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This year Greek Easter will be celebrated a week later than Catholic Easter. I guess “celebrated” might not be the right word, as everything – for the first time in recent history – will be shut, even the churches.

In Greece, Easter is as important as Christmas. If they can, most Athenians leave the city to spend the holiday in the countryside or on an island, where the setting is ideal for the ultimate Easter tradition – a whole lamb on a spit, roasting in the open air on Easter Sunday. Everyone gravitates toward this central attraction, sipping on tsipouro and wine and munching on meze till the feast is ready to officially commence.

Since Greek Easter is a beloved family holiday, the government is taking stricter isolation measures for these days, which are considered “critical” as far as the coronavirus is concerned. They are even weighing whether to forbid, just this once, open-air lamb roasts and feast gatherings – a Greek drama if I’ve ever seen one.

Despite all that, we have now entered into the mystical Megali Evdomada, i.e. Holy Week. This week before Easter is normally the most important period of Lent, which officially begins right after Carnival and lasts for 40 days (this year it ran from March 2 until April 18).

In Greece, we call that 40-day period Sarakosti (derived from the Greek word for the number) and it is depicted as a woman wearing a long folk dress – Mrs. Sarakosti – with 40 little legs. Traditionally you are supposed to make your own Mrs. Sarakosti out of paper right after Carnival and cut one of her little feet each day until none are left, at which point Easter has arrived. Mrs. Sarakosti now has four little feet left hanging under her dress, which means we’re in the final stretch.

Lent is a fasting period that calls for abstaining from all animal products and byproducts (i.e. meat, dairy, eggs). The most religious people go on an even stricter Lent diet during Holy Week and especially on Good Friday when many will eat only steamed or boiled pulses and vegetables, even forgoing olive oil. Among the most typically traditional Lenten dishes for this week are two soups: tahini soup with lemon juice and, of course, our beloved lentil soup.

One of the oldest foods recorded in history, lentils were cultivated and consumed in prehistoric times and antiquity, especially in the Eastern Mediterranean region. They are very nutritious and rich in protein, dietary fiber, iron, folic acid and zinc. Above all, lentils are easy to cook and versatile, even replacing minced meat in a vegan moussaka.

For optimal nutritional results, it’s always best to combine foods high in iron (like lentils) with foods high in vitamin C (oranges, lemons, tomatoes, peppers, etc.) or malic acid, which can be found in white wine as well as in many fruits such as pears and cherries. Both enhance the absorption of iron in our bodies. Conversely, you should avoid pairing iron-rich foods with dairy or foods high in calcium and tannins (like you find in red wine, tea, coffee) as these don’t encourage the absorption of iron.

Although I don’t fast, I’ve been cooking lentils this week as I love them – a classic Greek-style lentil soup is as easy as it can get, delicious and comforting and a childhood favorite of mine (and many other Greek children).

This recipe, which I could prepare blindfolded, is not a strict Lenten version, i.e. without olive oil or any pleasure. My version is a classic, with carrot and tomato – it’s delicious and healthy, and I hope you like it as much as I do.

Lentil Soup

For 4

500 gr brown lentils
1 large red onion chopped
3 garlic cloves, whole or cut in half if too big
2 bay leaves
1 tsp dried oregano
2 carrots diced
1 celery rib diced
1 sweet red pepper diced
1 tablespoon chopped leek
450 gr grated or finely chopped tomatoes with their juices, no skin (you can substitute with canned)
1 1/2 teaspoon tomato paste
1/2 cup olive oil
1.2 – 1.4 lt warm water
Sea salt
Ground black pepper

To serve
Extra virgin or early harvest olive oil
White wine vinegar
Olives
Fresh bread

Rinse the lentils under running cold water. Put a large sauce pan on medium heat. Add 3 tablespoons of the olive oil and sauté the onions, garlic, leek and bay leaves. Add the carrot, red pepper, celery and stir. Add the lentils, oregano, salt and pepper, and stir and finally add the tomato paste and stir for another minute. Add the chopped tomatoes, stir and add the warm water (about 3 cm above the lentils). Cover with lid and gently simmer for about 30-40 minutes, until the lentils are soft but not too soft. Midway through add the oregano. As they cook, you need to stir the soup from time to time and check to see if it needs a little extra water. Towards the end adjust with salt and pepper if necessary. When the lentils are cooked, bring down the heat to low and add in the rest of the olive oil. Simmer for about 5 minutes at a very low heat while stirring occasionally. Once done, remove from heat and let stand in the pot for about 15 minutes before serving. Serve, drizzle with olive oil and vinegar, and enjoy!

We normally serve our soup with olives and fresh country-style bread on the side. And outside of Lent, it is typical to pair this dish with salted sardines or other types of cured or smoked fish like mackerel.

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