Friday, February 19, 2010

Lent Season once again..... A good time for renewal.....

Here we go again, we're in Lent. After some wild Carnavale celebrations around the world, the traditional time just before Lent when you've got the chance to "let loose" before having to behave and turn meditative (if that ever happens...), Fat Tuesday was known, in days of old, as the day the Devil comes to Earth to tempt man who is weak, with all the temptations of the flesh and so during Carnavale (and especially Fat Tuesday, the last day of party week), everything is set loose upon the Earth which is why Carnavale is typically such a wild affair.... Oh Boy! big doings, huh?

Of course, not all Carnavale's are the same, Rio's is #1 for all reasons, especially the wild ones - with hot weather, music to stir the soul and some of the most beautiful women around; of course you can't forget about the Venice and New Orleans one's too which are famous as well. After a week of debauchery, wine, women and song.... comes the closed minded, repressive and strict season of Lent which is the time when man becomes concerned about his spiritual self and worries about his mortal soul and decides to sacrifice, meditate, renew to better his life.

These traditions which come before the "Rites of Spring" (we don't forget how crazy things got during this time either....Whoohe good times there too!) and last 40 days to end on the holiest day of the year which is Easter, don't really mean anything except for those who grew up Catholic or Christian, and those religions that have bases in the same principles, but for the most part you're supposed to be good, not do anything fun or "worldly", mediate on Christ' sacrifice for us and give up that which you most derive pleasure from..... this can be of anything.

This is where the "eating fish on Friday" comes from and many other traditions known around the world and even if you're not Catholic, I take it as a good time to "rewind", "clean out" and "renew" not just the physical body but the mind and soul cobwebs. Anyone can meditate on anything (it's been scientifically proven that it does a body good), "quiet the mind" and maybe choose a more spartan lifestyle and diet during this time (kind of like going to a spa...) to gain a better start on the coming Earth renewal of Spring and set a better pace for the rest of the year.

So you see, it doesn't have to have anything to do with religion at all and you can take from it the good parts and apply these to your life and benefit from them. Anyway, you get the idea about all this, right? And while a lot of people look at this time as a boring, bland food days there is NO reason for this to be so; instead, we will celebrate the lighter meals and make them fresh and light, full of flavor so we can all look forward to calm mealtimes while we give our mortal bodies a "break" from heavy digestion times and allow our bodies the renewal that will give us increased health and vigor. Sounds pretty good so far, huh?

Another thing to take into account is that with the tempering of the cold season (for some of us while the cold will still hang on for others...) you have milder and lighter dishes available as well, so fresh food is highly desired and appreciated. Mexican food is perfect for the Lent season with it's multiple vegetarian dishes and so many variations which can serve you during this time, but here's a selection of others you might not remember which can also serve you well.

Try to remember all the vegetarian dishes you've known and loved and use them at this time. All countries have wonderful dishes to use now, so you can really pick dishes you love too and just change them around. It's easy to take out the meat or heavy ingredients and substitute them for lighter fare. There is no reason to eat foods you don't enjoy.... or have foods that aren't nutritious or bland either, on the contrary, UP the flavor, herbs and touch it up to make foods lighter, fresher and more appetizing.....

Here's some appetizers you can start with which will also make for a nice lunch spread. You can make some of these ahead of time and speed up meal times which is always a good thing.

Marinated Mushrooms.- Do ahead, simple preparation which only gets better with time. Have these on-hand and complement a meal of make it part of a meatless lunch, it can also be a sophisticated appetizer as well.

3 cups water
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon salt
1 lb firm button mushrooms, trimmed
1/2 cup white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
2 bay leaves
2 teaspoons coriander seeds
1/2 teaspoon peppercorns
1/4 teaspoon celery seeds
1/2 teaspoon seasoned salt
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
2 teaspoons dried thyme leaves
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup minced red onion
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

In large saucepan, combine water, lemon juice, and salt and bring to a boil. Add mushrooms; bring back to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 4-5 minutes until tender. Drain mushrooms, reserving 3/4 cup of the liquid. In same saucepan, combine reserved mushroom liquid, sugar, and vinegar. Tie the bay leaves, coriander, peppercorns, and celery seeds in a small square of cheesecloth and add to the saucepan. Add seasoned salt, pepper, thyme, and garlic and bring to a simmer. Simmer for 5-6 minutes.

Add red onion and mushrooms to saucepan and remove from heat. Let stand, uncovered, for 30 minutes. Then remove and discard cheesecloth bundle. Place mushrooms and liquid in a 4-6 cup heatproof container. Add olive oil and stir gently. Cover and refrigerate for 3 days before using, shaking the container occasionally. Store in refrigerator up to 5 days longer. Let mushrooms stand at room temperature for 30 minutes before serving.
NOTE: I change around the vinegar for different flavor, add other veggies, etc.

Potato Skins.- Remember these? These wonderful appetizers were all the rage in restaurants during the 1980s. The skins are broiled instead of deep-fried to save on fat and calories, which you then add with cheese and sour cream!

8 potato skin halves (or more...)
2 Tbsp. butter, melted
1 cup shredded cheese
1 tomato, seeded and chopped
1/2 cup sliced green onions
Sour cream

Place potato shells, skin side up, on broiler pan and brush with melted butter. Broil 5" from heat for 4 to 5 minutes until crisp and golden. Turn potatoes over and sprinkle cheese, tomato and green onions into the potato hollow. Return to oven and continue broiling about 1-2 minutes until cheese is melted and potatoes are hot. Serve hot with sour cream.
NOTE: You can add as many veggies as you want to these and use the cheese you like. Versatile and quick and kids love these. You can also put all the "goodies" on the table and let each build their own....

Veggie Quesadillas.-Change the kind of cheese used (pepper jack would be fabulous), and try different flavored tortillas for a new taste with very little effort. Make these regular or mini sized, it's all good....

16 oz. bag frozen cut leaf spinach, thawed and very well drained (or fresh)
2 cups shredded Havarti or Gruyere cheese
Flavored or plain flour tortillas
2 cloves garlic, chopped fine
1/2 med onion, chopped fine

Drain the spinach well, then squeeze it between paper towels to get out as much moisture as possible. In a frypan, put a little oil and add the onion and make soft, then add the garlic for a minute before adding the spinach. Salt and pepper on top. On tortillas, sprinkle half of the cheese. layer the spinach. Top each with another tortilla and press gently.

Heat nonstick skillet over medium heat, then cook each quesadilla for 2-3 minutes on each side until cheese melts and tortillas are crisp, pressing gently with spatula as they cook. Cut each into six wedges to serve.
NOTE: Add any veggie you like to these, change the cheese and flavor any way you like best!
Very easy, light and fast....

Salad Nicoise.- Of all main-course salads, the Niçoise is my all-time favorite, with its fresh butter-lettuce foundation; its carefully cooked, beautifully green beans; its colorful contrast of halved hard-boiled eggs, ripe red tomatoes, and black olives; all fortified by chunks of tunafish and freshly opened anchovies. It's a perfect luncheon dish, to my mind, winter, summer, spring, and fall — an inspired combination that pleases everyone.

1 large head Boston-lettuce leaves, washed and dried
1 pound green beans, cooked and refreshed
1-1/2 tablespoons minced shallots
1/2 to 2/3 cup basic vinaigrette
Salt and freshly ground pepper
3 or 4 ripe red tomatoes, cut into wedges (or 10 to 12 cherry tomatoes, halved)
3 or 4 "boiling" potatoes, peeled, sliced, and cooked
Two 3-ounce cans chunk tuna, preferably oil-packed
6 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and halved
1 freshly opened can of flat anchovy fillets
1/3 cup small black Niçoise-type olives
2 to 3 tablespoons capers
3 tablespoons minced fresh parsley

Arrange the lettuce leaves on a large platter or in a shallow bowl. Shortly before serving, toss the beans with the shallots, spoonfuls of vinaigrette, and salt and pepper. Baste the tomatoes with a spoonful of vinaigrette. Place the potatoes in the center of the platter and arrange a mound of beans at either end, with tomatoes and small mounds of tuna at strategic intervals. Ring the platter with halves of hard-boiled eggs, sunny side up, and curl an anchovy on top of each. Spoon more vinaigrette over all; scatter on olives, capers, and parsley, and serve.
NOTE: This is one of our favorite salads and makes frequent appearances on our table. Filling and nutritious and easy to make. Great for guests too!

Fish with Toasted Pecan Butter Sauce.- This fish in toasted pecan butter sauce recipe takes the homey flavors of a backcountry Cajun fish fry and merges them with the elegant nuances of a New Orleans restaurant. Pureed toasted pecans add incredible depth and silky texture to a garlic and hot pepper-infused butter sauce. This fantastic meal can be made so easily that it works for a thrown-together weeknight meal or a planned dinner party.

4 tablespoons butter, room temperature
1/2 cup chopped pecans, toasted
2 tablespoons chopped yellow onion
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 clove garlic, crushed and chopped
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon hot pepper sauce

Fried fish:
3/4 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1/2 cup milk
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons Cajun seasoning
6 trout fillets, 4 ounces each (substitute any firm fish)
Oil for frying
1/3 cup chopped pecans, toasted (optional)

To make the sauce: Blend the butter, 1/2 cup toasted pecans, onion, lemon juice, garlic, and hot pepper sauce in a food processor until it is smooth. The sauce is ready when it is completely smooth and has thickened a bit. Set the sauce aside at room temperature while the fish cooks.

To fry the fish: Heat 1/2 inch of oil in a deep skillet to 350F. Mix the Worcestershire sauce, milk, and egg together. Stir together the flour and Cajun seasoning. Pat the fish fillets dry and dredge them first in the egg mixture and then in the flour mixture. Fry the fillets in 2 batches of 3 each, for 3 to 4 minutes on each side. The fish is done when it is deep golden brown and flakes easily when tested with a fork. Serve the fish hot, garnished with the toasted pecan butter sauce and toasted pecans.

Pasta with Tuna Lemon Sauce.- You can do this in 5 minutes and it tastes like it took all day! We all love this comforting dish, any time of the year..... This is one of those "while the pasta cooks" kind of dish.....

2 cans Tuna (I like oil packed, but water is fine too)
1 lb pasta (any kind too, but I prefer spaghetti or fettucini)
3-4 garlic cloves, pressed or chopped very fine
1/2 med onion, chopped fine
olive oil
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
1 tsp capers (optional)
1/3 cup black olives (optional)
1 tbl parsley or cilantro leaves, chopped
2 tbl lemon juice (Persian lemons or green lemons are best)
salt & pepper to taste

Put pasta to cook and meanwhile..... In a large pan, drizzle some oil and bring to temperature. Add the onion and make tender for a couple of minutes. Add the garlic, red pepper flakes, capers, salt and pepper and the lemon juice and then the tuna (with it's liquid). Mix well. Taste and adjust seasonings. Let boil a minute and then turn off the heat while you drain and prepare the pasta.

Add the pasta to the pan and mix well so the sauce covers the pasta really well. Add the parsley or cilantro leaves. Serve and top with grating cheese.

Baked Stuffed Squid with Rice Casserole.- Whatever your preference - large or small, frozen or fresh - this recipe works with all squid. Squid is very economical and tasty.

2 1/4 pounds of cleaned squid
1/2 cup of olve oil
1/2 cup of dry wine (white or red)
3/4 cup of rice (preferably long grain)
1/2 tablespoon of tomato paste
1/4 bunch of fresh parsley, chopped
1 teaspoon of salt
1/2 teaspoon of pepper
2 1/4 cups of water
2-3 cloves of garlic, minced
1 medium onion, finely chopped

Chop up the squid tentacles into small pieces. Stir the tomato paste into the wine until smooth. Preheat oven to 350F (170C). In a frying pan, sauté the onion, garlic, and 1/2 the chopped tentacles in the olive oil over medium-high heat. When the onion has softened and the mixture is steaming, stir in the wine and tomato paste mixture. Stir in parsley and cook until the mixture thickens slightly. Stir in 1/2 the water and bring to a boil. Stir in rice, turn off the heat, and wait for the rice to expand, about 15 minutes. Using a spoon (or small measuring spoon for small squid), fill the squid tubes with the stuffing, to 1/2 inch from the top. Thread the top with one or more toothpicks to close and place in a baking pan. Add remaining stuffing, chopped tentacles, and remaining water. Bake at 350F (170C) for one hour. Remove toothpicks before serving.

Braised Eggplant and Potatoes.- In this dish, the eggplant are dredged in flour and browned before adding to the pot, giving the dish a lovely mix of textures and tastes. These are the classic Greek tastes: eggplant, potatoes, tomatoes, onions, herbs, and olive oil.

1 pound of eggplant, cut in egg-sized chunks (skin on)
2 pounds of potatoes, peeled, cut in chunks
3 medium onions, chopped
1 bunch of fresh parsley, chopped
1 1/2 pounds of fresh tomatoes or 2 3/4 cups of pulped stewed tomatoes
1/2 cup of olive oil
1 1/4 cups of water + 1/4 cup of water
1/2 teaspoon of salt (for sauce)
1/2 teaspoon of salt (for vegetables)
4 tablespoons of olive oil
4 tablespoons of flour

Soak eggplant pieces in water for 30 minutes. Make the sauce: In a stew pot, combine tomatoes, parsley, onion, 1/2 cup of olive oil, 1 1/4 cups of water, and 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Bring to a boil, cover, and cook over medium-high heat for 15 minutes. Stir in potatoes and 1/4 cup of water, cover, and cook until the potatoes are done, about 20 minutes.

Fry the eggplant: While the sauce is cooking, drain the eggplant and season with 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Heat 4 tablespoons of olive oil in a frying pan over high heat. Dredge the pieces of eggplant in flour and fry until golden brown on all sides. Place fried pieces in a strainer so excess oil will drain off. Add eggplant to the potatoes and sauce, cover and continue to cook for 10 minutes. Turn off heat and leave the pot on the stove until ready to serve or store. Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature.

Did I give you any ideas? You can tell from the dishes here that once again, there are no rules. Change your favorite dishes or adopt new ones and give your family something new to love, whatever your preferences are, there are many dishes for you. How about trying a new flavor or ingredient to try..... or a new from a country you might not have tried? There are so many wonderful flavors out there, I'm sure you can find not only one but many new flavors you and your family will love.

Lent will also give not only your body a rest, but you can lighten your family's budget by taking some of the more expensive protein sources and replacing them with more budget friendly vegetarian ones. Your diet won't be the only thing lighter and you'll be ready to celebrate Spring refreshed, recharged and renewed! Talk soon......

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