Giving Birth to Light Part 2: Brigid’s Day

Jump  to Composed Couscous and Corn Salad

After enjoying five days of lovely weather (temperatures in the low 50s–that’s in Fahrenheit), and considering how I haven’t really adjusted to real “winter,” I must say I was excited to see an early spring in the forecast for Ohio.  And then I read that Punxsutawney Phil, the famous groundhog, saw his shadow, indicating another six weeks of winter.

Closeup groundhog (Marmota monax)

A groundhog - Image by Eifelle via Wikipedia

I scoffed at the groundhog.  Surely, a professional meteorologist, like the ones predicting an early spring (thank you, global warming!), and who has gone through years of school and training in the natural sciences, would more accurately predict the weather than a two-hundred-year-old rodent that whispers to a man wearing a top hat.

Well, science be damned!

As I sit and type this, the sky is dumping confectioner’s sugar onto the countryside.  At least two inches of that cold white stuff that so enthralls my girls has fallen, and by the looks of things, it won’t be stopping anytime soon.  Even more annoying (and equally amusing), the local forecast for the rest of February has–you guessed it!–changed to six more weeks of winter.

I’ve been tempted to be the Southern redneck stereotype (which I do sometimes become in moments like this) and go out and shoot me a groundhog and cook it out of spite.  It would make for an amusing blog post, certainly, but it’s not very nice.  So instead, I just shake my fist at the squirrels dancing around in the snow, mocking me and my dreams of spring.

Well, we enjoyed the lovely spring-like weather while it lasted.

I hiked with the kids on the nature trail.  My husband took them fishing.  I was able to spend two warm, sunny afternoons sitting in the grass, writing.

Since Vasant Panchami and Imbolc, I must admit, I feel like I have been channeling the creativity goddesses.  Between writing and coming up with creative projects for the rest of the year (I have a fantastic king cake idea, if I can find the supplies I need), my mind has been churning along at warp speed.

Imbolc falls on February 1 or 2, depending on the Gaelic or neopagan tradition.  It comes from the Gaelic word meaning “in the womb,” as it refers to the start of the lambing season.  Imbolc traditionally honors the Celtic goddess Brigid (or Brigit), who is the patron of poets, blacksmiths, and healing.  In some traditions, she is also associated with apple blossoms.  She is also the goddess of wisdom, physical and intellectual uplifting (like mountains and learning or prophecy), and the home and hearth.  She also is the protectress of newborns; Celtic women used to hang crosses fashioned from apple or rowan branches over their babies’ cradles to invoke Brigid to protect their babies from harm.  In Irish mythology, she was also seen as a warfare goddess.

Fire-bearers circle figures of The Green Man f...

Another way Celt descendants celebrate Imbolc: Fire-bearers circle figures of The Green Man fighting Jack Frost. Imbolc celebration in Marsden, West Yorkshre, February 2007. - Image by Steven Earnshaw via Wikipedia

Brigid was so important to the Celtic peoples that, upon their conquest and subsequent Christianization, the Roman Catholic Church came up with Saint Brigid, who still possesses some of the qualities of her pagan counterpart.

One side of her face was that of an ugly old hag, and the other was that of a beautiful young maiden.  This was to signify her role in the transformation of winter and death into life and spring.  In the pagan Wheel of the Year, Imbolc complements Samhain and signifies the lengthening days and nearness of spring.  Brigid is a personification of that.

Some traditions also referred to her as the Corn Bride or Barley Bride (“corn” in this case is the archaic word that really means “wheat” or any “grain,” as corn did not come to mean the yellow grain from North America until Europeans began to colonize it).  It was a reference to her role as a fertility goddess.  Additionally, since Imbolc falls at the end of the dark half of the Wheel of the Year (when the days are shorter, basically), the lunar month in which Imbolc falls is referred to as the Chaste Moon or Bride Moon (because the next lunar month is when spring starts and is associated with birth).

Imbolc altar

A neopagan Imbolc altar - Image by Christina's Play Place

I’m not sure how the ancient Celts celebrated Imbolc, but many Wiccans and neopagans generally celebrate by dressing a sheaf of wheat, corn, or barley in white lace and ribbons (like a bridal dress), laying it in a basket, and treating it like a baby or a doll bride.  At the end of the festival, they usually burn the sheaf for prophetic purposes.

I must admit that I have not done this, pretty much for lack of a ceremonial sheaf.  My tradition, instead, is to cook something where grains play a prominent role, to honor the Corn Bride, and usually with something white (like potatoes or fish or turkey), to honor the Chaste Moon.  I’d also prepare something that hints at warmer months ahead.  And, instead of invoking Brigid for prophecy, I usually invoke her for creativity (and when I was in college and law school, I’d also invoke her for educational purposes).  This I’d do by lighting candles during the dark of night and burning some incense that would remind me of the coming spring (like lavender, my favorite herb).

Sprouting Garlic

I was in a creative writing frenzy yesterday after my husband came home from work, but, naturally I took breaks for coffee and snuggle time.  During one such break, I noticed one of my globes of garlic had sprouted.  I took it as a sign from Brigid:  the white papery outside of the globe is like a bridal veil, and here is new life–hope–sprouting from within.  I’m not sure what it might be a sign of, but it was refreshing to see while happily writing.

Composed Couscous and Corn Salad

Since I’ve been experimenting various recipes from the newest addition to my cookbook library, The Vegetarian Family Cookbook by Nava Atlas (and, by the way, after testing so many recipes, I have found that I love this book!), I decided to try something that involves wheat and/or corn as a primary ingredient for my Imbolc dish.  I decided to go with this recipe, because it involves wheat (in the form of couscous) and corn.  It really serves 6, but since I was cooking it as a feast (translate:  I wanted leftovers for the next day), I was cooking it alongside some simple baked chicken.

The ingredients of this dish are more summery in flavor, but I wanted something that made me think of warm days (and, to be honest, I sorely miss Louisiana springtimes, which start in February and are sunny and florid).  What I love about this recipe is that it can be dressed up for any occasion.  In fact, I plan to make it for the Super Bowl, but I’ll be adding various cheese slices to the spread.  It looks fancy, so is a great dish for entertaining.  This can also be an eat-with-your-hands group dish.

Ingredients

  • 4 medium potatoes, any variety, or 2 medium-large sweet potatoes
  • Ranch dressing or vinaigrette
  • 3/4 cup couscous
  • 2 cups cooked fresh corn kernels (from 2 to 3 medium ears) or frozen corn kernels, thawed
  • 1 tablespoon light olive oil
  • salt to taste
  • minced fresh parsley for topping (optional)
  • 1 red or green bell pepper (or half of each), cut into narrow strips (I diced mine, as my kids prefer them that way)
  • 1 cup baby carrots, or to taste
  • 1/2 cup black olives, preferably cured and pitted (I omitted these, as my kids are not fond of them; in my opinion, kalamata olives would work equally well)
  • 1 cup red or yellow cherry tomatoes, halved (or 1 medium red tomato, diced)

Directions

Cutting the Potatoes

  1. Bake the potatoes until done but still firm.  When cool enough to handle, peel and cut into bite-size chunks and place in a small mixing bowl.  Toss with enough dressing or vinaigrette to moisten.
  2. Pour 1-1/2 cups boiling water over the couscous in a heatproof container.  Cover and let stand for 10 minutes, then fluff with a fork.
  3. Combine the couscous with the corn in a mixing bowl.  Drizzle in the oil and toss well.  Season gently with salt.
  4. Mound the couscous mixture in the center of a large platter.  Sprinkle with minced fresh parsley, if desired.
  5. Arrange alternating piles of potatoes, bell pepper, baby carrots, olives, and tomatoes around the couscous mixture.
  6. Each person can make up his or her own plate.  Serve additional dressing or vinaigrette to drizzle on the raw vegetables as desired.

As you can see, it’s a fairly simple recipe.  The longest part is the baking of the potatoes, but you can shorten that time by opting to nuke them in the microwave.

Composed Couscous and Corn Salad

So my review on Nava Atlas’ cookbook is a stellar one.  Most of the recipes involve ingredients that are inexpensive and easy to find, even when you take into consideration that I live in rural Ohio, where eating tofu is equated with godless fascist hippie communism (I wish I were exaggerating).  The recipes are very simple, and she gives options and alternatives to many of the recipes, if you want to kick it up a notch.  She also writes to those who are new to vegetarian cuisine, sharing recipes and tips for adjusting away from meat.  And, as I have demonstrated in this and some of my other recent posts, it’s easy to build upon her recipes to add your own personal flair to them.

Giving Birth to Light Part 1: Saraswati’s Day

Jump to Creamy Tofu and Broccoli Skillet

Jump to Punjabi Sweet Rice

Since I’ve been grappling with the “winter blues,” on top of the other stressful things in my life that are not made easier by said affliction, I began scouring the internet for ideas to pull myself out of this funk.  I stumbled upon this interesting article from DivineCaroline, which offered many good suggestions, including light therapy, exercise, and aromatherapy.  I realized that one of the reasons I’d been enjoying cooking beans and tacos is because the smell of these foods is a form of aromatherapy, letting my mind wander off to childhood nostalgia.  I also found that brightening up the house has been helping.

Yesterday had a particularly sunny afternoon.  It was a relief, because it’s been so overcast and gloomy for the past few weeks. I pulled up all the blinds on the west-facing side of the house to let in the light.  I can see a pond from these windows, and the way the sunlight reflected off the pond and bounced into the house just made everything seem warm and cheery.  I played happy music and danced around with the kids.  I let them play with brightly-colored paints and stickers and construction paper and hung their art on the walls to add color to the house.  And it seemed like the sun took forever to set, which was a beautiful feeling.

It gave me energy I hadn’t felt in a couple months.

Suddenly I found myself seriously working on some creative writing–a hobby I had not touched in years, except to flirt with, because law school had literally killed the artist/writer in me (that is, apparently, the sad truth for a lot of lawyers).  Being able to write, to create, again was a beautiful feeling.

Maia 20 Tau in Pleiades

The Pleiades - Image via Wikipedia (public domain)

Last night, we had a good half hour of a clear sky, with a very thin slit for a moon, so for the first time since we’d gotten a telescope (my husband received it as a prize from work around the new year), we were able to use it.  We zoomed in on the Pleiades and showed them to the girls.

The experience of stargazing with the girls, appreciating the awesome bigness of the universe, helped me to remember that my problems are so small and temporal in comparison.  After my husband took the kids inside for bed, I remained outside with the telescope, sitting on the frozen grass, listening to honking flocks of geese in their nocturnal southward journey, falling in love all over again with another one of my interests that I’d abandoned over the years.

One of the seven Pleiades in Greek mythology, and the brightest of the seven stars in the cluster, is Maia.  She is a gentle nurturer and mother of Hermes.  In Roman mythology, she became one of the Earth Mother goddesses.  In retrospect, it seemed fitting that I spent so much time admiring Maia as both the star and the goddess, with Saraswati‘s day on the horizon.

English: Painting of the Goddess Saraswati by ...

The Goddess Saraswati - Image via Wikipedia (public domain)

Saraswati, in Hinduism, is the goddess of wisdom, knowledge (both scholarly and spiritual), creativity, and the arts (visual, musical, and literary).   She is also the one who gives each person his/her essence of self.  She is the wife of Brahma, the Hindu creator god.  She is gentle, wise, and unmoved by material riches (depictions of her rarely show her wearing more than a couple gold pendants).  White geese and swans are sacred to her, and some Hindus believe that books are one of her embodiments (stepping on or destroying a book is therefore very offensive to Saraswati).  Colors associated with her are white, which symbolizes purity and simplicity, and yellow, the color of rebirth of the sun (the days are getting longer again) and the mustard plants that bloom during her festival.

Today is Vasant Panchami, the Hindu festival that honors Saraswati.  Since yellow is one of her colors, Hindus prepare dishes that are yellow in her honor.  They place books at her altar and academic institutions hold services to venerate her.  Children fly kites, filling the sky with color, bringing vibrant life to the dead winter skies.  Part of the purpose of these celebrations is to surrender oneself to nature, the rebirth of light, and the creativity associated with it.

It’s been way too cold here in Ohio to fly kites (although if we were still in Texas, it’s very likely many people would be flying kites today), with the wind chill being in the teens at best.  Instead, the kids and I focused on Saraswati as a goddess of knowledge and creativity.  We played some more with bright paints and construction paper, I wrote for fun, and then we played learning games.  Fortunately, the girls were already familiar with Saraswati, since she is included in The Book of Goddesses by Kris Waldherr, and the girls refer to her, along with Athena, as “school goddesses.”  And since Starkitten is already insisting that she is ready to go to school (despite being too young by a couple years), taking time to honor the “school goddess” was something she was more than happy to do.

Maia is the eldest of the Pleiades in Greek an...

The Goddess Maia - Image via Wikipedia (public domain)

Taking time to honor Saraswati seems to have helped me kick the winter blues.  Her holy day and her role as a goddess are both very similar to the Wiccan holiday that happens about this same time of year: Imbolc (Gaelic for “in the womb,” as this is the time of year when ewes are pregnant), which honors Brigid.  Brigid is a Celtic goddess of the home and the hearth (and fire in particular), but she is also a goddess of creativity–both in writing and in creating things (particularly smithing)–and healing.

It is quite fascinating that, as Diwali and Samhain are close together in time (and of course winter holidays like Christmas, Chanukah, Saturnalia, and Yule share the same general calendar time), so are Vasant Panchami and Imbolc.  Sometimes it makes me wonder if our ancestors were on to some Big Idea that has been lost to the ages as we have advanced technologically.  We get so lost in social obligations and material things that we have forgotten to pause and lose ourselves to nature every now and then: to the lengthening days, the budding leaves, the infinite vastness of the cosmos, the rhythms and cycles of the world around us… and all that they can teach us and inspire within us.

Creamy Tofu and Broccoli Skillet

Even though we are sticking to the “mostly vegetarian” diet, my husband originally suggested that we should still eat something meaty and fun for holidays we observe.  But because Vasant Panchami is a Hindu holy day, and many Hindus are vegetarian as a matter of faith, I decided to make a vegetarian dinner.

I tried my first recipe out of The Vegetarian Family Cookbook by Nava Atlas for this occasion (learning new things for the goddess of knowledge), embellishing it a bit to fit Saraswati’s Day (woohoo for creativity!).  The recipe below is my variation to the recipe in the book.

Ingredients

Frying the vegetables and tofu

  • 1-1/2 tablespoon olive oil
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 large bell pepper, cut into short narrow strips
  • 2 large broccoli crowns, cut into bite-size pieces
  • 1 cup milk
  • 2 tablespoons white flour
  • 16 ounces baked tofu, cut into short narrow strips
  • 1/2 cup grated cheddar cheese
  • 1 teaspoon ground mustard
  • 6-8 saffron stems
  • salt and pepper to taste

Directions

  1. Heat the oil in a large skillet or frying pan.  Sauté the garlic over medium-low heat until just turning golden.
  2. Add the bell pepper, broccoli, and 1/2 cup water.  Cover and cook over medium heat, until the broccoli is tender-crisp.
  3. Use a little of the milk to dissolve the flour and mustard until it is smooth and flowing.  Stir into the skillet with the remaining milk.
  4. Add the tofu and saffron.  Cook for a few more minutes.
  5. Stir in the cheese and simmer gently until everything is well heated through.
  6. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  7. Serve immediately.  It goes well served over rice or couscous and with a side of corn or sweet potatoes.

Even for a former carnivore, this meal was fantastic.  There were no leftovers.

Creamy Tofu and Broccoli Skillet with Couscous


Punjabi Sweet Rice

For dessert, and so that we’d have an Indian dish to eat for Vasant Panchami, I scoured the internet for something appropriate and easy to prepare.  I found this recipe for Punjabi sweet rice on Food.com and adapted it.

You’re supposed to use basmati rice for this recipe, but we recently used up our last big bag of it that we brought from Dallas (where there is a huge Indian population and you can get basmati rice fairly inexpensively if you know where to look), and so I used standard American rice (I don’t know what kind it is, exactly, but it’s the common kind you can find at most grocery stores).  If you are cooking with something that is not basmati rice, you may need to add more water to the recipe and/or cook the rice longer.  I followed the instructions below, and my rice came out a little al dente.  That was fine for my family, but since others may want softer rice, I wanted to point this out beforehand.

A jar of ghee

The recipe calls for ghee, which is a sort of butter extract.  You may have to look in a specialty grocery store.  If you can’t find any ghee, you can get by with 2 tablespoons of butter.  You can also check here to see a list of other products similar to ghee, in case any of them are available in your area.  For instance, Kenyans make something called mwaita, which is made pretty much the same way as ghee.

Ingredients

  • 1-1/2 cup basmati rice
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 ounce cashews (or a couple handfuls) or some other nuts
  • 1 ounce raisins (or a couple handfuls) or some other dried fruit
  • 1 tablespoon ghee

Directions

Frying the rice in ghee

  1. Warm up the milk and pour in a small bowl.  Add the saffron.  Set aside.
  2. Melt the ghee in a medium saucepan.  Add the rice and fry it.
  3. Add the milk-saffron mixture, sugar, and enough water to cover the rice completely (I’d recommend you get at least 1/4 inch of liquid above the rice).  Cover and cook on low heat for 15-20 minutes.
  4. When all the water is absorbed, remove from heat.
  5. Stir in the nuts and raisins.  Serve hot.  Garnish with more nuts and raisins.

This was a fantastic dessert.  It was a little on the sweet side, but my husband, who generally dislikes sweets, really loved the sweet rice (he loved it so much, in fact, that I had to make a second batch to put in the fridge for him to take with him to work for brunch tomorrow).

Punjabi Sweet Rice

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