Lenten fish fries adding healthier options
Lenten fish fry season is in full swing. You can tell by the long lines of hungry seafood enthusiasts on any given Friday at Catholic church halls and school cafeterias.
The featured fare at these popular seasonal fundraisers is worth waiting for. Main attractions typically include fried, battered or breaded fish sandwiches slathered with tartar sauce, potato pierogies cooked in a tasty butter sauce, and homemade cakes, pies and cookies graciously donated by the best bakers in the parish.
Delicious menu items, to be sure — but not always the best choices for those following a heart-healthy diet that links frequent consumption of fried and high-calorie foods to increased risk of heart disease and stroke.
The caloric difference can be substantial between a fried and a baked fish sandwich — about 20 extra calories per ounce for fried fish with breading, according to Laura Maydak, a registered dietitian and licensed dietitian and nutritionist for Giant Eagle Market District.
“That’s already an 80-calorie difference for a 4-ounce fish fillet,” she says, “and if we gobble an 8-ounce fillet, it’s an extra 160 calories — and that’s not taking into account the bread and the tartar sauce,” which can add 30 to 75 calories per tablespoon, depending on the brand used.
To food advocates such as Maydak who follow dietary guidelines from the American Dietetic Association — encouraging consumers to color their plates with a rainbow of foods to incorporate nutritional benefits — fish fries are “a very white meal.”
“There is some protein in fish, of course, but a typical meal with pierogies and french fries is pretty bland, adding calories without much benefit. Let’s have some fresh veggies earlier in the week, or earlier in the day on fish fry Friday,” she says.
On the bright side, Lent lasts only until Easter — March 27 this year — so any over-indulgence in high-calorie, high-fat foods is short-term. And, Maydak doesn’t advocate staying away from one of the favorite spring social events for many families.
“We always say everything in moderation, as long as the rest of the week you’re eating a calorie-controlled, balanced diet,” she says. “And a lot of fish fry menus are more healthful than in the past.”
In an effort to provide healthier alternatives, many organizers of local fish fries are offering more baked seafood as the catch of the day, in addition to lower-calorie side dishes such as broccoli, baked potatoes, stewed tomatoes and apple sauce in lieu of french fries, pierogies or haluski.
St. Maria Goretti School in Bloomfield is one of the places where fried fish shares the dinner menu with baked fish, shrimp, ditalini with peas and spaghetti with garlic and oil. Cook Ortenzia Magliocco, who has been working in the school cafeteria for 36 years, says that, surprisingly, when there’s a choice between french fries and green beans or broccoli, most opt for the green vegetable.
But when it comes down to fried or baked fish, more choose the fried variety “because that’s why it’s called a fish fry,” the cook says with a laugh.
At St. Bernard Church in Mt. Lebanon, the “Gourmet Fish Fry” features not only standard fried or baked fish and fried shrimp dinners, but also weekly specials such as crab cakes, shrimp sauteed in garlic and tomatoes served with salad, and pasta with garlic-sauteed spinach, tomatoes and pine nuts.
Volunteer Eric Eidemueller, who has helped organize the event for the past eight years along with a team of 30 to 50 volunteers, says as many as 1,100 parishioners and other guests turn out for the Lenten dinners each week, and that the specials frequently sell out.
“Our fried fish dinner is still our No. 1 seller, but this year we’ve sold more baked fish than in other years,” he says.
In Greensburg, John and Karen Lynch have organized the fish fry at St. Bruno Parish for 21 years and have incorporated changes in the menu that include a weekly baked special. Baked orange roughy is served every week, and alternating weekly specials feature baked salmon, tilapia and mahi-mahi and vegetable lasagna.
Karen says they serve 600 to 900 guests every week, and people are looking for alternatives to traditional fish dinners.
“We added green beans, and it’s amazing how popular they’ve become in the past few years,” she says. “We’ve toyed with the idea of offering rice and salad, and somebody’s pushing me to serve tuna noodle casserole, but I’m not that much into that idea.”
At St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in North Huntingdon, Julie McNamara and her co-workers, Lori and Randy Anselmino, are in charge of the weekly fish fry, assisted by a team of more than 80 volunteers who serve as many as 800 guests each Friday during Lent.
McNamara says their menu has been slightly modified to reflect healthier options.
“Last year, we gave up serving dinner rolls, which mostly ended up in the garbage, and we increased the amount of coleslaw because people want more of it,” she says. “This year, we added fruit cups as an a la carte item, and if that goes over well, we’ve talked about cutting up and serving fresh vegetables.”
Other menu items at the North Huntingdon fish fry include pecan-crusted tilapia, baked cod loin, crab cakes, shrimp, baked fish sandwich and zucchini planks, served with or without marinara.
“Of course, fried fish and butter-laden haluski still goes much better than coleslaw,” McNamara says.
Candy Williams is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.