By Bob Batz Jr., Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Ms. Hanna, 30, of Point Breeze, is a devout member of St. George Antiochian Orthodox Cathedral in Oakland. She's one of the ladies—and men—who make the meals served there after Wednesday evening services throughout Lent.
She's also a registered dietician. When she considered some Eastern Orthodox Lenten recipes, which contain neither meat nor dairy products, she became concerned that people were taking unhealthy shortcuts.
Substituting margarine for butter? She knows it'd be better to use plant or nut oils.
To give fellow parishioners and others some nutritional guidance, she compiled a cookbook of healthy Lenten recipes last year, and St. George posted it on its Web site.
She's also shared the booklet, via e-mail and printouts, with individuals and groups, such as the nuns she's cooked for at the Monastery of the Transfiguration in Ellwood City, Lawrence County.
She plans to keep updating and sharing it because she is so passionate about both religious fasting and general nutrition.
"I just feel that there are too many misconceptions about nutrition out there," says Ms. Hanna, who works as lead nutritionist and program director at Mediterranean Wellness, a Pittsburgh-based wellness provider.
She has given her cookbook to vegans and others looking for new ways to eat less meat when she does nutritional counseling.
But for herself and others in her church, the current Lenten season means eating no meat or dairy for the entire six weeks.
She and other Orthodox Christians also abstain from animal foods on Wednesdays and Fridays and at other times of the year.
As she notes in the cookbook, "Fasting is a wonderful part of our spiritual life. And because of this, we need to practice it regularly, and we must make sure that we do it in a healthful manner."
The 27-page booklet includes tasty tips (on non-dairy but calcium-rich foods and more) plus recipes for 14 side dishes/entrees, five soups and 10 desserts.
That's right: 10 desserts. Lent needn't be boring, as she was reminded at coffee hour in the church's basement social hall this past Sunday when she tasted a parishioner's eggless, dairyless chocolate cake: "It was amazing!"
This is a church full of scratch cooks who cook for and eat with each other every chance they get.
Different groups take turns preparing the Lenten dinners that are served to parishioners and guests after the 6:30 p.m. Wednesday services. The menus tend to have a Middle Eastern flavor because so, historically, does the church.
Ms. Hanna, whose background is Jordanian, is secretary of the service organization the Fellowship of St. John the Divine, and it's that group's turn on Wednesday. They've planned a menu including her mujadarah, or lentils and rice with caramelized onions, which she is going to make with bulgur wheat. It'll be served along with lubee (green beans) and rice, hummus, Syrian salad and fruit salad, plus orange cake (hers) as well as chocolate and apple cakes. "This," she says, "is going to be some good eating."
Healthy recipes from Rita Hanna
St. George Cathedral also has its own, spiral-bound cookbook: "A Celebration of Cherished Recipes." Cost:$12, including postage. Call 412-681-2988.