Curry tofu and vegetable quinoa from Memorial Sloan-
Kettering.One way to understand diners’ needs is to put yourself in their shoes or, better yet, on their diet. Chef Jeff Schack, with Morrison Healthcare Food Services at Norwalk (Conn.) Hospital, did just that.
Schack followed a vegan diet for a month, during which time he learned how to correctly portion plates for customers cutting out all meat and animal products, something Schack had trouble with before going on the diet. Before his body adjusted to the diet change, Schack would pile up extra-large portions of the vegan meals before he felt satisfied.
“Once you get your body used to the change from [no] animal fat, you realize that you don’t have to overdo the plate,” he says. Becoming a vegan gave Schack an awareness of and empathy for vegans’ challenges. After a rough start of missing meat, Schack determined that four ounces of plant protein and two ounces of starch at each meal satisfied his hunger.
“Your body recognizes it is enough food,” Schack adds. “I realized I can give [patients] the right items [to feel full], like portobello mushrooms with some amaranth, and I know they are not going to be hungry.”
Schack serves numerous vegan dishes at Norwalk Hospital, such as stir-fried tofu with mushrooms and vegetables seasoned with cilantro, cumin, ginger, garlic and jalapeño. For a grilled tofu dish, the chef marinates the soybean curd in soy sauce and grills it until charred. He serves the grilled tofu with soba noodles and a very light cherry tomato sauce with zucchini, onions and roasted garlic.
For a Southern dish, Schack prepares hoppin’ John with black-eyed peas, vegetable stock and couscous or rice. The dish is seasoned with peppers, thyme and chipotle to add a little spice.
“I don’t use any of that phony meat made out of tofu,” Schack adds. “I prefer to create my own seitan from wheat gluten and vegetable stock. Seitan is basically a dough that is simmered in vegetable broth. It can be flavored with ginger, garlic, nori or almost anything else.”
Housemade seitan replaces meat in dishes like sloppy Joes.
For a vegan dessert, Schack cooks high-protein adzuki beans, a sweet red variety used extensively in Japanese cooking, in coconut milk until they form a paste that is similar in texture to cream of wheat. A similar rendition works well for breakfast with a dash of cinnamon on top.
Schack learned how to prepare the sweet bean dish from a patient’s mom who was making it and bringing it to the hospital. With a little research Schack found a local produce distributor who sells the beans.
Social Issues: Michael Lemon, vice president of culinary innovations for Chartwells, says two decades ago he was faced with developing more vegan items to feed a then-growing population of dieters. These days Lemon is still updating offerings for diners who don’t eat meat.
“We were talking about how important it was to feed vegans and vegetarians 20 years ago,” Lemon says. “What we’re focusing on now is all food needs to be modernized, sustainable, fresh and local.
“When I say local, I want to be sure customers are familiar with where food is from,” Lemon adds. “Young vegans are vocal that food is grown right and handled right. They want to be sure that the people growing items are [being treated] right.”
In Chicago at a charter school, The Academy for Global Citizenship, Founder and Executive Director Sarah Elizabeth Ippel also places an importance on sourcing what she deems are appropriate ingredients and offering a number of vegan meals.
“We serve vegan dishes to lower our carbon footprint,” Ippel says. “We are also committed to exposing our students to a variety of whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables.”
Among the vegan foods the charter school offers are vegan black bean burgers with a side of kale crisps that are oven roasted and finished with sesame seeds and a tempeh black bean chili that includes kidney beans, orange bell peppers and cumin. For breakfast, the students can start off their day with quinoa cooked like oatmeal that’s augmented with dried cherries, raisins and pecans.
Proactive planning: At Gwinnett Medical Center in Lawrenceville, Ga., Jim Behnke, director of nutrition services, started offering vegan dishes before he received requests to do so because he foresaw the need. Behnke says that since their debut a few years ago, the vegan dishes have been popular and haven’t needed promoting.
“We don’t have people clamoring at our door because we [already offer vegan offerings],” Behnke says. “We took the step proactively.”
Behnke sells about 75 vegan portions on a typical weekday at his 400-bed hospital. He says demand has increased since he started the vegan program a few years ago, when he’d typically sell only a handful of the dishes. One of the most popular vegan entrées at Gwinnett is a grilled tofu kebab, according to Executive Chef Clarence Whitfield.
Chef Pedro Alfaro of Bon Appétit, who oversees a corporation’s dining facilities in Burbank, East Los Angeles and Glendale, Calif., recently developed a vegan pizza. For the dish Alfaro spreads a fava bean purée similar to hummus over pizza dough. He then tops the spread with roasted thinly sliced gold and red beets, which he says resemble pepperoni. Finally, the pizza is seasoned with balsamic vinegar, olive oil, tarragon, parsley and basil.
The beet pizza “has an earthy flavor,” Alfaro says. “It’s different, healthy and very popular.”
While Alfaro is not seeing an increase in vegan diners, he says the biggest trend among his clients is requests for healthful cooking in general. He says most customers view vegan dishes as being healthy.