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Healthy and delicious meals to carry us through Greek Orthodox Lent

The abundance of meat-free recipes in Mediterranean, and especially Greek culture, ensures Lent feels like a walk in the park. Try these tasty Greek recipes from foodies around the world

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06 March 2017

Last week kicked off on a Clean Monday leading us into Great Lent, the 40-day season of spiritual preparation that comes before the most important feast of the Christian year, Easter. Lent is the central part of the Triodion season, a period of fasting as a spiritual exercise, but mainly a period of prayer for the Orthodox faithful.

During those 40 days, Christians cleanse the body in a lenient way as Greek Lent promotes a rather balanced way of eating. Meanwhile, the abundance of meat-free recipes in Mediterranean and especially Greek culture ensures Lent feels like a walk in the park. Most of the recipes are very tasty and have clear health benefits, while limiting the number of meals and/or the type of food eaten − however, this practice is not forced upon the Greek Orthodox, it is more a choice than an obligation.

At the same time, research shows that following a Greek Orthodox fast can minimise the negatives that come with the excess intake of saturated fats. Encouraging a higher intake of fibre during that period is also effective for fat loss and increases levels of iron through fibre. Vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds and non-processed foods have more antioxidant content and on a long-term basis they are proven to fortify the immune system, especially against cancer.
Modern diet has made fasting even easier, with vegetarian and vegan lifestyle on the up. There are so many products on the market like soy, almond, coconut and rice or even oat milk, vegan cheese, chocolate, tofu and so on, that it hardly feels like fasting anymore.

To convince you, we've gathered some tasty Greek recipes from foodies around the world:

Stuffed portobello mushrooms with roasted tomatoes and goat's cheese by Sally Cameron
These giant, meaty mushrooms make a terrific appetiser or meatless main dish. The oven-roasted tomatoes, goat's cheese and herbs add to their earthy, savoury flavour. For a more substantial meal, add a green salad and wholewheat pasta or brown rice. Make the roasted tomatoes ahead or while you are prepping the mushrooms. They take 20-25 minutes, plus another 12 minutes to bake the filled mushrooms. You can use plain olive oil to brush the mushrooms if preferred. Omit the goat's cheese if you're fasting dairy.

Ingredients:
4 large portobello mushrooms, about 10cm across
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 teaspoon finely chopped shallot (optional)
1 large garlic clove, finely chopped
salt and pepper to taste
100g plain goat's cheese
1 tablespoon fresh chopped parsley
1 tablespoons fresh chopped chives
1 recipe of oven-roasted tomatoes

Method:
1. If you have not made the oven-roasted tomatoes ahead, do them first. They take just a few minutes of prep time and 20-25 minutes in the oven.
2. While the tomatoes are roasting, clean the mushrooms by gently wiping the outside of the caps with a damp paper towel or brushing any dirt off with a soft brush. Next, pop out the stems by pushing them from side to side until they snap out. Then with a teaspoon, scrape the gills out until the underside is mostly clean. Place them on a foil-lined, rimmed baking sheet.
3. Whisk together the olive oil, lemon juice, shallot and garlic. Brush mushroom caps inside and out with the olive oil mixture (or plain olive oil). Sprinkle each cap with salt and pepper.
4. Pre-heat the griller. With the oven rack on the second to the top level, grill the mushrooms for 3-5 minutes until they are hot and the edges are starting to brown. They will start to release moisture and get juicy. Remove from the oven.
5. Pre-heat the oven to 190°C. Fill the caps with the roasted tomatoes and dot with the goat's cheese. Sprinkle with the fresh herbs.
6. Bake for 12 minutes or until hot and the cheese has softened. Brush with a little extra olive oil on the edges to make them shine. Serve.

Revithia sto fourno - baked chickpeas by Kiki Vagianos
A cast-iron pan is a great option for this dish or, of course, the more traditional clay pot if you're lucky enough to have one in your kitchen. The cast iron just heats every bean through to creamy perfection and I swear, bakes the flavours of the onions and rosemary right into each pea. Truth be told, this is a flexible recipe in terms of bakeware as I've used a regular old 9×13 cake pan many times with great results.

Ingredients:
450g dried chickpeas (soaked and boiled until tender) or 4 x 425g cans
1/2 cup olive oil
2 cups reserved boiling liquid from chickpeas or liquid from can
1 tbsp dried chopped rosemary
2 tsp salt
2 tsp fresh ground black pepper
2 ½ cups caramelised onions

Boil soaked chickpeas for one hour until tender. Reserve two cups boiling liquid before draining. You can do this up to three days ahead and keep both cooked chickpeas and reserve liquid covered in the refrigerator.

When ready to bake:
Layer bottom of casserole dish with caramelised onions and crushed rosemary, salt, pepper. Layer cooked chickpeas on top. Add reserved boiling liquid and oil. Stir gently to just combine. Try to leave onions on the bottom. Cook for two hours loosely covered in 200°C oven and then uncovered for additional 1/2 hour (total cooking time 2 1/2 hrs).

For the caramelised onions:
1.5kg sweet white onions
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 cup orange juice
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp brandy

Combine sliced onions, orange juice, olive oil and salt. Cook onions in baking pan at 100°, covered tightly, for one hour. Uncover, stir and continue to cook with lid half off for another two hours. Stir halfway through. At the end of three hours, stir onions and add a tbsp of brandy to deglaze the pan. You can store cooled onions covered in the refrigerator for up to four days.

Briami, the Greek ratatouille by Elena Paravantes RD
Briami is basically chunks of vegetables cooked in olive oil, and it belongs to the lathera family. But you don't just add any vegetable you want, there are certain vegetables that are used: potatoes, zucchini, eggplant, onion, tomato, sometimes okra and bell pepper.

Ingredients:
4 medium potatoes
1 cup chopped tomatoes or sliced or cherry tomatoes
3-4 eggplants
4-5 zucchini
1-2 onions
2 peppers (optional)
3 cloves garlic, chopped
2 tablespoons tomato paste
about a cup of olive oil
about a cup of water
2 tablespoons dry mint
2 tablespoons oregano
1/4 cup parsley
salt/pepper

Method:
1. Preheat oven to 180°C
2. Cut potatoes and eggplant in about 5cm pieces, the zucchini in 1cm slices. The onion in quarters and if using peppers in slices.
3. Pour all the vegetables in a large bowl. Add garlic, mint, parsley, oregano and mix.
4. Mix the tomato paste with a bit of water (1 tablespoon) and add to the vegetables.
5. Add about 3/4 to 1 cup olive oil and mix well. We usually do it with our hands.
6. Add salt to taste and pepper, and mix some more (I add very little salt and add more if needed when serving).
7. Transfer the vegetables to a large, shallow pan, it should be able to fit all the vegetables in one layer.
8. Pour in a corner of the pan about 1/2-3/4 cup water and tilt the pan so that it spreads, but don't pour it over the vegetables. Pour more later if it seems like they are becoming dry.
9. Cover with aluminum foil and roast for about an hour.
10. After an hour check and see if the vegetables are cooked (you should be able to stick a fork in them easily).If they are cooked, remove the foil and roast for another 1/2 hour until the potatoes start turning golden brown.
11. Let it cool and serve with bread and feta cheese. You can also serve cold.

Karydopita by Zoe Vlachos
You will love this moist and nutty Greek vegan cake! It is bursting with the flavours of cinnamon, cloves, honey and ... brandy!
Serves 8-10

Ingredients:
1/3 cup brandy
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup fine semolina
1 cup chopped walnuts
1/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
grated zest of 2 oranges
1/2 cup orange juice
1/4 cup olive oil

For the syrup:
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/4 cup honey
2 cups water
orange peel from 1 orange
lemon peel from 1 lemon
1 cinnamon stick
1 tablespoon lemon juice

Method:
For the cake:
1. Place brandy in a small bowl, stir in baking soda and set aside.
2. In a large mixing bowl, combine the semolina, walnuts, sugar, baking powder, cinnamon and cloves.
3. Make a well in the centre and set aside. In the brandy mixture add the orange zest and orange juice and blend.
4. Pour the wet mixture into the well of the dry ingredients and fold everything together, adding the olive oil little by little.
5. Pour batter into a greased 20-22cm baking pan and bake at 180° for approximately 20 minutes or when a toothpick inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean.

Syrup:
1. While cake is baking add all of the syrup ingredients to a heavy-bottomed saucepan.
2. Bring to a boil over medium high heat and then lower temperature and simmer for approximately 25 minutes or until liquid has slightly reduced.
3. Strain liquid through a fine sieve.
4. Pour hot syrup over hot cake and let it rest for at least one hour before cutting and serving.

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