If you follow the trends of new cookbooks, you may have noticed those written by monks popping up periodically, gaining popularity and sales. What is it about the reflective life that leads to epicurean masterpieces? Inquiring minds (namely, my own) wanted to know, so I set off to find all the divinely inspired cookbooks that I could.
Brother Victor-Antoine D'Avila-Latourrette is not only a fabulous cook but also a prolific writer. He began in 1989 with From a Monastery Kitchen: The Classic Natural Foods Cookbook (Triumph Books issued a revised and expanded edition in 1997). This is a beautiful cookbook for people who like simple, straightforward cooking that yields tasty results. The food detailed within is not austere, contrary to what stereotypes you might have about monks. Sure, there's Hermit Soup, which combines winter root vegetables, but you also have Crepes Saint Gwenole, rich with butter and flavored with orange liqueur. The recipes aren't necessarily low-fat, but they are mostly French-inspired vegetarian and vegan, from Linguine with Broccoli and Tofu to Red Beans in Wine, Asparagus Stuffed Eggs and Ragout of the Harvest.
Next came In Celebration of the Seasons in 1993, which was similarly organized but with completely new recipes. Who knew that monks were feasting on Stuffed Tomatoes Provencal and Saint Sabas' Raspberries with Cream?
But in 1996 came my favorite from D'Avila-Latourrette, Twelve Months of Monastery Soups (Broadway Books). Over a dozen soups for each month of the year, and finally (!) a cook who understands that sometimes people don't have time to make slow-simmered homecooked stock, but must resort to canned broth, bouillon or even water. Be sure to check out the Portuguese Kale Soup in November. It's a hearty, garlic-laced soup that you throw together then let simmer for two hours, perfect to have on the back of the stove while you're wrapping Christmas presents.
Next on my list was The Secrets of Jesuit Breadmaking (HarperPerennial, 1995) by Brother Rick Curry, S.J. This is a jolly bread book, full of interesting bits about the recipe authors as well as things like the story of St. Ignatius and the Jews, Common Rules of the Brothers and graces from around the globe. The Buttermilk Biscuits are light and tender, with easy to follow instructions. The recipes range from plain, sturdy Potato Bread and Blueberry Muffins to Cranberry Walnut Buttermilk Loaf, Flat Italian Onion Bread and Christmas Morning Cinnamon Buns. The chapter organization seems strange to me (Advent, Corn Bread, Christmas, Rolls and Muffins, Lent, Daily Breads, Easter), but the resulting breads are well worth eating.
I would be sorely remiss talking about religious bakers if I didn't include the wonderful works of Edward Espe Brown. The Tassajara Bread Book was first published by Shambhala Publications in 1970, with a special 25th anniversary edition printed in 1995. This, my friends, is the classic bread baking book. It's got interesting recipes for experienced bakers (Banana Sandwich Bread, Tibetan Barley Bread, Confusion Muffins), but its strength is in the gentle, easy, step-by-step instructions, with illustrations, for beginners. Once you've mastered the basic dough, you can move on to other yeasted breads and pastries, quick breads, sourdough, pancakes, desserts and more.
In 1973 Brown, through the Zen Center in San Francisco, published Tassajara Cooking (Shambhala), which is probably one of the most Zen, become-one-with-your-vegetable books around. The first 20 pages are devoted to basic details of how to cut vegetables, select, clean and store your knives, and cooking methods. These are followed by detailed instructions on how to cook vegetables, fruits, nuts and more. If you are a precise cook who likes precise measurements, this book will make you insane. Most of the recipes leave the amount of ingredients and seasonings to the cook's discretion. If you want more vegetarian recipes in a more traditional form, try The Tassajara Recipe Book: Favorites of the Guest Season (Shambhala, 1985). If you're afraid vegetarian cooking is all twiggy and nutty, you'll be amazed by dishes like Goat Cheese Zucchini Pizza, Mustard and Tarragon Baked Eggs or Chili Rellenos Souffl.
All these contemplative men got me to wondering if any spiritual women were out there cooking up a storm. My prayers were answered with Cooking Like a Goddess: Bringing Seasonal Magic into the Kitchen by Cait Johnson (Healing Arts Press, 1997). After reading about becoming one with my tomatoes and the silent contemplation of the fava bean, this book was a riotous gale of fresh air. It's sort of a feminist, New Age instruction manual for making the kitchen a sacred place, but the author never loses her sense of humor. The book is somewhat light on recipes and long on lore, but the seasonal recipes sound quite delicious. They run the gamut from Apple Squash Soup and Baked Pears to Fig-Apple Crumble and Roasted Winter Vegetables. There are kitchen meditations and rituals for each season, and as soon as I finish writing this review I'm going to build a kitchen altar. And paint it purple.
I may want to bake bread like a Jesuit or fillet a carrot like Buddhist monk, but none of them made me want to dance naked around my kitchen like Johnson's book did.