The day after we got back from our trip our neighbors asked us if we wanted to grab some pizza and hang out. Temperatures were in the low 70s, and we'd already spent most of the day outdoors--doing yard work, and letting the kids get some much-needed exercise (thirteen hours in the van the day before had made us all feel in need of some outdoor time). But Scott and I both looked at each other and almost laughed.
"No pizza!" we said, in unison. We took a rain check on the pizza, not because we don't like pizza, or didn't want to eat it with our neighbor-friends, but because after five days in a row of eating out, we were both longing for a home-cooked meal. And, we were a little tired of pizza. Pizza is the "safe" food for us when we travel. It's the only easily accessible food L. will eat (the other is vegetarian lo mein), and so when we hit the road for trips we bypass the road-side fast-food places and usually take an exit into some small town somewhere to find a mom & pop pizza shop.
Needless to say, we ate a lot of pizza on our Spring Break trip. Some of it was good, some of it so-so, but at least we always knew L. had eaten at least one regular meal that day. It's challenging enough to figure out healthy ways to feed kids when you're on a trip, but when you throw into the mix one kid who is a non-eater and who has real sensory issues when it comes to food, and also the fact that we're a vegetarian family, then finding food that's healthy and easy-to-please can be a daunting challenge indeed. Most of the cooler food I'd packed, like peanut butter and bread, oranges, carrots, soy milk boxes saved us when it came time for light lunches on the go, but even so, we were all ready for a change by the end of the trip.
The one thing both Scott and I craved when we got home on Thursday was something--anything--featuring beans. Pizza is a good rounded meal for a vegetarian family on a trip, especially if you couple it with a quality salad (not just iceberg lettuce and anemic tomatoes), but at home we rely on bean and rice dishes two or three times/week for the bulk of our complete protein dishes; when we go without for too long we really notice. When we turned down pizza on Friday, I had already put a pan of sweet potato rounds dusted in coarse salt in the oven to roast, and I had a skillet of black-eyed peas simmering on the stove for one of our favorite dishes: Hoppin' John served over brown rice.
Scott and I must have known, deep-down, back when we lived in upstate New York, that some day we'd end up in North Carolina, because the Hoppin' John recipe I use is one of my favorites, adapted from a beloved vegetarian cookbook my mom gave me years ago. It's simple, flavorful, and neatly omits the requisite slab of ham (or pork jaw--yikes!) that most Hoppin' John recipes include. And it's the perfect dish year-round. We ate ours on the screened-in porch, with lots of sliced avocados to garnish, dashes of tabasco sauce, and washed down with some cold beer (the kids, of course, washed theirs down with lemonade...and ice-cream sandwiches for dessert). It was a feast to come home to, and a welcome break from all that pizza.
Vegetarian Hoppin' John
1 cup chopped onions
1 to 2 cloves garlic, minced
1 red pepper, diced
2 cups ripe tomatoes, diced, plus 1/4 cup water OR 1 14-ounce can diced tomatoes with liquid (I usually end up using canned)
1-pound canned black-eyed peas, drained and rinsed
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
Cook a batch of brown rice, set aside.
Heat some canola or vegetable oil in a large skillet. Cook the onion until translucent, and then add the garlic. Saute both until the onion is golden in color.
Add diced pepper, cook until slightly softened.
Add the tomatoes, and salt and pepper. Cook for 3 or 4 minutes.
Add the black-eyed peas, and taste mixture for seasoning. If you need more salt or pepper, add some more. Cover and cook until well-heated through, and some of the moisture has cooked away. You don't want the mixture to be too runny, but not too thick, either.
Serve on top of a bed of brown rice, with any or all of the following garnishes: avocados, sour cream, grated cheese, diced onions, Tabasco sauce, or even shredded lettuce.
I roasted some sweet potato rounds to go with the Hoppin' John. We eat lots of sweet potatoes year round, and they go particularly well with bean dishes. To roast them, just peel two or three sweet potatoes, and cut into thin rounds. Toss them in oil and sea salt and roast them on a baking sheet at 450 for 25-30 minutes, or until they soften and crisp up at the edges.