Friday, June 20, 2008

Happy Litha!

A Glad Midsommar to you and yours.

Corn is a symbol of life. Some cultures believe that men were created out of corn. This recipe honors the Corn Mother, but it can also be made in honor of the Green Man or the horned god. It's a spicy dish that captures the heat of the summer sun.

Spicy Southwestern Polenta
4 cups water or broth (broth adds an extra layer of flavor and I prefer to use it)
1 cup polenta cornmeal
1/2 tablespoons olive or canola oil
1 small onion, diced
1-2 jalapeƱos, minched
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon ground cumin

Preheat the oven to 350.

Heat the oil in a pan. Add the onions, garlic and jalapeƱos and cook until they begin to get tender.

Pour the water or broth into the saucepan and bring to a boil. Add a pinch of salt and the cumin. Pour the cornmeal into the boiling liquid in a steady stream, whisking constantly. Turn the heat down to low and keep stirring to avoid lumps. Gently cook the polenta for 20 minutes, stirring regularly. The polenta is done when it beings to pull away from the sides of the pan.

Pour the polenta out into a shallow, oiled baking sheet. Put aside to cool.

When the polenta has cooled, slice it into inch-thick pieces. Place the slices onto an oiled baking or broiling pan. Brush lightly with more olive oil and gently broil the polenta until it browns around the edges.

You can also melt some cheese on top, or top it with salsa, black beans, etc.

Zao Jun and Jiaozi

I apologize for the delay, but I have been extremely busy lately. This weekend we will continue our exploration of various kitchen deities by looking at Zao Jun.

Most of the kitchen deities with which we are familiar are female. Zao Jun, however, is the Chinese kitchen god. There are many domestic gods in the Chinese household, but Zao Jun is considered the most important. It is Zao Jun who, just before the Chinese New Year, returns to heaven to report every household's activities to the Jade Emperor, who rewards or punishes the households accordingly.

Zao Jun has been worshiped as a kitchen deity since at least the second century BCE (Before Common Era). There are several myths that explain just how he become a kitchen god. One of the most common stories states that Zao Jun was once a mortal man named Zhang Dan.

Zhang Dan started cheating on his wife with some pretty young thang. As punishment for cheating on his wife, he was plagued with bad luck and stricken blind. He was forced to resort to begging. (Good.)

One day, while out begging for alms, Zhang Dan happened upon the house of his former wife. Being blind, he did not recognize where he was. His former wife took pity on him, invited him into her house, and cooked him a meal. He told his wife what had happened to him since he left her. He began to cry and his tears miraculously restored his eyesight. Recognizing the kind woman as his wife, he was overcome with shame and threw himself into the hearth. He did not realize that a fire was burning in the hearth and was consumed by the flames. His wife tried to save him, but all that was left was a leg. His wife created a shrine to him in the fireplace, and this began Zao Jun's association with the stove or hearth in Chinese homes.

Traditionally Chinese homes keep a paper effigy of Zao Jun (and his wife, who writes down everything that happens in the house so her husband can report bad to the Jade Emperor). Offerings of food and incense are left for Zao Jun on his birthday (the third day of the eighth lunar month) and also on the twenty-third day of the twelfth lunar month, when he reports back to heaven. On this day the lips of the effigy may be sweetened with honey, or perhaps glued together with the sticky substance. The old effigy is burned and replaced with a new one. Firecrackers are also lit in order to help speed his way to heaven.

Food for Chinese New Year

Jiaozi, or dumplings, symbolize wealth and prosperity because of their resemblance to the silver ingots once used as currency. Family members traditionally stay up all night making the jiaozi, which are eaten at midnight.

4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 to 1 3/4 cups boiling water

In a stainless steel bowl mix flour and salt. Slowly add hot water to flour in 1/4 cup increments. Mix with chopsticks until a ball is formed and the dough is not too hot to handle. On a floured surface, knead dough until it becomes a smooth, elastic ball. Place back in bowl and cover with a damp cloth. Allow to rest for at least 1 hour. Working on a floured surface with floured hands, roll out dough to form a long 'noodle', 1-inch in diameter. Cut 1/2-inch pieces and turn them over so the cut sides are facing up. Flatten with your palm and roll out thin using a rolling pin. The dumpling wrapper should end up about 3 inches in diameter.

2 cups chopped napa cabbage
1/2 tablespoon salt
1/2 pound ground pork (Don't get lean pork, the fat is good for juicy and flavorful dumplings)
2 tablespoons minced ginger
1 1/2 tablespoons minced garlic
2 tablespoons thin soy sauce
3 tablespoons sesame oil
1 egg
1 to 2 cups chicken stock or water

Sprinkle cabbage with the 1/2 tablespoon of salt and let stand for 30 minutes. Place the cabbage on a clean dishtowel or cheesecloth and squeeze out any water. The dryer the cabbage the better. In a large bowl thoroughly mix the cabbage with all of the other ingredients, except the chicken stock. Cook a tester to check the seasoning.

MAKING THE DUMPLINGS: Place a small mound of filling in the middle of the wrapper. (Be very careful not to touch the edges with the filling as this will impede proper sealing of the dumplings. Nothing is worse than dumplings breaking during cooking.) Fold the wrapper in half to form a half moon shape. Starting on one end fold/pinch the wrapper tightly together. Proceed with this fold/pinch method until the dumpling is completely sealed. There will be approximately 10 to 14 folds per dumpling. Rest the dumplings with the folded edges straight up.

COOKING THE DUMPLINGS: In a hot saute pan coated well with oil, place pot stickers flat side down and cook until the bottom is browned. Have pan cover ready and add 1 cup of chicken stock, cover immediately. Be careful, the liquid will splatter! The stock will steam the pot stickers. Check them in 5 minutes as more stock may be needed. The trick here is that once the dumplings are firm and fully cooked the stock will evaporate and the bottoms will crisp-up again.

1/3 cup thin soy sauce
1/3 cup rice wine vinegar
1/3 cup sliced scallions
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon sambal
Combine all and serve in a small bowl.

(Recipe source: Foodnetwork.com)

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Goddess of the week: Hestia

Hestia, in the high dwellings of all, both deathless gods and men who walk on earth, you have gained an everlasting abode and highest honor: glorious is your portion and your right. For without you mortals hold no banquet, - where one does not duly pour sweet wine in offering to Hestia both first and last.
~Homeric Hymn to Hestia~

This weekend we are going to take a look at another kitchen goddess - the goddess Hestia/Vesta. In Greek mythology, Hestia was the virgin goddess of the hearth (private and public) and of the home. She presided over the making of bread and the preparation of the family meals. She was also the goddess of the sacrificial flame and received the first offering at every sacrifice in the household.

The hearth was the life of a home. It was the cooking fire, a source of light and warmth, and the sacrificial altar. The fire was never allowed to go out, unless ritually extinguished.

Hestia is the eldest daughter of Rhea and Cronus, the sister of Zeus. Cronus, fearing the prophecy that stated one of his children would grow up and usurp the throne, swallowed his eldest child, along with her siblings. Following the birth of Zeus, Rhea tricked her husband and caused him to vomit up his children. Hestia, being the first one swallowed, was the last one to be disgorged, making her the first- and last born. This story is really the only one in which she appears.

Hestia did not travel or have adventures. She chose, instead, to remain home. Hestia is a tender, dependable, caring goddess, and seemingly very forgettable, as she is virtually unknown today. Isn't that like many of us kitchen witches? We are a constant, always around, always dependable, and easily taken for granted. We spend a lot of our time in our kitchens, around our modern hearths, providing comfort and nourishment.

Most homes do not even have fireplaces anymore, unless they are gas or electric. Our stoves and ovens are as close to the hearth as we can get in this day and age. So what, then, is the modern kitchen witch to do in order to contact this goddess? Well, The Urban Primitive (R. Kaldera & T. Schwartzstein, 2002) suggests speaking to your pilot light, a candle flame, or the fire in a hibachi. These fires, especially cooking fires, are her messengers.

Make an offering to her. Talk to her while you cook, especially when making bread. Making bread provides an excellent opportunity to pray or meditate. The kneading is rhythmic and soothing, and it gives you a chance to really put your intent into the food. Find a picture of her (there aren't many) and include it in your kitchen altar, if you have one.

Leave an offering of pita bread, feta, sliced cucumbers and tomatoes, and a few olives by your modern hearth - your stove. If you don't have a pilot light, light a candle for Hestia. White or green will be fine. Close your eyes and breathe deeply. Visualize the energy of your home and kitchen, and visualize Hestia's love filling that room. Ask her to be with you as you prepare food for yourself, your friends and your family, and help you to nourish body, mind and spirit.

Happy cooking.

Whole Wheat Pita Bread:

* 2 1/2 cups warm water (110 degrees)
* 1 1/2 teaspoon active dry yeast
* 1 tablespoon honey
* 2 cups wheat flour
* 3 cups all purpose flour
* 1 teaspoon salt
* 1 teaspoon vegetable oil

Dissolve yeast in warm water. Add honey and stir until dissolved. Let sit for 10-15 minutes until water is frothy.

Combine white flour, wheat flour, and salt in large bowl.

Make a small depression in the middle of flour and pour yeast water in depression.

Slowly add warm yeast water, and stir with wooden spoon or rubber spatula until dough becomes elastic.

Place dough on floured surface and knead for 10-15 minutes.

When the dough is no longer sticky and is smooth and elastic, it has been successfully kneaded.

Coat large bowl with vegetable oil and place dough in bowl. Turn dough upside down so all of the dough is coated with oil. Allow to sit, covered, in a warm place for about 3 hours, or until it has doubled in size.

Once doubled, roll out in a rope, and pinch off 10-12 small pieces. Place balls on floured surface. Let sit covered for 10 minutes. Preheat oven to 500 deg F. and make sure rack is at the very bottom of oven. Be sure to preheat your baking sheet also.

Roll out each ball of dough with a rolling pin into circles. Each should be about 5-6 inches across and 1/4 inch thick.

Bake each circle for 4 minutes until the bread puffs up. Turn over and bake for 2 minutes.

Remove each pita with a spatula from the baking sheet and add additional pitas for baking.

Take spatula and gently push down puff. Immediately place in storage bags.