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Lent : Mexico's Mystical Season

February 18, 1993|PATRICIA QUINTANA | With MEG ROSE; Quintana is the author of "Mexico's Feast of Life" (Council Oaks Books) and "Taste of Mexico" (Stewart, Tabori & Chang). She lives in Mexico.

Lent is a period of great intensity in Mexico--a time of fervent gaiety and fierce solemnity, a time when the faithful commemorate Christ's sacrifice with all the passion their souls can muster. Indeed, it is during these 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday that the spirit of my country's Catholicism is at its most mystical and compelling.

Like many Catholics around the world, Mexicans feast and celebrate ecstatically during the days prior to Lent. Carnivals, costume parades, pageants and fiestas fill the streets and charge the air. We gorge ourselves on roast pig, lusty moles , fragrant homemade chorizos and other succulent flesh we will soon abstain from to show our religious devotion.

Though the days that follow are decidedly more serious, they are by no means dull or uneventful. Lent in my country is about passion--and passion pervades our every act as we march through this most holy season.

It all begins on Ash Wednesday, when the faithful bring palm leaves from the preceding year to the church to be burned. The ashes are then sketched on their foreheads in the shape of a cross. From this point on, the church never stops bustling. Its bells toll loudly throughout the days, and at times, brilliant fireworks beckon the faithful to services. The energy slowly builds to a crescendo as the days proceed to Holy Week, the week preceding Easter Sunday.

Some of my strongest childhood memories come from this time, when my family traveled to the home of my Aunt Elena in the inland state of Queretaro. Still imprinted on my memory is the mystical aura of her little neighborhood church. I remember wandering its cool, dark interior, my childish senses overwhelmed with the pungent smell of incense and the eerie presence of saints shrouded in deep purple cloaks of mourning. Absent was the comforting figure of Christ himself, which was hidden away to protect His inner light for Holy Week.

Also indelible is the memory of the wonderful foods that characterized Lent in my Aunt Elena's household. After our long drive to Queretaro, she always rewarded us with delicate crepes tucked around pale-yellow squash blossoms, chile poblano and sweet corn.

But the real treat for us children after long hours at church was her capirotada , a dish reminiscent of French toast, which we soaked with spiced syrup and showered with raisins, nuts and fresh white cheese.

To this day in Mexico, the faithful abstain from eating flesh on Fridays during Lent and all through Holy Week. But there's no fear of bland cuisine--generations of ever-adaptable Mexican cooks have simply considered this prohibition a challenge to work culinary wonders.

Seafood, of course, plays a starring role on the Lenten menu. It comes to the table whole, stewed or simmered in a savory broth familiarly known as vuelve a la vida ("back to life") soup. The best version of this dish I've tasted comes from the small port town of Alvarado, where whole shrimp and chunks of red snapper are simmered in a heady fish stock spiked with tomatoes and garlic.

Lent is also the time when vegetables and dairy foods receive the royal treatment. On any given day or night, tables are loaded with earthy wild mushrooms roasted with garlic, tiny pickled quail eggs, cheese-stuffed chiles and flaky turnovers filled with young spinach, rich egg custard and shredded baby shark.

Nowadays, some worldly Mexican folks let the days of Lent pass by and consider Holy Week merely another opportunity to sunbathe in Acapulco. But there are still many who steadfastly observe this special time and allow its ritual and mysticism to embrace them. For all those Americans who share their devotion or have an appreciation of it, I invite you to partake in this important feast of life.

BACK TO LIFE SEAFOOD SOUP WITH CHILES AND TOMATOES 1/2 cup olive oil 3 medium onions, thinly sliced 4 cloves garlic, crushed or finely chopped 2 (28-ounce) cans whole plum tomatoes, drained and chopped 3/4 teaspoon dried oregano 1 1/2 teaspoons black pepper Salt 2 to 4 jalapeno or serrano chiles, cut julienne (remove seeds for less piquant flavor) Fish Stock 2 pounds red snapper or sea bass, cut into chunks 32 medium shrimp, peeled and deveined 4 to 6 jalapeno chiles, seeded and cut julienne, for garnish

Heat olive oil in heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add onions and garlic and saute until lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Add tomatoes and cook until mixture is thick, about 20 minutes. Add oregano, pepper and salt to taste. Add chiles, then gradually add strained Fish Stock. (May be prepared to this point 1 day in advance).

Before serving, heat soup to simmer. Add red snapper and shrimp and cook 8 minutes. Adjust seasonings to taste. Serve immediately with jalapeno garnish in bowl on side. Makes 8 servings.

Fish Stock 20 cups water 1 1/2 medium onions, quartered 6 cloves garlic 12 whole black peppercorns 2 teaspoons salt, about 4 fish heads 1 1/3 pounds red snapper or sea bass

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