Winning recipe comforts refugees and redefines hospital food

Vegetable korma is a traditional Afghan stew slow-cooked with garbanzo beans, peppers, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, and green beans, and is seasoned with cilantro, turmeric, and coriander. It is served with basmati rice and naan bread.

This winning recipe was created by chefs Shekeba Samadzada and Dan Hess from UW Health in Madison, Wis. in order to welcome Afghan refugees with a taste of home.

For the fourth year, Health Care Without Harm and Practice Greenhealth teamed up with Menus of Change, an initiative of The Culinary Institute of America, and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health to host the Health Care Culinary Contest. The contest kicked off in October, challenging hospital chefs to embrace the #PlantForwardFuture with their own original creations.

Five recipes rose to the top, and in February, they were judged by chefs and students from the College of Food Innovation & Technology at Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island.

Chefs and students from the College of Food Innovation & Technology at Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island judged the recipes

The recipes were judged for flavor, how they appealed to the senses, and aspects important to health care food service like ease of execution, availability of ingredients, and nutritional and taste appropriateness for patients and patrons.

The winners’ accomplishment was celebrated at CleanMed 2022 in Kansas City, where the chefs received a plaque and the winning meal was served to participants. They will also be honored at the Culinary Institute of America’s upcoming Menus of Change Leadership Summit, June 14–16.

The story behind the recipe

Comforting refugees with a taste of home

When Afghanistan fell to the Taliban in August 2021, UW Health in Madison, Wis. began welcoming families who had fled the violence. The hospital was called on to support pediatric Afghan refugees coming from Fort McCoy, an Army installation 110 miles northwest of Madison.

For the chefs and food service professionals, this meant providing the patients and their families with a taste of home.

Led by Lisa Boté, manager of culinary services, the team worked closely with family members, interpreters, and staff from their diversity, equity, and inclusion department to understand the foods, ingredients, and dining customs of their guests and develop meals to provide them with not only nutrition but familiarity and comfort.

Sous chefs Dan Hess and Zach Kollmansberger wrote a culturally appropriate, vegetarian-forward menu. Culinary cook Shekeba Samadzada, who was born in Afghanistan and came to Madison as a refugee in her teens with her infant daughter, provided the recipe for Afghan-style vegetable korma.

I first made the veggie korma for the Afghan refugees because I wanted something they could be comfortable eating, that came, like me, from Afghanistan, and was healthy with a lot of flavors in it.” — Shekeba Samadzada.

I first made the veggie korma for the Afghan refugees because I wanted something they could be comfortable eating, that came, like me, from Afghanistan, and was healthy with a lot of flavors in it,” said Samadzada. “When Lisa and Dan told me they wanted to create meals for the refugees, I was just happy to do it.”

The culinary team took a deep dive into Afghan culture, making multiple visits to grocery stores and becoming familiar with an array of products and ingredients. They worked with interpreters and spoke with patients and family members, and they collaborated across departments.

“We worked with our diversity, equity, and inclusion department,” said Boté. “We worked with the nursing staff, and the care teams, to make sure we were addressing what was going to help the patient the most.”

Although the Afghan population and menu were new, the process and philosophy for developing menus to meet the needs of patients was deeply ingrained and well-respected among UW’s staff.

“We did our best to try to provide a little bit of wholeness to this horrible situation that they really didn’t want to be in,” said Hess. “We just try to make the hospital as home-like as possible.”

Download recipe

Everyone’s new favorite meal

While the team created a number of meals for their Afghan guests, one stood out.

“The veggie korma is a clean dish, and for the refugees, this was especially important,” Samadzada said. “As Muslims, we worry about whether there is pork in a dish, but this meal contains no pork or dairy. It has lots of vegetables and spices and good, familiar flavor. And when we made it, people loved it.”

They now serve vegetable korma to refugee patients and family members and also feature it in their retail food venue, Four Lakes Café.

I think a lot of times people don’t think about the crossover between patient service and the café…we’re also serving this dish to customers.” — Shekeba Samadzada

I think a lot of times people don’t think about the crossover between patient service and the café,” Samadzada said. “We’re also serving this dish to customers. We try to do that with a lot of recipes, because it doesn’t make sense to make one kind of chicken noodle soup for patients and then a different kind for customers. If we’re serving it to one population, it should be something that can serve everybody.”

Day after day, the culinary team receives positive feedback from the café’s customers. The dish was even popular among meat-eaters. Samadzada recalled how when patrons would note that the meal had no meat, she’d tell them to “just try it, trust me.” And the next time they came, the customers not only ordered it again for themselves but took back orders for their families. The word spread among hospital staff until the culinary team started to have trouble keeping up with demand.

“No matter how much we make, it just doesn’t last…that’s both good and bad — it’s good that so many people like it, but our stockpots are only so big!” — Dan Hess

“No matter how much we make, it just doesn’t last,” Hess added. “That’s both good and bad — it’s good that so many people like it, but our stockpots are only so big!”

Someone posted a photo of the meal on Samadzada’s Facebook page, and after all of the comments and likes, she now knows some of her customers’ and patients’ names. She was blown away by the feedback.

“It’s always nice to get good feedback from customers, especially when they stop you in the hallway to let you know it’s good,” Boté added. “You can see it in their faces when they’re taking it away from the counter or when they’re eating in the cafeteria, but when they stop and make an effort to give feedback, that’s when you know you’ve really got something special.”

From comfort food to winning recipe

UW Health has participated in three Health Care Culinary Contests, and their jackfruit teriyaki was a finalist in 2017. This year, the team knew they had something special on their hands.

“I just fell in love with it. It’s flavorful, and with the rice, there’s just something special about it.” — Lisa Boté.

“Shekeba was making the korma, and it just seemed like the right recipe to share,” said Boté. “The story was important — it was about patient care. And of course, the recipe was good. The first time Shekeba made this recipe, I just fell in love with it. It’s flavorful, and with the rice, there’s just something special about it.”

The team was sure the delicious meal was exemplary of UW Health’s vision.

“The UW Health vision is remarkable, remarkable health care,” Boté said. “You see it on signs. It’s by the elevators. It’s all around. Our department’s role is to feed our patients, help them get well, and help them continue on their wellness journey. And this is our contribution to remarkable health care.”

Interview with the chefs

From selling out before the end of the day, to strategies for serving plant-forward in the Midwest, and how hospitals can be as ‘home-like’ as possible, hear how these chefs won our appetites and our hearts.

Why did you choose to become a chef? Why a hospital chef?

“I hope the work that we’re doing is helping to elevate hospital food and at the same time helping patients look forward to their meals.” — Lisa Boté

Hess: I’ve worked in a lot of different food operations, delis, grocery stores, restaurants, catering companies, and retirement homes, and I kind of wanted to test myself with a different approach to food. Many of those organizations are worried about the lowest food cost and the profit margin, but for the hospital, we seek out better products and healthier recipes, at an affordable price for everyone. So it was the broader view on things and having more opportunities to create, be creative, and not have to worry about the financial impacts you have to worry about at some other types of organizations.

Samadzada: I have a similar explanation. I was working in and owned a restaurant, and now I work in the hospital. I think here, I get more blessings because there’s a lot I can do to provide for my patients [and other patrons]. They can have good food with good flavors. That’s the reason I came to the hospital.

Boté: I’ve worked in restaurants, I’ve done catering, and I’ve been a restaurant owner. I wanted to use these experiences to help change the way that people think about our hospital food. I hope the work that we’re doing is helping to elevate hospital food and at the same time helping patients look forward to their meals.

What is your approach to hospital food?

Hess: Giving hospital food a new look. In the past it has had a bad reputation of being cheap, greasy, and bland without a lot of health benefits. I want people to enjoy their food. I want visitors to comment and be impressed with our food and our delicious, healthy offerings. I want people from outside the hospital to come in and for them to treat the café like a restaurant — for people to want to come here and eat something. And I want for the patients to be able to get good, nutritious meals– something they can look forward to, because they don’t want to be here. We’re offering something small that can make their day a little bit better.

Boté: We’d like to have hospital food be looked at differently now than it was years ago. It should taste good, it should look good, and it can help you heal and be part of your wellness journey. If you’re a patient waiting for your meal delivery, we want it to be something you look forward to. And we want those who work in the hospital to come to the café because they want to and not because they have to and to be able to provide them with choices that make it hard to choose because everything looks and tastes good.

Why do you choose to create and serve plant-forward menu items?

“I just love veggies. You can do so much good with them. They are nutritious and colorful, but you have to add and enhance their flavor. You have to know how to pick the right ones.” — Shekeba Samadzada

Boté: We know that eating plant-forward can be delicious, and we’re a creative bunch. We’re always looking for opportunities to bring something new to our customers. The pandemic really put a kibosh on a lot of fun things and a lot of creativity. But when we do have the opportunity to do something different or to bring a new recipe or some new ideas, that’s really what we want to do. Our customers love it. When we do something special in our main cafeteria, it garners a lot of attention. Customers come in, get their dish, and then an hour later, somebody else will come down and say, “Hey my coworker had this, do you still have it? Can I get it?” We understand that eating plant-forward has a smaller impact on the environment too — and we’d like to be a part of that.

Hess: The way people eat has evolved over the years and continues to evolve every day. From allergies to diets to lifestyle choices, we try to provide something that the majority of people can eat and ensure we have something for everyone to eat — not just the meat-and-potatoes individual. We try to interact with our patrons, give them variety, and create dishes that as many people can enjoy as possible. By providing plant-forward, healthy options, we give them a chance to make good decisions on what to eat that day.

Samadzada: I just love veggies. You can do so much good with them. They are nutritious and colorful, but you have to add and enhance their flavor. You have to know how to pick the right ones. Where I come from, it’s all about vegetables. Even if we eat meat, we cook a lot of veggies with the meat. I learned how to make them delicious from my mom.

Boté: Over the years we’ve done a lot of food demos where we set up outside our cafeteria and offer small portions of items we’re serving for customers to sample. And we often choose plant-forward items — something that’s a little bit more of a stretch sometimes for people. We’re from the Midwest, and there’s a love of meat and potatoes. Our state grows a lot, and we raise a lot, and we can offer something for somebody to taste that’s new or inviting for the first time. We get a lot of great customer feedback when they’ve tried something new. A couple of years ago, we were really big on kale. And the initial reactions of a lot of customers were like, “Ooh, kale.” But then they tasted it and they’re like, “I tell you what, I love kale.” And we buy a lot of kale right now. Even years later, it’s nice to see customers’ behaviors change, just based on a little taste of something.

What is your favorite plant protein? Why?

Samadzada: I love beans and meals with all kinds of beans. I do eat meat, but not too much. Beans are good for you, and you can get protein from them — especially garbanzo beans and kidney beans, which are my favorite. And you can add any of the beans to your meals. They go with vegetables, or you can serve them with rice. A lot of Afghan food is vegetables with a little bit of meat or no meat at all. The meals tend to be vegan and gluten-free, and anyone can eat that.

Boté: My favorite beans are cannellini beans, and I didn’t really know what cannellini beans were until I was an adult. But I love them because they’re silky and creamy, and they’re so mild. I use them in soups a lot, and I’ll puree some of them up to give thickness to the soup. I just love them. They sometimes have a nutty taste to them. They are an excellent source of fiber and good for protein, and they’re just so pretty and soft.

Hess: Beans are just a very versatile protein. You can serve them cold or hot — I mean you can just do so many different things with beans.

What was your reaction to winning?

Samadzada: I was so shocked, but I was so happy. I felt really blessed.

Hess: I knew it was a good recipe, and I knew that the recipe had meaning, but of course, I was shocked. I thought we had a pretty good chance going into it because of the flavor and the story behind it. It really meant a lot to me personally and to our staff. And I know Shekeba’s a great cook.

Boté: We saw we made it into the top five, and all the pictures of all of the other foods were so pretty, so vibrant with the pinks and the greens, and I’m like, “Oh my gosh, those are all so beautiful.” I knew our food tasted good, but I was a little humbled by seeing all the other entries. And when we found out we won, I was stunned — and not that I had a tear, but I almost had a tear — because it’s just fun. It was really good news in the middle of winter and in the downslide of the pandemic. It was just nice to get some really good news.

How has your work changed due to COVID-19?

“I think we’ve become even more adaptable, especially with all the supply chain disruptions, and staffing and workforce challenges.” — Lisa Boté

Hess: We’ve had to deal with all the staffing shortages and supply chain issues, so it’s really made us change the way we do a lot of things. We’re still trying to produce the same amount of food and serve the same amount of people with fewer people to do it. So it’s been a bit difficult. At the start of the pandemic, food service staff (including Shakeba) were reassigned to screen people at the entrance to get into the hospital. So many people that worked in our department were needed to go screen people on a daily basis. Shekeba and others were actually splitting their cooking time with checking in patients. It was hard to try to keep morale up. Things are starting to go back to normal, but we’ve learned a lot during the pandemic.

Boté: As culinary folks, we’re adaptable. We have challenges thrown at us every single day. There’s not a day that goes by where we’re not trying to fix something or something has gone wrong or missing. I think we’ve become even more adaptable, especially with all the supply chain disruptions, and staffing and workforce challenges. With supply chain constraints, there were a lot of things we couldn’t get. So we worked on substitutions — figuring out how to continue to feed patients when we couldn’t get certain products we needed. It really brought attention to the role that culinary and clinical nutrition play in the patient’s time when they’re here and even when they leave. We work with dieticians to make sure patients have access to healthy food and are able to support their wellness through nutrition at home. We’ve chosen to take a positive approach to all these changes. We know change isn’t comfortable for everybody, but it’s about how you look at it and frame it for yourself. We’ve seen a lot of organizations and individuals come out of the pandemic a little bit stronger than they were before because they see that they are capable of doing things differently, in a better way, or more efficiently.

Any words of advice for your fellow hospital chefs?

“This contest encourages your staff to be creative.” — Dan Hess

Hess: This contest encourages your staff to be creative. Sometimes you might feel like you get in a rut doing the same old thing every day. My team loves it when I give them an opportunity to do something different.

Samadzada: Making the dishes with your team is so much fun. You put things together, everybody has different ideas, and working together as a team is just amazing. I enjoy it, and everybody else on my team enjoys it. It’s fun to make a new dish.

Boté: We believe that everybody in our organization has the ability to make a positive change in their work or in their department. Everybody has the opportunity to say, “Listen, I don’t know why I’m doing this in my job, because it doesn’t make sense. What if we do it this way?” When you open that opportunity up to everybody and say, “You can be in charge of your day, be part of making your day better, easier, etc.” a mindset shift takes place. Staff feel they are able to say, “Oh, I can make a change,” and feel good about their work when they go home at the end of the day.

Anything else you would like to add?

Boté: I would like to thank you for putting on the contest and giving us the opportunity to share what we do.

Samadzada: Thank you. I’m so glad everybody loves it. Thank all of you for letting me do this dish and talk to you, and let’s see what happens.

Feeling inspired?

Dive into the #PlantForwardFuture with our resources for hospitals including the Plant Powered 30: A fun, new, and free employee engagement activity.

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Health Care Without Harm seeks to transform health care worldwide so the sector reduces its environmental footprint and becomes a leader in the global movement.

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Health Care Without Harm seeks to transform health care worldwide so the sector reduces its environmental footprint and becomes a leader in the global movement.

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