Fish suppers for the soul: the culinary joys of Lent


The Lenten season and the concept of sacrifice are perennially linked. The big question leading up to Ash Wednesday, which arrived March 1 this year, is usually, “What should I give up?” 

But deep, spiritual decisions aside, perhaps the 40 days of Lent is a good time to contemplate its culinary rewards – particularly its fish-centric Friday tradition. Christendom’s abstinence of eating the meat of warm-blooded animals offers home cooks and seafood lovers a noble reason to consume fish in any number of preparations. 

Well beyond the Friday cafeteria fish sticks of my Catholic school youth, I have found soul-warming properties in the Basque-style codfish stew my mother finessed, giving the salted dried fish several soakings before slipping it into a bay leaf-scented sauce of garlic, onions, tomatoes, bell peppers and dry sherry and allowing it to braise. This fish would be served with a small amount of fluffy white rice to soak up the sauce. 

Alina Cascante, a devout Catholic living in Tequesta, makes an oniony, whole baked fish recipe her mother taught her. “But alas, as with most Cuban cooking, there are no measurements!” she says. 

She offers these instructions: 

“Have your fish monger scale and clean a whole fish. Before you prepare it, make sure to dry it completely.” She cuts about three diagonal slits into the fish, then seasons it with salt, garlic powder and lemon juice to taste. She sets the fish aside and slices up a large onion and a few potatoes into ¼-inch-thick. 

She drizzles olive oil on the bottom of a glass baking dish and layers in the potatoes. Next, she adds a layer of one-half of the onion rounds and places the fish atop the onions. She covers the fish with the rest of the onions and drizzles it all with olive oil. The fish is baked at 350F until it is flaky. 

“The potatoes are delicious, and they keep the fish from sticking to the baking dish,” she says. 

BACALAO A LA VIZCAINA 

Basque-style Codfish Stew 

Serves: 4

This traditional Spanish recipe, which begins with salted cod, is popular in Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Mexico during Lent. You can make this recipe with fresh fish, but the classic, deep flavors are best captured by using salted, preserved fish, available in Latin specialty markets. Some local Latin markets also sell frozen codfish – look for “bacalao” on the package. For optional sweetness, add a sprinkling of golden raisins to the simmering pot. 

Ingredients:

1 pound salted cod (or pollock) 

4 medium potatoes, peeled and sliced 

2 onions, thinly sliced and separated into rings 

4 hardboiled eggs, sliced 

2 teaspoons capers 

4 to 6 cloves garlic, smashed and minced 

1/2 cup pitted green olives 

1/2 cup red bell peppers, fresh or roasted, sliced 

1 bay leaf 

1 (8-ounce) can tomato sauce 

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil, plus additional for drizzling 

1 cup water 

1 cup white wine (or ½ cup dry sherry) 

Cooked white rice, for serving

Make the dish:

1. One day before serving, set fish in a large bowl and cover fillets with water. Refrigerate. Over the next 24 hours, drain the fish and cover with fresh water at least 3 times. 

2. When ready to cook, drain fish and cut into chunks. 

3. In a Dutch oven, layer half these ingredients in this order: potatoes, cod, onions, eggs, capers, garlic, olives and red peppers. Top with 1 large bay leaf. 

4. In a 1-quart measuring cup, combine tomato sauce and olive oil, reserving a little oil for drizzling later. 

5. Pour half the tomato sauce mixture over the layers of fish. Repeat layering with remaining ingredients: potatoes, cod, onions, eggs, capers, garlic, olives and roasted red peppers. Pour the remaining tomato sauce mixture over layers. In same measuring cup, combine water and wine and pour over all. Do not stir pot. 

6. Place Dutch oven over medium heat, cover and bring liquid to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until potatoes are tender, about 20 minutes. Serve immediately, discarding bay leaf, drizzling with olive oil for a final flavor accent. Serve with white rice.

• Adapted from a recipe provided to Cox Newspapers by Belsie Gonzalez of Atlanta.


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