“The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking you've got to have a what-the-hell attitude.” ― Julia Child

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Hospital Food, And Other Delights

Of all the food in the world, the food that gets more criticism than most, bar maybe prison food, is hospital food. And in my experience, deservedly so. Of all the times I have had reason to spend time in a hospital bed, the food has been uniformly dire. Those times were in the United States, but it seems the problem is worldwide. However, we are not here to talk about food you get given when you're in hospital and sick - we are here to talk about food you get when you purchase it from a hospital café or restaurant. There were times in the past I have had occasion to do so - when wife #1 or wife #2 were having babies, for example, or when Mum was having her gallbladder out. One gets peckish and seeks out nourishment on the premises. This can range from the giant snack machine in the little room opposite the cafeteria when it's closed late at night at Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville, Georgia which has a bewildering array of terrible food ranging from pre-packaged burgers and hot dogs and Southern specialities such as sausage biscuits which are all reheatable and taste like plastic when hot, to multivarious varieties of chips and snacks, not one of which is on any dietician's shopping list, to the sublime cafe at the Children's Hospital in Seattle where I once had the pleasure of attending an all-day American Sign Language Seminar which involved learning how to sign the song "Sixteen Candles" for some obscure reason.

Today I had the pleasure of my Sister's company once again as she needed some help with a few errands she had to run and so I was rewarded for my neighborly deeds with lunch at the William Harvey Hospital in Ashford, not the funnest place to go to, I grant you, but one which brought back memories, although the only bits I really recognized were hazy recollections from the times I had previously visited, such as the time when I got my pinky finger crushed in a door hinge, the time of the aforementioned gallbladder removal of my mum, and my son being born in 1990. So it had been almost twenty years when I walked through the sliding doors. A lot of remodeling has occurred and only the corridors looked the same. We were there to meet with my Sis's fiancé and we had some time to kill (sorry, poor choice of words there), so we went to the "Spice Of Life" restaurant in the basement, sorry, the lower ground floor, towards the back of the hospital. The odd thing is that you follow the signs to the restaurant and when you get there, you enter it through a door marked "Pharmacy". Naturally I was a little trepidatious, but it was OK, there appeared to be a normal cafeteria-style restaurant behind the doors, with tables that had people sitting and eating happily and quietly, and the whole place looked nice and clean. There was one counter with hot dishes on offer such as cottage pie (a.k.a. shepherd's pie in some circles), with some veggies, lasagna on the next section, and at the end, baked potatoes and various sides. On the next counter there were freshly made baguettes to be had which were available with various fillings such as prawn mayonnaise, tuna salad and egg mayonnaise (known in the USA as egg salad) among others.
There was a dairy case with ready-made sandwiches, juices, yogurts etc., there were various snacks and crisps, fresh fruit, candy bars, granola bars, a cafe counter which served coffee and tea, and a case with Powerades and Coke etc. Nothing too extraordinary about that except the low prices - £2.80 for a serving of lasagna, for example - which was a big selling point to me. I plumped for a baguette with 2 fillings which was a little over £3.50, which was made to order for me, and it must have been near 12 inches long, a nice crusty brown baguette filled with prawn mayo and egg salad, topped with shredded lettuce. Not at all bad. All in all, as hospital caffs go, this wasn't too shabby.

When I got home I was greeted as I walked in by lovely cooking aromas wafting from the kitchen. Wasn't sure what it was but I knew I liked it. When I asked Mum what was cooking she just grinned and said "Something you haven't had in a long time." As we had had roast chicken recently, the remains of which had been in the fridge this morning, I deduced, correctly as it turns out, that we were about to eat Mum's famous chicken casserole. It's more of a stew consistency really, but we just always called it a casserole. These days you say the word casserole and folks immediately think of something that is baked in a 9 x 13 Pyrex dish and holds together in a big chunk when spooned out. This is wetter than a casserole and is probably best served on a plate that has a good lip on it or a shallow bowl with a decent rim, or even a pasta bowl. A taste of childhood, invented by Mum many moons ago when presented with the leftovers of a chicken and some veggies and the task of coming up with something for our tea. Many people, myself included, have made casseroles and soups and stews from leftovers and a few on-hand items from the cupboard, and this one is a flavour that will stay with me till the day I die. And when I get to heaven (if that is where I end up - after all, nobody really knows whether there is a heaven or not but let's not open that can of worms) and nobody knows how to make this casserole I will have to teach them, that is, if Mum hasn't done so already. Do you want to know what's in it? I will tell you, but as to the exact recipe, you're on your own.
Mum uses a covered oval enamelware roasting pan/casserole. This is what has always worked out best. She debones the leftover chicken and puts that in there with some onion, and some Campbell's soup, usually Cream of Mushroom, but sometimes Cream of Chicken. I have on occasion used Cream of Celery or Cream of Onion to good effect. Some water, obviously, (or liquid of some sort) because you're going to cook this with the lid on for a while to get it good and hot and bubbly. There are also some baby carrots and sometimes peas, and it is always served with roast potatoes - the crispier the better. I have no measurements, but I'm sure if you play with it you'll come up with something close. If you put the casserole in at the same time as your spuds, you'll get a good hot casserole, which shouldn't be soupy, but more like a gravyish consistency - pourable, but not watery. Deliciousness.


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