After talking with hospital kitchen staffs about their food, what better way to see how far hospital food has come than to try it ourselves?

Despite our request that we sample a typical patient tray with one entrée, we found at all three hospitals that extra food randomly appeared, depending on what the staff wanted us to try. Most patients, for example, would probably only order one salad, and we got two at Maine Med and Central Maine. Ditto for desserts.

Overall, the staffs were gracious with their time, and the food was good – no clunkers in the bunch. The most uncomfortable part of our experience (in every hospital but Mercy) was sampling food while the staff surrounded us watching for our reaction. The newspaper’s real food critic would never be able to do his job well this way. So take our self-conscious musings with an accompanying, ahem, grain of salt.

MAINE MEDICAL CENTER: 1,250 daily meals

Roast chicken with rice and broccoli, a side salad and fruit cup at Maine Medical Center.

Roast chicken with rice and broccoli, a side salad and fruit cup at Maine Medical Center.

Maine Medical center had the most cafeterialike food of the hospitals whose menus we sampled, but they also deserve a break – after all, the hospital kitchen there serves 1,250 patient meals every day.

Add in the meals it serves to the public in its cafeteria, and it could be considered the largest restaurant in Maine, according to Naomi Schucker, senior director of Community Health Improvement at MaineHealth.

For an entrée, we tried the herb-crusted chicken, which comes with steamed broccoli and rice pilaf. Chef Danny Cummings oven roasts the chicken and makes his own seasonings so as not to rely too much on salt. (He also makes his own herb blends and salsas.) The herbs used on the chicken are blended with panko bread crumbs and regular bread crumbs.

The chicken was tender and tasted good, though the bread crumbs were starting to get mushy. The broccoli was cooked well, and still had a little bite to it. The rice was fine, but unremarkable. A side with a little more flavor would have punched up the plate.

The meal also came with a standard side salad (Romaine lettuce, cherry tomatoes, cucumber, red onion) that was fresh and healthy, with croutons on the side. (In summer, the hospital gets fresh produce from Lakeside Family Farm in Newport.) The accompanying fruit salad was outstanding, a naturally sweet mix of honeydew, canteloupe and red grapes. It was tempting to eat the whole thing, but alas there was more to sample.

There were two desserts. One was an Oreo parfait, which is apparently one of the most popular patient desserts. It’s a simple chocolate pudding made with skim milk and layered with nondairy whipped cream. The whipped cream is topped with crumbled Oreos, and a miniature Oreo sat on top. We were surprised when later, at Mercy Hospital, we saw an (almost) identical dessert, and the staff said it was a patient favorite there as well.

The hospital has its own full-time baker on staff, who contributed a slice of New York-style cheesecake with a raspberry coulis to the tray. The cheesecake was incredibly light and creamy. It would be easy to eat too much of it because it goes down so easily, but hey – if you’ve just had surgery, you deserve a little something delicious.

MERCY HOSPITAL: 50-80 daily meals

Mediterranean Chicken Saute is made with herb-coated chicken breast, artichokes, black olives and diced tomatoes, sauteed with white wine and served over risotto with broccoli on the side at Mercy Hospital.

Mediterranean Chicken Saute is made with herb-coated chicken breast, artichokes, black olives and diced tomatoes, sauteed with white wine and served over risotto with broccoli on the side at Mercy Hospital.

Of the three hospitals we sampled, Mercy Hospital’s kitchen served the most restaurantlike food. If food is as important to you as getting your knee replaced or having your gall bladder out (which seems crazy, but there are lots of crazy foodies out there), Mercy is the place to go.

Their Mediterranean chicken sauté was shockingly good for hospital food. (The chef who made it confessed it’s one of his favorite entrées on the menu.) A chicken breast, heavily coated with an herbal seasoning blend, sat at the center of the plate, smothered in artichokes, diced tomatoes, broccoli and black olives. Sprinkled on top was parsley and Parmesan cheese. And it was all served over a bed of delicious risotto. This entrée could easily be served at a restaurant. I wanted to eat the entire thing, it was that good.

A demi-salad that came with the chicken dish was made with ingredients that were fresh and crisp – whole grape tomatoes, slices of cucumber and carrots. For dessert, there was a cookies-and-cream pudding parfait, nearly indistinguishable from the one at Maine Medical Center.

Mercy’s menu had the most dishes that sounded like restaurant food: beef tips bourguignon braised with red wine, mushrooms and onions, served over egg noodles; fresh butter crumb haddock served with steamed broccoli and risotto; oven-baked pasta with four Italian cheeses; and more. Like Maine Med, Mercy makes pizzas to order on whole wheat crust.

To be fair, Mercy has a big advantage – it’s smaller. While Maine Med serves 1,250 patient meals a day, Mercy’s Fore River Campus serves 50 to 80 room service meals a day. It’s probably easier to turn out really good food when you’re cooking meals for a place the size of a café, not the size of an army.

CENTRAL MAINE MEDICAL CENTER: 400 daily meals

Pot roast with gravy, green beans and mashed potatoes at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston.

Pot roast with gravy, green beans and mashed potatoes at Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston.

CMMC provided two full trays of food. One carried a chicken-and-vegetable stir-fry served with a small chef’s salad, a bag of Lay’s potato chips and a slice of carrot cake. The other was a pot roast, a garden salad, a chocolate mousse and an egg custard.

I went with the pot roast, since Executive Chef Patrick Hodsdon said it’s the most popular entrée on the menu. After tasting it, I can see why. The half-inch-thick slice of meat was fork-tender and sat atop a pile of blanched cut green beans and a bed of Pineland Farm potatoes. Low-sodium brown gravy and a sprig of rosemary for presentation finished off the dish.

“When you’re sick and you don’t feel good,” noted one of the staffers, “you want what Mom used to feed you.”

That theme continued with dessert. Hodsdon said they whip the mousse and make custard almost every day. The not-too-sweet chocolate mousse was so light and airy it seemed as if it might float away before making it into my mouth. The egg custard, topped with nutmeg, was silky smooth and did, indeed, bring back memories of childhood curled up on the sofa with a virus, watching cartoons while my mother served me something comforting that I could keep down.

CMMC serves about 400 meals a day. Hodsdon and his sous chef do as much themselves as they can, like the mousse and the custard, and banana bread. They also make cranberry flaxseed cookies in-house for patients who are on restricted diets.


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