Lenten fare: Simply delicious

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, February 22, 2012

By Daniel Neman
Toledo Blade
As we get closer to Easter, Christians take time during Lent to reflect through prayer and through efforts to make their lives simpler.
That includes the foods they eat, too.
“Lent for us is a time for getting prepared for the resurrection of Christ. We do that through fasting, giving up many kinds of foods, but also of praying more,” said the Rev. Basil Koory, dean of Saint George Antiochian Orthodox Christian Cathedral in Toledo, Ohio.
For Catholics and some Protestants, the 40-day period (not including Sundays) of Lent begins Feb. 22, Ash Wednesday. It is “a preparation for Easter,” said the Rev. Margaret Holt Sammons of St. Michael’s in the Hills Episcopal Church in Toledo.
For the Orthodox denominations, the 40-day period (including Sundays) begins next Monday, Feb. 27.
Lent is a time to “figure out where we are in our spiritual journey and try to come closer to God,” Sammons said.
“It’s analogous to an athlete going into training. Those who are preparing for Olympic tryouts are very careful about what they eat,” she said.
And because it is a time for restraint, Lent is also a season for fasting — ‘fasting is a great thing for us because it brings us closer to God, because it reminds us that we are closer to God than we are to things of the world,” Koory said.
Catholics between the ages of 14 and 59 are supposed to fast on Ash Wednesday and every Friday of Lent. During these fasts, they refrain from eating meat, and they have just one meal a day — though they can additionally have two smaller meals if these two meals combined do not add up to the food eaten during a regular meal.
The Eastern denominations have it harder. Beginning a week before Lent starts and then lasting through the whole season, the Orthodox denominations refrain from meat altogether, and during Lent itself they also give up all forms of dairy products, fish, wine, alcohol and even olive oil.
“For people following the fast to the letter, it’s mostly vegetarian,” Koory said. “Vegetables, lentils, soup. A much simpler palate all the way across. Fasting has to be a little bit of a hardship, a little bit of a trial, a little bit of a challenge.
“The idea is not to fill yourself up. Leave a little empty, and let God fill in the rest.”
The Episcopal Church has no particular rules for Lent, Sammons said, “but what we generally encourage is that we take a step toward simplicity. I know some families don’t go out as often and set aside the money (they would have spent) to give to a charity, a food bank, or to buy supper for their neighbors.”
Even though there is fasting going on during Lent, a person has to eat. What can you eat that is simple and yet nutritionally capable of getting you through the day?
In some traditions, lentils have long been associated with Lent; they’re a humble bean, but with plenty of protein. According to Koory, many people in the Middle Eastern culture will make a Lenten meal out of Mujadara, a cumin-scented mix of lentils and rinsed white rice topped with caramelized onions.
The onions take a while to make — if cooked too fast, they will burn and taste acrid — but lentils are such a small bean that they actually cook quite quickly (20-30 minutes) and do not need to be pre-soaked.
More time-consuming, at least the hands-on part, is the classic and traditional Mediterranean dish of Stuffed Grape Leaves. The hardest part of this dish may be finding the grape leaves; Middle Eastern markets are certain to have them, and assorted grocery stores do, too, but you might want to call first before you go looking for them. These are invariably stuffed with rice that have been sauteed in oil, and they usually also have a hint of tomato. Our recipe, which comes from “The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook,” also has the popular combination of pine nuts and currants or raisins, but these can be eliminated if you choose.
Once the filling is made, the time-consuming part lies in rolling it in the leaves. The process is inevitably compared to rolling cigars, though not many people these days have done that. You just put the filling a little above where the stem used to be, fold the bottom of the leave over it, fold over the right and left sides of the leaf, and then roll the little cylinder you have made toward the point of the leaf. It’s easy. Daunting, but easy.
For a heartier meal that is still vegetarian, try the Quick Green Chile Soup-Stew. Inspired by New Mexican flavors (which is why the word is spelled “chile”), this dish is simply one can each of black beans, kidney beans, garbanzo beans, and black-eyed peas, along with a large can of tomatoes. The unique taste comes from two unexpected ingredients. One is green enchilada sauce, which brings a sassy tang to the beans from its tomatillas. The other is canned, unsweetened pumpkin, which brings a surprisingly complex depth to the soup’s flavor.
Although her church does not require abstaining from any particular foods, Sammons said that during Lent, she does try to eat more vegetarian meals. One that she likes in particular comes from Jane Brody, Spaghetti with Chickpea Sauce. This is a satisfying and filling dish while still adhering to the Lenten tradition of plain foods that are free from extravagance.
These recipes are all fitting for the somber, reflective time of Lent. But they are so good, you will want to have them during the rest of the year, too.
Spaghettiwith Chickpea Sauce
2 (15-ounce) cans chickpeas, divided (do not drain)
2 Tbs. olive oil
4 large garlic cloves, minced
11/2 large onions, thinly sliced
1 (15-ounce) can tomatoes, drained and cut up, with liquid reserved
1 tsp. minced fresh rosemary
1/4 C. minced fresh parsley
Freshly ground black pepper
1 pound spaghetti, cooked and drained
1/4 C. grated Parmesan cheese
In a blender or food processor, puree 1 can of chickpeas with its liquid.
In a large saucepan, heat the oil and saute the garlic and onions until the garlic begins to brown.
Add the tomatoes and their liquid, rosemary, chickpea puree and the remaining can of chickpeas with its liquid to the saucepan. Stirring it often, heat the mixture for about 15 minutes or until it has thickened. Add the parsley and pepper.
Toss the hot spaghetti with the sauce, and sprinkle with Parmesan before serving.
Yield: 6-8 servings
Source: “Jane Brody’s Good Food Book,” by Jane Brody
Quick Green ChilieSoup-Stew
1 (15-ounce) can black beans, undrained
1 (15-ounce) can kidney beans, undrained
1 (15-ounce) can garbanzo beans, undrained
1 (15-ounce) can black-eyed peas, undrained
1 (28-ounce) can chopped tomatoes with juice
30 ounces enchilada sauce (canned is fine), preferably New Mexico-style green chile, mild, medium or hot
1 C. canned, unsweetened pumpkin
Salt and black pepper to taste
Put beans, tomatoes and all their liquid into pot, and heat over medium-high heat, stirring often.
When heated through, reduce heat to medium-low, and stir in enchilada sauce and pumpkin. Heat again, stir in salt and pepper, and remove from heat. Serve.
Yield: 6-8 servings
Source: St. Innocent Russian Orthodox Cathedral, Anchorage, Alaska
Mujadara (Cumin-Scented Lentils and Rice)
1 cup small green or brown lentils
2 bay leaves
3/4 C. long-grain rice, rinsed briefly under running water
Salt and pepper
11/2 tsp. ground cumin
1 medium yellow onion, halved and very thinly sliced
2 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil, more if necessary
Rinse the lentils under running water. Bring a cup of water to a rolling boil and add the rinsed lentils and bay leaves. When the water returns to a simmer, lower the heat, cover the pan and simmer the lentils for 15-20 minutes or until the lentils are just tender and all the water has been absorbed.
In a separate pan, bring another cup of water to a rolling boil. When the lentils have cooked for 15-20 minutes and their water has been absorbed, add the rinsed rice to the lentils along with the cup of boiling water, the salt, pepper and cumin. Bring to a simmer once more, cover, and cook until all the liquid has been absorbed and both the lentils and the rice are thoroughly tender but have not become mushy. Watch the pot as it cooks, and if it becomes too dry before the lentils are done, add a little more boiling water as necessary.
While the lentils and rice are cooking, saute the onion slices in olive oil over low heat until they are golden brown. If they threaten to stick to the pan, add more oil. Keep the heat low and stir occasionally, more often as the onions start to brown. This can take as long as 20-30 minutes, but keep the heat low or the onions will burn.
When the lentils are ready to serve, mound them in a serving dish and garnish the top with the golden onions and the oil in which they cooked. Serve immediately.
Yield: 2 entree servings or 4-6 side-dish servings
— “The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook,” by Nancy Harmon Jenkins
Grape Leaves Stuffed with Rice
1 Tbs. dried black currants, optional
2 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil, more if necessary
1 medium onion, minced
3-4 scallions, both white and green parts minced
2 Tbs. pine nuts, optional
1/2 C. long-grain rice
2 medium tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped, OR 2 canned tomatoes, drained and chopped
Salt and pepper
1/4 cup hot water
1/4 tsp. ground allspice
About 25 grape leaves, softened if fresh or rinsed if canned
1/4 C. fresh lemon juice
If using, put the currants in a small bowl and cover with hot water to soften while you prepare the rest of the stuffing.
Warm the olive oil in a saucepan over medium-low heat and gently saute the onion and scallions for 15-20 minutes or until they are thoroughly softened, but not browned. Add more oil if they begin to stick. Add the pine nuts, if using, and continue cooking a few minutes longer, until golden. Add the rice and stir to coat thoroughly with the oil. Add the tomatoes, salt, pepper and the hot water. Mix well, cover and cook over gentle heat until all the liquid has been absorbed, about 10 minutes. The rice will start to soften but will not be cooked. Remove from the heat, stir in the allspice and drained currants, and set aside, covered, for 10 minutes.
Rinse the grape leaves thoroughly to remove the brine, pat dry with paper towels and use a sharp knife to cut the thick stem away from the leaf (cut a little into the leaf to make sure none of the stem remains). Place the leaf on a work surface with the thicker part of the veins facing up. Put a spoonful of the stuffing about 1/2 inch above where the stem had been. Fold the bottom of the leaf over the stuffing, then fold in each side, right and left. Carefully roll the leaf, making a compact bundle, toward the point of the leaf.
Place the stuffed leaves in the bottom of a heavy kettle or saucepan; make sure they fit comfortably but are not too snug (they will expand a bit as they cook). You can make several layers of the stuffed leaves, but if one layer faces one direction, the next layer should face the other direction (north-south, and then east-west). Add lemon juice and water to nearly cover the leaves. Set a plate on top of the grape leaves to keep them from unrolling while they cook, cover the pan and simmer gently for about 25-30 minutes or until the rice and grape leaves are thoroughly cooked.
Serve garnished with lemon wedges and a drizzle of olive oil.
Yield: 4 servings
— “The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook,” by Nancy Harmon Jenkins