Old habits die hard and that’s how I think of food when the Lenten season arrives in March. When we were kids, being brought up Catholic, we never ate meat on Fridays during Lent. This wasn’t so difficult because coming from a large family, we didn’t eat meat all that often anyway. Meat was expensive, and large families needed to stretch their food budget. I never really felt this to be a penance because plenty of foods do not feature meat and are just as satisfying — even if you are a confirmed meat-eater.
These dishes include macaroni and cheese, chili without the meat, fried fish and egg dishes. Hearty vegetable soups also fit the bill. Ethnic specialties can pass on the meat with no problem. Italian dishes include spinach lasagna, cheese ravioli and spaghetti with tomato sauce. Chinese or Japanese stir-fries are easy and healthy if you emphasize the fresh vegetables without too much soy sauce. Mexican food is easy to make using refried beans or cheese and fresh tomatoes, onions and chilies.
After I really learned how to cook, it was easy to make a hearty vegetable stew or casserole without an ounce of meat. The list of meat-free dishes is really endless.
It is only that Americans eat so much meat that we miss it. Most of the world does not consume nearly as much and emphasizes a much healthier diet focusing on grains and fresh fruits and vegetables.
So, Lent is a really good time to wean yourself off of the too-much-meat habit and enjoy a lot of in-store fish specials, too.
When I cook pasta, I reach for the Barilla brand and that’s where I found this recipe for orecchiette with mushrooms.
Barilla pasta is made with semolina flour in Italy and is the most popular dried pasta brand in that country, which should tell you something.
They have whole-wheat versions and gluten-free pasta. No matter what kind you pick, Barilla consistently wins in taste tests.
Barilla pasta holds up well to sauces, even heavy ones, but lighter sauces allow the pasta to be the star.
8 oz. orecchiette pasta
1/4 cup pine nuts
3 cups cauliflower florets
2 Tbsps. olive oil
1/2 cup onions, chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
Salt and pepper
1/2 cup fresh parsley, chopped
Fresh basil for garnish
1/2 cup pecorino romano, grated
Cook pasta to al dente while you prepare the rest of the ingredients. Drain but do not rinse.
Toast the pine nuts in a dry skillet until light brown. Set aside. In the same skillet, heat olive oil and saute cauliflower, onions and garlic until cauliflower is tender. Season with salt and pepper. Add the drained pasta and a few tablespoons of pasta water. Add parsley, pine nuts and romano cheese; toss to combine. Garnish with fresh basil and a drizzle of olive oil.
Real macaroni and cheese
1 lb. macaroni noodles
1/4 cup butter or margarine
1/2 cup flour
4 cups milk
8 oz. real American cheese
8 oz. cheddar cheese
Salt to taste
1/4 tsp. white pepper
1/2 tsp. onion powder
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese
In a large pot of boiling water, cook the macaroni until just tender. in the meantime, prepare the sauce.
Melt the butter in a saucepan. Whisk in the flour and cook this roux while whisking for three to five minutes, but do not brown. Whisk in the milk a little at a time and continue to cook over medium heat.
Grate or chop up the American and cheddar cheeses into small pieces. Add these cheeses to the sauce mixture along with salt, white pepper and onion powder. Cook while stirring until cheese is melted and mixture is thickened.
Drain pasta, but do not rinse. Put the macaroni in a 9-by-13-inch cake pan or other appropriately sized baking dish. Pour the sauce over the macaroni and mix together.
Sprinkle Parmesan cheese on top. Bake in a 350 F oven until bubbling hot — about 20 minutes. For a nice brown top, finish with a dash under the broiler.