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Fish Fridays, Thai-style 

Meat for vegetarians and Lent observers

I think I figured out why so many fish eaters consider themselves vegetarians. It's a Catholic thing, y'all.

According to the Christian calendar, Lent, the 40-day fasting period leading up to Easter, is currently underway. For Catholics, that means giving up meat, particularly on Fridays and designated holy days. Their definition of meat, however, applies only to land-dwelling animals; therefore, fish (and other creatures of the sea) is not flesh, and as such, considered acceptable Lenten (and for some, vegetarian) fare.

When I was a kid, Friday night was fish stick night in the five or so weeks before the Easter bunny arrived. In my house, it was a box of Mrs. Paul's rectangles, dumped ceremoniously onto a baking sheet and warmed up just enough to be dunked into a pool of ketchup.

These days, I don't observe Lent, but I do like the idea of culinary abstention periodically throughout the year. Giving up what you love makes you stronger, perhaps a little bit wiser -- and undoubtedly more creative. If you're already sick of the fish stick routine, consider making your own filet o' fish patties, with a Southeast Asian twist.

Friday fish night will never be the same -- thank the Lord.

Thai Fish Cakes

Adapted from The Kitchen Diaries by Nigel Slater

1 small hot red chili, stemmed and seeded (Thai bird or 1/2 habanero)

3 scallions, cleaned, root removed

2 cloves garlic, peeled

6 kaffir lime leaves (available at an Asian or Indian grocer), stems removed

1 small bunch cilantro, roughly chopped

1 heaping tablespoon Thai fish sauce (aka nam pla)

1 pound white fish (cod, haddock, hake, flounder, tilapia, turbot), removing skin if necessary

1 egg, beaten

1/4 cup plain bread crumbs

1/4 teaspoon salt

Black pepper

Flour for dredging

Vegetable oil for frying

Roughly chop chilies and scallions and place into the bowl of a food processor. Add garlic, lime leaves, cilantro and fish sauce. Process into a smooth paste, then scoop out of food processor into a medium mixing bowl.

Cut fish into chunks and pulse in food processor, until you have a rough paste. Scoop fish out of food processor and add it to spice paste, mixing until well-combined. Add egg, bread crumbs, salt and pepper, and cover with plastic. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes to set up.

Flour your hands and shape mixture into small, flat patties about the size of a gingersnap. Return to the fridge for an additional 20 minutes.

When ready to cook, heat skillet over medium heat and add at least 3 tablespoons of oil. Dredge patties in flour and evenly coat on both sides. Place patties in skillet and fry patties until golden on both sides. With a spatula, turn gently, as patties are delicate. Drain on paper towels; keep in a warm oven until ready to serve with dipping sauce.

Dipping Sauce

2 large medium-heat red chilies, diced (remove seeds if you like a milder result)

3 tablespoons fish sauce

7 tablespoons water

3 tablespoons rice vinegar

7 tablespoons superfine sugar

Thumb-sized knob of fresh ginger, peeled, chopped and pulverized

Juice of 2 small limes

1 1/4 soy sauce

In a small saucepan, combine fish sauce, water, rice vinegar and sugar and bring to a boil. Add ginger and allow mixture to boil until it has begun to slightly thicken.

Let sauce cool, then add lime juice, chopped chilies and soy sauce.

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