Spice In Twilight

Chef Jesse Varela, representing Morningside Ministries Menger Springs campus in Boerne, serves New Zealand lamb chops, strawberry and feta spring-mix salad, and baklava to residents and visitors during Morningside Ministries’ 45th-anniversary celebration.

Convention and clinical wisdom sadly seem to coincide in the assessment that we lose appreciation for food as we age - a contention most food critics would deny vehemently, of course. Clinicians further contend, however, that it's not the sense of taste that diminishes, but rather the sense of smell, which is a critical component of taste. This in mind, the folks who run Morningside Ministries' three senior-care communities decided to put to the test newly created recipes for seniors, designed to emphasize herbs and other aromatics. This was gutsy of them, for not only did they let critics in the door, they were also serving to the residents of Morningside Ministries at The Meadows, a group likely to be as critical as any professed professional.

I was loaded for bear, as my mother had just spent some time in such a facility - and the food was her biggest complaint. Bedridden, she had the anticipation of three meals a day to break the routine, and I found myself sneaking back to her home to make dishes such as lentil salad with alder-smoked bacon and wild salmon with fresh tarragon and Washington reisling to compensate for shepherd's pie that consisted of a dab of mashed potato with some stew-like stuff on top. Not that shepherd's pie is ever truly exciting.

Yet I couldn't get any Morningside residents to 'fess up. According to Natalie Ackerman, the facilities already offer "very good soups, especially tortilla and potato," and though "fish and chicken get served a lot, there aren't too many repeats." They keep track, these seniors.

Fish and chicken were both on the evening's menu, as it happens, and the salmon with a creamy leek sauce was a repeat - though just from lunch, and as a way of proving that these recipes were not just for show. Meadows chef Gary Young, who most recently cooked for the priests at Little Flower Basilica (and briefly before that at Pesca), allowed that cooking for independent-living seniors means few restrictions, and his leek sauce, which includes not inconsiderable amounts of butter and heavy cream, bore that out. (This was not billed as a restrictive dietary event, I should mention.)

The sauce was good, but Young's Italian pasta timbale with a lusty Chianti vinaigrette most exemplified the evening's ultra-aromatic theme - with blanched leek serving as the molded shell and Greek olives, capers, oregano, and garlic adding punch to a ravioli filling.

Chefs from Morningside Meadows serve salmon with leek sauce and creme brûlée to residents and visitors.

There is an adjacent assisted-living facility at The Meadows where certain dietary restrictions may apply, but The Meadows' dining room is now being run "more like a restaurant with continuous hours" according to Young. It's this feeling of choice and independence that residents such as Helen Austin appreciate. Austin wheelchairs over from assisted living on occasion, though she admits to liking the meatloaf at her own facility. This stately woman, whose mother was a "cateress" and whose husband "cooked well, too," has nothing but praise for the dining room's chicken and vegetables, daily menu options, and quick service. Seniors may not yet have cottoned to the fact that they could be enjoying their food even more, but they do appreciate variety and promptness.

The dietary gurus nevertheless may have a point - for all of us, for that matter - when they encourage the use of herbs to heighten flavor and stimulate the appetite, but they're forgetting (or at least not mentioning) another very important aspect of gustatory pleasure: the visual presentation. Formal displays of plated, full-size entrées from each facility, and impressive tinted and carved fruit and vegetable "flowers" at the Menger Springs serving table drove home the point that we also eat with our eyes. Derek de la Vega, of the upscale facility near Boerne, says that the Sunday buffets are especially elaborate, in the manner of hotel carving stations. Menger Springs' carved rack of New Zealand lamb with mint chimichurri sauce and a demi-glace was as attractive as any I've seen. (It also needed the fresh mint that appeared on the demo plate, but that's a minor point.)

Presentation and seasoning may go hand in hand, then, and Morningside seems to have both down to a creative science. There was just one little glitch: "Where did those plates come from?" said one resident. "I've never seen those before!" OK, they may have cheated a little bit in the presentation. A word to the wise: Seniors don't lose their critical faculties along with their sense of smell. They still notice everything.


Clean four leeks well, cutting off most of
the green and the root end. Slice in half
lengthwise to facilitate cleaning under running
water; cut in half again, then julienne
lengthwise. Sauté the following ingredients
in 1/3 stick butter until tender: three cloves
peeled and sliced garlic, salt, and white pepper.
Add heavy cream to cover generously;
reduce by half over medium heat until thickened.
Taste and correct seasonings.

Grill, bake or broil six salmon filets.
`Poaching in chicken stock with wine
and tarragon wouldn’t hurt, either.` At point
of service, ladle approximately 2 oz. leek
sauce over the filets. Garnish with deepfried
julienne leeks (caramel-colored) or a
few sprigs of fresh tarragon. Serve immediately.

Adapted from Morningside Meadows
Chef Gary Young.


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