Let's Talk Food: Lenten foods turn a time of penance into tradition

Author and columnist Doris Reynolds.

Author and columnist Doris Reynolds.

It has been two weeks since the beginning of Lent. The 40 days of this religious event marks a period of enforced deprivation and a time for internal, as well as external cleansing.

This period has its practical aspects as well. The timetable coincides with the turning of the seasons and a new beginning as spring arrives. It also is an opportunity to shed those troublesome pounds gained through the winter months. A diet of simple cooked fish, vegetables and fruit works wonders with the waistline, as well as instilling moderation and discipline in our lives.

The Eastern Orthodox Christians were responsible for designating a period of fasting. The Romans were not prone to moderation until Pope Gregory I, heir to the asceticism of eastern religion and architect of the eventual split between the Patriarchs of Constantinople and the Bishop of Rome, decreed total fasting until sundown. The edict included eggs from creatures either feathered or scaled along with meat or dairy products.

The word Lent comes from words meaning spring and probably refers to the lengthening of days as spring approaches. Lent probably grew out of the early Christian church’s practice of baptizing people at the Easter vigil, a service held on the evening before Easter. During this vigil, repentant Christians were accepted back in the church. In the weeks before Easter, candidates for baptism fasted and received religious instruction. By the 900s A.D., Lent had become a time of penance and a time of preparation for the Easter holiday. In the 600s the observance of Lent was set at 40 days.

St. Patrick was responsible for bringing Lent to the Irish. The Medieval monks who chronicled the life of the patron saint of the Emerald Isle legend has it that in order to be as close as possible to God’s ear, the saintly Patrick climbed the highest hill he could find. Once ensconced on a windy summit overlooking the glorious Bay of Clew he began his vigil. From this vantage point he had a spectacular view of the mountains of Mayo stretching to the north, the Twelve Pins to the south and the deep green waters of the Atlantic on the west. It was here the future St. Patrick fasted and prayed for 40 days and 40 nights. This event inspired Patrick to issue an edict urging the Irish to follow suit, and thus Lent was introduced to the loyal Christians.

Orthodox Russians ate only bread, vegetables, fruit and honey. In nonconformist northern Europe, throughout the Middle Ages, the first catch of herring provided the basic daily dinner of Lent. In the Mediterranean regions, salt cod was the traditional fasting food.

It is not surprising the French came up with food that supposedly adhered to Lenten dogma while providing toothsome choices. There is even a longtime rumor the wily French resorted to tying a string to a leg of lamb and dipping it into a well, lake or pond (whichever was handy) and claiming it was a fish.

Somehow the populace in Provence consumes great quantities of escargot, claiming this mollusk, which has never been in water, is an aquatic creature. On days designated by the church as maigre (lean) days which are to be spent in penance and abstinence, the consumption of tasty foods still prevails.

Ash Wednesday is designated as the leanest day of the Lenten period and on that day the French manage to prepare such festive foods as le grand aioli, a magnificent creamy garlic and egg yolk sauce. Aioli, which resembles mayonnaise, embellishes simple salt cod and escargot, turning this meager meal into a feast. This has proven to be such a fragrant and tasty dish that a dentist in Aix en Provence closes his office every Ash Wednesday and posts a sign: Ferme a cause de l-aioli (closed because of aioli.) No one has had the courage to remind the French that eggs are forbidden.

The Greeks are noted for their elaborate celebration of Easter and have developed many great recipes for Lent as well. I enjoy this dish year-round and because it is impossible to gather early spring greens, as the Greeks do, this is an Americanized version.

Prasopita

(Greek Lenten Leek Pie)

During Lent these delicious pies are sold throughout Greece.

Ingredients

20 sheets filo dough

8 tablespoons olive oil

8 to 10 medium leeks, washed and sliced, including some of the green stalk

1 stick unsalted butter

¾ to 1 cup washed dill, chopped

3 garlic cloves

Salt and pepper to taste

2 cups mixed green leaves (spinach, turnip greens, kale or other greens)

4 eggs

2 cups ricotta cheese or well-drained cottage cheese

Preparation

* Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Melt butter in a heavy skillet and add the leeks, garlic, dill and salt and pepper. Add the greens and stir over the heat until the moisture has evaporated.

* Beat the eggs and additional salt and pepper with the ricotta (or cottage cheese). After the leek mixture has cooled, add to egg mixture and combine well. Taste and adjust seasoning.

* Using a very large baking pan, line with 8 sheets of the filo dough, brushing between the layers with vegetable oil. Spread the filling and then add the remaining sheets of filo which have been brushed with oil.

* Bake for 30 to 40 minutes or until the dough is well crisped and golden brown. Serve at room temperature. Serves 6 to 8.

ASK DORIS:

Question: I have been buying meringue cookies from a local super market and have been told they are simple to make. I’d like a recipe for chocolate meringue cookies and hope you have a recipe simple enough for an inexperienced cook. — Harold Updike / Naples

Answer: This is a simple recipe but be prepared to fix them on a low-humidity day; preferably with the air-conditioning on. Also, I sometimes turn off the oven when the cookies are done and allow them to remain until the oven has cooled.

CHOCOLATE MERINGUE COOKIES

Ingredients

2 egg whites

1 teaspoon vanilla

1/8 teaspoon salt

½ cup sugar

6 ounces semi-sweet chocolate morsels

Preparation

* Combine egg whites, vanilla and salt. Beat until stiff but not dry. Beat in sugar gradually until stiff and satiny.

* Fold in chocolate morsels. Drop tablespoons of the batter close together on greased cookie sheet. Bake in preheated 300 degree oven for 30 minutes.

Variation: Use a 6-ounce package of mint chocolate morsels for a hint of mint and/or use ¼ cup chopped nuts.

Doris Reynolds is the author of “When Peacocks were Roasted and Mullet was Fried” and “Let’s Talk Food.” They are available for sale in the lobby of the Naples Daily News. Also available is a 4-part DVD, “A Walk Down Memory Lane with Doris Reynolds.” For comments and questions regarding today’s column, contact Doris Reynolds at foodlvr25@aol.com

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