Simple, savory food is alive and well in Maria Tisdall's Convent Cook, a collection of 90-plus easy recipes that are instant family pleasers. Tisdall is a professional cook who found an appreciative audience for her talents among the Benedictine sisters of New Jersey's Saint Walburga monastery. As convent chef, Tisdall introduced the sisters to the gastronomic delights of couscous, balsamic vinegar, and other "modern" ingredients, featured in dishes like Roast Pork Loin with Olives and Capers and Cold Sesame Noodles with Chicken and Summer Vegetables. The sisters' gain is ours, too; not meant to wow diners with evolved dish making, the book scores instead with polished home cooking everyone can love.
Organized by the calendar, and thus by seasons, Tisdall presents monthly menus plus sketches of convent life. "Around the convent," she writes of the year's beginning, "January marks a time of transition [from] the Feast of the Epiphany ... regarded as the end of the holiday period to the return to teaching" and other essential convent responsibilities. Tisdall's January menu, which includes Spinach and Bacon Salad, Roast Beef with Herbed Rub, Pearl Onions with Orange Glaze, and the Dreamiest Cheesecake Ever, is thus fortifying food "meant to stave off the gloominess of January's long, dark afternoons." By contrast, Tisdall's June menu offers Penne with Grilled Chicken in a Pink Tomato Sauce and Chiffon Cake with Mocha Frosting--more relaxed fare that often benefits from "the flowering of the convent vegetable garden." Other menus are equally direct and attractive. Color-photo-illustrated throughout, and with a section on pantry basics, the book celebrates a purposeful community and the delicious dishes that give it, and Tisdall's readers, constant dining pleasure. --Arthur Boehm