Cooking Kindly For the Unwell
Though traditionally a time of convivial gatherings and happy feasting, holidays can be hard on those who can’t fully participate. Dietary restrictions, mobility limitations, depression, accidents and other traumas can occur at any time of year, but inabilities may seem more distressing when they bump into expectations about how life should be. This year our social circle includes a number of folks who are not able to enter into festivities as they might wish and I’ve been asked to help devise food that tastes great while meeting a variety of nutritional and physical needs.
Fortunately, I really enjoy this kind of challenge, perhaps because I too have spent a few encumbered holidays. One year, I fractured my jaw a few weeks before Christmas, so when I learned that a dear friend’s face was damaged by an unproved random attack, I was able to offer to make and supply recipes for very soft and/or liquifiable versions of a wide range of holiday treats.
Make It Pretty & Practical
Those no longer able to eat solids will also enjoy these foods, which can be garnished and presented in attractive small dishes. Getting a plateful of slops is never appealing, but little custard cups and ramekins (hopefully all different), decorated with a sprig of mint. a twist or citrus, a scattering of grated cheese, or toasted bread crumbs can appear tasty and choice.
If handling implements is challenging, almost anything from soups to smoothies can be served in a heavy goblet or a pretty wine glass. Several stroke sufferers I know cheerfully drink from kids’ sippy cups, which come in many sizes and colors these days. There are even pottery coffee cup versions with heat resistant, washable sippy caps that are terrific for hot liquids. I found several good-sized baby spoons with looped handles that are less awkward to use than straight handled flatware for those with uncertain grips or pronounced hand tremors.
Cover All The Bases
It’s easy to focus on main dishes, and many desserts are not difficult to re-think, but it’s important to keep something fresh in our daily diets, no matter how restricted. When I was on a liquid diet, I soon craved fresh greens above everything else. After being given a sadly icky “salad soup” that was pureed with a heavy dressing, I figured out that I could coarsely puree lettuces, kale, arugula, and other greens with a variety of liquids, from V-8 juice or buttermilk to vegetable broth or plain water. Though some food elements proved too intrusive in flavor when pureed (notably radishes), I could easily add some softer vegetables like tomatoes and green onions as well as sectioned and peeled citrus, fresh basil, or a bit of thyme.
Instead of cooking more solid vegetables to mush, steam them lightly, then chop finely or puree lightly so there is still a bit of texture without being too difficult to chew. You can use a blender or a food processor to puree and liquify, but my own favorite tool is an immersion blender that you can stick right into a pot of hot soup, rather than transferring hot stuff to a machine. They are also very easy to clean (just dip it in hot soapy water and buzz for a few seconds), a serious bonus! Fresh fruit can of course be pureed into a smoothie with any number of liquids, from real dairy to nut- and grain-based “milks”, but so can vegetables. My kids are fond of blending kale, spinach, and/or bok choy with yogurt and frozen blueberries or raspberries, for instance.
Vegan Green Salad Soup
3 cups mixed greens
1 green onion, thinly sliced
2 cherry tomatoes, chopped
1/2-1 teaspoon dressing (any kind)
1/4 teaspoon nutritional yeast
1 cup vegetable juice blend
Combine all ingredients in a food processor or blender and puree to a coarse slush. Serve cold or at room temperature. Makes about 12 ounces (1 serving).
Savory Salad Smoothie
2 cups mixed greens
1 cup shredded kale
1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil
1 green onion, thinly sliced
1-2 teaspoons chopped walnuts (optional)
1 teaspoon shredded Asiago or any hard cheese
1/2-1 teaspoon vinaigrette
2 cups plain yogurt
Combine all ingredients in a food processor or blender and puree to a coarse slush. Serve cold or at room temperature. Makes about 2 cups (1-2 servings).
Converting Entrees To Slurry Or Soup
Some folks can’t swallow watery liquids but can easily swallow anything that has enough mouth feel. Others may need thicker slurries, while some can handle coarse purees that have more texture. The consistency you aim for will depend on each person’s ability to swallow, but basically, you can make a soup-like version of almost anything.
True, roast chicken or beef are not easily converted unless you have a baby food grinder, but cooked ground meats are generally easy to puree. When converting a portion of, say, lasagna to puree, avoid an excess of noodles, and add a bit more pasta sauce or bechamel or whatever you used in the casserole to thin the solids appropriately. Often, a little broth will yield a more pleasant effect than thicker sauces, which can make for a gummy result.
Brownie & Cookie Ice Cream
Soft brownies may be workable for some folks, but if not, you can make a delicious ice cream version by gently blending brownie crumbs into softened ice cream, which can then be put back into the freezer to set more firmly before serving. The very tasty gluten free brownie mix made by King Arthur works really well for this, and the brownies freeze beautifully too. Any favorite holiday cookie can be similarly treated as well.
Healthy Holiday Pudding
This recipe is amazingly delicious and if you don’t tell, nobody will ever guess how it’s made. For smoothest results, always use boxed silken tofu (other kinds can have a grainy mouth feel). For more holiday flair, serve with whipped cream and a minced candied cherry (if that qualifies as a treat).
High Protein Chocolate Pudding
12 ounces firm silken tofu
1/2 cup unsweetened dark cocoa powder
1-2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1/3-1/2 cup sugar OR maple syrup to taste
Small pinch sea salt (optional)
whipped cream (optional)
1-2 candied cherries, minced (optional)
Combine in a food processor and puree until smooth. Adjust flavorings to taste and chill for an hour or overnight. Blend whipped cream with minced cherries if using. Serve cold or at room temperature. Serves 4-6.
Panettone Bread Pudding
This Italian classic treat is best made a day ahead and refrigerated, unbaked, until all the bread is totally soft and saturated with milk. You can use any kind of nut- or grain-based “milk” but egg substitutes don’t really work very well here. The result is a light, puffy pudding that’s crispy on top but moist and very soft on the inside, so serve folks the bits they can handle best.
Italian Christmas Pudding
20 ounces Italian panettone bread, in 1-inch cubes
6 eggs, lightly beaten
3/4 cup (5.25 oz) sugar
1-1/2 cups (12 oz) heavy cream
1-1/2 cups (12 oz) milk
2 teaspoons real vanilla extract
powdered XXX sugar
Put cubed panettone in a large baking dish, set aside. Whisk together the eggs, sugar, cream, milk, and vanilla and pour over the bread. Chill for 2-24 hours (overnight is good) then preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Bake for 30 minutes, rotate pan and bake for an additional 20-30 minutes or until set and golden. When slightly warm, dust with powdered sugar. Serves 8-12.