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Monk-cook passes along serenity

Monastery food offers more than good eating

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ATLANTA — Brother Victor-Antoine d'Avila-Latourrette has a terminal case of serenity, and he wants to pass it on. That's why Brother Victor, a cloistered monk sworn to live in silent seclusion, became a writer who ventures far beyond the monastery walls to chat about his books.

Brother Victor is resident cook at Our Lady of the Resurrection monastery, at LaGrangeville, in upstate New York. His daily tasks also include tending the vegetable garden, feeding the chickens, and guarding the baby lambs.

He grew up in France and took his vows at 17, when he became an apprentice in the kitchen of a Benedictine monastery. Over the years, he learned hundreds of recipes that had been passed down from one generation of monks to the next since the ninth century.

When he had mastered them all, he was allowed to try out a few of his own. Somewhere along the way he realized that the most important thing he had learned about cooking was not a technique but a state of mind.

Just as Zen Buddhists practice "mindfulness" and actors work to "live in the moment," monks strive to live in a state of "simplicity."

"To live fully in the present," Brother Victor said in a recent phone interview, "we must be aware that reality is physical and spiritual, immediate and eternal, all at the same time."

Living in this state of heightened awareness is the main goal of monastic life — and it's the theme of his latest cookbook, "Simplicity from a Monastery Kitchen," (Broadway Books, $25).

Most of us spend our lives holding back, "going through the motions," and refusing to engage our inner spirits as we go about our daily lives, according to Brother Victor.

His recipe for doing better? First, he says, we must liberate the spirit from the box we hide it in. Then we must incorporate the spirit as we perform everyday physical tasks.

He calls this unified awareness of the body and soul "the essence of monastic simplicity."

"People imagine monks praying, chanting and reading," he says, "not scrubbing floors and milking cows. They are often astonished to discover that for us, prayer and work are the same thing."

That's why all the monks went along with it when someone suggested that Brother Victor write a cookbook to raise money for their community. Their monastery had been sold and the group needed money to buy another place to live.

When his first book, "From a Monastery Kitchen," became a best seller in the secular world in the 1970s, no one was more amazed than Brother Victor.

All his books emphasize two elements: quality ingredients and ease of preparation.

Unlike his other books, the recipes in "Simplicity" are grouped by type, rather than season. There are chapters on hors d'oeuvre, eggs, soups, vegetables, casseroles, crepes, sauces, fish, breads, fruits, desserts and more.

The monks are vegetarians, so there are no recipes for meat or fowl.

The book is embellished with medieval German woodcuts and quotes about simplicity by a cast of characters that ranges from Plato to St. Augustine to Laura Ingalls Wilder. There are no photographs of food.

Any chef will tell you that the fresher your ingredients, the less you have to cook them, and Brother Victor is no exception. You can't use those battered carrots from the bottom of the vegetable bin for his "Parsnips and Carrots Exupery" and you'll rue the day you make his "Salmon Fillets St. Celestine" with frozen fish.

With that exception, Brother Victor is not a stickler for detail. He'll say "a medium-size pan" and assume you know what he means. When he says to use butter, he doesn't specify salted or unsalted, because he says you can use either one, except in desserts, when he assumes you'll use unsalted.

He doesn't tell you to grease and flour a pan before you pour in cake batter, because he assumes you already know you should.

To cut fat and calories, in several recipes I used nonfat sour cream instead of crme frache, and fructose (use one-third less) instead of table sugar, with no ill effects.


SALMON MOUSSE IN A SPINACH BED

Recipe from "Simplicity from a Monastery Kitchen: A Complete Menu Cookbook for All Occasions" (Broadway Books)

1 pound smoked salmon, thinly sliced

2 tablespoons lemon juice

2 eggs

3/4 cup half-and-half

1 teaspoon finely grated lemon rind

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Butter as needed

24 fresh spinach leaves, trimmed

For the Sauce:

2 tablespoons butter

2 teaspoons cornstarch (or 4 teaspoons flour)

1/2 cup milk

1/2 cup dry white wine (optional: water or ginger ale)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

2 egg yolks, well beaten

1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon rind

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Place salmon slices in blender. Add the lemon juice, eggs, half-and-half, lemon rind, salt and pepper, and whirl until ingredients are well blended.

Thoroughly butter four ramekins and fill them with the salmon mixture, pressing it down with a small spatula. Place them in a baking pan large enough to hold all of them and fill it with water up to half the height of the ramekins.

Place the pan in the oven and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the blade of a thin knife inserted into the center of a ramekin comes out clean. (Do not overcook!)

Wash the spinach leaves well, drain and dry them. Place 6 leaves on each of 4 individual plates, in the form of a star with the stem ends toward the center of the plate.

While the mousse is baking, prepare the quick fish Sauce by melting the butter in a nonstick pan. Dilute the cornstarch in the milk and add gradually to the butter, while stirring continuously over low-medium heat. Add the wine (or optional water or ginger ale), salt and pepper and continue to stir until the sauce thickens. Remove it from the heat. Gradually stir in the egg yolks and grated lemon rind, whisking fast until the sauce is even and smooth.

Note: Make sure the sauce is NOT boiling, and whisk in the egg yolks as fast as you can, to stop them from cooking in the sauce. Reheat the sauce before serving.

When the mousse is done, unmold each one carefully over the spinach, in the center of the plate. Pour the sauce over the mousse and the spinach. Serve warm. Makes 4 servings.


PASCHAL SPICE RING

Recipe from "From a Monastery Kitchen: The Classic Natural Foods Cookbook" (republished Gramercy Books, 2000)

3 tablespoons shortening

1 cup sugar

1 teaspoon baking soda

10 3/4-ounce can condensed tomato soup

2 cups flour

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon each of mace, nutmeg and cloves, mixed

1 1/2 cups raisins or candied fruit peel

For Orange Icing:

4 tablespoons margarine or butter, softened

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 pound confectioner's sugar

1/4 cup frozen orange juice concentrate, thawed

Preheat oven to 325 F.

Cream shortening and sugar. Stir baking soda into soup. Sift flour and spices together and combine with the creamed shortening and sugar. Stir well. Add the soup and raisins or candied fruit peel. Mix well. Bake in a 10-inch tube pan for 35 minutes. Remove from pan and allow to cool.

To make icing: Cream margarine or butter, add salt and a little sugar, and work together well. Alternately add additional sugar and orange juice concentrate in small portions, mixing thoroughly until icing is of good spreading consistency.

Frost cake, and when icing has set, place a candle in the hole in the center. (Dripping melted wax at the base will help it stand securely.)