Monday, December 7, 2009

Recipes & Religion: Feast on both food and faith

"Sacred Feasts
From a Monastery Kitchen,"
by Brother Victor-Antoine

In the grocery produce area, without looking at the signage, can you spot the leeks?

Although I'd heard of leeks, I'd never known what a leek was -- or even what a leek looked like -- until a recipe in "Sacred Feasts From a Monastery kitchen" called for them.

Our neighborhood supermarket had a small stack of the onion-family root veggie -- imagine a tall onion about half the height of a softball bat.

They helped to make the most delicious soup, if I do say so myself.

Leeks from the garden of Our lady of the Resurrection Monastery in upstate New York find their way into a number of the dishes that Brother Victor-Antoine d'Avila-Latourrette shares in his latest collection of recipes and reflections.

With the feasts of the church and the saints' days as his structure, Brother Victor-Antoine cooks his way through the calendar, walking us through his rationale for preparing specific dishes. Easter and Christmas get the attention they deserve, of course but not forgotten are the small feasts that require the serving of St. Bernadette's Creamy Rice Pudding, for example, St. James Egg and Avocado Salad and St. Nicholas Bread.

Reviewing books for a blog on has never led me to cooking before. But how do you review a cookbook without testing a few recipes?

Soup for a saint
The St. Joseph Leek, Potato and Squash Soup intrigued me. For the monks, the March 19 Feast of St. Joseph is cause for a more festive meal than usual fare, coming during Lent as it does, and Brother Victor-Antoine pulled a number of veggies from the monastery cellar to fashion a soup he named in honor of the saint of the day.

That's why I had to buy the leeks.

The recipe also called for onion, garlic, potatoes, and acorn squash, but truth be told I skipped the squash; never could warm up to the taste.

Thanks to watching my mom and wife, I make a pretty decent vegetable beef soup when the spirit moves me, but I've never made a soup in which you put the cooked ingredients into a food processor or blender to puree.

The result was an amazingly flavorful, tasty soup.

My wife suggested "doctoring" it with a bit of chicken bouillon, and that made it just about perfect.

Simple-to-follow recipes

I figured I'd better try a dessert recipe, too, and thanks to the prolific apple tree in our yard I didn't have to shop for the filling for the "Apple Dumplings German Style" that Brother Victor-Antoine prepared for late October.

If I acknowledge that I downed five of the six apple-filled pastries, will that be evidence enough of how good they were? And why we just joined a gym?

The recipe was so simple even a journalist couldn't screw it up.

That's the case with most of the dishes in this 208-page hardcover work from Liguori Publications.

Some ingredients may be new to less-veteran cooks, but the step-by-step directions are thorough, clear and specific, often taking the time to explain the required technique known to good chefs but not by us some-time cooks.

You should know that the monastery diet is primarily vegetarian. Just a few of the dishes offer adding meat as an option. The monks east out of their garden and buy locally grown produce from the farms nearby. And hearty soups are a mainstay of the monastery diet.

But the French background and training of Brother Victor-Antoine pope out in hi use of wine in many of the dishes he's gathered for the feasts of the church year.

More than a cookbook

What makes "Sacred Feasts" valuable is that as good a chef as Brother is, he's also a wonderful teacher about both Catholic traditions and Catholic beliefs.

Remember ever observing Candlemas?

Today the Feb. 2 feast is called the Presentation of the Lord, but Brother takes advantage of the day's former title to wax prosaic (pun intended!) on the central place of candles in the liturgy, reminding how the candle symbolizes Christ's presence in our midst.

Throughout "Sacred Feasts" there are these little catechizing moments, simple words of wisdom to remember and to share, reflections on the faith to nourish the conversation around our own dinner tables.

He explains that we fast during Lent primarily to enable us to better contemplate the suffering of Christs and actually participate and share in that immense sacrifice Jesus made to atone for our sin, but also to help us remember the pain and need of others, especially the poor and suffering.

Reading cooks will find out why we bless our food before meals, learn to see the maturation of the fruit and vegetables as seasonal blessings from the Lord, and absorb the legacy of the saints in the church calendar.

Lovely woodcuts of monastery life and interesting quotes in the book's margins spice up the pages, too.

Together with flavorful recipes, sprinkles of faith formation and Catholic identity building, "Sacred Feasts From a Monastery Kitchen" is a filing package, so much more than a cookbook. -- bz

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Fun Christmas reading: Garrison Keillor clones Lake Wobegon in North Dakota

"A Christmas Blizzard,"
by Garrison Keillor

Nobody's literary comedy stands a snowball's chance in Honolulu against Garrison Keillor and his takes on communities in the northern clime.

"A Christmas Blizzard" is just 180 pages long, but it's as fun and funny a 180 pages as anything you'll ever read, with a moral worth remembering and celebrating throughout the year.

This time the creator and host of public radio's "A Prairie Home Companion" has found Lake Wobegon-like characters in Looseleaf, North Dakota, and he brings a prodigal native son back to his home town just in time for Christmas and a typical northern plains white-out.

Main character James Sparrow fell into a lucrative business that made him the wealthy CEO of a Chicago beverage company. He's rich enough to not want to spend time doing anything at Christmas that he doesn't want to. What he wants to do is take his private jet to his palatial Hawaii second home and look at the calming waves of the Pacific.

A tug of the heart strings -- or is is a guilty conscience? -- has that private jet flying into good ol' Looseleaf instead, and stranding Sparrow in a town with wacky but lovable relatives, fruitcake townfolk from his past, and even quizzical story walk-ons, like the busload of psychoanalists who are afraid to fly!

No scripted storyline here
If you think this is going to fall into that simplistic story genre of the guy who doesn't like Christmas celebrating like no one else on the big day -- well, maybe.

Keillor puts so much that's laughable in his fictional characters -- pieces of the human condition that you'll identify in your own family, friends and acquaintance, and may yourself, plus identifiable references to real people and real events -- that the storyline almost becomes secondary to the eccentric population of Looseleaf and how rich Mr. Sparrow comes to terms with them -- how they impact him and how he touches their lives.

Finally, throw out anything you ever learned about the Greek dramas and "deus ex machina" endings.
In this Viking novel, Keillor out-deus-ex-machinas any contrived ending you could ever imagine. What a fun read! -- bz

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

What's in a name? A lot, if it's yours!

"My Name is Sangoel,"
written by Karen Lynn Williams
and Khadra Mohammed,
illustrated by Catherine Stock

Shaquille O'Neal was the name that broke the ice.
Across the United States a great angst was fomenting as families with non-traditional ethnic backgrounds named their children what to many "American" ears were strange sounding names.
Remember hearing folks ask "Why can't they give their kids a 'normal' name?"
Recall being stymied in trying to pronounce unique names, those with unique spellings, and especially names from other cultures?
Then came the personable, photogenic and talented basketball player named Shaquille. Our ears started to get used to the sound of a name that wasn't Tom or Dave, Jennifer or Jane.
The need for open-mindedness about unique names multiplies as refugees from around the world continue to flee war, hunger and oppression in lands where many names offer a test to American ears.
Authors Williams and Mohammed give us a different perspective on the phenomenon. In this colorful children's book, readers learn what it's like to be the African boy from Sudan who finds no one in his new country can pronounce his name.

Too different to even try
After his father is killed in war, Sangoel lives in a refugee camp until the day he and his mother and sister can emigrate to the United States.
Everything is new in this new land, and although he is only eight Sangoel is the man of the family, he takes responsibility to help his mother and sister make their way.
As the first-born son who as Dinka tradition has it is named after his father, his grandfather, and his ancestors through the ages, young Sangoel heeds his grandfather's parting words: "You will be Sangoel. Even in America."
That proves to be quite the challenge.
Hanging on to his name with pride, the boy despairs that no one in the United States -- not the social worker helping his family resettle, not doctors, not teachers, classmates, coaches or soccer teammates -- can rightly say his name.
Some don't even try -- an experience with which many an American with an ethnic last name can surely identify and empathize. People see an "ski," a "wicz," an accent mark or an apostrophe in a name and they don't even attempt to sound out a pronunciation.
In this beautifully illustrated work from the collection of Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, Sangoel's creativity enables him to teach others to say his name correctly -- and to be accepted in his new environment without leaving behind the heritage of his native homeland.
Reading "My Name is Sangoel" -- pronounced "Sun-Goal" -- makes for a teachable moment, an opportunity to address at least one prejudice our nation of immigrants can live without. -- bz

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Art books captures angels captured by heavenly artists

"The Glory of Angels,"
by Edward Lucie-Smith

Seraphim, cherubim, archangels and guardian angels.

That's the sum total of my knowledge of angels before working my way through Edward Lucie-Smith's huge, beautiful coffee table book.

Its pages are filled with so much about angels I never knew.

"The Glory of Angels" covers the waterfront about the heavenly host. Readers will find there is a hierarchy or "order" of angels -- and archangel is only one category. Each level of angel supposedly has a job to do. This pecking order, if you will, appears in neither the Hebrew Scriptures nor the New Testament, but only shows up in the 4th century, so take that as a word to the wise.

On the other hand, there are numerous references to angels in both the Hebrew Bible and in the New Testament, and this book reminds us of a number of them through use of well-placed and eye-catching quotations from the Psalms, Genesis, Revelation and St. Paul's letters. There are pertinent quotes as well from artists, saints and historic figures.

But the written copy or text is really secondary in "The Glory of Angels." The text simple is the skeleton for the real flesh of this book.

This is one marvelous gathering of stupendous art.

Works by the masters
Lucie-Smith may have captured on these pages a majority of the world's great renderings of angels in art. Paintings, frescoes, tapestry, sculpture, bas relief, icons, stained glass, mosaics, even dishes and jewelry -- they're all here, and by scores of the most famous artists across the ages.

A Tiffany window, color-bursting modern works by Kandinsky, Kim, Gauguin, Dali and Chagall, pieces by masters such as Rubens, Giotto, Bernini, El Greco and Manet.

Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Titian all have their own version of God's angel stopping Abraham as he's about to sacrifice his son Isaac.)

One of my favorites is the beautifully framed Nativity done by Della Robbia in brilliant white marble on a stunning blue field. In it, God the Father and a host of angels want from above as the Virgin prays over the Christ Child in the manger.

Images both familiar and fresh
Readers with even a slight connection to religious literature will immediately recognize the sword-bearing angelic figure as the Archangel Michael. More than half-dozen images depict the warrior angel, the best being a two-page spread that carries the near-science fiction scene of "The Fall of the Rebel Angels" that Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted in the 16th century. The characterization of the bad angels turning into grotesque beasts rivals anything from the cantina scene in "Star Wars," and a golden-clad Michael is prominent in the center of the action.

Gabriel appears in any number of renderings of the Annunciation. The angels often come in dreams -- to Jacob and St. Joseph, for example --and they come from scores of countries, including China, Japan, Senegal, India and Ethiopia. Angels even illustrate pages of some copies of the Muslim Qu'ran.

Not a believer in angels?
The 192-page Collins/Design large hardcover offers a chapter titled "What Angels Do For Us" that invites readers to walk through works of art that show that, in the authors words, "we perceive things through our encounters with angels that might otherwise be hidden from us." A handful of works bring guardian angels into the picture, saving mostly children from danger, but adults as well.

The coolest: "Cowboy Angel" complete with chaps, by Delmas Howe. The most different: Rom Mueck's "Angel," an elfish male sans clothing perched atop an old stool.

In a wonderfully designed and elegantly printed book, two elements stand out. The first is the interesting way the art is identified, with caption information about title, artist and era available on the page or nearby and clear via a numbering and icon system.

The second is a superb index -- slugged "Picture Resource" -- with thumbnail versions of each work, the page on which it appears, the title, artist, time frame, current location, medium and genre.

That alone turns a gorgeous coffee table book into an invaluable art resource. -- bz

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Help for teaching siblings they don't have to be rivals

"Brown Bear, White Bear,"

written by Svetlana Petrovic,

illustrated by Vincent Hardy

The four-year old and the two-year old sat beside me, their eyes glued to the pages as grandpa read this cute little story.

Neither granddaughter moved a muscle until story's end.

That's a good children's book.

The gist of the tale is that two grandmothers who compete for little Alice's favor both gift her with bears. The bears, however, don't get along with one another any better than the grandmas do as they vie to see which one of them Alice likes best.

Their teddy-bear version of sibling rivalry escalates to the point where young Alice needs to give both a time out -- something the pre-school set will understand -- and some good lessons follow.

'Adult rivalry' too

As much as this is a children's book, adults who pay attention while they are reading it to youngsters have a good chance of picking up on the silliness of their "adult rivalry" for the affection of a child.

And I couldn't help but wonder if Ellie (age 4) and Sarah (age 2) could transfer the bears' poor behavior toward one another to the way they themselves sometimes treat each other. That's going to take some work by adults.

But repeated readings are going to help with that, and sure enough, as soon as we turned the last page of this colorful Eerdmans book the plea came up: "Read it again, grandpa."

That's a good children's book. -- bz