When you turn 70, food takes on a new meaningin your life. Old folks like me really look forward to eating! Our ability to lift, run, and jump seems to disappear, but our taste buds remain intact. Eating gives us something to do three times a day and mealtime, particularly at our independent living center, often involves good conversation or not. Eating is one joy you sit for and only have to lift a fork a few inches. We are fortunate at our place to have a dedicated and experienced cooking staff as well as a serving staff of mostly young people.
BUT there is controversy. The quality of the food offerings is debated constantly and with passion. “The fennel was so hard you couldn’t cut it with a knife. I like fennel. Why can’t they cook it right?” “The Beef was tough on Sunday. If that was tenderloin, I’ll sing in the atrium.” “The chocolate silk pie was delicious.” “My sugar goes through the roof when I eat that.” “Why don’t we have gluten-free cookies?”
Our dining room tables always have a beautiful flower arrangement, a white table cloth and a comment card. About 90 cards are filled out each month concerning the food and service. Many offer praise to the wait staff. Some have a suggestion on how to fix a certain dish or to request an addition to the menu. Only about five or six have a true complaint. But those writing these critical comments are quite serious.
Let’s talk green beans. For some reason our staff doesn.t like to sting beans. Of course, it is boring and time consuming. But this is a valid complaint. Beans need to have the strings removed as do snap peas.
Northern versus southern green beans is a new chapter in the Civil War. I grew up in the south and the green beans were cooked most of the day until my grandmother got a pressure cooker. But she cooked her green beans often with “fatback” and they were cooked. Northern green beans are crisp which means they are not cooked long at all. Sides are taken with considerable passion. The solution was to offer both and keep the count even since there are folks who keep the score.
The most interesting food fight was The Great Spinach War. The benefits of spinach are many. Leafy greens like spinach provide more nutrients than any other food, when compared calorie for calorie. Here are some spinach facts to consider: Many of us older folks appreciate spinach because it is a very nutrient-dense food. It is low in calories yet very high in vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. When you consume this healthy food, you don’t need to worry about your weight-loss diet as you take in abundant, valuable nutrients. This leafy green is an excellent source of vitamin K, vitamin A, magnesium, folate, manganese, iron, calcium, vitamin C, vitamin B2, potassium, and vitamin B6. It’s a very good source of protein, phosphorus, vitamin E, zinc, dietary fiber, and copper. Plus, it’s a good source of selenium, niacin, and omega-3 fatty acids
We love spinach and other leafy greens on our menu given all of these benefits. But how do you cook it? Therein lies the problem. Cooking spinach on the stove top is a fast and easy way to enjoy this dark, leafy green. The recipe can be as simple as sautéing the spinach with garlic in olive oil and topping it with a bit of lemon juice. I always add a pinch of red pepper flakes for some heat. A heartier recipe is with the flavors of cumin, cinnamon, chilies, garlic and ginger. To stir-fry, I heat some sliced or slivered garlic in olive oil, throw in a ton of spinach and stir-fry until hot and wilted. Season it with tamari and a garnish of sesame seeds.
To steam, I wash the spinach leaving water clinging to the leaves. I place it in a large pot over high heat and cover. Don’t walk away — the greens get tender and toothsome when just collapsed from the steam. This happens really fast, 3 to 4 minutes. For me, over steaming separates the moisture from the leaves and results in mushy, gloppy spinach.
Part of the controversy seems to be that some like their spinach mushy. This is not a large crowd, but they are vocal. They also want to forego all of the aforementioned spices. Just pass the vinegar and leave me to my wonderfully cooked mush spinach.
I happen to like my spinach sautéed with olive oil and garlic. This tastes great to me and I can eat a lot of it. But there are some that are concerned about the amount of oil used in the cooking process. One of our residents attended a food committee meeting with a Ziploc container holding something liquid. Turns out it was oil that she had drained from her sautéed spinach. I had to admit that it was a healthy amount. She thought it was vegetable oil, but the chef assured her that it was olive oil. She was happy about that, but still thought the volume was too high. She preferred steamed spinach or a more modest amount of oil.
There are those who claim that that the steamed spinach has not been cooked enough. They contend that it is akin to eating raw spinach. Of course, many of us like raw spinach, particularly in our salads. It is also very good with a little olive oil drizzled over it.
Olive oil is a great oil for cooking. Strong flavored olive oils can be used for frying fish or other strong flavored ingredients. Olive oil has a high smoke point, 410 degrees F, and doesn’t degrade as quickly as many other oils do with repeated high heating. Our chefs use an extra virgin olive oil that has health benefits and wonderful Mediterranean flavor.
There are some myths which have recently circulated about olive oil. Olive oil has been used for thousands of years and is one of the cornerstones of the healthy Mediterranean diet. As far as making a saturated fat, all oil repeatedly heated to very high temperatures such as is done in commercial frying operations will oxidize and hydrogenate to a degree. Virgin olive oil is a highly monounsaturated oil and therefore resistant to oxidation and hydrogenation. Studies have shown oxidation and hydrogenation occurs to a lesser degree in olive oil than in other oils. But in any case, the amount of hydrogenation is miniscule and our chefs would never experience this problem.
Compromise is the name of the game when you’re trying to satisfy two hundred sets of taste buds. The sautéed and steamed are offered on the buffet on alternative dates, but steamed spinach is always available from the kitchen.
Pinto beans are good. Pinto beans are a very good source of cholesterol-lowering fiber, as are most other beans. In addition to lowering cholesterol, pinto beans’ high fiber content prevents blood sugar levels from rising too rapidly after a meal, making these beans an especially good choice for individuals with diabetes, insulin resistance or hypoglycemia. When combined with whole grains such as brown rice, pinto beans provide virtually fat-free, high quality protein. But this is far from all pinto beans have to offer. Pinto beans are also an excellent source of molybdenum, a very good source of folate, and a good source of protein, vitamin B1, and vitamin B6 as well as the minerals copper, phosphorus, iron, magnesium, manganese, and potassium. BUT PINTO BEANS SHOULD NEVER BE SERVED WITHOUT CORNBREAD AND VICE- VERSA.
Corn meal, the basic ingredient of corn bread, is a whole grain. Whole-grain foods contain the bran as well as the germ and endosperm of the fruited grain — and all of the nutrients they contain. Whole-grain foods provide needed fiber for the diet, which not only help regulate bowel movements but also absorb cholesterol and lower blood sugars as they move through the digestive system. A 1-oz. serving of cornbread contains 1.8 g of fiber. And because fiber is not digested, but simply passes through the digestive system, it is filling without adding any calories of its own. Calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, folic acid, folates and vitamins A, B-6 and B-12 are found in corn bread. A generous piece of cornbread has about 150 calories.
Our pintos are always accompanied by cornbread.
I admit that I live to eat. It’s the organizing principal of my days: At any given moment, it’s likely that I have already decided what my next meal will be, and often, even the meal after that. When I look back on a life that has taken some sharp turns here and there, I remember the food that accompanied those new directions, whetting my appetite for change. Other people take photographs, make scrapbooks or remember life’s big moments by what they were wearing. I remember what I ate.
It’s not that I’m a foodie, although I’ve been blessed with some of them in my life—true epicures who can differentiate between merely excellent gazpacho and soup that is out of this world. Nor am I a connoisseur, like the people who can taste the difference between grass-fed and conventional beef with a single bite, or sniff out the difference between Jamaican or Ethiopian coffee beans. I’m just a hungry man who will eat just about anything.
At this point, I’ve stopped judging myself for my food-focus, just as I’ve backed off (at least a little) from my worries about being on the pudgy side. Food, I’ve accepted, is just one way I connect with and orient myself to life. When I get hungry for something new, I indulge. It means I’m ready for a change, looking to add new flavors, textures and experiences to a life that might be feeling a little