Mouths to Feed: Health Food

By Celia Barbour

My friend Frances showed up in my hospital room around noon one day, rosy-cheeked and exuding life. She pulled from her tote bag two Mason jars of chicken stew she had just made and two metal spoons to eat it with. The stew was hot and fragrant, and full of shredded chicken and leeks and chunks of carrot. She sat down in the chair next to my bed, and, as we talked and ate, I felt the stew going into me like a magic spell, or a blessing.

Injury and illness can remove you to a solitary place; sometimes, when things get bad, all you want to do is lie there, very still, and watch the patterns of light on the ceiling while you wait for the painkillers to kick in.

carrots et.alDuring a period of convalescence, food can sometimes feel like your only link back to the world of normal, thriving humanity. Most of the time, it does this job perfunctorily: it gives you energy to keep going and the nutrients your body needs to heal. Plus it’s a source of comfort and familiarity; three meals a day structure the shapeless days.

The food that was wheeled down the hospital corridors and delivered on plastic trays to the rolling table at my bedside was carefully planned to fulfill these functions. I could sense that my meals were designed to be good — to meet precise health guidelines, to satisfy all the check-the-boxes criteria that nutritionists love, to offer just-right amounts of fat and sodium, carbs and protein, calories and fiber. Plus, most of my dinners looked like 1950s coloring-book images of square meals, with meat here, starch there, and vegetables off to the side.

But these hospital meals always left me feeling a bit defeated. Not that they tasted bad. They didn’t, despite all the clichés about institutional cuisine. Even after I was taken off the Jell-O diet, I could always find a few palatable items per tray. But, in the same way that getting good test scores in school doesn’t set you up for a happy, fulfilling or successful life, eating food that’s been carefully calibrated to meet certain nutritional standards doesn’t really nourish you or fill you with vitality.

jarsFeeding one another is a hallmark of our species. Other animals share food with their infants, but after that, it’s every leopard or vulture for himself at the wildebeest. We, on the other hand, feed family, friends, even strangers — and we do it so often we forget that this transaction is predicated on enormous reserves of trust, kindness and goodwill. The food my friends brought to me while I was laid up — in the hospital, or here at home — was infused with tangible doses of generosity and affection. All of it was astonishingly delicious, and it touched and healed me.

Of course, it’s not always necessary to take to the kitchen to nourish someone you love. One evening, my husband, Peter, stopped by with a sack of food he’d bought at City Bakery. Included in it were a container of macaroni and cheese, a falafel sandwich, some fish and salad, and a slice of vegetable tart. He ate everything else; I ate the tart. It was perfect. The crust was buttery puff pastry — utterly unhealthy, but delicious — and it was topped with ricotta and a tumble-jumble pile of roasted radicchio, endive and fennel, with thin curls of pecorino on top. The flavors were strong and joyful, and although it may not have provided all the nutrients I needed at that exact moment, it gave me something else: a reminder of just how delectable the world out there can be.

Basic chicken stew

This is a basic template for a simple stew. You can add any vegetables you like and flavor the broth with herbs — thyme, rosemary, oregano, fennel.

For the broth

2 whole chickens

2-3 large carrots, broken in half

2 celery stalks, broken in half

1-2 large onions, cut in half

3-4 cloves garlic

2 bay leaves

herbs of your choice

salt and pepper

  1. Clean the chickens, removing excess fat and any feathers, and place them in a large pot. Add the other ingredients, fill with water to cover, and place over medium-high heat. The moment the water starts to boil, reduce the heat to very low, so that just an occasional bubble breaks the surface. You want the chickens to stay tender as they poach. Cook, skimming foam that collects on the top, about 40-50 minutes, depending on the size of the chicken.
  2. Using tongs, carefully lift a chicken from the broth and check for doneness (either by wiggling a leg — it should feel fairly loose — or by inserting a meat thermometer into the thickest part of the thigh. It should read 170 degrees.
  3. Set aside the chickens to cool, reserving the broth. When the chickens are cool, remove the meat, shred it and place it in a container in the refrigerator. Add the carcasses back to the reserved broth. Heat to a low simmer; allow to cook at least another hour, and up to 8 hours if you have the time — the longer the bones cook, the more nutrients they’ll leach into the broth. Whenever you decide the broth is finished, strain it to remove the solid matter, then season with salt and pepper to taste.

For the soup

3 large leeks or 4-5 small ones, white and light-green part only

Strained chicken broth (see above)

3-4 carrots, peeled and chopped into ½-inch pieces

3 large potatoes or parsnips, peeled and chopped into ½-inch pieces

1 bag frozen petite peas (optional)

Shredded meat from 2 chickens (see above)

  1. Cut the leeks in half lengthwise and soak in a bowl of cold water for 10 minutes to remove grit. Rinse well, spraying water between leek layers if needed. Cut crosswise into thin pieces and set aside.
  2. In a saucepan, heat the strained broth over medium-high. Add the leeks and carrot pieces and simmer 10 minutes. Add the potato or parsnip and simmer an additional 15-25 minutes or until the vegetables are soft. Add the shredded meat and peas to cook just until heated through.

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