Born in the Philippines and raised in Maryland, Father Leo Patalinghug is possibly best known as the cooking priest who defeated Chef Bobby Flay in Food Network’s “Throwdown! with Bobby Flay.”

Flay’s downfall was Father Leo’s killer dish: “Funky Fusion Fajitas.” But this Baltimore-based priest is celebrated for more than throwing down an Iron Chef.

Besides writing three books and working on two more, Father Leo has a passion for food, cooking and the valuable theology behind family meals. He has a cooking show on the Eternal World Television Network called “Savoring our Faith” and is the creator of “Grace Before Meals,” speaking at conferences across the country to encourage families to unite at the dinner table and break bread together in order to strengthen family relationships and reinforce the bond of marriage.

You may wonder how his dedication to the Catholic faith ties into cooking.

“My mother was a phenomenal cook, as was my dad,” he said while in Auburn recently. “An understanding of food was taught to me when my family opened their doors with the gift of Philippine hospitality. It gave me a full image of Christianity, even if I didn’t realize it at the time. The theological connection became palpable when I went to Rome and started to realize how powerful food was, and not just in company. In my ministry, I gained experience in visiting families, going early to help with dinner preparations. This gave me a chance to demonstrate that I was not there to be served, but to serve.”

Recently, one of Father Leo’s speaking engagements was at the Maine Catholic Women’s Conference held at the Hilton Garden Inn Auburn Riverwatch in Auburn. As part of promoting his Grace Before Meals, the famous priest also offered a cooking demonstration of penne alla vodka to a packed crowd of more than 200 women

“In my experience, nothing generates a better environment for a great conversation than time shared in the kitchen,” he said. “But the greatest blessings are the people around the table. The best way to one’s heart is through the stomach, and luckily the tools are simply delicious recipes, ideas for talking together and praying to bring God to the table . . . nourishing body, mind and soul.”

Using his God-given talent, and on a mission to bring families together one meal at a time, Father Leo engaged his Auburn audience with humor and laughter.

“Pope John Paul II called you women genius — the genius of God. And it’s because women complete humanity. You can do something I can’t do. I can’t bring life into this world, I just can’t do it! God is a life-giver, but you women do it naturally. God has a desire to feed people, but in a theological way. You also have the ability, which is natural to you . . . in feeding people. But that’s why you came today, to have a guy feed you, right?” he said, prompting laughter from the audience.

While he talked about the parallels between food and faith, Father Leo began preparing the penne alla vodka by mincing garlic and chopping onions.

“This is called mise-en-place in French, meaning ‘putting in place,’ gathering everything together like the word Mass means ‘to put in place.’ It also means missal, you know, like at the end of Mass, and you ladies run out faster than a Black Friday sale at Macy’s,” he joked, getting more laughter.

Onions are root vegetables, which was what he told the crowd he’d like them to leave being: rooted. And it was all agreed upon that if parsley was used as the incense at Mass, the result would be like when a good meal is served at home — people would come.

“Doesn’t that smell good,” he said as he heated the garlic, onion and parsley. “Or are you just saying that because I’m a priest? And don’t forget to tie up all the parsley stems and onion scraps in cheesecloth to add flavor to a soup, because my mom says it’s a sin to throw anything away.”

The humor continued when it came time to use the vodka to deglaze the pan.

“Now I will add the Russian holy water! Just a little bit!”

After several seconds of pouring, Father Leo explained how you should gently scrape the bottom of the pan while pouring slowly.

“If you don’t it will combust into an open flame,” he said, pausing, “like this.” The pan went up in a blaze. “Why would I do that? ‘Cause it’s cool and I’m a guy! Plus, it’s great for Facebook pics.”

He added tomato paste, heavy cream and spices to finish off the sauce.

“All that is left to do is baptize the pasta and the sauce, and there you have it: the power of food. These are all things your family could do together to bring back the feast day. Be grateful for the blessings God put on your table — more importantly the blessing of the people around you.”

When asked about his experience defeating Bobby Flay, the man of faith said he believed he had a bit of help from above.

“We were given a great blessing at Grace Before Meals when one of America’s top celebrity chefs came to actually challenge me to a cooking competition. His challenge wasn’t to belittle, but to pull out the best in me. It was great fun to be with someone so popular, and then it was even better to taste his food.

“During the competition, by instinct I pull out a rosary and start praying my beads, which is just natural, and a few other people starting praying alongside, and this chef I’m competing against looks at me and says: ‘Oh my gosh, he pulled out the beads, I’m done; I’m done!’

“Prayer was on my side,” continued Father Leo. “But I did tell him, and everyone there, that I don’t care who wins or loses. The food’s purpose ultimately was the highlight. It brought friends and family together to celebrate God’s many blessings.”

Father Leo’s books include: “Grace Before Meals: Recipes and Inspiration for Family Meals and Family Life”; “Spicing Up Married Life: Satisfying Couples’ Hunger for True Love; and “Epic Food Fight: A Bite-Sized History of Salvation.”

Father Leo’s recipes

These recipes are from the book “Grace Before Meals: Recipes and Inspiration for Family Meals and Family Life.”

Penne alla vodka

Ingredients:

1 box of penne pasta, cooked al dente

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 cloves of garlic, minced

1 medium-sized white onion, minced

2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped

32-ounce can of tomato sauce

6-ounce can of tomato paste

1 cup heavy whipping cream

1/2 cup of Vodka

1/2 tablespoon kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

2-3 pinches of red pepper flakes

Instructions:

Heat olive oil in a large pot or pan over medium heat. Saute garlic, onions and parsley until onions become translucent (approximately 2-3 minutes).

Add tomato paste and vodka. Simmer away from an open flame until the smell of alcohol is not strong.

Add tomato sauce and cream and allow this to heat and simmer.

Add salt, pepper and red pepper flakes to taste.

Incorporate cooked pasta and mix.

Garnish with parsley and an extra drizzle of olive oil.

“Lamb Blessed by God”

Ingredients:

4 lamb chops, French cut and sliced into two chops, two ribs each (double-thick cut)

2 cups bread crumbs

1 tablespoon salt

1 tablespoon pepper

4 tablespoons olive oil

2 teaspoon butter

1 clove garlic, minced

1 teaspoon fresh thyme

Sauce:

2 tablespoons grape jelly

2 tablespoons mustard

1 cup orange juice

1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Drizzle the cut chops with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Mix thyme and garlic with breadcrumbs. Dredge chops in breadcrumb mixture. Heat olive oil and butter in a large skillet. Sear chops for 2 minutes on all sides. Remove chops and place on baking sheet. Then place in the oven for 15-18 minutes (depending on temperature preference). To prepare the sauce, add the grape jelly, mustard, vinegar, orange juice, salt and pepper to the skillet, and whisk together until fully incorporated. Place skillet over medium/low heat and reduce until half. To serve, place small portion of sauce on the side.

Broiled figs stuffed with blue cheese, prosciutto and balsamic glaze

Ingredients:

10 figs, stemmed and halved

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar

1 pinch of salt and black pepper

5 slices of fresh prosciutto cut into quarters, creating 20 small pieces

1/8 cup of blue cheese

Crackers of choice

Directions:

Set oven to broil. Prepare a baking pan, lined with foil and with nonstick spray. Wash and dry figs. Remove stems and cut in half. Slice a thin piece off the rounded edges to create a flat surface, preventing the figs from rolling around.

In a separate bowl, combine oil, vinegar, salt, and pepper, and whisk together. Assemble figs on baking pan, flesh side up. Top off with portion of prosciutto and blue cheese. Drizzle a little of the oil and balsamic vinegar on top of each of these stuffed figs.

When broiler is ready, place under the direct heat source and broil for 2-3 minutes, or until the cheese begins to melt and caramelize. Remove from the oven. Rest five minutes to cool before serving with crackers. This will also work for apples, pineapples, peaches or plums.


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