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 was that someone grabbed my arm and demanded urgently, “Is your family okay?!”  Yes, they were, but jeez, what a way to greet someone first thing in the morning!)

It’s fine with me if a person builds a media empire upon her lifestyle.  I’m sure she works hard; good for her.  Probably nobody is asking her if she knows me, but I never wanted to be the focus of a cult of personality or to have “I’m from Bartlesville” as a part of my personal branding [oww, who wants to be branded?!] so that’s okay.

But she’s not a pioneer!  She grew up in a house near the country club in town, then married into the fourth generation of a well-established ranching family; she didn’t forge into some unexplored territory and bravely survive three years without a trip to the supermarket, or anything of the kind.  It really bothers me that people all over the world, and web searches, now think The Pioneer Woman means her instead of the monument and museum celebrating real pioneer women!

Anyway.  My son Nick was amused by how often people at social gatherings would ask me about Ree Drummond, and eventually he started watching some of her videos in an ironic sort of way.  About a year ago, he asked me to make cheese enchiladas, which we liked to eat in restaurants but had never made at home, and sent me a link to Ree Drummond’s recipe for them.  Although I feel a mite grouchy about her, the fact that so many people love her cookbooks must mean she’s got some tasty recipes that are well written, so I was happy to give it a try….

It’s important to note that this link was not to her own website but to Food Network’s publication of one of her recipes.  I do not blame Ree Drummond for the terrible presentation of this recipe that made it so confusing.  The crucial fact that is unclear in the recipe as presented is that you’re making enough enchilada sauce for three batches of enchiladas, but you’re only making the filling for one batch.  They had the sauce recipe and enchilada recipe all mixed up together and then broken into “steps” that didn’t make sense; I was supposed to be assembling enchiladas using the sauce when the sauce wasn’t ready yet!

I regret texting my son, “REE DRUMMOND CAN BITE ME!!!”  As I acknowledged after dinner, an author does not always have full control of how her work is presented by a publisher, and I don’t want to be bitten.  I was just frustrated and hungry.

Now that I understand the recipe and have rewritten it for our recipe binder in a format we can follow, it is a good recipe that I’ve made several times now.  In the first round, it takes quite a bit of work and time to make the sauce, grate cheese and mix filling while the sauce is simmering, and then put all the ingredients together and bake it.  But then you put two pints of sauce into the freezer, and if you bought a large package of corn tortillas you put the leftover ones into the freezer, and maybe you even grated extra cheese and froze it…so the next time you want to make enchiladas you just thaw stuff and buy a pint of sour cream and some green onions (or you can even use regular onions, but you want to cook them a bit before mixing them in, unless you really like the flavor of raw onions), and you can get it all set up in the pan before the oven finishes pre-heating!

I highly recommend putting it together like lasagna–an “enchiladasagna”–rather than trying to roll wet tortillas around globs of cheese.  Sauce, then tortillas, then cheese filling; repeat until you’ve topped the last filling with sauce and tortillas, then put plain grated cheese on the very top.  Delicious!

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