Tastes of the Week

May 7 thru May 14, 2012 One of the best French-style onion soups I've ever had was shared with 70 others at the Zen Mountain Monastery when I arrived on Friday night. The place, altogether mysterious and tranquil, is a real life Buddhist monastery, complete with strict meditation sessions and communal meals in a welcoming dining room. The chef, who is also a senior monk with many responsibilities, cooks three meals a day for the residents and many guests who come for retreats. The food is delicious. Sankai, the chef, comes from Belgium and describes his soup as more Flemish than French. I am waiting for him to share the recipe (it's in his head at the moment and he has never written it down). Sankai is deserving of a story of his life -- which I hope to write at some point -- as it's a compelling path of a young man's journey from a Benedictine upbringing near Antwerp to life as a Zen monk in Woodstock, New York. Sankai loves to cook and it shows in all the food he prepares. He is a firm believer that the emotions of the cook are transmitted during the preparation of a meal and so if he feels angry or agitated he simply "steps out" of the kitchen until that mood passes.  Something for all of us to think about in our own lives. Highlights of the weekend meals included a glorious quinoa salad with slivers of sorrel, mint, peas, scallions and radishes; fresh beet salad with feta cheese, fennel and blood orange, and a tantalizing chickpea tajine with roasted butternut squash, carrots and onions, flavored with cumin, caraway and coriander seeds, cayenne and paprika. And while some of the dishes have a lovely complexity, others are stunningly simple such as his vinaigrette made with red grapes, good olive oil and red wine vinegar. Three ingredients: It made me smile.  When asked which three cookbooks are most often at his elbow, he replied, "Twelve Months of Monastery Soups," the "Vegetarian Times Cookbook" (most useful, he said, for its organization), and "The Joy of Cooking" where he cuts all the sugar in half. Other adaptations include a recipe for cornbread from "Joy" where instead of flour he substitutes a comparable amount of cooked quinoa. One of my housekeeping chores during my weekend stay was sweeping the large homey kitchen. A meditation in itself.

Last week after the lengthy James Beard Awards at Lincoln Center was a food fest for 1000. While I'm not sure of the actual number of guests, it felt like there was enough food to feed us all. Chefs from all over the country came to cook their hearts out for the award winners, nominees, and the food community at large. Much of the food was really outstanding, served in divine, diminutive portions, inspired by a James Beard recipe of the chef's choice. My favorites:  Jonathan Waxman's Shaved Asparagus & Kale Salad with Caesar dressing and croutons; Nora Pouillon's Mini Cheeseburgers with Dill-Mustard Mayo and Micro Lettuces on a Whole-Grain Pumpkin Seed Bun (inspired by Beard's book "How to Eat Better for Less Money"); Alan Wong's Skewered Lamb Sausage with five-Spice Greek Yogurt, Pickled Red Onions and Jalapeno (inspired by Beard's lamb kebabs in "American Cookery"):  Keith Luce's Farm Egg Custard and Long Island Duckling with Nettle Puree and Spring Alliums (inspired by "Beard on Food"), and Angela Pinkerton's Port-Infused Prunes with Citrus Creme and Candied Violets (inspired by Menus for Entertaining.)  I must say I left feeling pretty inspired...and full.

Last week also marked the birthday celebration for food writer Erica Marcus at abckitchen with Brian Lehrer from WNYC and Steve North from the CBS Morning Show. What didn't we eat?  The caramel ice cream, popcorn, chocolate sauced sundae was a knockout.

Had a wonderful meal at the home of Debbie and Larry Freundlich. Debbie is a fabulous home cook and we loved the super-fresh asparagus soup deepened with garden peas; duck breasts with prunes and wonderful roasted potatoes, sorbet and chocolate oatmeal cookies topped with a few addictive grains of sea salt.

And my husband and I had the true pleasure of sharing a meal with Miles and Lillian Cahn, the creators of Coach (yes, the handbag company) and Coach Farms (the goat cheese company). They are legends in each industry. We had lunch at St. Ambroeus on Madison Avenue. Fabulous bread and superb coffee. Lunch was pretty good, too. Lovely beet-filled ravioli, homemade pasta bolognese. (Very, very expensive.  So glad we did some "sharing").

Enjoy your own tastes of the week.  Be mindful and you'll double the pleasure.  More about "The Sacred Art of Eating" by Roshi Dr. Jan Chozen Bays, another time.