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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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