Read an Excerpt
A few years ago, a fine young student who occasionally liked to visit our small monastery went off to France. While there, he decided to see some of the many monasteries that are to be encountered everywhere across the French landscape. Upon his return to this country, I asked him what he had discovered or what had most impressed him in the places he had visited.
Without hesitation, the young man exclaimed, "Ah, the gardens of the monasteries, those gardens lovingly tended by the monks."
At first, I was surprised at his response. I had expected him to mention perhaps the beauty of the monastic churches or the unforgettable music of the chants in the Offices, for example. Of course, he found the prayerful Offices to be a deeply spiritual experience, he said, but he was most enchanted by what he found in the monastic gardens. "There is real life in those gardens," he went on, "and one can almost feel the pulse of a particular monastic community by the work that is being accomplished there in the gardens." And he recalled for me how the charming and brightly colored miniatures from the ancient monastic manuscripts, where we often see the monk or the nun depicted steadily at work in the garden, suddenly became alive for him and deeply expressive of meaning.
In all our monasteries, of course, the occupation of gardening is as old as monastic life itself. Gardens and the constant tending of them have always been an integral part of our tradition. The first monks went about elaborating the principles of monastic gardening in the deserts of Egypt and Palestine, in the same way and at the same time that they elaborated the first rules and principles that were to become the base of their monastic living. For example, we read in an early life of Saint Antony, the first monk and the father of all monks, an episode that relates to his work in the garden: "These vines and these little trees did he plant; the pool did he contrive, with much labor for the watering of his garden; with his rake did he break up the earth for many years."
It is obvious from this description that Saint Antony worked very hard in his garden, and that the main reason for cultivating it was to provide food for himself and other monks, as well as for the poor and the pilgrims that came to see him. Saint Antony took to heart the biblical counsel that one must eat from the labor of one's hands. Two centuries later, Saint Benedict would insist on the importance of the same teaching by stating in his Rule that "they are truly monks when they live by the labor of their hands, as did our fathers and the Apostles." That meant for Saint Benedict that the monks had to work long hours in their gardens, orchards, and mills, producing the food necessary for the monastic table. And since the monastic regimen tends to be almost exclusively vegetarian, the cultivation of vegetable gardens and the care and maintenance of vineyards and orchards became of primary importance in the life of all monasteries. In this context, we can understand how some monks became passionate gardeners down through the centuries. There is, for example, the eighth-century monk Walafrid Strabo of the Abbey of Reichenau, who went so far as to praise gardening in a work called De cultura hortorum (On the Cultivation of Gardens).
And it was not only the monks who devoted time and skills in great measure to the work and the art of gardening. The nuns, living under the same Rule of Saint Benedict, invested their unique talents in this work, as we see from the case of the twelfth-century abbess Saint Hildegard of Bingen. Her combined knowledge of agriculture and medicine inspired her to write two treatises on the nutritional and medicinal qualities of the various plants, herbs, and vegetables that her nuns cultivated in the monastery gardens. Saint Hildegard recommended strongly that the vegetables prepared in the kitchen be fresh and recently harvested in order to retain the vital energies of the produce and all nutritional benefits. Saint Hildegard insisted on the principle that as human beings we don't exist in isolation but always live in a mutually dependent relationship with the whole universe. Thus it was extremely important to her that people should learn to live harmoniously with the rhythm of the seasons, and this was to include a diet based on the fresh vegetables and fruits harvested from their gardens and orchards. She firmly believed in what we would today call an "organic-biological process" that respects the rhythm of the seasons, the inner cohesion of all creation, and the natural laws that help maintain order and balance in the universe. By living thus, Saint Hildegard believed, human beings could achieve balance and health in their own personal lives.
History has shown that both monks and nuns have always been vigilant stewards and avid cultivators of the land entrusted to them. The time allotted to them each year for full- or part-time gardening, from the moment of planting the first seed to the moment the last vegetable is harvested, is for the monk or nun gardener a rewarding and, indeed, an intense time of joy. This is so in spite of the hard and never-ending nature of the work. Of course, the real reward is felt when the fresh new vegetables begin to be served at the monastic table, delighting all who partake. Gardening in a monastery is both a task and an art. It is the solid experience accumulated over many years that brings the monk gardener mastery of the proper methods and many intricate secrets necessary to achieve reliable success. Nothing, indeed, can supplant that experience! The monk or nun gardener, just as anyone else who is serious about this, needs to be sensitively attuned to the growing seasons, to the local weather, to the quality of the soil, and so forth . . . and always to allow Mother Nature to be the guide.
Each season has its own significance. There is a time to prepare and build the soil, a time for planting and germination, a time for cultivation and growth, and a time for yielding fruit and harvesting. Each season, too, provides its own unique variety in vegetables--some for spring and summer, some for fall and even winter. Living and gardening in tune with the seasons permit the monk or nun gardener to provide for the table vegetables rich with vitamins and nutrients, wonderful with the taste of freshness, and beautiful in exquisite colors and textures. The vegetables thus harvested are brought to the monastery kitchen, where they are treated with great respect. It remains for the cook to use talent and taste to create imaginative dishes that can be savored and remembered by the monastic palate long after the food has been consumed.
Of course, not everyone has a plot of land or the time to cultivate a garden, infinitely desirable as this may be. However, in the present day and age, that is not a good reason for passing up fresh vegetables. Today we have enviably wide opportunities to find fresh vegetables at supermarkets throughout the land, as well as at farmers' markets, at roadside stands, and in a variety of other ways in cities and in the country. And freshness makes all the difference in the world. Any cook concerned about solid nutrition and wonderful flavors will seek out the freshest possible vegetables to be found locally. Fresh vegetables retain most of their original nutritional value and provide a standard of texture and taste that is excellence itself.
The recipes in this book do not include meat. This does not mean that they are designed for the vegetarian alone. Vegetables are for everyone! In creating and presenting these new recipes to the public, it never entered my mind that they were to be used by only one group of people. On the contrary, these recipes were created, first, for each and every person who is interested in a healthy diet; and second, for all those who are tired of presenting vegetables at the table in the same old way and are looking for good, innovative recipes that reflect the boundless opportunities that vegetables present. While many of these recipes are self-sufficient as they are, the majority of them also go well with meat, egg, or fish dishes. Some may be used to create wonderful soups or appetizers; others, for salads; and others, either as the main dish or as accompaniment to another main course. It will be up to the imagination of the chef to adapt or re-create these recipes as a surprise for family, friends, or guests. My most ardent hope is that vegetables will be rediscovered in a new light, be in demand more than ever before, and, most of all, become the essential foundation of a cuisine that will be both healthier and more refined.
Finally, I wish to use this Introduction as an opportunity to thank all those dear friends here in the United States and in France who encouraged me and supported me during the long, sometimes burdensome, but always rewarding task of preparing this book. First of all, I wish to thank Trace Murphy, my editor at Doubleday; Andrew Corbin, also of Doubleday, for his support and technical assistance; and Howard Sandum, my literary agent, for requesting this book and believing in the vision that it became. I wish to thank also all those who helped type the manuscript: Sister Joan Regis Catherwood, RSHM, who typed the largest portion of it, but also Sister Ana M. Martinez of Transfiguration Monastery, Windsor, New York; Paschal Meier; and Jennifer Wyman, secretary to our friend John Conrad--all of whom lent their helping hands through to the end so as to complete the manuscript in time for our deadline. Heartfelt thanks also to Mark Adams for providing me with the quote from the beautiful poem by William Bradford.
I hope these recipes help enhance la bonne table in your home, and bring joy to you, your family, and your friends.
br. Victor-Antoine, monk February 10, 1998 Feast of Saint Scholastica, abbess sister of our father Saint Benedict
Of all vegetables, if one were to ask the question, "Which one is the most popular," I think most people would respond: the potato. The appeal of the potato seems to be universal. Potatoes are found today in outdoor markets and supermarkets all year round, in nearly every part of the world.
The origins of the potato can be traced to the mountains of the Andes. It was first discovered in Peru by the Spanish conquerors around 1532. The following year, a certain Pedro C. de Leon mentions in his Peru Chronicles, published in Seville, Spain, that the potatoes, or "papas" as they were called by the native Peruvians, together with corn were considered the essentials in the daily diet of the local Incas. In Europe, the first potatoes were introduced naturally in Spain around 1533. From Spain, its cultivation extended rapidly to France and Italy. By the beginning of the seventeenth century, the potato was already well established in France, where a scientific description of it is offered in the book A History of Plants (Histoire des Plantes), published in 1601. From France, the cultivation of the potato was extended to Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and other countries to the north. In the eighteenth century, a renewed interest was shown in the potato, thanks to the French pharmacist Antoine A. Parmentier, who took it as a cause to spread the knowledge of the potato and its cultivation to every province of France. Parmentier appealed to the King himself, saying that the potato was perhaps the most practical type of food to grow to relieve the King's subjects during times of famine. The appreciation of the potato in France owes so much to Parmentier that even today many of the potato dishes are called in French by the name Parmentier.
Today, more than a hundred varieties of potatoes are known and cultivated around the world. I have a farmer friend here in Millbrook, New York, who specializes in the cultivation of potatoes, and alone raises 28 different varieties. In our own monastic garden, our needs call for the cultivation of 3 or 4 different varieties. Furthermore, we are always able to supply enough for our needs. I particularily appreciate small potatoes, red or otherwise, which enhance many of our culinary dishes.
The potato has a strong nutritional value, as well as being rich in vitamins B1, B2, and C. When preparing the potato for cooking, one must take into consideration the nutritional value of its skin. Very often, we peel and discard the skin of the potato when indeed 40 percent of its vitamin C is concentrated there. New potatoes with tender skin might be better served by a thorough washing of the outside prior to use.
Baked Sweet Potatoes
4 good-sized sweet potatoes, washed and cleaned 3/4 cup low-fat sour cream 1/3 cup maple syrup 1/2 tablespoon powdered ginger 1/2 tablespoon nutmeg salt and pepper to taste butter
1. Preheat the oven to 400°. Slice each potato carefully in perfect halves and bake them for about 40 to 50 minutes until they are tender. Remove them from the oven and lower it to 350°.
2. With a spoon carefully scoop out the pulp or insides of the potatoes and put the pulp into a large bowl. Make sure the skins of the sweet potatoes remain intact. Mash the pulp with the help of a masher; add the sour cream, maple syrup, ginger, nutmeg, and salt and pepper, and mix this well.
3. Fill the sweet potato shells evenly with the pulp mixture. Put the potatoes in a buttered flat baking dish, and dot each half with a bit of butter. Place them in the oven and bake for about 25-30 minutes. (The potatoes are done when they turn brown on the top.)
Note: This is a delightful and appetizing accompaniment to meat, fish, or egg dishes, especially during the fall or winter.