New York chef Lidia Bastianich was in awe the day she received a call from Archbishop Celestino Migliore, the Vatican's representative to the United Nations. He asked if she would consider preparing two meals for Pope Benedict XVI during his visit to New York, that is, as long as it wasn't an "imposition."
The church's humble approach touched Bastianich, who was "stunned" that they had considered her.
"I know he has to eat, but certainly I didn't think it would be me," she said with characteristic modesty. "The ultimate reward, and I think blessing, is this opportunity to cook for Pope Benedict."
Most people, even established chefs accustomed to cooking for powerful people, might be nervous about such an undertaking, but Bastianich described an inner calm. "I feel very peaceful, like a warmth is around me," said Bastianich, who hosts a popular PBS cooking show.
"The menus that we planned of course is following his wishes of simplicity, of seasonality, not too elaborate a meal."
On Friday, the pope's dinner at Archbishop Migliore's Manhattan residence began with a simple salad of steamed spring vegetables tossed with an almond vinaigrette: fava beans, string beans, asparagus, and toasted almonds topped with a dollop of warm ricotta drizzled with extra virgin olive oil. Next, the pope and his 52 other guests dined upon Cacio Pepe e Pere, which is ravioli filled with pecorino cheese, and fresh pears served in a cheese and crushed black pepper sauce.
The menu also included a risotto, which Bastianich described as "simple and straightforward." It was served with nettles, favas, fresh peas, legumes, and wild onions, with grana padano cheese and extra virgin olive oil. Bastianich decided upon a whole grilled striped bass as the main course. "He loved the idea of fish," Bastianich said. She filleted the bass, seasoning it with coarse sea salt and extra virgin olive oil. The fish was served alongside boiled fingerling potatoes, and a chicory and endive salad with a little mustard vinaigrette.
To complete the mouthwatering feast, the pope and his many guests enjoyed the comforting flavors of apple strudel. "I love making apple strudel," Bastianich said. "Since I was a little girl I used to roll up [the strudel] with my grandmother. He's from that part of Europe, I know he's going to love it. I'm trying to bring some of his food memories back to relax him. He's busy. He has philosophy of the world at mind. Maybe my strudel will just bring him to that moment to the table and make him relax."
Yesterday's dinner, Bastianich's second meal for Pope Benedict, was designed for a smaller crowd: his immediate circle. Saturday was also the anniversary of his third year in the papacy. The meal began with white and green asparagus topped with fresh pecorino cheese and drizzled with a light vinaigrette. Next, Bastianich chose a light soup to "make him feel warm inside and cozy."
Paying homage to the pope's middle European roots, Bastiantich served goulash as the main course: beef shoulder braised until tender, then sliced and garnished with paprika, a dollop of sour cream and a side of sauerkraut. The meal ended with fruit croustade, a delicious rustic tart. Earlier in the week, Bastianich said, "I hope that, with this meal ... that he relaxes and that he feels that he is at home. The love that we did this with -- we want it to come through. I hope to see a big smile on him ... and I hope he gives us a blessing.