Personal renewal and sacrifice need not taste bland.
Christians around the world are preparing for Lent, the 40-day period of fasting and reflection that leads up to Easter, usually beginning on Ash Wednesday for Western churches. (Some Eastern churches may begin and end earlier.)
For many, Lent entails forgoing meat. Some Orthodox faiths also abstain from dairy, seafood, oil and wine.
Despite those sacrifices, wherever Christianity has flourished, so have rich culinary traditions for this religious season. It’s easy to keep your menu lively by using this time to explore the Lenten foods of cultures around the globe. Here’s a sampling:
During Lent, Russian Orthodox Christians omit meat of any kind (including fish and fowl), as well as animal products, including dairy and eggs. Weekdays, the strictest days of Lent, they also give up oil and wine.
“It’s sort of a gradient of strictness,” says the Rev. Seraphim Holland, of the St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church in Dallas. “We’re not fasting to be miserable, we’re fasting to not focus on food.”
“We’re focusing on prayer,” he says. “We’re focusing on bettering ourselves.”
Meals during Lent are simple, such as cabbage soup, called shchi, and borscht, which is shchi plus beets. Boiled potatoes, beans, lentils, rice, onions and bread also are common.
Traditionally, Russian Orthodox Christians ate buckwheat porridge, called kasha, during Lent. Today, any type of oatmeal or other hot cereal is referred to as kasha and eaten during this season.
Ukrainian Catholics abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent (and are encouraged to do so the rest of the year, as well). They then break this fast on Easter with a rich breakfast of sausages, ham, egg and cheese.
A typical fasting food in the Ukraine is cabbage stuffed with rice or barley, sometimes with a mushroom sauce. Ukrainians also eat a meatless borscht.
Since fish is allowed, and herring plentiful, Ukrainians also eat a lot of pickled herring.
The potato dumpling, called varenyky, is another Lenten staple. They are boiled and served with butter and onions. Sometimes the varenyky has sauerkraut or cheese inside, or sweet cabbage or prunes, if it’s a dessert.
Greek Orthodox Christians give up all meat and animal products during Lent.
“The idea here, theologically, is we’re reverting back to the Edenic diet,” says the Rev. Apostolos Hill, of the Assumption Cathedral in Denver, referencing the story of Adam and Eve in the Bible.
But with healthy, vibrant Mediterranean cuisine to draw from, Greek Lenten food hardly seems a sacrifice.
There are numerous bean dishes, tomatoes and pasta, including orzo (a rice-shaped pasta that cooks quickly).
There also is tabouleh, falafel and hummus, as well as fresh fruit, olives and pita bread. There are sweets, too. Cookie and cake recipes are adjusted to omit the dairy, such as butter.
The Greek break Lent with an enormous Easter feast that can last well into the morning. Lamb often is the central dish, served with bean salads, vegetables, rice, seafood and a lemony soup called magiritsa.
The islands of Malta, which are south of Sicily in the Mediterranean Sea, have a sophisticated Lenten food culture, says Mathew Schmalz, a religious studies professor at the College of the Holy Cross, in Worcester, Mass.
A special almond cake, called kwarezimal, is a highlight. Recipes for these dense, sweet bars vary, but generally call for ground almonds, flour, cirtrus zest and honey.
A Lenten bread, called sfineg, is a flat, round loaf coated with honey and fried in oil. The bread often is folded like a burrito and filled with spinach before it is fried.
In India’s western state of Goa, there’s a strong Catholic community that dates back to Portuguese colonialism in the 15th century. Spicy fish, cooked with vinegar, is popular during Lent, says Schmalz.
Hot Beet and Potato Borscht
The addition of potatoes to this traditional dish creates a more robust version for cool weather meals. It’s a staple, eaten hot, in Ukraine and Russia, but it’s also popular in other Eastern European countries. Another borscht, eaten cold, is prepared differently. The recipe from Nava Atlas’ “Vegetarian Soups for All Seasons,” Amberwood Press
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
2 large yellow onions, chopped
3 medium potatoes, peeled and grated
4 medium beets, peeled and grated
1 large carrot, peeled and grated
1 cup orange juice
Juice of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons minced fresh dill
2 to 3 tablespoons sugar, more or less to taste
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
In a large stockpot, heat over medium. Add the onion and sauté until golden, about 6 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients except the sugar, salt and pepper.
Add enough water to cover the vegetables. Bring to a rapid simmer, then lower heat, cover and simmer until the vegetables are tender, about 40 minutes.
If soup is too thick, add a bit more water. Season with sugar, salt and pepper, then simmer for another 5 minutes.
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
Approximate nutrition per serving: 168 calories, 3.7 grams fat (less than 1 gram saturated), 19 percent fat calories), 3 grams protein, 32 grams carbohydrate, no cholesterol, 3 grams dietary fiber, 148 milligrams sodium.
Kwarezimal (Lenten Almond Cakes)
These chewy, nutty cakes are a traditional Maltese sweet served during Lent. Kwarezimal refers to quadragesima, a Latin term that means the “fortieth,” or Lent.
2 cups blanched almonds (whole, slivered or chopped)
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Zest of 2 oranges
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup honey
1/4 cup lightly chopped pistachios
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Place the almonds on a baking sheet and place in the oven to toast for 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, in a large bowl combine the flour, sugar, cinnamon and orange zest.
When the almonds are done, remove them from the oven and transfer to a food processor. Pulse until the almonds are coarsely ground. Add the almonds to the flour mixture.
Add the water and mix to form a very stiff dough. Add additional flour or water to get a tacky, but not sticky, dough. Transfer the dough to a lightly floured surface and knead several times.
Form the dough into a log, then flatten to form a 6-by-18-inch rectangle. Use a knife to cut the rectangle into 1 1/2-by-6-inch bars. Carefully transfer the bars to the prepared baking sheet, leaving about 1/2 inch between them.
Bake for 20 minutes, or until just lightly browned at the edges and still tender. Cool for 5 minutes, then drizzle with honey and sprinkle with pistachios.
Yield: 12 cakes
Approximate nutrition per serving: 356 calories, 14 grams fat (1 gram saturated, 34 percent fat calories), 8 grams protein, 52 grams carbohydrate, no cholesterol, 4 grams dietary fiber, 2 milligrams sodium.