Mac and Cheese, a must for Lent (April 15, 2011)

“Your way of acting should be different from the world’s way; the love of Christ must come before all else…”
– The Rule of St. Benedict

Lent, the 40-day season of self-examination, reflection and repentance in preparation for Easter, is upon us.

For many people, food, or a lack thereof, is deeply entwined with the season. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are days of fast and abstinence in which only one full meal is to be eaten. All the Fridays of Lent are days to abstain from meat.

Many people give up a favorite food during Lent in keeping with the penitential tone.

Limiting diet during Lent is a sign of selflessness, devotion and penitence, said Father Sam A. Sirianni, director of the diocesan Office of Worship. “It’s a way of allowing us to feel the emptiness which corresponds to the emptiness of this world. It symbolizes an emptiness that can only be filled by God and allows us to connect with a hunger for the Lord.”

Many people look forward to Lenten meals as a kind of culinary blessing, a way to set the table with the solidarity of spiritual communion during the six-week journey to Easter.

It has become a tradition at The Monitor to feature Lenten recipes each week of the season so that domestic chefs can add to their personal treasure troves of meatless cuisine. This year, for a bit of added spice, we’ve asked some noted Catholic chefs, all cookbook authors, to share their favorite Lenten recipes.

It’s only fitting that we begin with a New Jersey chef, Maria Tisdall, who has been serving up good, wholesome and healthful fare for the more than 50 Benedictine Sisters of St. Walburga Monastary in Elizabeth for 13 years.

Her book, The Convent Cook, captures the rhythm of life in a Benedictine abby. It reflects the drama and mood of the liturgical year by opening the door to kitchen and dining hall.

A self-described “methodical chef” who enjoys following the seasons with her food choices, Mrs. Tisdall produces delightful meals in harmony with the Catholic calendar.

“I like to follow the seasons,” she said. “I enjoy following the year and keeping all of the traditions. I like to make foods that are immune boosting, with garlic and fresh vegetables and fruit. And since many of our Sisters work in schools, I try to make one soup a week so that they can pack it for lunch.”

While The Convent Cook features many meatless meals, including Poached Salmon with Mirepoix and Dijonnaise Sauce, Scallops with Turmeric-Scented Cream Sauce and Sesame-Marinated Salmon Fillets, Mrs. Tisdall recommended treating our readers to her version of that incomparable Lenten standard: macaroni and cheese.

“The Sisters prefer to eat simply the year round,” she said. “During Lent, they eat very plainly. Instead of stuffed flounder, for instance, in Lent I would make a plain, broiled flounder.

“The macaroni and cheese recipe is my personal favorite Lenten recipe,” she said. “My mother used to make it for us for Lent. It is so good,” she said. “It’s different in that it’s heartier than a regular macaroni and cheese,” she said.

The recipe, which serves four to six, is also easy to prepare.

“In most of my recipes, I try to keep to a minimum of ingredients. With this dish, you can put it all together in a Pyrex bowl the night before or in the morning, put foil over it, stick it in the refrigerator while you’re at work, take it out, bake it and serve it in the same bowl when you come home.”

As a side dish, she serves classic stuffed tomatoes. “Everyone knows the sorry state of tomatoes in March,” she said. “They remind us of small, orange baseballs. These hothouse tomatoes offer a plus: They are great for stuffing and roasting in the oven.”

Lenten Macaroni and Cheese
– 1 lb. elbow macaroni
– 2 tbsp. unsalted butter
– 1 large yellow onion, chopped
– 1 clove garlic, minced
– 2 (8-ounce) cans tomato sauce
– 1 lb. Cheddar cheese, cubed

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 2-quart ovenproof glass bowl or a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with butter. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the macaroni and cook according to package directions until al dente.

Meanwhile, in a saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat, add the onion and garlic and sauté for 6 to 8 eight minutes, until golden brown and soft. Remove from the heat.

When the pasta is ready, drain and place in the greased bowl or baking dish. Add the onion and garlic and mix well. Add the tomato sauce and mix again. Add the cheese and stir until well incorporated. Pour into the prepared bowl.

Cover the bowl with aluminum foil and bake for 30 minutes until hot and bubbly. Serve immediately, directly from the dish.

Stuffed Tomatoes
– 1/4 cup pine nuts
– 4 tomatoes
– salt to taste
– freshly ground black pepper to taste
– 1 cup seasoned bread crumbs
– 1/4 cup grated Romano cheese
– 1 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
– 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spread the pine nuts on a small baking sheet in a single layer, place in the oven and toast for 8 to 10 minutes until golden brown. Pour on a plate to cool.

Increase oven temperature to 375 degrees. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil and grease lightly with olive oil. Cut the tomatoes in half crosswise. If necessary, remove a thin slice from the bottom of each half to keep the pieces upright. Place the tomato halves cut side up on baking sheet and remove the pulp with a melon baller or teaspoon. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.

Stuffing: In a large bowl, combine the pine nuts, bread crumbs, cheese and parsley. Toss until well blended. Add the oil and toss again. The mixture should hold together firmly when pressed in the palm of your hand. If the stuffing is too dry, add 1 to 2 tablespoons of water until it holds together. Scoop the filling into the tomato halves, dividing it evenly and pressing firmly as you create a mound.

Place in the oven and bake for 15 minutes, until stuffing is golden brown and crusty. Remove from the oven and transfer to a serving platter. Serve while still hot and bubbly.

Let us pray
Lord Jesus Christ, may our Lenten fasting turn us toward all our brothers and sisters who are in need. Bless this table, our good food, and us. Send us through Lent with good cheer, and bring us to the fullness of your Passover. Amen

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