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Traditional Mexican Lenten Foods Abound in Los Angeles

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Long before the U.S. government dreamed up the idea of Meatless Mondays, Catholics around the world were forgoing animal protein (except fish, of course) every Friday during Lent. The tradition of going meat-free started around 325 CE, and is meant to remind the observant in the 40 days leading up to Easter of the sacrifices and suffering of Jesus. But, you don't have to be religious at all to enjoy some of the ingenious meat-free Mexican dishes that have been borne out of this religious season.

I say Mexican dishes because that is my background and I live in Los Angeles, home to the highest population of Mexicans after Mexico City. I was raised with a lot of these dishes and traditions, but until recently I never quite appreciated these fascinating Lenten foods that my Mexican ancestors had to come up with in order to rival red meat's richness and satisfaction level. Though a lot of Mexican food can be vegetarian by default, and there is a lot of fresh seafood, beef, pork, lamb, and chicken dominates in some regions of Mexico.

Take for example the most popular Lenten dish of all Mexican cuisine, "Tortitas de Camaron," which essentially is a dried shrimp fritter made by whipping up an egg meringue and creating a batter with the salted ground shellfish (and sometimes a little flour to hold it together). If you're from Central or Northern Mexico like my Zacatecana mom, you pan-fry them until golden brown and crispy and stew them it in a red chile sauce with lots of tender, chopped boiled cactus. If you're from Central and Southern Mexico, you stew the patties in a spiced mole sauce with romeritos, a rosemary-looking vegetable called suaeda in English. You then go to town on it with a pile of toasted tortillas -- and it is one of the best Mexican food experiences on the planet. This semi-exotic seasonal dish is available at more Mexican restaurants than you think, most likely even at your local mom and pop restaurant. Call ahead and ask them. Aside from my mom's, I like the version at La Casita Mexicana, available only on Fridays.

Other lenten dishes also use this egg battering technique to achieve a similar high protein flavor and texture. In some parts of Mexico, cauliflower is battered this way, and then stewed in an oregano-scented tomato sauce, too -- not unlike a proper chile relleno and its accompanying tomato sauce. Another popular lenten dish in some Mexican states and therefore here in Los Angeles are Huazontles Capeados, made of yet another exotic vegetable, called goosefoot weed in English. Guess how they prepare this broccolini-like vegetable? Yup, battered and fried, then doused in a smoky chile sauce too. Only the tender tips are edible (the stem is too woody); you eat huazontles like you eat kabobs. This dish can be harder to find but Bizarra Capital in Whittier has it on their dinner menu, year round actually. Also, I also saw a sign touting "Huazontles" at El Huarache Azteca in Highland Park; though I haven't tried theirs yet I'm sure it's good. It's a very forgiving dish. Call ahead to make sure they have it.

Last but not least is the official Mexican Lent dessert, called capirotada. It's a Mexican-style bread pudding chock full of peanuts, almonds, coconut, assorted dried fruits, candied cactus (biznaga), bananas, guavas, cheese, and candy-coated anise seeds called "grajea;" all moistened in a piloncillo (Mexican-style unrefined brown cane sugar)-cinnamon syrup. This dessert may sound like overkill, until you try it for yourself. There is a type of sticky toffee pudding-like attraction to it. All of La Monarca Bakery locations have it at this time of year, and it is amazing with one of their frothy cappuccinos.

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