Archive for the ‘Medieval Lent’ Category

14th C. Painting of the Knights Hospitaller

This article is part of a series of recipes suitable for the Medieval season of Lent during which all animal products other than fish were forbidden except on Sundays. I’ll be posting at least one Lenten recipe per week until Easter Sunday (April 4, 2010).

The idea of making a sweet pastry during lent is pretty daunting; no butter or eggs are allowed. At first, I thought of olive oil cake, but that has eggs in it. One of the best parts of Lent is how it challenges you to be creative in your cooking. I knew that over the past 2000-odd years there must be a cook out there somewhere who came up with a decent dessert that kept to the rules. I found several. In the Republic of Malta, they make a traditional cookie during lent called a Kwarezimal. The word is derived for the Latin term for the season of Lent, Quadragesima. In parts of Italy there are Lenten cookies called Quaresimali, however, they contain egg whites. I wonder which crafty baker got her local priest to agree to that one?

Having never tried Maltese cuisine, I decided to make the Kwarezimal. If you’re interested in learning more about the Italian Quaresimali, Faith Willinger wrote a nice piece about them for The Atlantic.

Malta has a fascinating history, very much connected with the medieval military-religious order called the Order of Knights of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem, which began in the Holy Land in the 12th Century where the brother knights would care for and provide military escort to Christian pilgrims visiting Jerusalem. They soon became very powerful with direct political and monetary support from the Pope and priories spread across most of the countries in Europe.

After suffering a great defeat at Rhodes by the Ottomans under Suleiman the Magnificent, the order was reduced to moving from priory to priory in Europe with no real home. In 1530 King Charles I of Spain gave the islands which now make up the Republic of Malta (along with the North African port of Tripoli, now in Libya) to the order in perpetuity. In exchange the Knights paid an annual fee of one Maltese Falcon which was sent on November first each year to the King’s representative, the Viceroy of Sicily. Yes, that is where Dashiell Hammett got the idea.

Now known colloquially as the Knights of Malta, the order spent the 16th and 17th Centuries ridding the high seas of Barbary pirates and conveniently keeping any booty they captured. The islands of Malta were taken by Napoleon in 1798, and many of the knights dispersed throughout the world. A number settled in Russia where they built a priory and tried to rebuild the order. They limped along in these reduced circumstances until the mid 19th Century when Pope Leo XII created a new Grand Master for the order and encouraged him to return to the original humanitarian hospital work upon which the order was founded over 700 years earlier. The order has recently returned to Malta where it signed an agreement with the government and holds a 99 year lease on the Fort of St. Angelo, which had been the Knights’ primary military fortification beginning in the 16th Century.

These Kwarezimal cookies take advantage of the mediterranean climate in Malta, containing a lot of citrus in the form of orange, lemon and tangerine zest and an exotic ingredient: orange flower water. Orange flower water is an extract made from the distillation of bitter orange blossoms. It is a common ingredient in Arab cuisine and was probably introduced to Malta when it was under Muslim rule from 870 to 1091. You should be able to find it in a middle eastern grocery. If you can’t get any you could try using orange extract instead, but it is likely to be sweeter since it is not made from bitter oranges. Another option is to go in a completely different direction and use vanilla extract which would combine nicely with the citrus zest.

Kwarezimal remind me of middle eastern sweets, covered in sticky honey and filled with nuts, they’re like a citrusy baklava. The slightly bitter flavor of the orange flower water is tempered perfectly by the honey and all that chopped citrus rind is like a burst of sunshine in your mouth that lasts a long time. They would go really well with a nice little glass of Sauternes or a similar dessert wine.

Kwarezimal, Maltese Lenten Cookies

Adapted from Anne and Helen Caruana-Galizia

Makes 10-12 large cookies

½ pound blanched almonds (about 1½ cups)
1½ cups flour
1¼ cups sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 lemon
1 orange
1 tangerine
1 teaspoon of orange flower water or vanilla extract
⅓ cup floral honey (orange blossom is nice)

Preheat oven to 325F

Spread the almonds in a single layer on a baking sheet and toast them in the oven until they are golden brown and fragrant (15-20 minutes.)

Take the almonds out and allow them to cool. Increase the temperature of your oven to 375F.

Peel all of the rind from the three citrus fruits using a vegetable peeler. Try to only peel off the colored part of the skin and not the white pith that lies beneath. If you notice some pith on your pieces, use a serrated knife to scrape it off. Chop the citrus peel as finely as possible.

When the almonds are cool enough to handle, set aside enough to decorate your cookies, you’ll need about 24 or so. Grind the remaining almonds coarsely in a food processor. Mix the ground almonds with the flour, sugar, cinnamon, and the chopped citrus peel. Add the orange flower water or vanilla extract and 2-3 tablespoons of water. Mix in the liquids and see if it comes together as a dough. Depending on the weather you may need more water. Carefully add it only a tablespoon at a time, stopping when the dough comes together in a ball.

Form the dough into oval shapes about 6 inches long, 2 inches wide, and ½ inch thick. Place them on a parchment lined baking sheet and bake at 375F for 20-25 minutes. Be careful not to leave them in too long or they will become very hard when they cool.

While they are baking, heat the honey in a saucepan over low heat to thin it out. When the cookies come out of the oven allow them to cool in the pan for 5 minutes and then transfer them to a cooling rack. Use a pastry brush to coat the top of each cookie with honey and then stick some whole toasted almonds on top. Pistachios work well in this capacity as well, or use both.


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This article is part of a series of recipes suitable for the Medieval season of Lent during which all animal products other than fish were forbidden except on Sundays. I’ll be posting at least one Lenten recipe per week until Easter Sunday (April 4, 2010).

My series of Lenten recipes wouldn’t be complete without an actual Medieval Lenten recipe. This one comes from a Medieval cookbook called Potage Dyvers (Diverse Dishes) which was written between 1430 and 1440. It is found in the Harleian collection of manuscripts in the British Library.

The original is in Middle English, but thankfully back in 1888, the Early English Text Society of Oxford University published a translation, which is now in the public domain. Like most early recipes, it is more an aide-mémoire for a cook who already knows how to make the dish, than a real recipe, providing only a list of ingredients with no amounts, and precious few instructions. Trying to turn recipes like that into something useful for a modern home cook can be challenging and fun, involving lots of trial and error. In this case, I used a redaction done by Cindy Renfrow in her book Take a Thousand Eggs or More, a large collection of 15th Century recipes.

The middle English word “rapeye” (pronounced RAP-ee) means a sauce of dried fruits, boiled in wine and spiced. It comes from the old French word “rapé.” It was commonly served with either meat or fish. In this case the rapeye is mixed with fish and used as a filling for pies. Regarding the pastry, the original manuscript says, “Take Dow, & make þer-of a brode þin cake.” or “Take Dough, & make thereof a broad thin cake,” with no indication of what kind of dough. Since this is a Lenten dish, no animal fats could be used to make the dough. Most likely the cook was expected to make a simple dough of flour, salt and hot water, which makes for a pastry with about the same consistency as a rock. It is thought that diners would simply break open the pie and only eat the inside, leaving the tooth-breaking crust behind. I decided to cheat a little and make a dough using olive oil, not a common ingredient in northern Europe in the 15th Century, but which would make the pies more fully edible. It turns out that Lebanese cuisine has quite a few olive oil based pastries, so I borrowed one from the inimitable Anissa Helou.

Rapeye requires one unusual ingredient, powdered galangal. You should be able to find it in a shop carrying Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, or Indian ingredients. I got mine at Kalustyan’s in New York, which does sell by mail order. Galangal looks a lot like ginger, but it tastes sort of mustard-y and sweet at the same time. It is often found in the cuisines of Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia.

If you’ve never tried Medieval food, you might be surprised at some of the flavors. Most of the recipes we have came from great houses whose wealth meant that they could afford exotic spices like galangal which had to come from Indonesia or China. In the same way that rich people nowadays might show off by serving caviar or foie gras, Medieval Lords and Ladies had their cooks dump the whole spice box into the pot. Many spices that we now associate with sweet dishes like nutmeg, clove, and cinnamon were used freely in main courses containing meat or fish. Our fish pies are no exception. The dried fruit makes them quite sweet and the spices used make them taste more like pumpkin pie than fish pie to the modern palate. In fact, I could barely taste the mild fish at all. Who knows, maybe that was the idea, considering how much fish had to be eaten during Lent maybe our Medieval cooks were trying to disguise it. After all, there are no rules against having sweets during Lent.


Adapted from Cindy Renfrow and Anissa Helou

Makes 12 6-inch half-moon shaped pies

For the Filling:
1 pound haddock fillet or other mild white fish
1 teaspoon galangal powder
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
6 black peppercorns, crushed
½ cup dry white wine
2 ounces seedless raisins
4 ounces dried figs, cut into 2-3 pieces each

For the Pastry:
2 cups flour
½ teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons olive oil
⅔ cup water
more olive oil for brushing

Preheat oven to 400F.

Make the pie filling by simmering the dried fruits in a small saucepan with the wine until they are tender, or about 10 minutes. Remove the fruits from the pan and reserve the simmering liquid. Blend the cooked fruits into a paste using a food processor or blender. If you find the paste too sticky add a little of the simmering liquid and blend further. Put the fruit paste in a medium sized mixing bowl. Next cut the fish fillet into large pieces and blend it to a paste in a food processor or blender. Mix the fish with the fruit paste, add the glangal powder, ground cloves, and crushed peppercorns, and stir thoroughly to combine.

Make the pastry for the pies as follows: Whisk the salt and flour together in a bowl, make a well in the center and pour the olive oil into it. Use your fingers to work the oil into the flour until it is evenly distributed. The result will look like pebbles or breadcrumbs. Add the water a little at a time, stirring, until the dough comes together in a ball. Depending on the weather you may not need all of the water, or if the dough is too crumbly you can carefully add a little more (1 teaspoon at a time). Wrap the dough in plastic and let it rest for 10 minutes.

Turn the dough out onto a clean, unfloured surface. Knead the dough until it is smooth (about 5 minutes). Divide the dough evenly into 12 pieces, roll each into a ball. Cover the balls with a damp kitchen towel.

On an unfloured work surface roll each ball into a 6-inch circle. You may need the tiniest dusting of flour on your rolling pin to keep the dough from sticking, but don’t use much.

Fill one half of each circle of dough with the pie filling. Fold the empty half over the filling to form a half-moon. Seal the seams by pinching the dough together about every ½ inch. Use a pastry brush to paint each pie with olive oil, this will aid in the browning process. Pierce each pie 2 or 3 times with a fork to help vent steam during baking.

Bake on a parchment lined baking sheet for about 30 minutes or until light golden brown. The pies may leak some liquid as they bake, the parchment will help make cleanup easier.

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This article is part of a series of recipes suitable for the Medieval season of Lent during which all animal products other than fish were forbidden except on Sundays. I’ll be posting at least one Lenten recipe per week until Easter Sunday (April 4, 2010).

In Sinhalese, the words “Sri Lanka” mean “Resplendent Island.” Well, it certainly has resplendent food, much of which is perfect for Lent. A tropical island nation off the south coast of India, Sri Lanka has the poetic nickname of “the pearl in the ear of India.” A common ingredient in Sri Lankan cuisine is coconut milk, which while it sticks to the letter of the Medieval rules for Lent, does seem to defy their spirit with its luxurious richness. I’m sure there were lots of pious Medieval European monks who would have loved to have had it as an option. Over half of the inhabitants of Sri Lanka are Buddhist and, another 15% or so are Hindu, resulting in many vegetarians, and being an island there is an abundance of fish dishes. A Lenten food paradise really.

Vatakka curry is an intriguing blend of sweetness and earth. The Maldive fish (more on that ingredient in a moment) is packed with umami and rumbles quietly at the bottom while the squash and spices capture your attention, sunny and bright.

Sri Lankan cuisine does require some specialized ingredients. I was able to find all of them at Kalustyan’s here in New York, which carries a mind-blowing number of things from around the world which they sell via mail order. You could also try your local international food shops, in particular ones which have Indian and Japanese ingredients.

You’ll need curry leaves, which come from the curry tree (Murraya koenigii) and have nothing at all to do with curry powder. The name comes from the Tamil word “kahri,” which means “gravy” or “sauce” which of course might contain curry leaves. The leaves are very aromatic and unlike bay leaves, they may be left in the dish and eaten. Fresh curry leaves are best, but can be hard to find, some stores also sell them frozen. If you can only find dried ones then add more as drying reduces their flavor.

Maldive fish or umbalakada is a dried fish product made in the Maldives, a chain of atolls sprinkled in the Indian Ocean about 435 miles from Sri Lanka. It is made from fish such as skipjack tuna which is boiled, smoked and dried. When finished it looks like a piece of driftwood and keeps very well without refrigeration. You might find it in powdered form in a store which sells Indian ingredients. As a substitute you can use Japanese katsuobushi (also called Bonito) which is essentially the same as Maldive fish and can be easier to find. Katsuobushi is sold in flakes and looks like cedar wood shavings. To use in this recipe grind it up into a powder using a mortar and pestle.

Coconut milk is fairly widely available in supermarkets these days. It is important to note that there are two kinds, thick and thin. Thick coconut milk comes from the first pressing, is thicker and has more fat. The second pressing yields thin coconut milk, and is sometimes labeled as “light.” This dish uses mostly the thin type, with a little bit of thick added at the end almost like butter finishing a French sauce.

The only thing that gave me a little trouble with this recipe was not knowing what kind of “fresh green chiles” to use. The easiest kind for me to get are Jalapeños, so that’s what I used, however, they’re not really very hot. Sri Lankan cooking has a reputation for being among the hottest in the world, so I’m guessing that I should have used something else. I confess to adding a little Sriracha sauce to this dish to perk it up when I had it for lunch the next day. If any readers have suggestions of a proper fresh green chile I could use that would be available in the US, please leave a comment.

Vatakka Curry

Adapted from Charmaine Solomon

Serves 6

1 butternut squash (about 1 pound)
1 small onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
3 fresh green chiles, seeded and chopped
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
8-10 curry leaves, fresh or frozen
½ teaspoon fenugreek seeds
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
2 teaspoons ground Maldive fish or Katsuobushi (Bonito)
1½ cups “light” or second pressing coconut milk
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup “thick” or first pressing coconut milk
1 teaspoon black or brown mustard seeds

Put your curry leaves and fenugreek seeds in a dry saute pan and toast them while shaking or stirring until they become fragrant and the leaves begin to crisp, about 2 minutes. Remove them from the heat and set aside.

Peel the squash, cut it in half and remove the seeds and pulp. Cut the squash into a large dice, at least 1 inch, if you make it too small it may fall apart too much during the cooking. Put the squash in a medium saucepan with the onion, garlic, chiles, curry leaves, fenugreek, turmeric, Maldive fish or Bonito, light coconut milk, and salt. Stir gently to combine and cook over medium low heat at a bare simmer until the squash is tender, about 20-30 minutes. Grind the mustard seeds into a powder using a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder and mix them with the thick coconut milk. Stir the thick coconut milk and mustard seed combination into the pot and cook for 5 more minutes. Serve with rice.

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Littleneck clams chilling out

This article is part of a series of recipes suitable for the Medieval season of Lent during which all animal products other than fish were forbidden except on Sundays. I’ll be posting at least one Lenten recipe per week until Easter Sunday (April 4, 2010).

When searching for Lenten recipes it seems natural to explore the traditional foods of countries with a long Christian tradition. One of the first that comes to mind is Italy, which is particularly useful because the cooking fat of choice in most of its regions is olive oil rather than butter, which meshes very easily with the strictures of Lent. The coastal areas of Italy are a rich source of seafood and shellfish recipes which often do not need to be changed at all. Today’s dish has the added joy of combining clams from the Adriatic sea with peas, giving us a little taste of spring before it fully arrives.

Clams spawn from April until October. Besides the fact that it is not sustainable to eat an animal during its breeding season, shellfish doesn’t taste as good during spawning. So the best time to eat them is from November through March. Depending on when Easter falls (it is calculated using lunisolar cycles and so changes each year) clams are tasty throughout most of Lent.

I prefer to cook as seasonally as I can. Using things only when they are at their peak increases our appreciation of them. For example, every year I look forward to tomato season, that brief time of juicy abundance when all I need to make an amazing meal is a little sea salt and olive oil, and maybe some bread and good mozzarella di bufala. However, I do make a few exceptions, one of which is frozen peas. They are flash frozen at the moment of harvest and so in a sort of time shifted way, they are in season when you pull them out of the freezer. Especially at the clinging end of winter I find peas particularly uplifting, giving me just a hint of the green I long for. The chopped parsley in this dish is also key. Be sure to buy very flavorful, dark green, flat leaf, Italian parsley. I was surprised at how the flavor reminded me of the baby lettuces we’ll soon be seeing in the market.

This soup is both briny and green, like a fresh sea breeze blowing through a fresh meadow, a much needed tonic at the end of winter.

Don’t be intimidated by cooking shellfish at home. Really, it’s not as hard as you think. Here are some important things to remember:

1. The clams must be fresh. They will keep for 1 day in the refrigerator, but really you should cook them the same day you buy them. If you need to store them, fill a baking dish with ice, put the clams on the ice, cover the dish with a clean wet kitchen towel, and place the dish in the refrigerator. Check the dish towel occasionally to be sure it is still wet. Do not seal clams in plastic, they are alive and need to breathe.

3. Inspect your clams carefully before cooking. They should all be firmly closed, or they should close up when you tap the shell. If a clam stays open, discard it.

4. Before cooking, scrub the outside of each clam well with a stiff brush under running water. Next, soak your clams in a bowl of water for about an hour. As they “breathe” they expel any sand that may be inside them. When finished soaking, remove the clams from the bowl carefully so as not to disturb any sand which will have fallen to the bottom of the bowl. Finally, rinse the clams one more time in fresh water, scrubbing once more with the stiff brush. Now they are ready for the pot.

Clam and Pea Soup

Adapted from Marcella Hazan

Serves 6

3 dozen littleneck clams, scrubbed and soaked (see above)
3 pounds frozen peas, thawed
1/3 cup olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
4 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley
2/3 cup canned plum tomatoes, chopped, with their juice
freshly ground black pepper
Crostini (optional, see recipe below)

Put your scrubbed and soaked clams in a large enough pot for them to be layered no more than 2 or 3 deep. Add 1/2 cup of water, cover and place the pot over high heat. About every 30 seconds, pick up the whole pot, and shake it while holding the cover on. If the pot is too heavy for you to do this easily, you may instead quickly take off the lid and stir the clams with a spoon, but replace the lid as soon as possible to keep too much steam from escaping. The goal is the move the clams around as they are cooking so they are all exposed to the heat evenly. After 3-5 minutes some of the clams will begin to open. Use tongs to remove the clams as soon as they open and place them in a bowl. Continue shaking or stirring every 30 seconds until all of the clams are open. In the unlikely event that you have a clam or two that doesn’t open even after a total cooking time of 10 minutes, discard them. They are most likely full of mud and sand, and you wouldn’t want to eat them.

When all of the clams have been removed from the pot, turn off the heat and tightly cover the pot.

Once the cooked clams are cool enough to handle easily, remove the meat from the shells and chop each clam into 3-4 pieces. Place the clam meat in a bowl and pour any liquid that has accumulated in the bowl where the clams were cooling back into the pot.

Line a fine mesh strainer with paper towel and pour the clam cooking liquid through it into a bowl, removing any sand and grit. Pour just enough of the strained liquid over the chopped clam meat to keep it moist and reserve any remaining clam cooking liquid for later use.

Add the olive oil to a large deep saute pan and place it over medium heat. Saute the onion until it is translucent, add the garlic and cook until it turns golden brown. Add the half of the chopped parsley (2 tablespoons), and the tomatoes with their juice. Season with a large pinch of salt and a couple of grinds of fresh black pepper. Turn the heat down, and simmer partially covered for 10 minutes to combine the flavors.

If you are serving the soup with crostini (see recipe below), this is a convenient time to make them, while the soup simmers a bit.

Add the thawed frozen peas, any reserved clam liquid and if necessary, enough water to cover the peas by about 1 inch. Cover the pot and cook for 1-2 minutes at a gentle simmer. Don’t over cook the peas, you don’t want them mushy. Taste the soup and correct the seasoning with salt and pepper if necessary.

Add the cut up clam meat and its juices. Cook just enough to warm the meat through, barley a minute or so. Be careful not to overcook here, as the clams will be come tough very quickly.

Ladle the soup into bowls, add crostini, if using, and sprinkle with the rest of the chopped parsley.


Adapted from Marcella Hazan

Serves 6

6 slices of good white bread
olive oil

These should be made as close to serving time as possible. They will keep at room temperature for a couple of hours but no more than that.

Cut the crusts from your bread and cut it into 1/2-inch squares.

Put enough olive oil in a medium skillet to come 1/2 inch up the side of the pan. Put the skillet over medium-high heat and heat the oil until it is hot enough to make the pieces of bread sizzle (test by putting just one piece in, if it’s not time, remove it and wait a little longer).

Once the oil is hot enough, put in as many bread squares as you can without crowding the pan and turn the heat down to medium. Scoot the bread pieces around the pan with a spoon and turn them over in the oil so both sides brown evenly. Cook them until they are a light golden brown, then remove them with a slotted spoon to a plate with paper towels to absorb any excess oil. Store at room temperature until serving time.

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This article is part of a series of recipes suitable for the Medieval season of Lent during which all animal products other than fish were forbidden except on Sundays. I’ll be posting at least one Lenten recipe per week until Easter Sunday (April 4, 2010).

I had no idea the Greeks ate pasta. According to Vefa Alexiadou, Greece’s version of Irma Rombauer, pasta has been a staple in some regions of that ancient land for centuries. Her cookbook, Vefa’s Kitchen, is packed full of fascinating tidbits like that, including lots of information about the different regions of Greece and their cultural history. As you might expect in a country with a tradition of Orthodox Christianity, there are many Lenten recipes. Some of them, like today’s, even identify themselves as such in their titles.

Sticking to the Medieval rules of Lent can be a challenge. One of the biggest things I notice every year is the drop in the amount of protein I’m eating. The brain needs protein to function well and during the first few days of Lent I often find myself a little distracted and unable to concentrate. As a former vegetarian, I know I don’t need meat and other animal products to get all the protein I need, I just have to think a little differently about what to eat. Lenten Spaghetti with Tahini is the perfect solution to this problem. The sauce is based on tahini, a roasted sesame paste common in middle eastern food, and the protein content is augmented further with a sprinkling of ground walnuts and toasted sesame seeds.

This dish is surprisingly light with bright, almost summery flavors provided by the mint, along with an unusual medieval zing from the allspice and cinnamon. I was skeptical about the olives, but they bring just the right amount of salt and earthiness. Eating this had me dreaming of warm weather and outdoor cafes. A ray of sunshine in the darkness of Lent

Lenten Spaghetti with Tahini

Adapted from Vefa Alexiadou

Serves 4

4 tablespoons tahini
1 medium onion
15 oz. canned chopped tomatoes
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon tomato paste
8 whole allspice berries
1 bay leaf
1 good pinch of ground cinnamon
4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound spaghetti
3/4 cup ground walnuts
4 tablespoons sesame seeds
10 Kalamata olives, pitted

Peel the onion and grate it either in a food processor or with a hand grater. Put the grated onion in a medium saucepan with the tahini and cook over medium heat for about 5 minutes, stirring constantly, until the onion is soft. Add the tomatoes, vinegar, tomato paste, allspice berries, bay leaf, cinnamon, mint, sea salt and a few grinds of black pepper.

Simmer the sauce, uncovered for about 15 minutes to combine the flavors. The consistency should be that of a light meat sauce. If it seems too thick, feel free to add a bit of water.

As the sauce simmers, put a large pot of salted water on to boil, adding the 2 tablespoons of olive oil to it to keep the pasta from sticking. Lightly toast the sesame seeds in a dry skillet by stirring or shaking constantly over a medium-high heat until they begin to brown. Be careful, they can burn very easily.

Cook the pasta to your taste using the package directions. Taste the sauce and season further with salt and pepper if necessary. When the pasta is cooked, drain it and toss with the sauce in a large bowl. Sprinkle the individual servings of pasta with the ground walnuts and toasted sesame seeds, and garnish with Kalamata olives.

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This article is part of a series of recipes suitable for the Medieval season of Lent during which all animal products other than fish were forbidden except on Sundays. I’ll be posting at least one Lenten recipe per week until Easter Sunday (April 4, 2010).

Asian cuisine is a tremendous source of Lenten dishes. There are many fish-based and vegetarian delights to choose from. These recipes often contain no dairy, or what there is can easily be replaced with olive or other oils. Best of all, this food is flavorful and exotic so you don’t feel like you’re denying yourself. In fact if you save these dishes especially for Lent, it can feel like a celebration.

Lately I have been infatuated with Fuchsia Dunlop’s magnificent Chinese cookbooks. Today’s recipe is a savory, spicy (but not too hot) fish dish from Sichuan province. It does require some specialty ingredients, but if you live near a chinatown this can be easily accomplished. There are also good mail order sources for much of what is needed (see recipe below for details).

Facing-heaven chiles, waiting to go into the wok

Don’t be intimidated by the bright red oil that drenches the fish. It’s purpose is to stimulate your senses with it’s deep color and spicy, almost floral fragrance, you are not expected to eat it. Take the fish out of of the oil with your chopsticks, leaving most of it behind on the plate, along with the whole spices which have also already done their job.

If you haven’t eaten Sichuan food before, know that while it is spicy, it is not as fire engine-hot as you might expect. One of the most important ingredients is Sichuan pepper which is not at all spicy, but instead causes a physical sensation of numbness and tingling in the mouth. It is very sensuous and pleasant, and really makes this cuisine special.

Fish with Chiles and Sichuan Pepper

adapted from Fuchsia Dunlop

Serves 2 as a main dish if served with a vegetable side dish and rice

Notes on specialized ingredients:
If you live in New York City, see my previous article about shopping for sichuan ingredients in Chinatown. There are also photos there of whole facing-heaven chiles and Sichuan pepper so you’ll know what to look for. Unfortunately, I have not found a good mail order source for the facing-heaven chiles so if you don’t live near a chinatown you may need to substitute. I have read that pequin chiles can be used, but the flavor is not the same. Beware, if you use the long skinny Thai chiles (also called bird’s eye chiles), they are much hotter than Sichuanese chiles so you should use less.

I can highly recommend the Sichuan pepper available via mail order from Adriana’s Caravan, it is very fresh and flavorful. They also carry the chili bean paste, which they call Chili Bean (Toban Djan) Sauce. When shopping for this item try to get a version made with fava or broad beans instead of soy beans.

1 pound filet of carp, sea bass, or other white-fleshed fish

For the Marinade
a 1-inch piece of fresh, unpeeled ginger, crushed
1 scallion, both white and green parts cut into 3-4 pieces and crushed
½ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons Shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry
4 tablespoons cornstarch
3 tablespoons cold water

For the Base Flavorings
6 dried Sichuanese chiles (facing-heaven chiles)
1 1-inch piece of ginger, peeled and thinly sliced
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
5 scallions both the white and green parts, cut into 2-3 inch pieces and crushed
3 tablespoons of peanut or corn oil
1 tablespoon Sichuanese chili bean paste
1/2 teaspoon whole Sichuan pepper

For the Spicy Oil
¾ cup peanut or corn oil
1½ tablespoons Sichuanese chili bean paste
1-2 ounces dried Sichuanese chiles (facing-heaven chiles)
2 teaspoons whole Sichuan pepper

It is important to measure and chop all of your ingredients before beginning this dish. Once you start cooking it goes very quickly, so have everything prepped in small containers and ready to go.

Marinate the fish: lay your fish fillet on a cutting board and cut it into ¼-½ inch thick slices by holding your knife almost parallel to the cutting board and making very shallow cuts. Put the slices in a small bowl and add the salt, wine or sherry, ginger, and scallion, and toss gently with your fingers. Let stand while preparing the rest of your ingredients.

Snip all of your dried chiles in half with scissors and shake out as many seeds as possible. If you have sensitive skin you may want to wear gloves. In any case, wash your hands thoroughly with soap after handling the chiles and be careful about touching your eyes.

Cook the base flavorings: heat 3 tablespoons of oil in a wok over a high flame. When it begins to smoke, turn the heat down and add the chile bean paste and stir-fry until the oil is red and fragrant. Add the ginger, garlic, scallions, dried chiles, and Sichuan pepper and continue to stir-fry until it is very fragrant and the scallions are tender. Keep an eye on the temperature, you want the oil sizzling but not so hot that it will burn the spices. Pour the contents of the wok into a deep serving bowl.

Cook the fish: bring a medium saucepan full of water to a boil over high heat. Meanwhile, discard the ginger and scallion from the fish marinade. Mix the cornstarch and cold water to form a thin paste. pour the paste over the fish slices and toss gently with your fingers until all of the slices are well coated. When your water is boiling, drop all of your fish slices into the pot. DO NOT stir until the water has returned to a boil or the coating will come off. Allow the water to come back to a boil and cook the fish slices until they are just done and nicely flaky (about 5 minutes). Use a slotted spoon or skimmer to remove the fish slices from the pot and put them in the serving bowl on top of the base flavors.

Make the spicy oil: Quickly heat ¾ cup of oil in the wok over a high flame until it begins to smoke. Turn down the heat a little and add the chili bean paste and stir-fry until the oil is red and fragrant. Add the remaining chiles and whole Sichuan pepper and stir-fry until they are crisp and fragrant, the longer you go, the spicier it gets. The oil should be sizzling but not so hot as to burn the spices. When it is ready, pour the hot oil and spices over the fish in the serving bowl and serve immediately while it is still bubbling.

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Photo by Janne Hellsten

I’ll admit it’s difficult to eat seasonally in the Northeastern US or Northern Europe in winter. You must cultivate a love for root vegetables and make the acquaintance of farmers with large green houses. But just imagine if your religion required you to give up most animal products during that same time. For Medieval Christians that’s exactly what was expected.

Lent is a period during which Christians traditionally practice fasting and prayer, and give alms to the poor. The period begins on Ash Wednesday (which is today this year) and lasts for the 40 days leading up to Easter Sunday. I love learning about history through food, so a few years ago I did some reading about this tradition. It turns out that fasting in late-winter/early-spring is actually a pre-christian activity. If you think about the way the subsistence farming of that era worked it makes a lot of sense.

Lent is derived from the Anglo-Saxon word “lencten,” which means “spring,” and begins about one month before the Vernal Equinox. This is a time when even if you were forward-thinking like The Ant, you may be starting to run low on all of the provisions you dried, salted away and pickled during the abundance of harvest time. The English call this time “hungry gap,” the new crops aren’t growing yet; the ewes haven’t given birth; the cow, if you didn’t slaughter her for meat in the autumn, might be dry; the hens are laying much less frequently due to the weak winter sun; and the community still needs to eat.

I would imagine that ancient religious and political leaders quickly realized that if they didn’t do something to help their people get through this thin time, they would have food riots on their hands. So, they encouraged sacrifice for the greater good of the community. If people ate fewer animal products at the end of winter, there would be enough to go around until the asparagus was up and the lambs were dropped.

Nowadays of course, many of us (in the First World) don’t have to worry about not having enough food. On the one hand that’s wonderful because subsistence farming is back-breaking work, but on the other, our new abundance seems to have led to an epidemic of obesity in affluent countries. For the last few years I’ve been keeping the Medieval rules of Lent as a way of reminding myself that more is not always better.

The original rules of Lent, which observant Christians had to comply with on pain of Mortal Sin, forbade the consumption of meat (including poultry), animal fats, milk, or eggs from Ash Wednesday to Easter except Sundays. Yes, you read that right, except Sundays. The Church considers Sundays feast days so fasting or abstinence is not allowed. Leaving out Sundays is also how you get the figure of 40 days, if they are included then it adds up to 46. The modern church has eased these rules encouraging instead voluntary fasting and abstinence which it defines as eating one full meal per day and omitting meat and poultry on Ash Wednesday and all Fridays.

The first year we tried this in our house it was a little difficult to adjust. The ancients were wise to have it begin on a Wednesday, so you’ve only got four days to go before Sunday in that first week. After a while it becomes easier, it’s basically a vegan diet plus fish. Most cultures that are traditionally Christian have lenten recipes, if you look in Italian, Greek and Spanish cookbooks you’ll find things that either fit the rules or can be easily adapted. Most Asian cuisines are terrific too because they don’t use dairy. Some might see coconut milk as cheating, but boy is it tasty.

On the upside, you always remember to celebrate Mardi Gras or Shrove Tuesday; you really appreciate the meat, eggs, cheese, and butter you get to have on Sundays; and you might even lose a little weight. In particular, I find Lent a welcome respite from the holiday season, which while it technically runs from about Thanksgiving to New Year’s seems to stretch ever further with rich roasts and braises to combat the winter weather. By the end of Lent I’m dreaming of asparagus and fresh spring flowers.

For the next six weeks on Comestibles I’ll be featuring at least one lenten recipe per week. If you’d like an early start check out this very comprehensive list from blogger Peter Minakis. His recipes are geared towards the Greek Orthodox version of Lent which is very similar to the western Catholic Medieval tradition, except that fish is forbidden while shellfish is not. I’ll definitely be trying out some of these dishes this year.

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