As I write this morning, snow continues to fly by the wide window in my home office and I’m praying the roads are clear enough tomorrow to make for safe driving to church on Ash Wednesday. Today is Shrove Tuesday and sadly, the condition of the road outside the window makes it ultimately clear that there’s no going out for a Fat Tuesday celebration or a Shrove Tuesday pancake. I’ll just have to rough it with left over Chinese take-out ordered during the snow a couple of days ago and make the best of things by indulging in some recollections of the Lenten table my mother always set.
Once again in this season of penitence, with its hallmark requirements for fasting and abstinence, I reflect on the glow of her table and how simple and good the food she prepared was.
Mom was a terrific meat and potatoes kind of cook with a large accompaniment of zesty Italian tossed in to please the sensibilities of my dad.
Macaroni and cheese, blended with sharp cheddar cheese, a classic white sauce and bread crumbs, was Lenten fare with mom at her very best. But her Italian offerings – tempting fried eggplant with red sauce, pasta with clam sauce (white or red), made coming home from college every Friday in Lent a pleasure.
So as we begin Lent, I’d like to share some basics that either were or would have been staples of her table.
This year, I especially want to start off with a good vegetable stock. Though the rules of abstinence do not forbid meat juices and liquid foods made from meat such as chicken broth, consomme and the like – never a Lent goes by without those who want to observe in a strictly meatless fashion, questioning their use in recipes.
Since Mom’s Lenten soups were exclusively composed of sea food – chowders and bisques – there’s no vegetable stock legacy recipe. But this one, adapted from many on the Internet, is rich and worthy. That’s followed by mom’s legacy recipe adapted from her old, mainstay Betty Crocker cookbook which can be used as a base for vegetable lasagna, macaroni and cheese, cheese or plain sauces for vegetables and fish. I’ve included a few tips that turn up on the current Betty Crocker pages for the white sauce.
Finally, there’s a tomato cream sauce for pasta that hopefully will delight palates, though since it’s Lent, perhaps not too much.
– 1 lb celery, cut into large pieces
-1/12 pounds sweet onions, cut into quarters
-1 lb carrots cut into pieces
-1 lb tomatoes cored and cut into pieces
-1 lb green bell pepper cut into pieces
-1/2 pound turnips cubed
-2 tablespoons olive oil
-3 cloves garlic
-6 black peppercorns
-1 bunch parsley, chopped (but not too fine)
-1 gallon water
Directions: Preheat oven to 450 degrees; remove leaves and tender inner parts of celery and set aside. Toss onions, carrots, tomatoes, bell pepper and turnips with olive oil and place them in roasting pan in the oven. Stir the vegetables every 15 minutes, roasting until all of the vegetables have browned and the onions have started to caramelize. This takes about one hour.
Put all the browned vegetables along with the celery, garlic, pepper corns, parsley and water into a large stock pot. Bring to a full boil. Reduce to simmer and cook uncovered until the liquid is reduced by half. Pour the broth through a colander, catching it in a large pot. The vegetable broth can be used right away or stored for later use. Set the vegetables aside and use them for soup and stews.
Basic White (Bechamel) Sauce
-2 tablespoons butter
-2 tablespoons all purpose flour
-1/8 tsp salt
– 1 cup milk
pepper to taste
Directions: In a small saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. Whisk in the flour, salt and pepper until smooth. Gradually whisk in the milk. Bring to a boil; cook and stir for 2 minutes or until thickened. Use immediately or refrigerate. Yield: 1 cup.
Tips for white sauce from the Betty Crocker Cookbook:
– Stir in 1/4 teaspoon ground mustard with the flour. After boiling and stirring sauce 1 minute, stir in 1/2 cup shredded Cheddar cheese (2 ounces) until melted. Serve with eggs and vegetables or over toast for Welsh rabbit. About 1 1/3 cups sauce.
-Stir in 1/2 teaspoon curry powder with the flour and serve with shrimp.
-Stir in 1 teaspoon chopped fresh or 1/2 teaspoon dried dill weed and dash of ground nutmeg with the flour. Serve with fish.
– Decrease butter to 1 tablespoon and flour to 1 tablespoon. After boiling and stirring sauce 1 minute, stir in 3 tablespoons Dijon mustard. Serve with vegetables.
Tomato-cream sauce for pasta
-2 tablespoons olive oil
-1 small, sweet onion
-1 clove garlic, minced
-1 (14.5 ounce) can Italian-style diced tomatoes, undrained
-1 tablespoon dried basil leaves
–3/4 teaspoon white sugar
-1/4 teaspoon salt
-1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
-1/2 cup heavy cream
-1 tablespoon butter
Directions: In a saucepan, saute onion and garlic in olive oil over medium heat, stirring to make sure it doesn’t burn. Add tomatoes, basil, sugar, oregano, salt and pepper. Continue to stir as you bring it to a gentle boil until most of the liquid evaporates. Remove from the heat, stir in the cream and butter. Then, return to heat, reduce to simmer for five minutes more.
From the Book of Catholic Household Blessings and Prayers, here’s a reading to share at table on Ash Wednesday
“Merciful God, you called us forth from the dust of the earth; you claimed us for Christ in the waters of Baptism. Look upon us as we enter these Forty Days bearing the mark of ashes, and bless our journey through the desert of Lent to the font of rebirth. May our fasting be hunger for justice; our alms, a making of peace; our prayer, the chant of humble and grateful hearts. All that we do and pray is in the name of Jesus, for in his cross, you proclaim your love, for ever and ever. Amen”