Say yes to lunch when it's on the Navy
Groton — If you ever get an invitation to have lunch at the Naval Submarine Base in Groton, accept immediately and skip breakfast that day.
I was given the chance to attend a session of "Dining in the Deep," a lecture-with-lunch event that is part of the Connecticut Submarine Century celebrations.
The series aims to give the public a glimpse of what's happening on the base and a better understanding of the lives of those deployed on submarines.
The Cross Hall Galley, which feeds those who live and work on the base, cycles through a 21-day meal plan and, on this day, Chinese food was on the menu.
We were led to a long table draped in white, set with white china, white cloth napkins and shiny silver cutlery, perhaps not the average sailor's experience, but we were guests, after all.
Egg drop soup arrived, a generous bowl of clear broth filled with silky strands of barely cooked egg.
The texture was perfect, smooth and silky, but it was too salty for me. But one of my dining companions, a self-confessed salt lover, thought it was just right.
Next was General Tso Chicken, that ubiquitous take-out favorite where boneless, usually dark meat chicken is battered, fried then drenched in a sticky, sweet sauce.
This version was more spicy than sweet and very flavorful — a brilliant change. Its glossy exterior was still crispy while the meat inside was moist and tender.
I noticed that the many other tables in the galley, the ones without the white tablecloth, sported a centerpiece of condiments in which hot sauce, at least two varieties, was prominently featured.
One of our chefs, culinary specialist Seth Chiado, explained that the majority of galley clientele are young men, 18 to 20 years old, and they really like things spicy and flavorful.
"If it has cheese on it and they can dip it in ketchup, they're happy," he said. "But we have to encourage them to eat better."
To help promote healthy choices, the galley uses a color-coding system.
A green tag means a sailor can eat that dish all day long. Yellow advises some caution, an occasional treat. Red means save this one for special meals only — like that General Tso Chicken.
But I think the beef and broccoli, served to us next, would have earned a solid green. A pile of tender-crisp broccoli florets mingled with small strips of tender, lean beef that had spent some time in a gingery marinade.
The vegetable egg rolls, however, likely would have warranted yellow. Their extra crispy wrappers yielded with an audible crunch to reveal a mild, shredded vegetable filling. A quick dip into the accompanying sweet-and-sour sauce made a perfectly delicious bite.
Two more greens perhaps, the vegetable stir fry — a perfectly cooked medley of cabbage, mushrooms, sweet and fresh bell peppers, scallions and onions — and the fried rice with egg, peas and red peppers, rounded out the meal.
The dessert cart — laden with individual cherry pies, generous squares of German chocolate cake, and oatmeal cookies — was a giant red flag.
To be honest, I didn't even see the cookies. My eyes skipped across the cake, with its caramel, pecan and coconut topping, and settled on the pies, each baked in its own little, ceramic dish.
The cherries hadn't been reduced to a sugary stupor but instead were gloriously tart in their thick syrupy bath. The crust was mom-approved, crumbly and tender.
I think the submarine force could bolster its ranks substantially if it used the promise of these beautiful pies as a recruiting tool.
If I had known there would be pie, I might have signed up myself.
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