'If chicken tikka masala is our national dish and the nation’s health matters, we should be proud to serve its milder, healthier cousins in our National Health Service.'
Prue Leith, the chef and The Great British Bake Off judge, seems like an easy-going, cheerful sort of person, as well as being a formidably good cook, author, entrepreneur and adviser to Government, Now, she is our hospital-food tsar, too.
Institutional cooking is very hard to get right. Miss Leith scored an early success on British Rail when the catering manager explained that they sold nothing but cheese sandwiches – white slice, margarine, sliced tomato, slice of Kraft, cling-film wrap – the nation’s most popular variety. It was a circular argument and she rightly went to town with prawn mayonnaise and salami and all the rest, in a cardboard box.
Something can always be done. At school, we used to queue with our plates for warm vats full of whole tinned tomatoes, leathery flaps that might have been meat or fish in a brittle orange crumb and stews concealing wobbly lumps of fat. Salad was a leaf and a quartered tomato, pudding stodgy, with custard. Some food was reserved for barbarous games, such as slamming boys’ hands down into a tiny pat of butter or flicking rice pudding with a spoon.
Nowadays, school dining rooms are full of salad bars and baked potatoes, like Tebay Service station without salt. Salt is a proscribed substance and even school pasta, apparently, is boiled in pure unadulterated water. I’m not sure I could get through a baked potato without it myself. ‘If the salt have lost its savour,’ as it says in the Bible, ‘wherewith shall it be salted?’
Although Miss Leith is promising to ‘press for real cooking back in hospitals … and that patients get tailor-made diets that fit their medical, ethnic and personal needs’, I’d take the opposite tack if I were tsar.
‘There won’t be any meat or fish; these days, many people happily go vegetarian, on and off, and no one ever got food poisoning from lentils’
Feeding thousands of people is hard. It’s not only that raw meat seeps into the salad and that dirty fingernails and runny noses spread listeria and E.coli wherever food sits around. Trying to feed Patient A with beef stroganoff one day and fish and chips the next as Patient B gets soup and stewed apple is simply too ambitious to do at all well.
Forget tailormade diets. My kitchens would prepare basmati brown rice and cauldrons of dal. If it’s slightly bland, people in hospital often prefer it that way. The more robust can choose from an array of delicious chutneys and condiments, the sort you get with poppadoms in an Indian restaurant: fresh yoghurt, chilli-and-tomato salsa and something gingery, tasty and inoffensive, suitable for everyone’s medical, ethnic and personal needs.
In the morning, patients could choose between, say, porridge or cereal and a Mediterranean breakfast of olives, white cheese, cucumber and a roll. For lunch, a minestrone made with fresh beef stock or a thin miso soup followed by dal and rice and fruit. Traditional English puddings would be served. For tea, scones, cream and jam made by Friends of the Hospital. For supper, lunch all over again.
Rice is suitable for any diet, is gluten free and quite easy to cook. Lentils are good for you. Occasionally, my dal will be made with chickpeas or another kind of lentil – the black ‘beluga’ lentils are especially delicious. There won’t be any meat or fish; these days, many people happily go vegetarian, on and off, and no one ever got food poisoning from lentils.
My menu would save the NHS millions and make a lot of people healthier when they come out than when they went in, which isn’t always the case. People are bound to complain, but my model as hospital-food tsar is not Prue Leith, but Ivan the Terrible.
If chicken tikka masala is our national dish and the nation’s health matters, we should be proud to serve its milder, healthier cousins in our National Health Service. ￼
Writer, historian and chef Jason Goodwin whips up perfect pilaf rice.
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