TWELVE MONTHS OF MONASTERY SALADS
By Lorraine Kreahling, Food and Wine
I learned about food preparation from a very talented mother who tended to overdo things. Habitually — if not compulsively — Mom made the simple complex. The results were often wonderful, but her effort often left her exhausted.
Eventually I had my own insight about being a host: Graciousness is more important than great food. If your mood has been soured by the rigors of extracting juice from pomegranate seeds or other labor that extracts too much from your soul, your guests may catch the vibe. So if the door bell announcing your dinner guests routinely prompts an expletive from you, it may be time for you to take the walk that I did into the kitchen — and garden — of the highly skilled chef, Brother Victor-Antoine d’Avila Latourrette.
Brother Victor-Antoine’s book, Twelve Months of Monastery Salads, arrived as a gift from my sister at the end of year and a half of personal turmoil when cooking had become less fun. Filled with delightful and delicious recipes for salads, Twelve Months of Monastery Salads brings the voice of this master chef into your kitchen, to practically hum you through his step-by-step instructions. More than a cookbook, this is a guide to the Zen of preparing great, unique, but surprisingly simple salads.
You ask: How good can a salad be? Well, this is a smart Frenchman who has spent lots of time in the kitchen: Trust him. His advice is minimal but specific: Cube the beets (even if you prefer them sliced); whisk the dressing just one hour beforehand to let the garlic infuse; use Jerez sherry vinegar; arrange the avocado and goat cheese, then drizzle with lemon juice as instructed.
The paperback is a pleasantly odd-sized cookbook— almost square. It brings to mind a child’s coloring book, and that immediately helps you shift into a different mindset about food preparation. Inside, each recipe is given its own pleasantly empty page. (With less text and fewer instructions, you already feel a little less anxious!) There is usually a small graphic: a delicate line drawing of a squash or onion, or the reproduction of a woodcut with a calming scene, like the monastery on a hill.
Then there are the quotes to remind you how best to approach time in the kitchen. Shakespeare: “Unquiet meals make ill digestion. Kierkegaard: “Life must be understood backward, but must be lived forward.” Emerson: “God hides things by putting them near us.” Or St. Augustine: “Love, always and intensely, and do after what you like.”
The book is divided into months, with ingredients timed to their seasons. As Brother Victor-Antoine tells us, this is in keeping with the monastic life which draws on the monastery garden in the growing season and on vegetables that can be stored in the months of frozen earth. But it also is part of an ancient tradition of going to market that still exists in Europe (and elsewhere), and you can count on Brother Victor-Antoine to use just-harvested ingredients well. So a friend from Ireland who came in February got Endive Salad with Blue Cheese. Because his feast day is June 24, early summer guests got St. John the Baptist Potato Salad. And Mushroom and Arugula Salad went brilliantly with a pasta I served last late fall.
It may seem odd to turn to a cookbook for wisdom and spiritual guidance, but “Twelve Months of Monastery Salads” is an invitation to make the most of what is here now. Even if you don’t believe in God, the ease and grace of preparing Brother Victor-Antoine’s simple salads will make you a better host.
"On the rock-strewn hillside they set about with hand tools to reclaim the land for vegetable and herb gardens, following a tradition of growing their own food for the monastic table."--Food Arts, June 2009
" The flavor of these vinegars are sweet, sharp, citrusy, and full-bodied . . . Gray Kuntz of Café Gray in the Time Warner Center said it is hard to find vinegar that rivals the quality of Brother Victor's: 'His vinegar deserves to be served as something delicate.'" --The New York Times, October 4, 2006, "Keeper of the Vinegar: Capture Mystery in a Bottle"
"The creches [made in the monastery] include various forms of religious figures ranging from the baby Jesus to angels and sheep. The figures come from places like Kenya, Italy, France, Austria, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru, and the United States, and are all hand-carved and painted. The origin of the figures often plays a role in the inspiration and eventual design of the creches." --The Millbrook Round Table, December 8, 2005, "Monastery Showcasing Christmas Crafts"
"With frugality and simplicity, essential tenets of the monastic way of life, Brother Victor limits his recipes to just a few ingredients and a few easy preparation steps. He spends very little money on food, relying on the bounty of the garden, farm animals, and the donated supermarket discards of bread and other produce." --The Valley Table, March-May, 2002