Growing up Catholic in the '60s, I dreaded Friday meals during Lent. Friday was "fish day," a designation that practically guaranteed the appearance of fish sticks at the school cafeteria and dinner table.
I was not alone. So many suburban faithful partook of this same meal that I imagined the Vatican freezer filled with boxes of Mrs. Paul's codfish fingers.
Too bad we didn't know that fish sticks aren't the only suitable anchor for a Lenten meal. Any simple, meatless dish will do.
Light, more interesting alternatives include soups, vegetable pizza and pasta dishes. These peasant-style dishes uphold the spirit of Lenten simplicity without sacrificing flavor. If fish is a must, try oven-baking the fillets instead of frying them.
The Roman Catholic tradition of abstaining from meat on Fridays during Lent dates to the end of the first century.
Today, practicing Catholics abstain from eating meat on Fridays during Lent, the 40-day period between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday.
Seafood has its place on a Lenten menu. But a $4-per-pound catfish fillet is clearly more in keeping with the spirit of Lent than a $14-per-pound swordfish steak.
Catfish often stars at Friday-night fish fries, which pop up during Lent at churches and some restaurants. But now, with modern health concerns, more home cooks are ditching the deep fryer, opting for the oven instead. Oven-fried catfish bears a crispy, well-seasoned crust, while avoiding unnecessary fat grams from frying.
Pasta with roasted vegetables makes an inexpensive, one-dish meal. No complex sauce is necessary for this dish; a mere 1/2 cup of the liquid used to boil the pasta, mixed with garlic and the near-caramelized roasted vegetables, packs plenty of flavor.
Here are some other ideas for simple meatless dishes.
* Fold cooked vegetables, such as zucchini, potatoes, bell peppers and onions, into beaten eggs and fry up an omelet or frittata.
* Toss cooked pasta with a mixture of cottage cheese (or ricotta), chopped fresh herbs and Parmesan cheese. Serve as is, or add eggs and bake in a casserole for about 1 hour at 325 degrees.
* Give tuna salad a fresh, lighter approach, by adding cilantro, chopped green onion, fresh lime juice and chopped tomato to well-drained canned tuna. Serve in a pita pocket, a steamed corn tortilla or over lettuce.
* Puree canned black beans or kidney beans with minced garlic and jalapeno to use as a filling for enchiladas, burritos or tacos.
* Cook 1 cup dried lentils in 3 cups water with a lightly browned mixture of chopped onion, 4 minced garlic cloves and 1/2 teaspoon cumin seed. Season with salt and cayenne pepper and serve over rice or in a tortilla.
* Toss cooked cubed potatoes and lentils with pesto sauce.
* Add chopped broccoli or spinach to ready-made quiche filling; pour into prepared pie crust.
Makes 4 to 6 servings
1 1/2 pounds potatoes, peeled and coarsely chopped
10 garlic cloves, peeled
3 tablespoons fresh sage leaves, stems removed, or 1 tablespoon dried sage leaves, crumbled
2 bay leaves
1 onion, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon coarse salt
4 cups water
1 (14 1/2 -ounce) can Italian-style tomatoes, drained and chopped
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 cup evaporated skim milk (or heavy cream)
Combine the potatoes, garlic, herbs, onion, salt and water in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer until the potatoes are tender, about 10 to 12 minutes after water comes to a boil.
Saute the tomatoes in the olive oil in a skillet over high heat until the tomato juices thicken. Set aside. Puree the potato mixture with the tomatoes in a blender or food processor. You may need to process the ingredients in 2 batches. Stir in the evaporated skim milk.
Garnish with a fresh sage leaf.
Per serving: 178 calories; 6 g fat; 1 mg cholesterol; 1,432 mg sodium; 29 percent calories from fat.
Makes 6 servings
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 cup low-fat or skim milk
1 1/2 cups cornmeal
3/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
4 teaspoons grated lemon peel
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
salt and pepper
6 catfish fillets (about 2 pounds)
Heat oven to 400 degrees. Stir lemon juice into milk and let stand a few minutes, until thickened and slightly textured. Mix cornmeal, cayenne pepper, lemon peel and thyme and spread onto a large plate. Salt and pepper each of the catfish fillets. Dip the fillets in the milk mixture, then coat thoroughly with the cornmeal mixture and transfer to baking sheet. Sprinkle with paprika, if desired.
Bake 20 minutes, then reduce heat to 350 degrees and bake about 5 minutes more, until the crust is golden and the fish flakes easily.
Per serving: 291 calories; 6 g fat; 53 mg cholesterol; 451 mg sodium; 18 percent calories from fat.
Rice, corn and cheese casserole
Makes 6 servings
3 cups cooked brown or white rice
1 (10-ounce) package frozen corn kernels, thawed
1 small onion, finely chopped ( 1/3 cup)
2 cups grated sharp Cheddar cheese
1 1/2 cups skim or low-fat milk
1/2 teaspoon salt (optional)
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Heat oven to 350 degrees. In a large mixing bowl, combine all ingredients except paprika; mix well.
Pour ingredients into a greased 2-quart casserole. Sprinkle with paprika and bake 40 to 45 minutes.
Per serving: 357 calories; 15 g fat; 38 mg cholesterol; 271 mg sodium; 37 percent calories from fat.