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Meatless Friday: Pasta and lentils, together at last. Try it. You’ll love it.

Before you click by this post because the word “lentils” scares you, especially in relation to pasta, I beg you to stop and just consider it for a moment because it is out-of-this world delicious. This particular recipe is actually a combination of two: a lentil sauce recipe from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian and my own addition of roasted butternut squash and garlic that gets added in right before serving. (That change-up happened because I had a squash that needed to be used and, voila, a new recipe was born.) The result is a dinner that is not only vegan (no meat, dairy, eggs, etc.) but incredibly yummy, with a complex texture and taste even though it’s easy to make. So here we go…

3/4 cup of dried brown lentils, picked over and rinsed
2 carrots, diced
2 medium onions, chopped
1 can of diced tomatoes, drained
1/2 tsp dried marjoram
3 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 butternut squash, cut in 1-inch cubes (You can find peeled, large-cut squash in the produce section if you don’t want to deal with a whole squash)
1 pound of pasta — ziti, rotelle, rigatoni
Salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 425. Combine butternut squash, minced garlic and 2 Tbsp olive oil and toss. Spread out in a single layer on a baking sheet. Roast for about 20 minutes or until the squash is tender and getting a nice browned color. Set aside.

Meanwhile, combine lentils, carrots, half the onion, and water to cover in a large pot over medium heat. Simmer until lentils are tender but not mushy (about 20 or 30 minutes). Add the tomato, salt and pepper, and marjoram. Stir and continue to cook for about 10 minutes.

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil for pasta. Cook until the pasta is firm. Do NOT let it get cooked all the way through or, heaven forbid, mushy. While the past is cooking, heat 1 Tbsp of olive oil in a saute pan and cook remaining onions until they are starting to brown. Add butternut squash until heated through.

When pasta is al dente, drain, reserving some pasta liquid. Add pasta to lentil mixture and top with butternut squash/onion combo. Mix and let flavors marry and pasta reach perfection (meaning still al dente but not too tough). Salt and pepper to taste. Add some of the pasta water if it looks too dry.

I cooked this in my favorite Lodge Caribbean-blue enameled cast iron dutch oven (that’s it above) and brought the whole dang thing right to the table. No serving bowl needed. This dinner was amazing. Trust me. The lentils add delicious texture to the dish and the squash adds a subtle sweetness. Try it. You’ll love it.

Meatless Fridays: It’s what’s for dinner

Around 5:30 tonight I still wasn’t sure what I wanted to make for dinner. Meat wasn’t the only thing I needed to avoid. Because my daughter, Olivia, and I are vegetarian, we aren’t eating seafood on Fridays either. And I’ve decided to take it all the way to vegan on the Fridays of Lent. So…What to feed a family of mostly omnivores when meat, seafood, cheese, eggs and anything related to animals was off the table, so to speak?

When in doubt, find something that goes on pasta. It always works in our house. So here’s what I did and it turned out to be a big hit:
1 bunch broccoli rabe (rapini), rinsed
6 sun-dried tomatoes, rehydrated in boiling water, drained and chopped in slices
1 8-ounce container of baby bella mushrooms, sliced
1 15-ounce can of cannellini beans, rinse and drained
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
1/2 cup pignolis (pine nuts), toasted (optional)
1 pound rotelle pasta (or ziti, rigatoni, whatever you like)
Bring pasta water to boil. Rinse broccoli rabe and blanch in boiling pasta water for four minutes. Lift broccoli rabe from water with handheld strainer, reserving pasta water in pot. Drain broccoli rabe and cut into bite-size pieces. Reserve. Keep pasta water boiling, and throw in pasta.
Meanwhile, in a saute pan, heat olive oil and saute garlic until it begins to sizzle. Add mushrooms and sundried tomatoes and saute for two or three minutes. Add cannellini beans and saute for two minutes. Add broccoli rabe and heat for a few minutes so the flavors can marry. If it begins to dry out, ladle in some pasta water to keep it moist. Add salt and pepper to taste.
When pasta is al dente, drain and place in serving bowl. Pour broccoli rabe-tomato-bean mixture over the top. If needed, ladle in more pasta water so the pasta is not too dry.
Serve with grated parmesan cheese (if you’re not eating vegan), crushed red pepper and toasted pine nuts (if using). Note: To toast pine nuts, shake them in a dry skillet for a few minutes until fragrant but not brown.
We served our dinner with Italian bread and a side salad heavy on the arugula and “fixed” with olive oil and vinegar.
Delish! This dish is definitely a keeper. Remember, if you don’t have the exact ingredients, don’t be afraid to improvise. Use broccoli instead of broccoli rabe, or even kale. The best thing about this kind of pasta dinner is that you can change it up or use up whatever you have in the fridge and come up with something that looks and takes like it came from an elegant restaurant. Mangia!

Signs of the Lenten season

Ash Wednesday. Possibly my all-time favorite day of the entire Church year. As many of my regular NSS readers already know, I am a Lent person. This season resonates with me in a powerful way. The three pillars of Lent — fasting, almsgiving, prayer — are beautiful reminders of what this season is supposed to be about. Contrary to current pop Catholic cultural views of Lent, these weeks are not meant to focus on how bad we are or how we need to deny ourselves things only to make up for how bad we are. They are not meant to be “negative.” These weeks are meant to be a time for us to strip away the stuff that gets in the way of God — whether those things are too much food, too much gossip, too much consumerism, or not enough quiet time, not enough prayer, not enough care for others. But all three things are important, all three things “positive.” To think that one thing is unimportant is to miss the point of Lent.

Fasting — whether it is a total fast from food for a brief time or a partial fast that involves giving up one thing for a set time — helps us to loosen those earthly ties that bind us. By getting rid of even something small that tends to get too much of our attention or desire (like chocolate or coffee or red wine) we open up a little room for something or someone better to fill the void, someone like God.

God is just waiting for us, waiting for that moment when we realize that the way He fills us up is better than anything our world can provide. Fasting has lost some of its allure these days, seen as something too focused on penance and not enough on others. But it’s only by getting rid of some of our external desires and acknowledging our weaknesses that we can experience the internal conversion that leads to a place where charity can really take root and grow.

And we certainly can’t skip over charity (or almsgiving) because that is so critical to our lives as Christians. To skip that would be to skip over the heart of the Gospel. Too often I think we get caught up in charity as being something larger than life, something that requires too much time or too much money, perhaps time and money we can’t afford to give. Charity can begin, as the cliche says, at home. Sometimes the people who most need and most deserve our kindness and care are the people we live with. If we can’t be charitable and compassionate toward them, chances are we won’t get very far in our other efforts out in the world. At least I think that’s how it works for me.

So we can begin where we are and work our way outward, which is kind of freeing. You don’t have to travel to a Third World nation or even to an inner city to begin to work on the pillar of charity. Yes, it would be nice to get there eventually, but for now, at this moment in time, you can practice charity right where you are.

Of course, you can still do you part for the poor around the world by picking up a Rice Bowl and donating money to Catholic Relief Services. Every time you give something up, whether it’s a candy bar with lunch or a burger on Friday, you can put the money you would have spent into the Rice Bowl. Once again, fasting and almsgiving work together, becoming a prayer in action.

Prayer should run through everything — through fasting, through almsgiving, through Lent, through our lives. Not just the usual vocal prayer that we are used to during Mass or before meals or as we drift off to sleep at night, but the deep prayer that brings us face to face with God, to that place where we finally listen to the whisper of the Spirit that is usually lost in the chaos of our ordinary days.

Lent. A season of repentance and renewal. A time to move forward and inward. A forty-day stretch of spiritual growth. “Remember, man, that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Those beautiful words of Genesis 3:19 are not meant to scare us or fill our days with sorrow but to energize us and fill our hearts with new hope and new strength. We can do better — pray better, love better, be better. Today, marked with the sign of faith in ash on our foreheads, is a day to begin again and to look forward to the joy of resurrection that awaits us at the end of the journey.

How fasting fuels spiritual growth, charity

Lent is just one week away. I’ve spoken with lots of people who say they just don’t “get” the need for fasting. Check out my latest OSV story and find out why fasting is so important to our faith tradition in general and to Lent in particular.

By Mary DeTurris Poust

Fasting and abstinence were once staples of Catholic life. There was a time not so long ago when you could spot Catholics in a restaurant simply by looking at what was on their plates on a Wednesday or Friday.

But with changes in Church rules and individual mindsets, fasting slowly began to fall out of fashion. Today, in popular Catholic culture at least, fasting is often considered a quaint practice of days gone by, something that pales in comparison to doing charitable works.

And yet fasting is one of the three pillars of Lent, equal to prayer and almsgiving in the trilogy of practices for the season. In fact, fasting is woven into the fabric of many of the world’s religions — Judaism, Islam, Buddhism — in one fashion or another. Continue reading…

Seven Last Words

Father forgive them, they know not what they do…

We see Jesus on the cross today and hear him forgiving his persecutors, forgiving us. It is a powerful scene, but it is more than just a scene out of our faith history. Jesus’ way is supposed to be our way. Forgive, forgive, forgive, even in the face of the most unreasonable suffering and injustice. Are we willing to forgive as Jesus did?

Today you will be with me in Paradise.

The “good thief” has always been a favorite of mine. Imagine in your last dying moment that you utter a few kind words and are assured by Jesus himself that you will be in heaven with him that day. It would be nice to assume that in that situation I would have taken the path of belief, like the good thief, but there is a much bigger part of me that probably would have been like the unrepentant thief, expecting mercy and miracles despite faithlessness.

Woman, behold your son…

At last a comfort in the midst of all this misery. God gives us a mother for all time. He reminds us that his mother is our mother, who, with a mother’s unconditional love, will open her arms to us when we are desperate, when we are hurting, when we are searching for peace and a way back to the Father.

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Despair, despair. If Jesus can feel despair, what hope is there for me? Then again, Jesus’ moment of despair reminds me of his humanness and that gives me hope even in this dark moment. God became man, walked on earth, suffered torture and death beyond our comprehension. My God is fully human and fully divine. My God knows what it means to live this earthly life, and so my God knows my small sufferings and heartaches and will not turn His back on me.

I thirst.

The wretched physical anguish of the Crucifixion is coming to bear. It is almost too much for us to take. Jesus, water poured out for the world, thirsts. And yet in the midst of this suffering, we remember Jesus’ words to the woman at the well, the woman to whom he first revealed his identity: “…whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst.” (John 4:14)

It is finished.

Jesus has completed his mission of redemption. Darkness descends, the earth shakes, the temple curtain tears in two. We see Jesus’ anguish near its end. We should be reduced to trembling at the enormity of his suffering, his gift to us. Unlike his followers who were plunged into fear and despair at this moment, we have the benefit of hindsight. We know what is coming. We know that his Crucifixion was cause for our salvation. His death a victory. His earthly end our eternal beginning.

Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.

Jesus is going back to the Father, back to where he started before time began, but he will not leave us orphans. We patiently wait to celebrate his Resurrection, to rejoice in our unearned windfall. We wait, pray, watch, listen — hopeful, trusting, faithful. We begin our vigil now, waiting for the darkness to turn to light.

Eternal sunshine?

It has been a crazy few weeks here, which would explain why the blog posts have been lighter than usual. In addition to my usual writing work, I’m blogging in two places so things are getting a bit hairy. Sorry my little blog orphans. Here’s a post that I think you’ll like. It’s my post from OSV Daily Take today:

An interesting story almost slipped under my radar today. It’s about a new discovery that might one day allow scientists to erase painful memories from our brains so that we have no recollection of them. It’s being hailed as a way to eventually help addicts overcome their bad habits or to ease the suffering of those who have experienced something so traumatic that they can’t seem to escape the agony…continue reading.

Looking forward to Holy Week, back on Lent

From my post at OSV Daily Take:

It’s hard to believe Lent is nearing an end. When we started this journey back in February, I felt like I had plenty of time to make some real spiritual progress. But here we are, just a couple of days away from Palm Sunday, and I have to admit that from where I’m standing things just didn’t measure up to my Lenten expectations. Again.

Truth be told, I did just fine with the fasting portion of our program. Giving up sweets or between-meal snacking can be a sacrifice…continue reading.

Did you miss me?

Sorry I’ve been away for a few days. We had a virus at our house that just wouldn’t leave. I think we finally kicked it this weekend. So, I’m back, feeling better than I have in days physically but somewhat depleted and deflated spiritually. I had really been going strong with my Lenten spiritual reading and, in some ways, I was feeling the effects. There was a sense of underlying peace even as I went about my crazy days. Then the virus hit — first Olivia, then Chiara, then Noah, then me, then Noah a second time. Only Dennis escaped unscathed. Although I carried my spiritual reading and prayer book around the house with me, I just couldn’t focus on anything. And with each passing day I felt myself slipping backward a bit. Even my little Lenten sacrifices seemed more difficult, less meaningful the farther I got from my prayer life. I made a misstep here and a misstep there until I finally stopped and realized that the prayer and reading really had been making a difference.

So today I came crawling back to God, groveling and asking for help to get back on track. I hung my head, spiritually speaking, and decided to start at square one. I picked up The Little Black Book that is one of my Lenten guides. Today’s reflection was about having “shamelessness” in our prayer, being willing to go back to God again and again and again, like a pesky child begging a parent for something.

Jesus tells us to be persistent. Speaking of a man who goes to his friend at midnight asking for bread, he says, “I tell you, if he does not get up to give the visitor the loaves because of their friendship, he will get up to give him whatever he needs because of his persistence.” (Luke 7-8)

The Little Black Book asks: “What does this mean?…Does God need to be cajoled into doing what we want?” No, God does not answer our prayers because we are skillful at asking, it says. He answers our prayers because we are “shameless in asking.”

My spirit was buoyed. Maybe there was a method to my madness. It’s rare that shameless persistence is such a positive thing, so I’m going to run with this one — straight to God.

I preach, but do I practice?

Sometimes, when I’m yelling at my children for yelling at each other, I realize how ridiculous I must sound. Surely even my 3-year-old must be wondering why it’s OK for mommy to yell, but it’s not OK for her to yell. Same thing with the whole tone-of-voice debate. Did you have to answer your sister that way? Can’t you speak to your brother in a nice tone of voice? Do you talk to your teacher that way? Well, guess what? I’m pretty sure they didn’t conjure up that annoying tone of voice out of nowhere. They are like sponges, soaking up everything — good or bad — from what they see and hear around them. I hate it when I realize that part of what they’re soaking up are my own bad habits.

I think that’s why today’s Gospel makes me so uncomfortable. Jesus points to the Scribes and Pharisees and says, “For they preach but they do not practice.” Gulp. I don’t need a Scripture scholar to tell me that this line isn’t just about the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ time. When I take the time to reflect on what I try to teach my children about the way they should talk, the way they should act, the way they should strive to live, I have to admit that I may be doing a whole lot of preaching, but practicing? Not so much. Which is too bad because, as they say, actions speak louder than words.

The Little Black Book that I’m using for some of my Lenten reflections says that the way to avoid being a hypocrite is to “acknowledge our own flaws” because it is only when we are willing to face our own sinfulness head on that we are able to help others move beyond the sinfulness that holds them down.

And nowhere is that more obvious than right here at home, as we struggle to get the kids out the door each morning, or settled down for homework each afternoon, or bathed and into bed at a reasonable hour each night. Those are daily opportunities to be Jesus to my children, to practice what I preach.

It would be easy to look at the big picture and pat myself on the back for my general behavior out in the world each day, but can I say the same thing about my behavior among my family each day? Ah, there’s the rub. Sometimes it’s easier to love a stranger in a far-off land than it is to love the people living alongside us. The stranger doesn’t give us that tone of voice or death stare. The stranger doesn’t talk back or mess up the house. The stranger can be kept at arm’s length. Jesus doesn’t invite us to love at a distance. He invites us to love as we want to be loved. Easy to preach, pretty to quote, difficult to live.

My view of the Transfiguration

I’ve never found the Transfiguration to be easy or comforting. I wrote this column a few years back, but it still resonates with me today:

Jesus knew that when the frightening events surrounding his crucifixion began, his Apostles were going to need something to keep them going. So he gathered three of them – Peter, James and John – and took them to a high mountain where he was transfigured before their eyes. This dazzling moment was meant to offer them encouragement and comfort during the time when they would lose hope, and it is meant to do the same for each one of us as we journey through Lent and through the difficult times of our lives. Like a priceless photo we can turn to again and again, the Transfiguration stands out as one shining example – literally – of just how understanding and compassionate Jesus is.

But there’s something else in this story that I find even more comforting than the image of Jesus between Moses and Elijah: It is the image of the Apostles falling to the ground in fear despite the fact that they were part of Jesus’ inner circle. Throughout the Gospels, the Apostles never fail to remind us that the people Jesus handpicked to spread his Good News were often scared, missing in action or worse.

On the mountain of the Transfiguration, Peter was more concerned with erecting three tents for Jesus, Moses and Elijah than with digesting what the event really meant. He later denies that he even knows Jesus. He is absent from the foot of the cross and boarded up in a small room with the others when Mary Magdalene comes to proclaim that she has seen the risen Christ. Peter alone should provide each one of us with the comforting realization that if he can become The Rock, then surely we can become at the very least pebbles worthy of getting caught in the Master’s sandals.

Jesus took these three Apostles up Mount Tabor, knowing that they would need something pretty spectacular to shore them up when the times got tough. God spoke from above, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” It doesn’t really get more spectacular than that – not until Easter Sunday, that is.

I have to admit that I had never really given much thought to the Transfiguration as an image designed to give me strength. I have listened to the Transfiguration account year after year, believing that its significance was something beyond my comprehension. It’s too mystical for me, I thought. That was until recently, when I sat down with this Gospel reading – away from Church, away from homilies, away from enthusiastic children trying to climb out of my lap and into the next pew.

That’s when it hit me: Jesus is at once transfigured and transfiguring. Yes, he is God’s son revealed to us. Yes, he gives us an image we will never forget. But he does more than that. He reminds us that through the power of God’s all-merciful love each one of us can be transfigured here and now in our daily lives. We might not be able to dazzle like the sun, but our souls can radiate a spectacular spiritual light if we just open our hearts to Jesus and his transfiguring message of compassion and forgiveness.

Lent is under way. Perhaps we are struggling to keep our Lenten promises and sacrifices. Maybe we, too, have fallen in frustration or fear. If that is the case, we can reflect on the image of the Transfiguration, and listen to the words Jesus spoke to his Apostles when he reached out to them in their fear, “Rise, and do not be afraid.”

Copyright 2009, Mary DeTurris Poust