Sunday 28 March 2021

The Lenten Menu Challenge

Every year when Lent approaches, I think about the Eastern Churches, especially the Greek Orthodox. Their Lenten traditions of fasting and abstinence are just so superior to the contemporary Latin Catholic practice. The Greeks have whole cookbooks of Lenten dishes, largely vegan because they don't touch meat, fish-with-a-backbone, cheese, milk, butter or eggs during the fast. Oil and wine are allowed, but only on Saturdays (except Holy Saturday) and Sundays. I believe they get a break for the Feast of the Annunciation, upon which day they may eat fish. 

Well, you are what you eat, which means that Greek Christians who observe the Greek Lent are really Greek Christians, and Latins who think giving up meat on Lenten Fridays is a massive sacrifice are pathetic. Celebrating feasts and observing fasts through food is the very essence of the world visceral.

Benedict Ambrose draws the line at adopting Greek Lent although he has become accustomed to Latin mostly-vegetarian Lent. I think he prefers giving up meat six days a week to watching me give up coffee again. I doubtlessly need to stop drinking as much coffee as I do, but I think it would be safer not to attempt cutting back to less than a cup a day. 

We usually eat a lot of fresh fish, and as fresh fish is now (really) a luxury food (even in Scotland), I thought we would reserve it to Saturdays. I also thought it was about time I tackled the grocery bill, which has been no less than £400 a month for at least a year. That is a ridiculous amount of money for two people, I thought. No wonder we are overweight.

Therefore, to solve the problem of "What to eat?" and "How to spend less?" I sat down with a few cookbooks and a lot of paper and worked out six weeks of dinners. The menu was adjusted as time went on, for not all the dishes were to our taste. I made out a new shopping list every Saturday morning, consulting the cookbooks and researching the cupboards and fridge.

In sketching out the plan, I originally assigned a different protein to each day: meat for Sundays, lentils for Mondays, eggs for Tuesdays, chickpeas or anchovies for Wednesdays, cheese for Thursdays, and beans for Fridays. We didn't keep strictly to this. The choice of Saturday (and Annunciation Day) fish and Sunday meat I left to B.A.

The principal cookbooks were the Moosewood Restaurant Low-Fat Favourites (1996), my food bible in my boxing days, when I was a young green twig; Yotam Ottolengi's Plenty, a gift from a beloved Guardian-reading friend; and The Classic 1000 Indian Recipes. For variety's sake, I added things like "tuna casserole" and "quiche" and printed off recipes found on the internet later. 

The cook was usually B.A., who is at heart a meat-potato-and-veg man, so cooking dishes of many ingredients almost every night was real heroism. I wrote out the page number for each recipe on the menus. Meanwhile, the recipes would all feed four adults, so we both ate the leftovers for lunch the next day. They were filling, so we weren't that temped to snack--and actually, there wasn't much to snack on. 

So here we go, for those of you who are really interested.  

Ash Wednesday to Friday 

Wednesday: Chickpeas with ginger and rice
Thursday: Macaroni and cheese with mixed vegetables and broccoli
Friday: Black bean chili

Vigil of Lent I to Friday

Saturday: Aubergine enchiladas, chocolate cake, wine 
Sunday: Beef stew, cheesecake, wine
Monday: Moussaka
Tuesday: black bean chili (leftover)
Wednesday: Middle Eastern chickpeas with spinach and rice
Thursday: vegetarian lasagna and broccoli
Friday: "Fat Tuesday Skinny Red Beans" with cornbread

Vigil of Lent II to Friday

Saturday: Trout and leftover skinny red bean stew
Sunday: Steak, veg, potato, apple crumble, wine
Monday: Giambotta & big roasted mushrooms
Tuesday: Kale spanakopita (Hello, the Greeks!)
Wednesday: Pasta with anchovies and onions
Thursday: Goat cheese and garlic tart (Ottolenghi)
Friday: Cassoulet with spiced tofu (NB Not a keeper)

Vigil of Lent III to Friday

Saturday:  Tuna casserole (Hello, the Americans and Canadians!) & cherry bakewell
Sunday: Duck leg, potatoes, baby corn, snap peas & cherry bakewell, wine
Monday: Lentil curry with rice
Tuesday: Tomato, chickpea and bread soup (Ottolengi)
Wednesday: "Surprise tartin" (Again Ottolenghi)
Thursday: Macaroni and cheese with red pepper and mixed veg
Friday: Black bean chili and whole wheat toast

Vigil of Lent IV (Laetare Sunday) to Friday
Saturday: Fillet of plaice, baked potato, mixed veg & strawberry cake
Sunday: Duck fillet, roast potatoes, red cabbage with apple & strawberry cake, wine 
Monday: Cauliflower curry 
Tuesday: Cheddar and broccoli quiche, leftover red cabbage with apple
Wednesday: Middle Eastern chickpeas with spinach and rice
Thursday: "Lighter Lasagna" i.e. vegetarian lasagna with cottage cheese
St. Joseph's Day: Fish cakes, mixed veg, & zeppole di San Giuseppe (pastry cream buns)

Vigil of Lent V to Friday 

Saturday: Ottolengi's "Very Full Tart" (roast veg, cheeses, cream) & cherry bakewell squares
Sunday: poussin, mashed potatoes, broccoli & cherry bakewell squares, wine
Monday: Giambotta (Italian veggie stew) & large roast mushrooms
Tuesday: Tuna casserole 
Wednesday: Pasta and anchovies, glass red wine because: 
Feast of the Annunciation: trout, baked potato, mixed veg & apple crumble
Friday: Cassoulet with baked eggplant (NB Still not a keeper)

Vigil of Lent VI to Good Friday

Saturday: fish in beer batter and oven chips, mixed veg & chocolate cake
Updated: Sunday: ham, potatoes, broccoli & chocolate cake, wine & pasta with pesto (long story)
Monday: lentil curry
Tuesday: chickpea, tomato and bread soup
Wednesday: "Surprise tartin"
Thursday: macaroni and cheese with mixed vegetables
Good Friday: Skinny Red Beans, hot cross buns

The truly attentive will notice that we usually had dessert on Vigil of Sunday as well as Sunday, and the reason for that was principally that it is difficult to make cakes and tarts for only two people to consume on one day. The other Vigil & Sunday treats were pre-dinner crisps and, for B.A., beer. The daily staples were muesli and bread. Eventually I began to make the bread myself. To keep wine fresh, we bought it in boxes.

The cost of groceries during Lent, not including coffee, was approximately £240 - £270. (I usually work this out on a monthly basis.) Meanwhile, we both lost weight. Update: It was more like £450!


  1. Thank you Seraphic! You really are very good domestic wise. Were you always like that, Mam trained you up or you learned along the way? My friend lives in an Opus Dei house and one of the housemates is a retired Home Economics teacher and she plans the food shopping for all of them like you have. She is REGIMENTED though, it can be a pain for the others! What about the veggies? Are you buying fresh, frozen or tinned? I ask because these are the things I find go off on the fridge most regularly.

    I also spend a sinful amount on groceries or "the messages" as we call them here but it's difficult to know where to cut back when cooking alone without making the whole thing quite miserable or boring. I have a lovely colleague who has a large family and often brings me in a helping of a dinner, she says there is nothing quite like having your dins handed to you. I appreciate that so much. That is one thing I shall never ever miss when these bug restrictions are over - eating alone. Dining en famille is a blessing. Sinéad.

  2. No, I am a revert to sensible planning and shopping. My mother did train me up, but B.A. has been doing most of the shopping for the past 3 years. Since I was working full-time, I just let him get on with it. The "mixed veg" are frozen, most of the rest of the veg are fresh and then made into stews that very week, and most of the tomatoes and the beans are tinned. It might be cheaper to buy beans in sacks and then soak them overnight, but they're cheap enough tinned (e.g. 29 p - 55 p).

    When I was single and athletic, I would eat porridge, apples, hard-boiled eggs, tasty salads from the mall, and a portion of stew from my Moosewood cookbook. Back then a veggie stew lasted about 3 days, and it got tastier as time went on. If I ate meat, it was usually sliced turkey breast in sandwiches--and a tasty restaurant hamburger maybe once a month. In hindsight, I should have eaten more meat (or fish), but I enjoyed my very 1990s low-fat, low-calorie, high-exercise way of life.

  3. Thank you for sharing! Years ago I tried a the orthodox fast and found I was repeating the same couple of dishes over and over. Now I love planning meals a month at a time and these are great suggestions.