Congee ? More than just Asian comfort food
by Richard Frisbie
Simple bowl of congee with chicken, scallions and parsley
Congee, or rice porridge, is a traditional Chinese dish commonly served to children, (often as their first solid food) the infirm, elderly, and the poor. It is a ubiquitous peasant, or comfort food, often used as a base for other flavors. It is the perfect way to stretch leftovers, bits of meat, fish and/or vegetables into...
...a filling and nutritious supper. It is also a modern chef's trick to carry a flavor in small dishes and sauces. In Chinese, Congee is called Xi-fan, which means watery rice. There is a story that during a famine, the Emperor distributed rice to his lieutenants so they could feed his subjects.
When word came back to the Emperor that some profited by stretching the rice with so much liquid that it was watery, he decreed that Xi-fan must be thick enough to hold 2 chopsticks upright in it.
To insure his orders were followed, the penalty for watery Xi-fan was beheading! There is no word on how many lieutenants were executed for their culinary indiscretions, but it must have worked. Today we know Congee as rice porridge, not rice soup.
Beheadings rarely happen in modern kitchens, even when Chef Ramsay is present, but for other reasons cooks are cautioned not to make their rice porridge too watery. In order for Congee to carry a flavor, it has to have substance, so the consistency of a thick sauce is best.
Recently I've been experimenting with a modern version of Congee, one that uses a combination of grains to produce a colorful complex porridge with a depth of flavor not traditionally found in plain Congee. Instead of rice and broth with simple accompaniments, or using it as a vehicle for some haute (French} cuisine, I served it as a complex brunch.
Unlikely as it sounds, Congee is an excellent dish to center a brunch around, because the various toppings allow your guests to virtually create their own meal. Vegetarians, carnivores and every diet in between can be accommodated if you just use a vegetable broth to make the Congee.
Roast 2 quartered stalks celery, 2 quartered carrots, 1 quartered parsnip, 2 crushed cloves of garlic and one quartered, but unpeeled, onion, on a tray in a 325 degree oven for 45 minutes.
Put them in your slow cooker with 2 McCormick brand bay leaves, and 5 McCormick brand whole peppercorns. Peel a thumb sized piece of fresh ginger. Cut flesh into matchsticks and reserve. Put peels in the slow cooker and pour in 10 cups water. Cook overnight, cool, strain, and reserve.
10 cups vegetable broth
¾ cup uncooked rice (your favorite ? if using brown rice allow a longer cooking time)
¼ cup each (uncooked): split green pea, barley, quinoa (could substitute spelt and/or pearl barley)
1 medium onion diced fine
1 medium red pepper diced fine
1 medium carrot diced fine
2 cloves garlic diced fine
2 TBS olive oil
2 TBS soy sauce
I bunch scallions, most of green tops chopped leaving white with a bit of green scallion sticks ? separate
1 bunch parsley, coarse stems removed, chopped
Reserved ginger matchsticks
6 hard boiled eggs (For Easter Brunch, color the eggs, or use eggs with colorful shells)
1 cup each: white fish, shrimp and shredded chicken breast. These can be leftovers, or can be any protein poached or sautéed for the occasion. To be strictly vegetarian, substitute tofu.
Bring vegetable broth to a simmer. In a high-sided sauce pan sauté onion, red pepper and carrot in oil about 1-2 minutes. Add garlic. Rinse well and drain rice & grains before adding to pan. Stir for a minute or so more. Add soy sauce and 4 cups hot broth and cook for about 25 minutes, stirring and adding broth as needed until the grains are completely cooked.
Add more broth until just thinner than you want and simmer, covered, until the proper consistency of oatmeal,about ½ hour or longer if necessary, stirring frequently, adding liquids as needed. Basically, think of it as if you were making risotto.
Remove from heat when it reaches the desired thickness. Season with pepper and salt to taste. The Congee will thicken as it stands, so you can stir in more hot broth before serving, or hot water if the broth has all been absorbed.
Serve family style, with warm bowls to fill with Congee, and bowls of toppings to pass. Have soy sauce, pepper, and rice vinegar on the table. Serves 4-6. A selection of teas would make an excellent beverage.