December 12, 2018
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Plant-based cooking on the menu for midcoast hospital kitchen staff

To paraphrase comedian Rodney Dangerfield, vegan cuisine and hospital cooking don’t always get a lot of respect. But on Tuesday, delicious sights and smells emerged from the kitchen of the United Farmers Market of Maine in Belfast as a group of chefs from Waldo County General Hospital did their best to show that plant-based cooking is more than just nutritious — it can taste great, too.

The special training was run by chef-educators from Forward Food, a program of the Humane Society of the United States. Sheila Costello, the nutrition services director at the Belfast hospital, said she wanted to offer her staff the opportunity to get more practice with vegan cooking. At the hospital, they cook for patients, visitors, medical staff and even for community members who come in especially to eat lunch or dinner there. They want to serve delicious, nutritious and often locally sourced meals to their customers. It’s good for everyone to eat a healthy, whole food diet that has an emphasis on plants, she said.

“That’s what wellness is all about,” Costello said. “It starts with what you eat.”

Amy Zarichnak, a culinary specialist with Forward Food, said she travels to universities and health care organizations around the country to teach staff how to cook plant-based food, a descriptor she prefers to “vegan.” That’s a word that sometimes gets a bad rap, she said, with people associating it with nutritious but boring food that’s heavy on the brown rice but short on flavor. But she believes that vegan cooking done right is flavorful and delicious, and more and more chefs around the country are discovering that.

“We’ve gone from a trend to a movement,” Zarichnak said.

People may be drawn to plant-based cooking because of health, ethical and environmental reasons, she said, but are likely to keep it up when they learn it also can be simple and delicious. Towards that end, she worked with hospital cooking staff as they tried their hand at dishes that included a banh mi sandwich made with potatoes instead of the traditional pork, tamale pie, coconut lentil stew and black bean and sweet potato burritos drizzled with an orange potato, carrot and nutritional yeast concoction that was a dead ringer for nacho cheese in both looks and flavor.

Marcus Riley, a cook at Waldo County General Hospital, said he was enjoying the training as he deftly tossed vegetables on the stove.

“It’s not too bad, actually,” he said. “It’s good to learn something new and get more experience.”

Tracy Thompson, the cook supervisor at Pen Bay Medical Center in Rockport, said she appreciated the training.

“People need to eat healthier,” she said. “That’s what your health is all about — the food. What a wonderful way to showcase fruits and vegetables. People eat with their eyes, and look how beautiful all this is.”

Thompson also believes that because eating healthy food is so important, it should be something that is available to everyone. And it’s likely that some of the recipes she and the others learned at the training session will make their way to hospital cafeterias soon.

“People feel like it costs more to eat healthy, organic fresh foods,” she said. “But if you could eat food that would eliminate your having to take certain prescription medications, that’s a win.”

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