lenten cooking for the fainthearted

Posted by on March 16, 2007

Some people love cookbooks and collect a wide variety as an end in itself. I just bought a Rachel Ray entertaining cookbook for my sister-in-law for Christmas because that’s what she wanted. But I am minimalistic in this area. My favorite cookbook during ordinary eating periods is The Fannie Farmer Cookbook by Marion Cunningham (I have the thirteenth edition). My grandmother gave me this book and told me that there are a lot of cookbooks “out there,” but that almost everything you need to know about cooking can be found in Fannie Farmer. This has been absolutely true; the book is inexhaustible and instructive, and doesn’t presume that you have advanced knowledge of how to do things in the kitchen. It begins at the beginning, covering basic utensils, staples to keep on hand, the basics of entertaining (including some etiquette), cooking terminology, and so on. It is very old fashioned, assuming that you would be doing things like making your own yogurt and vegetable stock, canning your fruits and vegetables for the winter, and cooking with lots of butter and bacon grease. Pleasant line drawings show slender female arms in a pinstripe blouse, her lovely hands sharpening a knife, working with pastry dough, and cutting julienned vegetables. Other appealing features: its rootedness in early New England tradition, and the author’s simply worded introductions to the the recipes, with authoritative “suggestions,” which carry the feeling of a strong farmhouse matriarch. On the recipe for popovers: “Forget what you’ve read elsewhere. The secret in making good popovers is to start them in a cold oven.” I just love the language in this cookbook and find it oddly poetic and womanly.

Despite the practical nature of this cookbook, it doesn’t work well during Lent– too many vegetable recipes involving ham bones and butter, and not enough recipes encorporating meat substitutes like tofu. So, this Lent I began using the cookbook recently published by SVS Press,When You Fast: Recipes for Lenten Seasons, by Catherine Mandell, and I think this one is becoming my friend in need when Fannie can’t help me. This cookbook is also incredibly practical in that you don’t really need anything else during Lent. As I’ve said before, I struggle with meal planning and meal creativity, so I have to rely on something besides my own inclination to be resourceful in this area. With this cookbook, I feel that someone has already done the chore of researching and collecting recipes that work for meals during Lent. Granted, it’s lenten, so it wouldn’t win an award for taste alone, but that’s not really the kind of cookbook it is trying to be. It isn’t trying to compete with Rachel Ray or Paula Dean, just help the average person eat well during Lent without going insane and giving up.

I’ve only made a fraction of the recipes in When You Fast, but I’ve been pretty pleased with the ones I’ve tried.

I took this photo during the process of making the Vegetarian Borscht yesterday. I made this same soup during Lent last year and was stunned at how beautiful beets are when you get past their ugly exterior. They are a swirl of deep reds and crimsons too intense to be a food– more like a tropical flower. The pigment bleeds all over and dies your hands while cutting them. I don’t know how real Russian borscht is supposed to taste. I know my friend Veronika would make trips to The Samovar restaurant in Manhatten just to eat the borscht because it was just like her grandmother’s. Having nothing to compare mine with, I would say that it was probably a little on the bland side if made just according to this recipe, as the only real seasonings added are bay leaf, garlic, salt, and pepper, but I imagine that more herbs and seasonings could be added with some imagination. In any case, the process of making this soup was very satisfying, not to mention visually colorful, and adds to the overall experience of eating it.

Other main dish recipes that have turned out really well have been the Mediterranean Pasta Sauce, made with sun-dried tomatoes (pictured at the very top), TVP Sloppy Joes, and Spanikopita. Other more plain dishes that were still good have been Lentil Loaf, Katya’s Falafel, Crabcakes, and Tofu Lasagna. I’ve found that when eating something somewhat dry and less savory, like Lentil Loaf, it is really improved by serving it with a big plate of salad, and mixing it all together with balsamic vinegar on the salad. Oh, and homemade bread also really makes up for the deficit of any dish. There is a wonderful recipe for Onion Flatbread, which is so delicious.

I realize that cooking meals like this can be really labor intensive, and that is something that some people just can’t manage if they work full time. I know I could not have done all of this while working. But I’m beginning to believe that it is worth putting whatever time you have into meal preparation, especially during Lent. There is something really wonderful about eating meals you’ve taken time to prepare. Marion Cunningham, in the introduction to her cookbook, says “Every meal should be a small celebration. If you acknowledge so joyous a fact of life, the pride you take in your efforts in the kitchen won’t be confined to company occasions.” I am such a maximalist and perfectionist that I usually only reserve my efforts in the kitchen for some big event and dread ordinary weekday meals. But I’m learning to make ordinary meals more special and it makes everyday life much better. I realize that Lent isn’t really a celebratory time, but it is still a very sacramental and joyful time, and food is one way to acknowledge that. Food preparation can actually put you in touch with that joy.

O.k., I also have to mention the five star desert recipe that goes into the category of “too good to be Lenten.” That would be the Tofu Chocolate Pie. It is just so, so good. I made my own graham cracker crust with cinnamon grahams; there were extra crumbs, which I sprinkled on top to make it even better. Here’s a picture which doesn’t really do it justice. My very non-vegetarian, southern-eating, desert-loving in-laws were here this week and I made for them. They thought it was as yummy as any desert could be.

Another great desert is the carrot cake with citrus frosting, which is also a convenient way to use up the rest of the carrots you might buy for making the borscht.

So, in conclusion, I would say that without this cookbook, I would be seriously faltering and running out of food ideas during Lent, and knowing my fainthearted relationship with mealplanning, probably throwing in the towel. But with it, I’m doing more than well, at least on most days when we don’t break down and go get Subway or Indian or Mexican. It is a very practical sourcebook that is worth adding to my minimalistic cookbook collection, right next to Fannie.

  1. Nostalgia
    March 18, 2007

    Russians believe that everybody’s borsh tastes differently, even if it’s cooked according to the same recipy! 🙂 Ha-ha! Just don’t forget to add both sugar and salt. And tomatoes for sure! Your pictures made me hungry for borsh and it’s early in the morning!

  2. Katya Mandell
    March 23, 2007

    Thank you for your kind words. It was my hope when I started the cookbook many years ago that someday the recipes I created and compiled would help another person in some way on their Lenten journey. That is essentially how the cookbook grew to its existence… the results of 10 years of Lenten journies! So again, thank you.
    It was a shock for me to read your next post. When I was at SVS in 2005 making some of the recipes from the book for a booth at Ed Day, Eric was one of the students assigned to help me. I found him friendly and kind and very helpful. I was so sad to hear of his death, even though I did not know him outside of those 2 or 3 hours we spent in the SVS kitchen. I remember vividly, though, speaking to him about growing up on the campus (my parents are Fr. Tom and Anne Hopko), and him asking what it was like to be a professor’s kid on campus, and how different it was, etc. It’s something how such a brief encounter can stay with a person.
    I wish you a blessed completion of Great Lent and a joyous Pascha.
    Katya (Catherine) Mandell

  3. Julia
    March 23, 2007

    Thank you, Katya. I’m so honored that you visited my blog.