Catholic Mexicans observe la Cuaresma (Lent), the 40-day (excluding Sundays) penitential season that precedes Easter, with special prayers, vigils, and with extraordinary meatless meals cooked only on Ash Wednesday and during Lent. Many Mexican dishes--seafood, vegetable, and egg--are normally prepared without meat, but some other meatless dishes are particular to Lent. Known as comida cuaresmeña, many of these delicious Lenten foods are little-known outside Mexico and some other parts of Latin America.
Many observant Catholics believe that the personal reflection and meditation demanded by Lenten practices are more fruitful if the individual refrains from heavy food indulgence and makes a promise to abstain from other common habits such as eating candy, smoking cigarettes, and drinking alcohol.
Lent began this year on Ash Wednesday, February 25. Shortly before, certain food specialties began to appear in local markets. Vendors are currently offering very large dried shrimp for caldos (broths) and tortitas (croquettes), perfect heads of cauliflower for tortitas de coliflor (cauliflower croquettes), seasonal romeritos, and thick, dried slices of bolillo (small loaves of white bread) for capirotada (a kind of bread pudding).
This common Lenten preparation is romeritos en mole. Romeritos, an acidic green vegetable, is in season at this time of year. Although it looks a little like rosemary, its taste is relatively sour, more like verdolagas (purslane).
You'll usually see tortitas de camarón (dried shrimp croquettes) paired for a Friday comida (midday meal) with romeritos en mole, although they are sometimes bathed in a caldillo de jitomate (tomato broth) and served with sliced nopalitos (cactus paddles).
During Lent, the price of fish and seafood in Mexico goes through the roof due to the huge seasonal demand for meatless meals. These beautiful huachinango (red snapper) come from Mexico's Pacific coast.
Chef Martín Rafael Mendizabal of La Trucha Alegre in Zitacuaro, Michoacán, prepared trucha deshuesada con agridulce de guayaba (boned trout with guava sweet and sour sauce) for the V Encuentro de Cocina Tradicional de Michoacán held in Morelia in December 2008. The dish would be ideal for an elegant Lenten dinner.
Every family makes a slightly different version of capirotada: a pinch more of this, leave out that, add such-and-such. Mexico Cooks! prefers to leave out the apricots and add dried pineapple. Make it once and then tweak the recipe to your preference--but please do stick with traditional ingredients.
*4 bollilos, in 1" slices (small loaves of dense white bread)
5 stale tortillas
150 grams pecans
50 grams prunes
100 grams raisins
200 grams peanuts
100 grams dried apricots
1 large apple, peeled and sliced thin
100 grams grated Cotija cheese
Peel of one orange, two uses
*3 cones piloncillo (Mexican brown sugar)
Four 3" pieces of Mexican stick cinnamon
*If you don't have bolillo, substitute slices of very dense French bread. If you don't have piloncillo, substitute 1/2 cup tightly packed brown sugar.
A large metal or clay baking dish.
Preheat the oven to 300°F.
Toast the bread and spread with butter. Slightly overlap the tortillas in the bottom and along the sides of the baking dish to make a base for the capirotada. Prepare a thin syrup by boiling the piloncillo in 2 1/2 cups of water with a few shreds of cinnamon sticks, 2/3 of the orange peel, the cloves, and a pinch of salt.
Place the layers of bread rounds in the baking dish so as to allow for their expansion as the capirotada cooks. Lay down a layer of bread, then a layer of nuts, prunes, raisins, peanuts and apricots. Continue until all the bread is layered with the rest. For the final layer, sprinkle the capirotada with the grated Cotija cheese and the remaining third of the orange peel (grated). Add the syrup, moistening all the layers little by little. Reserve a portion of the syrup to add to the capirotada in case it becomes dry during baking.
Bake uncovered until the capirotada is golden brown and the syrup is absorbed. The bread will expand as it absorbs the syrup. Remember to add the rest of the syrup if the top of the capirotada looks dry.
Cool the capirotada at room temperature. Do not cover until it is cool; even then, leave the top ajar.
A positive thought for the remainder of Lent: give up discouragement, be an optimist.
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