Rescuing Hospital Food…

Today I’m reinventing my Harissa recipe as I think a return to the cardiology ward might be lurking in my future. In fact, I’d put money on it, as this problem isn’t going to go away.** Above all else, other than survival, I need protection from its hideous, saltless, food.

**I won’t say I’m not still scared of dying – the only people who are honestly not are the young who, for the most part, are decades away from having to confront their own mortality. Me? Resigned, I suppose. And scared. Not of death, per se – that’s inescapable (but if it happens it would be nice to go to bed and not wake up), but dying of pulmonary oedema, as I almost did last week, is a terribly hard way to go.

Anyway, back on topic, I feel very strongly that it is a breach of patients’ rights to deprive them so utterly of salt (it’s certainly a crime against food), especially as some salt is absolutely essential to life. Cook without salt if you must, but do not refuse to provide salt at meal-times if patients want it. There are very few pleasures for an in-patient, and food should be one of them. It should not be so grim as to be a punishment – but it is on the heart ward. Last week I was there for three days before I found my jar of Harissa at the bottom of my bag and was able to eat. To be honest, food quality and quantity were both abysmal, even with salt, but at least then it was tolerable. Just.

I spent mealtimes ostentatiously seasoning my food, and no-one said “Oy! Watchoo doin’?” So, folks, if you want salt, screw ’em, take your own, just don’t overdo it (eat a little of the salt-free crap – then season it just a tiny bit – you’ll be surprised at how little salt it takes to make it palatable). Better yet, use LoSalt as long as you’re OK with potassium.

HP Sauce is worth a try too, at 1.3% salt, while HP Fruity is 1.5% and Heinz Ketchup 1.8%, all OK, as long as you don’t get carried away.Do not, of course, use any of those if you are officially on a salt-free or low-salt diet** – I wasn’t and it should have been my choice.

**Go with the Harissa and omit the salt

And if you’re the sort of person who covers every plate that’s put in front of them with salt before even tasting it, then stop. You’re your own worst enemy.

I had planned to make this batch of Harissa with bigger flavours than the stuff I use in the kitchen, and without salt. I’ve reconsidered that, and it will be getting just a little sea salt as I know from past experience that, as I said above, it takes very little salt to perk up a totally salt-free meal.

This, then, is my Hospital Harissa, and it will also be used at home.

2 tablespoons ground cumin

2 tablespoons ground coriander

2 tablespoons dried coriander leaf

2 tablespoons dried mint

2 tablespoons dried oregano

2 teaspoons fine black pepper

1 teaspoon white pepper

1 rounded teaspoon Aleppo chilli (this came finely chopped and coated lightly with oil)

3 teaspoons celery seed

3 teaspoons Garlic granules

2 teaspoons fine sea salt

1 rounded teaspoon dried rosemary

2 teaspoons dried basil

All are measuring spoons, and level unless otherwise stated.

As you can see it differs from my standard Harissa mix as I wanted bigger flavours to compensate for the minimal salt content.

It was all processed in a Krups F203 coffee mill, rubbish for coffee, brilliant for spices. The Aleppo chilli was ground to fineness with the salt, and the celery seed ground alone.

Everything was mixed together (measures tended to be on the generous side), in a jar, then all ground to fineness in batches. It yielded enough to almost fill a recycled 340g Skippy peanut butter jar (these PET jars are excellent for re-use). I won’t be taking all that into hospital, just a small jar and my old backpacking salt cellar (which has a screw-on lid so it doesn’t leak, though it could do with being bigger).

The spices and garlic are all Schwartz, the herbs generic, bought here . I have used Schwartz herbs. They might be slightly better, but I wouldn’t swear to it, and you do get a lot of the generic stuff for the money.

Obviously I have no idea what it tastes like yet, but it smells wonderful, and slightly fruity – that’ll be the chilli and rosemary. It’ll mature over the next few days as the flavours develop and merge, after which it can be stashed in the fridge where it will keep better.

Tip: To clean a spice mill, brush out any loose stuff from the chamber and lid then fill it with Basmati or quick-cook rice, both are friable enough not to abrade any plastic parts, and blitz to powder. Tip it out, wipe with kitchen paper and you’re done.