Quaresima cuisine

Arlene Ridolfi Valentine
March 6, 2008

La stagione di Quaresima, the Lenten season, has, like all Italian seasons, its very own food specialties.  In keeping with the season’s spirit of quiet reflection and contemplation, Lenten dishes tend to be simple and uncomplicated, which makes them easy to prepare but delicious nonetheless. Fish plays a large part in the Lenten diet as do winter vegetables, and greens and baked goods are for the most part left undecorated and less sweet than usual.  Here are some local recipes and suggestions for Lenten menus.





The dried and strong-smelling slabs of fish you see in markets all over Florence is a Lenten staple called baccalà, which is actually cod that has been heavily salted and dried. Baccalà requires soaking before it can be used (a two-day process of water baths to remove the salt), but most delicatessens sell fresh, pre-soaked baccalà on Fridays. All you need to do is peel off the skin and remove any bones and it’s ready to be cooked.  There are an extraordinary number of baccalà recipes—every region, town, and household seems to have its own preferred way of preparing it, but here are two local favorites:




This is a very tasty dish that combines the flaky white meat of baccalà with a robust tomato sauce.


500 grams baccalà, cut into 4- to 5-inch chunks

1 small onion, diced

2 cloves garlic, diced

400 grams crushed tomatoes

2 tbsp. chopped parsley

5 leaves fresh basil, chopped

1 cup olive oil


Flour for dredging


In a saucepan, heat ¼ cup olive oil and sauté the onion until translucent. Add garlic, tomatoes, basil, parsley and pepper to taste.


Cook for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally.


Meanwhile, heat ¾ cup of olive oil in a large frying pan. Add the pieces of baccalà, which have been dredged in flour, turning them carefully as they cook.  Allow for 10–20 minutes for cooking, depending on the thickness of the slices.


When done, transfer the fish to the tomato sauce and cook for an additional 10 minutes.  Season with parsley and serve.




In ‘zimino’ is a Tuscan term that means ‘to cook with greens’. This is a very good one-dish meal combining baccalà with spinach or bietola (beet greens).


500 grams baccalà

500 grams spinach, washed and

cut into pieces

2 tbsp. parsley, chopped

2 cloves garlic, chopped

Olive oil

Salt and pepper

Flour for dredging


Preheat oven to 180C. In a large saucepan, slowly sauté the spinach in a little olive oil. As it begins to wilt, add the parsley and garlic and mix well. 


Meanwhile, cut the baccalà into 4- or 5- inch chunks, flour lightly, and sauté in a frying pan with a little oil while carefully turning with a spatula to avoid breakage. Remove when lightly browned.


In an ovenproof casserole dish, combine the greens and the baccalà, by first placing the greens and topping with the fish.


Cover with foil and bake for about 30 minutes.





Spinach and bietola are always great accompaniments to fish, and they are simple to prepare. Just wash well, boil until tender, drain and chop. To serve as a side dish, season with a bit of olive oil, salt and pepper.


Chicory, an interesting salad green with a strong and unusual flavor, is another Lenten favorite. You can make a salad using the outer leaves, in which case the dressing should be a mixture of oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Or, you can ‘do as the Romans’ and use the inner hearts of chicory to make insalata di puntarelle:


Insalata di puntarelle


1 head of chicory

3 garlic cloves, chopped finely

3 anchovy fillets, chopped finely

salt and pepper

¼ cup olive oil

1 tbsp. red wine vinegar


Trim the heart out of the chicory and cut into very thin slices. Immerse in ice water for a half hour or so, which will make the slices curl up. Drain well. Meanwhile, make a dressing by combining all other ingredients. Mix well and toss with the puntarelle for a tangy and refreshing salad.



Quaresimali are delightful little cookies that appear in every pasticceria during Lent.  It’s a particularly Florentine custom to shape them into the letters of the alphabet. They are very easy to make and fun to serve because everyone wants to find their own initials!




3 egg whites


¼ cup superfine sugar

¼ cup powdered sugar

6 tablespoons unsweetened

cocoa powder

2 tablespoons flour


Preheat oven to 150C. In a mixing bowl, beat egg whites and salt until foamy. Add sugar slowly, beating until stiff peaks are formed. Sift powdered sugar and cocoa over the beaten egg whites and use a spatula to combine the ingredients. Sift the flour over this mixture and once again combine well.


Transfer the mixture to a pastry bag with a wide decorating tip. (Or you can use a plastic sandwich bag and cut a ¼ inch hole from one corner). Pipe letters of the alphabet (try to make them about two inches tall) onto parchment paper or a non-stick baking pan. They do not spread out while baking, so you can put them close together. Bake for about 12 minutes.  Remove from the baking pan at once with a spatula and let cool on a wire rack. (Makes about two dozen cookies.)



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