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DECATUR – During Lenten months, Catholics are challenged by something that for most Americans is unthinkable: a whole day of meatless meals. Now is the season when fast food chains expand their menus to include seafood sandwiches and there are fish frys every Friday. 

Caitlin Huth, nutrition and wellness educator for the U of I Macon County Cooperative Extension said that restricting meat is not something most people are familiar with.

“It's not something that we do very often in America with meatless meals,” Huth said.

Huth is a registered dietitian who hosts educational food related events for the extension. During this time of year, many people rely on fish frys so they don't have to worry about cooking, but that can add extra fats to a lean source of protein. Fish, such as salmon and mackerel, also have the added benefits of omega 3 fats.

“That's going to be great for heart health,” Huth said.

Seafood, in particular, can be intimidating for someone who has never had it outside a restaurant or cooked it outside of fish stick form.

“It's not as difficult as people tend to realize,” Huth said.

For someone who's more familiar with cooking a roast or chicken, Huth said using marinades, lemon and dried herbs are healthy options for seafood that don't involve frying or a lot of butter. Thicker fish fillets need to reach a temperature of 145 degrees and thinner pieces should be white instead of opaque to be done.

“If it flakes really easily, you know it's done,” Huth said.

She recommends those unfamiliar to cooking with seafood starting with a white fish, which is meaty, yet mild in flavor. Fish stews and tuna casseroles, light on cream, are also healthy alternatives. An egg dish, such as quiche, or rice and beans are also good options for vegetarian meals that are a full source of protein.

Crayfish was on the menu at a recent cooking school hosted by Mari-Mann Herbs. Millikin's Executive Chef Brian Pehr teaches a public cooking class every month as part of the Mari-Mann Famous Cooking School. He shares recipes and prepares dinner for the paying audience in an intimate setting where the catch phrase is "gooder" and a friendly razzing of those witnessing is expected.

"We're movers and shakers," Pehr said to his class. "Well, I'm a wiggler and a jiggler."

The cajun-themed menu for this month's Lenten Meal Ideas school included a carrot raisin salad, vegetable jambalaya, crawfish stew, red beans and rice and a dessert of corn pudding.

Pehr walked the small class through detailed instruction on how to prepare each dish, with Mari-Mann Owner Mike King contributing facts about the spices and herbs he supplies for the class.

"That just looks like a little party right there," Pehr said after checking on his crawfish stew.

Pehr kept up a running commentary throughout the one-hour cooking section that used every burner on the small stove as he described basic cooking techniques required for making what many assume are complicated dishes. 

"I just want to show people food can be fun, it's not pretentious," Pehr said.

His style, vegetarian or not, is about simple, well prepared food, and he loves sharing his knowlege in a fun format, especially at the montly classes.

"This is the best value in Decatur and nobody knows about it," Pehr said.

Those taking the class settled in to generous portions when it was done, with some returning for seconds.

Abby Schroeder, her boyriend, Alex Walker, and coworker, Allison Mowry, came out

"I might go back a third time," Walker said.

Schroeder said she's been to New Orleans and the food on the menu met her expectations.

"It's actually really close," she said.

The next cooking school classes are scheduled from 6 to 8 p.m. April 14, May 12 and July 7. Call ahead to register and pay.


Vegetable Jambalaya

1 red onion, diced

3 stalks of celery, diced

2 bell peppers, diced

1 tomato, diced

2 portobello mushrooms, diced

1 turnip, diced

1 can tomato paste

4 bay leaves (remove before serving)

4 tablespoons minced resh garlic

2 tablespoons each cumin, chili powder, black peper

1 can stewed tomatoes

4 cups with 4 tablespoons of soup base

½ cup of vegetable oil

½ cup flour

In a large pot add all raw vegetables to heated oil. Stir and cook for five to six minutes. Pour the flour into the vegetables and stir well to create a roux.

Combine the vegetables and stock, stir well. Add all the spices and stir.

Add stewed tomatoes and tomato paste and stir.

Reduce the heat to a simmer, cover the pot with a loose lid and simmer for 30 to 45 minutes, stirring every five to six minutes.

Caitlin Huth said a healthy option for cooking fish is in a soup or stew and she's used this Mediterranean Fish stew from the American Diabetes Association for past demonstrations.

Serves 4 to 6.

Mediterranean Fish Stew

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 medium onion, diced

1 red bell pepper, diced

2 stalks celery diced,

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon each dried basil, oregano

1 28-ounce can of crushed tomatoes

2 cups of low sodium vegetable broth

1 6 ounce cod filet, 1 inch peices

8 ounches medium shrimp, deveined and chopped

½ teaspoon each salt and pepper

Add olive oil to soup pot over medium heat. Add onion, bell pepper, celery, garlic, basil and organon. Saute until onions turn clear.

Add curshed tomato and vegetable broth. Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer for 10 minutes.

Gently stir in cod and shrimp and cook for 5 minutes until seafood is cooked through.

--Source: Executive Chef Brian Pehr, Diabetes.org

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