BEIRUT: The lightness of fish and its saltwater companions will make for particularly seasonal fare this Lent as winter weather is all but gone (Did it ever really come?) and Easter falls well into spring. For most in Lebanon, the Lenten fast starts Monday, two days earlier than in many Western countries, and requires abstaining from meat and dairy for seven weeks. As tradition entails, the faithful have not only adopted the fish as a religious icon for the backs of cars, but will also turn to it as their go-to protein over the coming month and a half.
This year, Orthodox and Western Easter coincide on the same date, April 20. Last year, the two celebrations were a full month apart and they won’t fall on the same date again until 2017. And while their shared date will come as a blow to school children hoping for two separate vacations, it means that the majority of Lebanon’s Christians will be fasting and then feasting together
Light and vitamin-rich, mussels make a great warm-weather meal, though they’re not usually in abundance during summertime. Their season coincides with Lent, however, with both periods wrapping up toward the end of April. Mussels are viewed as somewhat of a luxury here because of their limited seasonality and because most restaurants charge exorbitant prices for a crock of the imported and often over-cooked crustaceans.
In mussel-exporting countries, these bottom dwellers, like lobsters, were poor man’s food long before being rebranded as gourmet. My great-grandparents, natives of Maine, used to dredge up crustaceans from the Atlantic in such abundance they had to beg the family to eat the lobster in the fridge before it spoiled. So there’s no need to feel indulgent while enjoying such perceived luxury seafood during Lent.
Mussels are also quite easy fare as they tell you when they’re done by opening up (throw away the ones that don’t). The simplest way to make them is to steam them in a buttery wine and herb stock. In Beirut restaurants, this preparation is the most popular, according to a restaurateur who specializes in mussels and fries.
With a base of butter, white wine or vegetable stock (I prefer a mixture of both), you can add in whatever you like. Keep it simple with parsley, onions and garlic. At a favorite restaurant back in Maine, they add sauteed shallots instead of onions and throw in a generous amount of barely cooked diced tomatoes. In Beirut, you can find Middle Eastern-inspired broths with cumin and cilantro.
It’s actually the deep-fried potatoes rather than the light mussel meat that can feel indulgent in the classic moules-et-frites formula. Instead of gorging on fries, pair mussels with oven-roasted potatoes tossed in olive oil, salt and pepper and sprinkled with fresh herbs.
Aside from lentils, another staple during Lent, white fish is one of the least expensive proteins available, at as little as $3 per kilogram. During Lent, local recipes are often adjusted to substitute meat with white fish or veggies.
Lebanese-American food blogger Joumana Accad offered a no-fail spin on the classic shawarma sandwich with flavors of samkeh harra.
Accad calls it “Fish Shawarma” – a nod to its fast, street-food style preparation: Arabic bread slathered in lemony tarator tahini sauce, grilled or pan-fried white fish filet, tomatoes, a few slices of avocado and a sprinkling of fresh chopped cilantro.
In a recent interview, Italy’s Michelin-starred chef Luciano Zazzeri suggested pairing fruit and shrimp on warm, sunny days. A recipe, adapted from Women’s Day, pairs shrimp with avocado and grapefruit. The citrus part of this recipe is perfect for the beginning weeks of Lent, when locally grown grapefruits are still in season.
A couple years ago, Accad shared a similar recipe with The Daily Star. She used sweet pomelo (known as “boumeleh” in Arabic), a sweeter and subtler alternative to grapefruit.
A testament to the simple ingredients, Accad writes on her blog: “This light yet filling salad will brighten up your table.”