The Convent Cook: Divine Meals for Families Large and Small

Overview

One of the best places to eat in New Jersey happens to be at a convent, ofall places. Yes, the Benedictine sisters at Saint Walburga are eating in style, thanks to their very own convent cook, Maria Tisdall. Before Maria blessed them with her presence, these nuns lived on the plainest of plain foods-rice, potatoes, absolutely nothing fancy. But with Maria in the kitchen, they've started exploring the wonders of pesto, the gastronomic possibilities of couscous, and the joys of balsamic vinegar. Maria has opened ...
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Overview

One of the best places to eat in New Jersey happens to be at a convent, ofall places. Yes, the Benedictine sisters at Saint Walburga are eating in style, thanks to their very own convent cook, Maria Tisdall. Before Maria blessed them with her presence, these nuns lived on the plainest of plain foods-rice, potatoes, absolutely nothing fancy. But with Maria in the kitchen, they've started exploring the wonders of pesto, the gastronomic possibilities of couscous, and the joys of balsamic vinegar. Maria has opened the nuns to a whole new world of cooking, in the process developing a repertoire of recipes easily adaptable to home cooks entrusted with nourishing their families. In THE CONVENT COOK, you'll hear about the rhythm of life in a convent, be introduced to a wonderful cast of characters, and, best of all, be treated to Maria's sumptuous, angelic, and wholesome cooking.

About the Author: Maria Tisdall loved cooking from an early age and was a three-time finalist in Seventeen magazine's Now You're Cooking National Competition at the Culinary Institute of America. She later graduated from the CIA and then spent six years in restaurants before starting work at Saint Walburga. The mother of three (whom Sister Flavia Mundie looks after while Maria performs her miracles in the kitchen), she lives in Linden, New Jersey.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781580083133
  • Publisher: Ten Speed Press
  • Publication date: 1/28/2002
  • Pages: 216
  • Product dimensions: 8.34 (w) x 9.24 (h) x 0.86 (d)

Read an Excerpt

THE CONVENT COOK
Divine Meals for Families Large and Small


By Maria Tisdall

TEN SPEED PRESS

Copyright © 2002 Maria Tisdall.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 1580083137



Chapter One



Around the convent, January is a time of transition. Here we still celebrate the traditional twelve days of Christmas until the Feast of the Epiphany, which falls on January 6 and is regarded as the end of the holiday period. What this means to the Sisters is an extension of the Christmas celebrations and feelings of good cheer for nearly two weeks. The trees stay lit and the richly colored poinsettias remain around the church until January 7. Only then are all of the decorations lovingly taken down and stored away for another year. The Christmas trees and evergreen wreaths that have decked the halls are transformed into mulch, leaving behind their spicy scent as a reminder of the good times experienced over the past several weeks. With all of the excitement over the Christmas celebrations now spent and the New Year successfully ushered in, the Sisters return from their visits to family and friends and are back in school, along with their disenchanted students.

    In the kitchen, I take this time to inventory what we have and what we will need over the next few months. I also buy a new calendar with big beautiful pictures for each month and large squares for each day, where I post the menus for each night's dinner. During the day, the Sisters pop into the kitchen to check out the night's menu and enjoy a brightly lit beach scene or a cool mountain range. The calendar also serves as a tool for grocery-list making and for planning what I can do ahead of time, prep wise. Although I generally design the menus on a weekly basis, I also like to think in terms of the four seasons, so that each menu highlights what is seasonally available.

    January brings with it cold days and long nights, so I plan meals that incorporate warm and comforting components. Each menu follows a basic formula. We always start with a salad or a light appetizer. Since I am a big fan of salads, occasionally I will plan one hearty enough to serve as a main dish. I use lots of fresh dark greens like spinach or escarole, ingredients rich in nutrients that the Sisters may be lacking at this time of the year. I then add a protein like hardboiled eggs or aged blue cheese. Finally, I throw in some plum tomatoes and red onion slices, toss everything with a simple vinaigrette, and the result is a salad that eats like a meal.

    Next I move on to planning the entrées. I start by deciding what meat I want to use. The Sisters prefer beef, but I try to alternate that at least twice a week with fresh fish or chicken. I will also include a roast pork loin or pork chops with sauerkraut. Leg of lamb or grilled lamb chops have become favorites too, especially when I marinate them with lemon and garlic.

    After planning the week's entrées, I move on to the side dishes. Each meal is accompanied by a starch. It may be as simple as a baked potato or as complex as a bubbling pan of homemade macaroni and cheese. Two vegetables are served each night, and one of them is always green. When I was first hired, the Sister who supervised me explained that according to the Rule of Saint Benedict, each dinner meal should always include a choice of two vegetables, one of them green. A choice ensures that every member of the community will be offered something that they like, and they will always remain healthy and well nourished. During January, one vegetable might be green beans, broccoli, or another green. I then plan a dish that takes advantage of the winter crops, like acorn squash or root vegetables such as rutabagas or beets. Many people dismiss these vegetables, considering them hard to prepare or tasteless and boring, but I feel that any fresh ingredient available during the winter should be embraced enthusiastically. While you may not appreciate the delicate sweetness of fresh beets in the middle of the spring and summer produce boom, they are a welcome change from the usual offerings of the freezer section.

    Preparing seasonal specialties is just one way to stave off the gloominess of January's long, dark afternoons. It is fulfilling to throw myself into the kitchen and make something warm and tasty for dinner. After all the work is done, the best part is gathering everyone to the table and enjoying one another's company. It makes the days seem longer and the nights shorter.


Spinach and Bacon Salad


SERVES 4 TO 6


This salad truly eats like a meal. Accompany it with a loaf of crusty French bread and you will fulfill anyone's desire for a warm homemade dinner. The Sisters particularly like to come home from school and smell the aroma of bacon drifting down the hall.


DRESSING

2 teaspoons grated yellow onion
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons tarragon vinegar
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice


10 ounces spinach
6 slices bacon, cut crosswise into 1/2-inch strips
6 to 8 button mushrooms, sliced
1/2 red onion, thinly sliced
3 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and chopped


To prepare the dressing, in a food processor or blender, combine the yellow onion, salt, pepper, mustard, and vinegar. Process for 1 to 2 minutes, until smooth. With the motor running, slowly add the oil to create an emulsion. Pour the dressing into a small bowl and stir in the lemon juice. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside.


To prepare the salad, immerse the spinach in a large amount of water, swish the leaves to rinse well, and drain. Repeat until no grit or dirt is visible in the bottom of the sink or basin. Pick off any large or thick stems and tear the leaves into bite-sized pieces. Dry in a lettuce spinner and transfer to a large salad bowl. Cover with a damp paper towel and place in the refrigerator until ready to serve.


About 20 minutes before serving, in a small sauté pan over medium heat, sauté the bacon for 5 to 6 minutes, until crisp. Remove the spinach from the refrigerator, add the mushrooms, red onion, and eggs to the bowl, and toss. Add the dressing and toss again. Remove the bacon from the pan with a large slotted spoon, draining well, and add to the salad. Toss well.


Serve immediately, preferably while the bacon is still sizzling. Or add the bacon tableside and watch your guests' reactions to the crackle of hot bacon on the chilled greens.


Balsamic Chicken with Pears


SERVES 4 TO 6


In this recipe, the balsamic vinegar not only tenderizes the chicken to a buttery consistency, but also lends a sweet-and-sour taste to the sauce. As my children can attest, the cherries add a splash of color and sweetness that makes this dish appealing to even the pickiest eaters.


6 boneless, skinless chicken breast halves
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 shallot, chopped
2 pears, peeled, cored, and sliced
1 cup chicken stock (page 197)
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1/2 cup dried cherries


Rinse the chicken under cold running water and pat dry with paper towels. One at a time, place the chicken breasts between 2 sheets of plastic wrap. Using a meat mallet, carefully pound the breasts to a uniform thickness of about 1/2 inch. Season on both sides with salt and pepper.


Heat a large sauté pan over high heat and add the oil. When the oil is hot, add the chicken and sauté, turning once, for 3 to 4 minutes on each side, until golden brown. Transfer to a plate and cover to keep warm. To the same pan, add the shallot and sauté over high heat for 2 minutes, until soft. Decrease the heat to medium and add the pears. Continue sautéing, stirring occasionally, for 3 to 4 minutes, until the pears are soft and golden brown.


To prepare the sauce, combine the stock, vinegar, sugar, and cornstarch in a small bowl. Pour over the pear mixture and add the cherries. Increase the heat to high and simmer, stirring frequently, for 6 to 8 minutes, until the sauce thickens slightly. Return the chicken and any juices to the pan. Bring the mixture back to a simmer and decrease the heat to medium. Cook for 10 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through and no longer pink, then taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary.


Place the chicken on a warmed large platter. With a slotted spoon, mound the fruit over the top. Spoon the sauce over the fruit and around the breasts. Serve immediately.



Your way of acting should be different from the world's way; the love of Christ must come before all else. You are not to act in anger or nurse a grudge.

—The Rule of Saint Benedict, chapter 4


Roast Pork Loin with Olives and Capers (see photo insert)


SERVES 4 TO 6


When I came up with this recipe, the Sisters thought I had gone off the culinary deep end. "Brown sugar and garlic?" they exclaimed. "It will never work!" But boy oh boy does it! Legend has it that there were tongue marks on the plates at meal's end the first time I served this dish. The added zing of the capers and olives will brighten up any winter's night.


1 (2- to 3-pound) boneless pork loin
1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup olive oil
1 cup dry white wine
1 cup chicken stock (page 197)
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 cup raisins
1/4 cup chopped green olives
2 tablespoons capers


Preheat the oven to 350°. To prepare the roast, rinse the loin under cold running water and pat dry with paper towels. In a small bowl, mix together the brown sugar, garlic, salt, pepper, and oil. Rub the mixture all over the roast, spreading it as evenly as possible. Place in a heavy roasting pan.


Place in the oven and roast for 60 to 90 minutes, until the roast reaches an internal temperature of 160°. Remove from the oven and transfer to a warmed large platter. Loosely tent with aluminum foil to keep warm.


To prepare the sauce, drain the liquid from the roasting pan and place the pan on the stovetop over medium heat. Add the wine and deglaze the pan, scraping up any brown bits with a wooden spatula. Simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes, until reduced by half. In a small bowl, combine the stock, cornstarch, and oregano. Add to the pan along with the raisins, olives, and capers. Bring to a boil, then decrease the heat to medium-low and simmer gently, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes, until thickened. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary.


To serve, slice the roast into 1/2-inch-thick pieces, being careful not to tear the crust. Stir any accumulated meat juices from the platter into the sauce. Place 2 slices of meat on each dinner plate. Drizzle the sauce over the meat and serve immediately.


Roast Beef with an Herbed Rub


SERVES 4 TO 6


Almost every Sunday, the Sisters celebrate with a roast beef dinner. Traditionally the Sunday meal is served early, so that the Sisters are left with an open afternoon. They use this free time for personal tasks, visiting friends, or private reflection.


1 (2- to 3-pound) beef top round roast
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon paprika
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves, or 1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary leaves, or 1 teaspoon dried rosemary
2 to 3 tablespoons flour
1/2 cup dry red wine
2 cups beef stock (page 199)


Preheat the oven to 350°. To prepare the roast, rinse the beef under cold running water and pat dry with paper towels. In a small bowl, mix together the oil, salt, pepper, garlic powder, paprika, thyme, and rosemary. Rub the mixture all over the beef, spreading it as evenly as possible. Place in a roasting pan.


Place in the oven and roast for 60 to 90 minutes, until the roast reaches an internal temperature of 165° for medium well, or until desired doneness. Remove from the oven and transfer to a warmed large platter. Loosely tent with aluminum foil to keep warm.


To prepare the gravy, place the roasting pan on the stovetop over medium heat. Whisk 2 tablespoons of the flour into the pan juices to form a smooth paste.


Add the remaining 1 tablespoon flour if the mixture seems too wet. Add the wine and stock, increase the heat to high, and bring to a boil. Decrease the heat to medium-low and whisk constantly for about 10 minutes, until thickened to the consistency of light cream. Remove from the heat and pass through a fine-mesh sieve. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary. Pour into a warmed gravy boat or bowl.


To serve, slice the roast thinly. Stir any accumulated meat juices from the platter into the gravy. Serve the meat on the platter with the gravy on the side.



The workshop where we are to toil faithfully at all of these tasks is the enclosure of the monastery and stability in the community.

—The Rule of Saint Benedict, chapter 4

Excerpted from THE CONVENT COOK by Maria Tisdall. Copyright © 2002 by Maria Tisdall. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.


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