On Zarela's Mind: Dishes for Lent from Northern Mexico

Walking around midtown in New York on Ash Wednesday is quite a scene. Women walking around in business suits and tennis shoes (high heels in a canvas bag for when they get to their destination), proudly showing off the big ash crosses on their foreheads.

For some, Lent (or, in Spanish, Cuaresma) really is the start of the time of reflection and renewal that it’s supposed to be. For others, it’s another chance to renew their New Year’s resolutions to not drink, eat chocolates, exercise more—a sort of Lenten diet. Even the least religious Catholics are likely to follow the ‘do not eat meat’ rule on Fridays. At my restaurant, Zarela, we always had to stock more fish on those days. We often served it with salsa veracruzana, which is at once one of the most well-known and misinterpreted of Mexican sauces.

(My recipe for pescado a la veracruzana is here.)

Though my mother was very religious—to the point that she watched Mass on television once or twice a day—and my sisters Marina and Clarissa are also devout Catholics, my sister Aida and I are not. Too many years of getting up at 5 a.m. for mandatory morning mass in Catholic boarding schools squashed any religious fervor in us. We’re more interested in spirituality.

But devout or not, for all of us Lent is enthusiastically observed gastronomically and is really more a culinary holiday. In northern Mexico, border states and many other areas, there are certain foods that we only eat during Lent, though we could have them at any time. My friend Elisa, who lives in El Paso, says all the restaurants are now announcing Lenten menus featuring dishes like these.

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A month or two before Ash Wednesday, I order my chacales (or chicos as they are called in Sonora): Dried, cracked corn that Mother cooked into a soup with large pieces of scallion tops and cilantro, and seasoned with red chile puree. I just learned that they are now available in the New York area. Briny, dried shrimp soufflé-type tortitas, sometimes served with nopales (cactus paddles), for us defined Lenten food.

Some people love lentejas en adobo with plantains. Red or green cheese enchiladas with homemade corn tortillas are delicious, but not distinctly Lenten. Every region has its own specialties. I will never forget the puff pastry turnovers stuffed with seasoned canned tuna or sardines that I ate in my college days in Guadalajara, and that for some reason I can’t now duplicate.

What really is characteristic is capirotada, an unusual layered bread pudding topped with cheddar cheese and served with a piloncillo syrup made with onions, tomatoes, cilantro and canela. This is definitely an acquired taste—somewhat like Chinese hot and sour soup was for me the first time I tasted it—but once you acquire it you’ll be addicted.

Now that there are so many people from Puebla in the New York area, we can get huazontles, the broccoli-like flower buds of the Lamb’s Quarters plant. I’m trying to find out if we now get romerito, a rosemary-like green mostly eaten on holidays, which I am craving right now.

But first I have to snack on crisply fried charales. They’re tiny fish—almost like whitebait—eaten with a shot of hot sauce and a squeeze of lime juice, and finished with a satisfying bowl of chacales. In our case, this is not a Lenten diet but a Cuaresma feast.

Zarela Martinez blogs at Zarela.com. You can also check out her how-to videos on YouTube.

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