I have to cook something for someone who is up in years.
Way up, actually.
Far upper than I.
My mother–in-law is due in town, and I have to prepare dinner.
Ruth is 93 years old — a scrappy Swede with incredible genes, tougher than nails, with a big heart. She can’t see much anymore. She can’t hear real well, in particular when she turns off her hearing aids. She doesn’t get terribly worked up over much other than the Colorado Rockies, the World Series and Tiger Woods. But she is rarin’ to go on a trip and visit whenever the opportunity arises. Anytime, anywhere.
Ruth is coming through town with my sister-in-law, Joan.
And I have to prepare dinner.
Why does this present a problem?, you might ask.
First, I am accustomed to cooking foods with serious ummmph — heavily spiced, often with plenty of chile, interesting and contrasting tastes and textures.
No go at this dinner. While the experts claim we lose our ability to taste food as we age, for sure there are some (read “many”) ingredients that do not pair well with the elderly palate and, more particularly, the elderly gut. Some people say you need to amp up the flavors for the older palate, but when gastrointestinal conditions figure in the picture, the amps available are limited.
Hey, when you take your teeth out at night, texture is something to worry about.
The third dimension of the problem?
The situation is a mirror, of sorts, in that Ruth is me. I may not last to 93 (and surely won’t do so with her fortitude) but I will all too soon face many of the same dietary constraints. Already I am pounding down Prilosec like M&Ms. I am but a hop, skip and a jump away from Pablum, three meals a day and a bunch of stewed prunes upon rising in the morning.
I am cruising toward a food experience painted in shades of grey.
I have a vision of myself at 80, or 90 (if I make it — after all, my liver is already 300 years old and my kidneys are not far behind): I sit in a rumpsprung chair in the hallway at Oakleaf Acres — a Baby Boomer Haven. A loudspeaker system blares Freddie and the Dreamers and Jimi Hendrix tunes and an old dame clad in a frumpy, tie-dyed, sleeveless muumuu flaps around in front of me, shouting “far out,” over and over and over. She has a faded tattoo on her upper arm: once, it was a peace sign, now it is but a sad, drooping crescent, there to catch the folds. The hallway smells of a combination of patchouli oil and urine.
An announcement comes over the PA, telling us dinner is ready in the dining hall. We shuffle and roll our ways to the hall and there it is… again: mushy soy “meatloaf,” smushed peas, instant mashed potatoes and Jell-O (a multicolored, shimmering slab, to celebrate our diversity).
I can’t take it any more. “I want something decent to eat,” I shout, and I bang my cheap tin fork and spoon on the table. “For crying out loud, at least put some salt in this gruel. And where can a man get a bottle of hot sauce?”
A guy with a scraggly white ponytail, wearing a stained Grateful Dead T-shirt, reaches across the table. “You want that Jell-O, man? That is really groovy Jell-O.”
Suddenly, I sense an ominous presence. Behind me.
It is Jimmy, the attendant.
“Time to calm down, oldtimer,” he says, putting a large paw on my bony shoulder. “You can’t have salt because of your high blood pressure, and you can’t have hot sauce because of your acid reflux. And you need to eat now. We have to change your catheter in a few minutes.”
Jimmy chuckles as he says this. Years before, Jimmy was one of those little goofs who wore his pants halfway down his thighs and his hat at an angle. In a more vigorous and muscular mode, I once told Jimmy to get his skateboard off the sidewalk or he would need a surgeon to remove it from … well, you get the picture.
Jimmy is going to change my catheter. Jimmy has a very good memory.
There will be no food served at Oakwood Acres to soothe my pain — either the pain of the catheter procedure, or the deep and awful existential pain caused by simply being at Oakwood Acres.
So, I suppose I need to practice.
For dinner with the in-laws, no rellenos, no garlic chicken, no enchiladas, no braised pork shoulder empanadas, no linguine with pesto, no…
What will it be? For Ruth. For future Karl. Surely there must be something that is both easy on the system and relatively tasty.
Ruth is no big fan of fish and, anyway, fish here in Siberia With a View is always a dicey proposition. (A word of advice: Under no circumstances should you purchase a pack of fish with the bright orange “Manager’s Special” tag on it. Pay heed, and spare yourself the agony.)
So, chicken jumps to the top of the charts.
Best to avoid heavy-duty cruciferous vegetables. Probably best, too, to steer clear of legumes since we’ll be in close quarters.
Potato, carrot, peas, squash, turnip, rutabaga?
So, the answer is obvious: a version of chicken pot pie, or a creamy chicken vegetable combo with an other-than-crust starchy partner.
I come up with two options.
The first: A fairly straightforward preparation — a saucy chicken and vegetable mix baked beneath a crust. Either a pie crust lid, or a topper of puff pastry.
The second, the same creamy mix rolled in and smothering a crepe.
The chicken mix is a snap.
I can go to the trouble of spending a day and a half getting the chicken ready (simmering a whole bird or two in a bath of water and aromatics, straining the broth, refrigerating it, removing the schmaltz, tearing the chicken into bits, etc.) or I can buy skinless breasts, poach them gently in a seasoned liquid (a bit of salt, celery, some onion, tarragon), cool the breasts in the cooking liquid and cut them into 1-inch chunks. The poaching is easy: bring the liquid to a slow boil, submerge the breasts, turn down the heat to where the water barely shimmers — and let it shimmer for 20 minutes or so. That’s the ticket.
I’ll boil a couple Yukon Gold potatoes in their jackets, until they yield to the tines of a fork. I’ll cool them, peel them and cut them into 1-inch cubes. I’ll do the same with a turnip (taking care to buy one that won’t be woody and bitter). The same with a parsnip, if I get the urge. Same with some sliced carrots. The turnip, parsnip and carrot can be par-cooked together.
I’ll soften minced white onion in a mix of olive oil and butter, add a bit of finely diced celery and season the mix as it cooks. Into the mix go a couple tablespoons of butter and, when the butter melts, an equal number of tablespoons of flour. I’ll cook the roux for a few minutes, letting it go blond. Next up, first some chicken broth, then whole milk or half-and-half, a little at a time, until the sauce is just right (thick). I’ll season with salt, pepper, chopped parsley and tarragon and toss in a bunch of frozen green peas and the cubes of root vegetable and potato. Last in — the chicken.
Then, a decision: crust or crepes?
Depends on how much energy I have. I’m getting old, you know.
The crepes are a pain in the butt. So, as deelish as they sound … perhaps another time. With something zippier as a filling and topper.
As for the crust: puff pastry or pie crust?
Making either is out of the question.
I’m getting old, you know.
Either can be purchased and I think it is a matter of making a choice regarding bulk, the pie crust providing more heft.
While I am getting old, I am still verifiably hefty.
So, pie crust it is.
I butter a casserole and spoon in my chicken mix.
I unroll some store-bought pie crusts, drape them over the mix, trim them and pierce the crust to allow steam to escape. Into the 425 oven the mess goes and, when toasty good, out it comes, to be joined by some steamed and mashed butternut squash (with plenty of butter) and a simple salad.
Thank god I have a large bottle of Sriracha on hand. I’ve pounded down enough Prilosec to consume an entire bottle of Sriracha, so I’ll use the fiery sauce liberally.
And I’ll try to ignore the inevitable as I gum down the goods.
Maybe I’ll watch the World Series. Practice makes perfect.