Key concept in lenten recipes is ‘simplicity’ (March 24, 2011)

By Lois Rogers

Nearly 1,400 years ago, Pope Gregory the Great called upon all Christians to abstain from the pleasures of the palate throughout the 40 days of Lent in penance for their sins.

Banned from the table by the pope’s decree were meat and all things that “come from flesh” including milk, cheese, butter and eggs.

One has only to consider the pre-Lenten traditions sparked by the ban – Mardi Gras and Carnivale – to conclude that this ban was considered a weighty and penitential one. Carnivale, after all, means “farewell to meat” in Latin.

Throughout Lent, fish was the dietary mainstay, not a bad substitution in places where fresh fish was plentiful. Those who lived distant from rivers and oceans, however, had to rely on dried salted fish such as cod.

Since I grew up loving the family recipes for bacala I probably would have endured a salt cod Lent with some amount of grace though it would have gotten stale after a week or so. But those who love to cook are a creative lot.

Over time, especially as the prohibitions against the “things that come from the flesh” fell by the wayside in Western Christianity, all nationalities met the challenges of Lenten food with simple but tasty concoctions.

My mother was especially good at meeting those challenges, producing terrific macaroni and cheese, superb eggplant parmesan and melt in your mouth fish and chips. Dad occasionally produced his Neapolitan bacala recipe much to our joy.

Yes, Lenten Friday menus in our house were enough to lure us home from college. My roommate’s mother was an equally good cook and we often talked about the meals we loved, reciting menus and ingredients as if they were poetry.

During Lent, we’d sit on our dorm room beds and recite the menus we hoped to find when we reached home in Point Pleasant Beach on Friday night. Most of the meals were meatless but elaborate in their ingredients and preparation time. But, every once in a while, mom (or dad) would surprise us with an easier fix: soup and sandwich; potato, egg and pepper omelette or my own favorite – spaghetti dressed simply with olive oil, garlic and just a sprinkling of Romano cheese.

The simple supper

With those meals in mind, this year’s Lenten Recipe series will feature that relatively recent lenten staple – the simple supper. Typically it’s composed of soup and sandwich. An omelette or two may certainly sneak its way in.

As usual, we’ll commence with the basics of lenten regulations: Catholics between the ages of 18 and 59 are obliged to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. In addition, all Catholics, 14 years old and older, must abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday and all the Fridays of Lent.

Fasting, as explained by the U.S. bishops, means partaking of only one full meal. Some food – not equaling another full meal – is permitted at breakfast and around midday or in the evening – depending on when a person chooses to eat the main meal.

Abstinence forbids the use of meat, but not of eggs, milk products or condiments made of animal fat. It does not include meat juices and liquid foods made from meat. Thus, such foods as chicken broth, consommé, soups cooked or flavored with meat, meat gravies or sauces as well as seasonings or condiments made from animal fat are not forbidden.

Though I prefer omelettes to soup and sandwich where simple suppers are concerned, when children come to my house for a lenten supper, I usually compose a meal that features a good, canned soup.

Little ones seem to be especially fond of tomato which I dress up with a dollop of sour cream and chives for the adults.

The favorite sandwich is a double-decker, composed of two different breads and two different salads – tuna and egg. The sandwiches are garnished with grape tomatoes and either sweet gherkins or sour pickles depending on the taste of the diner.

Aunt Lo’s Double Decker Sandwiches

    (Serves 6) 

  • 24 slices of bread – 12 dark brown multi-grain and 12 wheat make a nice combination – with their crusts removed.
  • 2 six-ounce cans of water packed tuna. We generally use light tuna though white is fine too.
  • 4 hardboiled eggs
  • ¼ cup celery, chopped
  • 1 tbs chopped sweet pickle or eight finely chopped olives with pimento
  • ½ cup mayonnaise
  • ½ tsp mustard
  • salt and pepper to taste

Directions: Peel and chop the hard boiled eggs and mix with ¼ cup of mayonnaise, mustard, salt and pepper. Drain the tuna well and mix with the remaining mayonnaise, celery, pickles or olives and chill for a while if possible in separate bowls.

Spread the tuna salad on eight slices of the darker bread and the egg on eight slices of the lighter bread. Build the sandwich with the tuna on the bottom, the egg in the middle and a top layer of dark bread. Slice in half on the diagonal. Arrange on a sandwich plate with grape tomatoes and pickles and serve with a bowl of tomato soup.

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