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Lenten foods around the world more luscious than expected

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

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.

Russia

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.

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.

Ukraine

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 sausage, 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.

Greece

Greek Orthodox Christians give up all meat and animal products during Lent. But with 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 tabbouleh, 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.

Malta

On the islands of Malta, which are south of Sicily in the Mediterranean Sea, a special almond cake, called kwarezimal, is a highlight. Recipes for these dense, sweet bars vary, but generally call for ground almonds, flour, citrus zest and honey.

A Lenten bread, called sfineg, is a flat, round loaf coated with honey. The bread often is folded like a burrito and filled with spinach before it is fried in oil.


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