Cooking From the Garden With Sister Leslie Porreca

“I do cooking classes so that people get in touch with the earth and its goodness,” says Sister Leslie

Sister Leslie Porreca [front center, wearing a yellow shirt] and friends
Sister Leslie Porreca [front center, wearing a yellow shirt] and friends (photo: Sister Leslie Porreca)

A sister at the Cranaleith Spiritual Center in Philadelphia and a member of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, Sister Leslie Porreca leads a very busy life. A nonprofit retreat and educational center, the center tasks its staff to offer programs and host others to come in for team building. And for Sister Leslie, many of her other tasks include cooking and gardening.

A native of Philadelphia, Sister Leslie attended Catholic grade school, high school and college wrapped in a very Catholic atmosphere. Indeed, Sisters of Mercy served in each facility and Sister Leslie said she found them amusing. She had thought about becoming a nun and was drawn to that by the appealing work of the Sisters. “That is what inspired me to become a social worker,” she said. “It was their mercy and charism and service to the marginalized.”

Indeed, when women join the Sisters, she said, they take vows of poverty, chastity, obedience, and of service to the poor, sick and uneducated. “In light of mercy,” she said, “that is what we are ground in. At first, we worked in schools, and then more in the health care and spirituality ministries.”

The center is “like a heart going out into the world,” she said. “We provide a beautiful setting of 10 acres, and I work a lot to keep up the grounds and gardens. It used to be a farm back in the day. I am kind of regenerating that part of the center. I have started to replant fruit and other trees. The name of the sanctuary means ‘sanctuary of trees.’”

As for her regular cooking, Sister Leslie grew up in an Italian family where her aunts, mother and grandmothers all cooked from scratch all the time. “On Sundays,” she said, “we always had a traditional Italian meal and the whole family would be there. We would start from soups with noodles; pasta made from scratch with gravy; and a meat main course such as roasted chicken with potatoes and celery roots; a salad; and fruit for dessert. That is where I learned the value of community around food.”

Fortunately for Sister Leslie, she has always loved to cook, and when she entered the Sisters of Mercy, some of her colleagues already knew that. “Soon I was asked to cook for a retreat or a special event. And it just kind of continued,” she said. “With each ministry, I took off. I was once sent to Vermont and started a farm. It became Mercy Farm and we would have guests. I would be the main cook.”

Sister Leslie notes that she values cooking from scratch and using garden-grown ingredients. Her community also has a community garden and guests still garden and have meals together. “I am trying to grow the program here,” she said, “I do cooking classes so that people get in touch with the earth and its goodness. I also teach how to grow organically, and to compost and to love what God gave us.” 

Although Sister Leslie says she loves to cook everything, she has created a layered lasagna dish with cumin, carrots, roasted tomatoes and whatever else she has on hand, and she adds onions, cream and cheese. Sounds delicious!


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Quinoa Kale Lasagna

Serves 4 to 6

  • 1 cup quinoa, rinsed till water runs clear
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 Vidalia onions, peeled and sliced very thin
  • 4 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 1 pint heavy cream
  • Shredded Romano cheese or other cheese of choice, as needed
  • 2 bunches Lacinato kale, also known as “dinosaur” kale
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • Onion powder to taste
  • 1 cup whole crushed tomatoes

Cook 1 cup quinoa in 2 cups water and set aside.

Heat the oil in a skillet over medium heat and sauté the onions and garlic until caramelized. Add the heavy cream, reduce the heat to low, and cook for 5 minutes. Turn off the heat and allow to cool. Add the cheese and blend well.

Rinse the kale, strip the leaves off the ribs and stack the leaves on top of each other. Roll them, and cut them into thin strips. Put to the side of the bowl.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a 9-inch by 12-inch lasagna pan, layer the quinoa on the bottom, add the onion-cream mixture, then the kale, a sprinkle with more shredded cheese, a layer of the tomatoes, and topped with more shredded cheese.

Bake until cheese is melted through, about 20 minutes.