Advent: Cooking and Fasting

As Christians prepare for the coming of Christmas—the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem—they celebrate the season of Advent. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “When the Church celebrates the liturgy of Advent each year, she makes present this ancient expectancy of the Messiah, for by sharing in the long preparation for the Savior’s first coming, the faithful renew their ardent desire for his second coming” (CCC 524).

The first celebration of Advent dates back to about 567 A.D., when an order of monks had to fast in December before Christmas. Since then, Catholic scholars have defined Advent as a time of renewal, humility, and penitence to help Christians prepare for the coming of our Lord. For centuries, too, Christians have viewed Advent as a time of fasting, or giving up food. For centuries, Fridays and Saturdays were days of abstinence, and Fridays were also days of fasting. In the 20th century, the Roman Catholic Church abolished the practice of Advent fasting, but maintained Advent as a time of penitence.

Although fasting is no longer required during Advent, some people choose to fast anyway. So just how can one fast? Some website suggestions include spending money by donating to a good cause rather than eating at a restaurant; fasting on certain days of the week; or eating only one meal a day, such as a bowl of rice, vegetables, and beans. And you can simply give up certain foods, such as sweets or red meats. Or you can fast by giving up other items, such as participating in social media or watching too much television.

Father Bill John Melancon Pastor at Saint Rita Catholic Church in St. Martinville, Louisiana, shared some priestly thoughts about Advent: “For myself, I think Advent is a joyful anticipation of the coming of Christ. Advent is joyful when you slow down and start preparing for the birth of Christ; making sure our spiritual lives are in order; going to confession; doing our prayers right; and wanting our souls to be a good place for Christ to dwell.”

Then enter Advent with devotion and also enjoy some of these simple recipes that will make your Advent meals cheerful!

Mexican-Inspired Hummus

Serves 4

This Mexican-inspired bean mixture works well as a dip for tortilla chips and fresh vegetables. It also makes a spicy start to any holiday meal or serves well as a lunch when spread on a warmed tortilla.

One 16-ounce can pinto beans, drained and rinsed
½ cup salsa, mild or spicy
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
2 teaspoons or more extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon or more minced garlic
1 teaspoon ground cumin
½ cup toasted pumpkin seeds
½ cup chopped fresh cilantro

Put beans, salsa, lime juice, oil, garlic, and cumin in food processor or blender, and purée until smooth. Spoon mixture into a bowl, and stir in pumpkin seeds and cilantro. Use immediately or cover and refrigerate.

Red, Red Salad

Red signifies the joy of the holiday season, and a sprinkling of green adds more color to a celebratory dish. This salad adds bright colors to the main course.

Serves 4 to 6

1 bunch radishes, greens removed, trimmed and quartered
2 cups red seedless grapes
1 cup chopped canned beets
1 cup grape tomatoes, or more as desired
1 large red bell pepper, seeded and diced
½ large red onion, diced
½ cup shredded fresh spinach
1/4 cup dried cranberries
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Salad dressing of choice to taste

Put all in a large salad bowl, and season with salt and pepper. Dress with salad dressing, toss and serve.

Grant Fried Chicken

This family recipe became a standard and is a perfect fit in the holiday season.

Serves about 6

1 cup flour
1/2 cup cornmeal
Assorted herbs and spices, to taste, such as dried oregano, celery seeds, onion powder, and dried garlic
2 large chickens, about 3 pounds each, cut into serving pieces
1/2-pound butter
1 cup peanut or corn oil

In a large bowl, combine the flour with the cornmeal and herbs and spices to taste. Dredge the chicken pieces in the seasoned flour and coat well. Combine the butter and oil in a skillet and heat until bubbly. Carefully put the pieces of chicken in the skillet, taking care not to overcrowd. Turn the pieces over until golden on all sides. Remove from the hot fat, drain on paper towels, and repeat procedure until all the chicken is cooked.

Arroz de mi Madre (My Mother’s Rice)

Our Lady of Guadalupe’s Feast Day is December 12, and a splendid way to celebrate the day is by enjoying this Mexican-based dish prepared by Rita Steininger, a Catholic lady with Mexican roots. (Note: the recipe was featured in a cooking class at St. Veronica Catholic Church in Virginia and is also in my cookbook, Cooking with the Saints.)

Serves 4 to 6

2 to 3 tablespoons canola oil for frying
1 cup uncooked medium to short-grain rice
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
3 green onions, finely chopped, white and light green tops only
1 (15-ounce) can tomato sauce
2 to 4 cups chicken broth, or more as needed
½ bunch fresh coriander, chopped
Ground cumin to taste
Salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Heat the oil in a large stockpot or skillet over medium heat, and add the rice. Sauté the rice, stirring often, until the rice turns a straw color. Stir in the garlic and onions; add tomato sauce and just enough broth until it covers the rice by about 2 inches. Stir, then stir in the fresh coriander, ground cumin, salt and pepper to taste. Cover the pot, and reduce the heat to very low. Cook until the rice is tender, about 20 minutes. Don’t peek until almost done.

Grandma’s Gingerbread

Gingerbread is hundreds of years old and one of our early and best-loved sweets, which today we link with the holiday season. Grated fresh ginger adds a lively kick to the flavor and fragrance of this treasured treat. This an ecumenical bread that pleases everyone, regardless of race, creed, or color. 

Serves 4 to 6

1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup sugar
1 large egg
3/4 cup molasses
1 cup buttermilk
2 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon soda
1 teaspoon freshly grated ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.  Generously grease and flour a 9-x-0-inch cake pan. 

Combine the butter, sugar and egg in a large mixing bowl and beat until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes.  Stir in the molasses and buttermilk.  Combine the dried ingredients and stir them into the batter and beat until smooth.

Spoon the batter into the pan and bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean.  Set on a cooling rack and cool to room temperature or serve hot, if desired.

Petit-Gâteaux Sec (Dry Cookie, Southern Tea Cookie)

From Father Bill John Melacon: “This simple cookie was a welcome treat as I was growing up. My mother would bake these cookies a couple of times a year. I had not had any since my dear mother died in 2009. In November 2022, I decided to give it a try after all these years. This brought great memories. In the cool days of autumn my mother would surprise us with these cookies and other sweet offerings. Paired with a tall glass of milk, it was a delicious snack during Advent and helped us in celebrating that joyful anticipation for Christmas! It can be paired with tea, coffee, or another beverage. My addition is to brush on a little bit of a simple icing, just to add a touch more sweetness.”  Should yield about a dozen cookies.

2 cups flour
A pinch of salt
1 tablespoon baking powder
3 eggs
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract (you can substitute with orange or lemon extract)

1/4 cup powdered sugar
1 teaspoon water or milk
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract or other flavor of extract. Stir until smooth.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In large bowl cream together sugar and eggs. When sugar is dissolved add salt and extract. Stir. Then, add flour and baking powder. Mix. Roll out cookie dough on floured surface to 1/4 to 3/8-inch thickness. With a 3-inch round cookie cutter, or the rim of a cup or glass, cut the dough. Place on parchment paper lined cookie sheet. The dough does spread while baking, so an inch of space should be allowed between cookies. Bake about 12-15 minutes or until slightly golden. Take from oven and place on cookie rack to cool. If you choose, after the cookies are cooled, brush a little icing on the top.

Christ’s Diapers

Greek Diples

(From the cookbook, A Continual Feast: A Cookbook to Celebrate the Joys of Family & Faith throughout the Christian Year, by Evelyn Birge Vitz.)

Yield: about 4 dozen

Diples are “folds” in Greek. These cookies are sometimes shaped in bowknots or other fancy shapes, but for Christmas they are made in a shape suggestive of the swaddling clothes—or actually the diapers!—of the Infant Jesus.

6 eggs
3 1/2 cups flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 cup olive oil
Grated rind of 1 orange
Vegetable oil or shortening for deep frying
1/2 cup honey
1/2 cup water
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Chopped pistachio nuts
Confectioners’ sugar

With an electric beater, beat the eggs until light and fluffy.

Sift together the flour, salt, and baking powder. Gradually stir the flour into the eggs.

Turn the dough onto an unfloured board. Add the olive oil, a little at a time, and the grated orange rind. Knead the dough until it is smooth—about 10 minutes.

Roll the dough out paper thin on a well-floured board. Cut it into squares about 1 1/2 inches across. Fold these into triangles, then join the ends to form diapers. Press the corners together gently but firmly. (If you don’t press the corners well, the diapers will come undone!)

Drop the diapers, a few at a time, into hot fat (360-370° F. on a deep-fat-frying thermometer). Turn once or twice and fry until golden brown. Drain thoroughly on paper towels.

Bring the honey and water slowly to a boil in a saucepan. Stir in the cinnamon and lemon juice. Reduce heat and simmer for 1 or 2 minutes.

Dribble the honey syrup over the diapers, and sprinkle them with chopped pistachios, then with confectioners’ sugar. 

When the diapers are fully dry, pack them in a tin and cover tightly. These keep well if well covered.

Photo by Joyful on Unsplash

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A convert to Catholicism, Alexandra Greeley is a food writer, restaurant critic, and cookbook author, who is passionate about every aspect of the food world — from interviewing chefs to supporting local farmers and to making the connection between food and faith. Her latest work is Cooking with the Saints.

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