Have you recently discovered that special aroma wafting overhead as you pass your local senior center? Are you surprised to discover the exotic source of these breezes that leave you wanting to share in the aromatic dishes that are being made? And are you still wondering how to grab a bite of such delicious treats? Or, where to get it?
Here on Cape Cod tolerant and wise administrators are inviting chefs to cook international cuisine with the participation of seniors 65 and older. Our meals are not intended to replace the blander version of “Meals on Wheels” — the national food program that plays an important role in meeting the nutritional and social interaction needs of participants at home or at their local senior centers. But the meals we make do seem to fill the needs of many seniors to help prepare and consume more expensive haute cuisine.
We can thank Governor Deval Patrick and the several townships throughout Massachusetts who help underwrite our efforts and those of other chefs. But we are not alone. Other towns and cities throughout the country are recognizing the culinary needs of older Americans as well.
In Chicago, the New York Times has reported that chefs are serving gourmet meals to the town of Mather, where senior communities are living in $1 Million condominiums near Lake Michigan. Their menus include dishes like Citrus-dressed duck breasts, and vegetables from a cooperative farm in Wisconsin, and house-made gelato. Similarly, aging nuns at the Mercy Circle Retirement center drink fruit -enhanced spa water at “hydration stations” while discussing prices of food sold at the farmer’s markets set up in their courtyards. Food matters and these seniors know it. They feel it. And want to enjoy it in a healthy way.
As the Times points out, baby-boomers from all economic backgrounds are seeking the joy of an array of ingredients that are fresher, and that bring farm ingredients to the table; they appreciate and desire expensive cooking ingredients if possible, and more sophisticated cooking techniques in the food they eat.
This generation of 65 year old baby boomers that is growing at a rate of 8,000 people a day know the difference between mashed potatoes and Potato Anna. They have eaten balsamic vinaigrette and expect more than merely red vinegar and corn oil with iceberg lettuce; and, they have traveled far more than their parents ever did even if they are not living in expensive homes today. As the Executive Director of Mercy Circle in Chicago puts it: “The (nuns) living in nursing homes have traveled and are used to eating at great restaurants. And they are seeking to maximize their choices. Or, as Mark Ozer, 82, a retired doctor puts it: “ A very important part of the issue for elderly people of this generation is choice. (They) are cultured people. They’ve had experience . They are not about to be treated as a herd.”
But the critical question is whether all economic groups can benefit as do the more well to do. Here on Cape Cod the demands of these many groups can also be heard. I hear it in the cooking workshops i give to seniors. Yet I am discovering that cities and towns are limited in how much they can support a population of seniors who are seeking more flavor, more gourmet meals, and more choices. Chefs like myself are also limited in our efforts to deliver meals that push the financial budgets of the centers and the towns that support them beyond the $4 per person standard that Centers have been accustomed to paying. It’s always a challenge to find ways to pinch the budget tighter, or to not expect to make much if any profit in my cooking work for seniors.
But it’s still worth trying to make a difference. One of the ways i do this is by drawing from my social science background having been trained as a Sociologist and Cultural Anthropologist. I have a broader range of choices to find taste where i can find it. For example I introduce students to authentic, inexpensive Chinese meals drawn from different regions of China. My travels throughout Latin America and Europe enable me to choose reasonably priced Latin dishes that seniors enjoy. I can stretch my dollars by using a Weber grill,to cook Paella outdoors which seniors enjoy at a reasonable price. Also, French cuisine becomes less expensive by discussing and preparing Julia Child’s alternative to risotto called Soubisse. My senior students have discovered that “gourmet” can be easy and enjoyable to prepare, not cost prohibitive, and delicious and good for you as well.
Food is important. Cooking gourmet food introduces the reality that food is not just for senior sustenance but for finding and enjoying flavor . It makes life more worthwhile. This becomes even more of a possibility to senior boomers who have come to expect having the ability to make the world a better place. Demonstrating for civil rights and stopping the war in Viet Nam in the 1960’s gave them the confidence that they can make a difference, especially when it’s a personal thing to begin with. It’s a question of “satisfaction” as the Stones would say. We’re all looking for this more than ever the older we become. Better quality and more affordable meals have become goals that are more achievable for everyone.
Below are two short Cantonese recipes that use local ingredients to meet the requirement of cooking and eating healthy and delicious food. Since senior students are involved in participating in the preparation of the meal, doing it on their own becomes that much more feasible and realistic. More of the right choices will assist greater numbers of seniors to eat well even when they eat alone.
I. Cantonese Chicken and Sweet Corn Soup Serves 2-4 plus extra
1 tbsp vegetable oil 4 chicken thighs, deboned and skinned 1 clove Garlic, finely chopped 1 inch of Ginger, peeled and finely chopped 1 tbsp corn flour 8 cups hot chicken stock 1/2 lb Sweetcorn 1 Egg, mixed with lemon juice 1 tsp fresh lemon juice Shredded Spring onions or scallions, to garnish 1 tsp Soy sauce Toasted Sesame seeds, to garnish
1) Blend the corn flour with a little stock. Once completely blended, add to the soup pan with the remaining stock and the sweetcorn. Bring to the boil, stirring continuously and simmer gently for 5-7 minutes.
2) Mix together the egg and lemon juice and slowly trickle
into the soup pan, stirring with a chopstick or fork to form
3) Season to taste, garnish with scallion onions and
toasted sesame seeds, and serve with a drizzle of
soy sauce and soup crackers to taste.
II. Chinese Style Bok Choy and Roasted Red Peppers with Egg Noodles Serves 2-4
Chopped Bok Choy stalks ( similar to other cooking greens like chard or spinach )
1 package egg noodles or Hong Kong Style Pan-Fried Noodles
1 tsp red chile flakes
1 tsp sea salt
1/4 cup plus 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 tsp sherry vinegar
1 tsp red wine vinegar
1 diced shallot
1- To make a vinaigrette, mix together the vinegars and -2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil and set aside- whisk again when ready to add to bok choy and noodles
2- Boil the noodles al dente, drain, taste and toss with 1 tsp olive oil. Cover and set aside.
3- Add diced shallot and chopped bok choy and saute with remaining olive oil.
4- Add the vinaigrette and Add red chile pepper and salt to bok choy and noodles. And taste before serving.
5- Serve warm or room temperature.