Dinners at the Nevada Ranch where Dale and Melissa Kent work as caretakers are potluck. Whoever is visiting or living on the former dude ranch—now a private retreat, set up against the Eastern Sierras— shows up with a big pot of pozole, fresh greens from the garden, handmade tortillas, or a peach crumble made with fruit picked from the orchard outside. The wide-open kitchen is infused with the cheerful spirit of its former owner, Maya, who passed away a couple of years ago at 90; I can still see her kneading the sourdough bread she made in the quiet mornings, doing nothing else with her great intelligence and energy, at those moments, but kneading bread.
The ranch dinners are always fresh, and the various dishes made with love, but I’ve noticed, visiting over the years, that Dale and Melissa’s contributions to the meals taste brighter and are presented more beautifully than, say, the goat cheese and crackers I plop onto a plate. Even their simplest dishes, mere vegetables cooked with some olive oil and salt, are somehow transformed; they’re not just yummier, they’re mysteriously more satisfying to the soul. Nor do the Kents ever seem frantic getting something to the table on time, fret about the result, or burn anything in their haste to finish cooking already. It’s as if their food is seasoned with grace.
That cooking magic has something to do with the fact that they spent seven years at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, the renowned Buddhist monastery in California’s Ventana Wilderness, where Dale did a two-year stint as tenzo, head of the kitchen. Tassajara has a long lineage of great cooks and cookbooks starting with Zen priest Edward Espe Brown and his Tassajara Bread Book (1970) and subsequent works (his Complete Tassajara Cookbook will be released in September, along with a revised Bread book), and including Deborah Madison (who wrote The Greens Cookbook with Brown, along with her own books The Savory Way, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, and others) and Annie Somerville (Fields of Greens andEveryday Greens). Like these other Tassajara cooks, Dale and Melissa Kent don’t just practice cooking; they’ve made cooking a practice, one that benefits not only what is on their plates and in their bellies but what is in their hearts.
The Kents now offer their next-generation Zen-inspired cookbook, Tassajara Dinners & Desserts (Gibbs Smith), which sets down recent recipes from the monastery, along with their own thoughts about mindful cooking and words of wisdom from guest cooks who have passed through those gates. The recipes are simple, calling for improvisation, and focus on seasonal, organic, and local ingredients, as well as some ethnic and exotic ingredients that are more readily available now than they were at the time of earlier Zen cookbooks.
Each time I relished their meals, I wondered whether I could also learn to cook more mindfully—but without spending years in a monastery. My cooking is usually messy and distracted, except when I make soup, because you can’t screw up soup, and something about chopping vegetables and tossing them in a pot restores my calm and equanimity. But I never know how anything else will turn out: when I made my great-grandmother’s recipe for fig-filled cookies shaped like delicate sand dollars, for instance, the friend I was baking with observed that mine came out looking like “mud huts.” My scattered haste in the kitchen is even dangerous: I once sliced off my entire index fingernail along with the onions. And let’s not discuss what I have burned.
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