Friday, March 8, 2013

Cooking to Save the Planet: Lenten Fasts and Spinach Lasagna

It's a Friday in Lent, and your Penanometer® is clicking wildly away--"Must do penance! Must fast!--and so what to do? My suggestion: go green. Go for what's green, fresh, available in your local market, and turn all the greenstuff you can find into a savory meatless and exceedingly penitential meal today.

Here's what we did for Ash Wednesday: we now do our grocery shopping (or make our groceries, as people say in New Orleans) on Tuesday, since our neighborhood store offers what Steve insists on calling a gray-hair discount on that day. Because Tuesday comes after Monday which comes after Saturday and Sunday, by Tuesday our store also often has various weekend-tired items in markdown bins--and that adds to the possibility of thrifty shopping and innovative meal-planning.

Many of those markdown items are fresh things that may have wilted a tad over the weekend, but are perfectly fine, if prepared soon after you buy them. When such fresh-item markdowns are available in abundance on any given day, you can also prepare and freeze portions of them for later use, or, if they're susceptible to freezing without any preparation, you may simply pop them into the freezer for later use. 

We've done this in the past two weeks, for instance, with containers of fresh mushrooms we found marked down on our regular Tuesday shopping forays. As we need them, we'll take them out of the freezer to turn into soups or sauces, after a quick scrubbing to remove the shreds of potting mixture in which field mushrooms are grown commercially.

On Mardi Gras, the day before Ash Wednesday, I noticed beautiful bunches of spring onions on sale in the produce section of our supermarket. These weren't marked down due to their tiredness. They were on sale because they're in season, and a big shipment had evidently come in, rendering them low-priced. 

A rule of thumb for eating seasonally and buying sensibly: always look for what's fresh, seasonal, and, if possible, local in your supermarket, especially in the produce section. Go shopping with a flexible list. Be prepared to buy what happens to be on offer that day, and to plan your menus around that item or those items, without locking yourself into menu decisions that predetermine in advance what you'll buy.

I doubt that the onions I found on Mardi Gras day were local. They had likely been grown in south Texas or California. But they looked fresh and tempting to my winter-starved eyes, and were so reasonably priced that I bought several bunches, and, as soon as I got home, I washed all the onions, chopped them up, and sautéed them in some olive oil, freezing some for future use, and making others part of the base of our penitential dish for the following fast day.

That dish more or less created itself from what I happened to find on sale on Mardi Gras day. In addition to the bunches of green onions and boxes of fresh field mushrooms, I found several of those bags of young spinach leaves that are pre-washed and packaged, and which I wouldn't normally buy (since how taxing is it to wash bunches of spinach, anyway, and who needs that plastic?). But these were at their limit of freshness and marked down, without being in any way spoiled. (Always check these packaged deals carefully, turning the package over and over, gently shaking its contents as you peer inside for moldy or decomposing ingredients.)

They, too, went immediately into a steamer when I got home, for the Ash Wednesday fastday meal. It so happened that we had a coupon from the store for a free container of cottage cheese, and so there was our penitential meal: layers of lasagna noodles boiled to the al dente point, topped by layers of cottage cheese into which I mixed crushed garlic, grated parmesan, a few eggs, chopped herbs, salt and pepper, and this layer topped by a layer of sautéed onions mixed with steamed spinach and mushroom slices. Layers repeated until I'd used all ingredients, yielding a large dish of spinach lasagna that we ate for several more penitential days following Ash Wednesday.

The heart, mind, and body long for fresh greens as winter turns to spring. The fasting soul looks to nurture green shoots of mercy, hope, and compassion. And when penance can be as glorious as spinach lasagna, why not go for it? Such lessons living in New Orleans for many years taught me: oh, the drudgery of those fast-day meals, the platters of fried shrimp and oysters heaped high, the doleful bowls of savory seafood gumbo or gumbo z'herbes, the mortifying dishes of redfish courtbouillon. 

Ah, for the good old days when Catholic rules and Catholic regulations yielded obedience in Catholic hearts, in Catholic minds. None of the namby-pamby waffling of the post-Vatican II church with its louche meat on Fridays and louche skating around Lenten regulations. One could die of such strict Catholic fasting in south Louisiana--die content with one's implicit conformity to church discipline, and die satiated all the way to heaven with penitential fish (and crab and shrimp and crawfish and oysters and all the other creatures of the briny deep that equal self-denial in the minds of whoever invented meatless Friday fasts).

God grant us all penitential hearts.

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