When Lorelle Saxena, a Santa Rosa acupuncturist, meets with a client, one of the first things she asks about is breakfast.
“Food is everything,” she says frequently, urging those who don’t eat breakfast or who grab coffee and a Pop Tart on the fly to consider starting each day with something warm.
Her colleague, Deacon Carpenter, a clinical Ayurveda specialist who is one of the founders of Well Sonoma in Santa Rosa (wellsonoma.com), where Saxena’s practice is based, concurs. Both use analogies to illustrate their points.
Carpenter explains that on cold mornings, we don’t simply start up our cars and hit the gas. We let them warm up a bit. Saxena uses a military analogy, comparing the typical American breakfast of high-fiber cereal to a drill instructor.
“Put that digestive system through its paces, make it work, give it lots of roughage and raw stuff,” is how she puts the typical attitude towards our morning meal.
Schooled in Chinese nutritional theory, she takes the opposite approach, based on the idea that our bodily systems already know what they are doing.
“We should be gentle with our digestive system,” she explains, “so it will be able to effectively distribute nutrition throughout the body and move waste efficiently.”
Both recommend starting the day with easily digestible foods. For Saxena, the ideal breakfast is congee, a savory rice porridge traditional throughout Asia, where it also is thought to prevent hangovers and is thus eaten late at night on the way home from a night on the town.
Carpenter recommends kitcherie, a savory porridge of rice, lentils, and spices, a dish that is ubiquitous in India and also popular in Great Britain.
Both offer complete balanced nutrition and both are delicious, perhaps surprisingly so. And both can be a remarkably effective hedge against winter weather and the viruses that accompany it. Congee and kitcherie help us rally when we are sick and also help us maintain optimum health year round. And they needn’t be eaten exclusively at breakfast, especially during a period of convalescence. Enjoy them any time of day, whenever you feel hungry.
Carpenter explains that when we eat cold foods, our bodies must warm them up before the nutrients can be metabolized. The more energy our bodies spend on this process, the more spacey and distracted we can become. This is one of the reasons so many children have a problem focusing in school and also explains why many of us find it difficult to get started at work, especially on cold mornings.
“Winter is soup and stew season,” he says, adding that a cold sugar-laden American breakfast is never a good idea but is especially counterproductive during cold and flu season.
Both Saxena and Carpenter recommend using white rice. Saxena prefers jasmine rice; Carpenter suggests basmati. These recommendations inevitably lead to questions about simple carbohydrates, diabetes, and the superiority of brown rice. Saxena encourages clients to consider context and understand that white rice is simply brown rice with the outer hull removed.
“Context is key,” she explains, “and what we’re eating with our rice is much more important than the type of rice. While people are often legitimately concerned that white rice will cause their blood sugar to rise to unhealthy levels, eating it with soluble, fiber-rich vegetables and healthy fat and protein helps keep blood sugar stable. Being gentle with our digestive system is important, too, particularly first thing in the morning, and sometimes the insoluble fiber in brown rice is more of a challenge to our system than is helpful.”
If you are down with the flu or convalescing from it, do not try to heal yourself with brown rice congee; I speak from experience. Think of it as prevention, rather than cure.
In 2013, Saxena decided to practice what she preaches with a website entitled “A Year of Congee,” where she explores making and eating congee every day.
“Congee is infinitely versatile,” she says, “and I was never bored.” Indeed, it remains her preferred breakfast.
Explore her website, which includes photographs of ingredients, the cooking process, and the results, at yearofcongee.blogspot.com.
Both congee and kitcherie have an Asian profile, with such spices as ginger and turmeric and toppings that include fish sauce, soy sauce, fermented greens, and even tea eggs.
For some Americans, it is too big a leap to switch from daily Special K cereal to an array of unfamiliar flavors. There are several good alternatives. You can make porridge using farro, barley or quinoa simply by adjusting cooking times and the amount of liquid.
More familiar options include grits and creamy polenta, both of which are easily digestible and lend themselves to a range of savory toppings similar, though not identical, to the Asian dishes. All of these options may be topped with eggs, cheese, sautéed greens, and meats. It’s easy when using leftovers from dinner the night before to create a fully balanced meal in very little time.
And then there’s oatmeal and cream of wheat, both of which take us into the territory of sugar here, but have savory versions enjoyed in other parts of the world that are all but unheard of here.
But when it comes to boosting health and healing from an illness, sugar simply is not part of the picture. If you absolutely must start your day with something sweet, the best choice is to top your oatmeal, cream of wheat or other porridge with organic maple syrup, which is nearly a complete food in itself.
You’ll find recipes for breakfast grits, polenta, barley and farro, along with suggested toppings and several recipes for kitcherie. at “Eat This Now” at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.
Here is the most basic congee, made with nothing more than rice and water. For a richer congee, replace half the water with homemade chicken stock and add several thin slices of fresh ginger. You may also toss in a handful of Goji berries, which impart a reddish-orange hue. I also typically add about 2 teaspoons of kosher salt.
Lorelle Saxena’s Basic Congee (Bai Zhou), with Topping & Condiment Suggestions
Makes about 4 to 6 servings
1 cup white jasmine rice
— A selection of toppings (see below)
— A selection of condiments (see below)
Rinse the rice in several changes of water, put it into a large saucepan, and add 5 to 8 cups of water, using the smaller amount for a thicker porridge and the larger amount for a thinner, soup-like consistency.
Set the saucepan over high heat and when the water reaches a rolling boil, reduce the heat and let the rice simmer gently.
After about 30 minutes, the grains will have softened but will still be distinct. If this is your preference, remove it from the heat. For a creamier version, with the rice nearly completely broken down, cook for another 30 to 60 minutes.
While the congee cooks, prepare your preferred toppings. Ladle into soup bowls, add toppings and condiments, and enjoy warm.
Refrigerate leftovers, covered, and warm over low heat; if all the liquid has been absorbed and the congee seems quite thick, thin it with a bit of water; do not let the congee burn.
Toppings: Select at least one protein and one green vegetable, plus more if you like.
Lightly toasted black or white sesame seeds
Sautéed greens (spinach, chard, kale, radish greens, beet greens, turnip greens)
Soured (lacto-fermented) greens
Carrot pickle, beet pickle, radish pickle, or other root vegetable pickle
Pickled or sautéed mushrooms
Roasted peppers (hot or sweet, cut into medium julienne)
Eggs (poached, over-easy, scrambled, boiled, or preserved)
Meat (leftover chicken, turkey, lamb, pork, beef, sausage, bacon, pork belly)
Fish (leftover roasted salmon, smoked salmon, smoked trout, etc.)
Picadillo (a sauté of ground meat and vegetables; for recipes, visit “Eat This Now” at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com)
Condiments: If you do not use fish sauce and/or soy sauce, be sure to season your congee with salt so that its flavors blossom.
Kosher salt or other flake salt
Black pepper in a mill
Lemon or lime wedges
Hawaiian Chili Water
Toasted Sesame Oil
Sriracha or other hot sauce
Mexican-style salsa (yes, it is typically cold but the congee will warm it quickly)
When you are in the grip of a cold or flu virus, there comes a moment when you actually want to eat, and that’s when this simple congee can seem like a life-saver, especially if you have all the ingredients on hand or have someone to go to the store for you.
Actual prep time is mere minutes, and by adding the chicken thighs you eliminate the need for stock or broth; both not only contribute flavor but also healing nutrients: Think “Jewish Penicillin,” aka chicken soup.
This comes under the same umbrella. In the early days of a virus, you may want to discard the ginger after cooking, as its flavor is quite intense. This congee is also good for your pup — without the condiments — when he or she is under the weather or you’re too sick to make or buy their food. I often use Carnaroli rice, one of the three varieties of rice used in traditional risotto, as I love its richness.
My Emergency Congee
Makes 6 to 8 servings
11/4 cup white rice (any variety)
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 bay leaves
— Several slices of fresh ginger
4-6 chicken thighs (bone in, skin on)
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns, optional
— Fermented or braised greens, optional
— Sriracha or other sauce, fish sauce, soy sauce, and lemon wedges
Put the rice into a large saucepan or pressure cooker, add the salt, bay leaf, ginger, chicken, and peppercorns, if using, along with 8 to 10 cups of water.
Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce the heat and simmer gently for about 11/2 hours in a saucepan or 50 minutes at level 1 on your pressure cooker.
Remove from the heat and let rest briefly.
Ladle into a bowl, add greens, if using, and top with some or all of the condiments in small amounts. Taste, correct for salt, and enjoy.
Store, covered, in the refrigerator, and reheat as needed. This congee will keep for 4 to 5 days.
This is the recipe Certified Ayurvedic Health Expert Deacon Carpenter recommends to his clients. Although turmeric is one of the most important spices in the Ayurvedic tradition, he does not include in his basic recipe, lest he scare away clients new to the dish.
If you’d like to add it, look for the fresh root at Oliver’s Markets or one of our Asian markets. Grate about half a teaspoon or so into the mixture before cooking it, and be sure to include the black pepper, which allows our bodies to absorb the nutrients in the turmeric.
Makes about 4 servings
1/2 cup basmati rice, rinsed several times
1/2 cup sprouted mung beans, chana dal or other fast-cooking dal (see Note below)
1-2 teaspoons freshly grated ginger
— Kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
2-4 tablespoons clarified butter (ghee) or olive oil
2 carrots, peeled and cut into small dice
2-3 cups greens, such as Lacinato kale, chard, or beet greens, trimmed and chopped
Put the rice, chana dal and ginger into a large saucepan and season with several pinches of salt. Add the black pepper, the clarified butter or olive oil, and 4 cups of water. Set over high heat and when the water reaches a rolling boil, reduce the heat so that the liquid simmers gently.
Stir in the carrots and greens and cook, covered, until the rice is tender and fluffy, about 20 minutes. Without uncovering, remove from the heat and let rest for 10 minutes.
Fluff with a fork, taste, correct for salt as needed, and enjoy hot. Refrigerate, covered, and reheat as needed.
This delicious version of kitcherie is from one of my favorite cookbooks, “My Bombay Kitchen: Traditional and Modern Parsi Home Cooking” by Niloufer Ichaporia King, with a forward by Alice Waters (University of California Press, 2007). It is the version the author grew up with. She suggests you can think of it as Indian risotto and serve it for dinner with grilled chicken or seafood. It is also excellent for breakfast, topped with a poached egg and, perhaps, a dollop of plain whole milk yogurt. It also lends itself to other toppings, including sautéed greens and vegetable pickles.
Makes 6 to 8 servings
2 cups basmati or other long-grain white rice
1 cup red lentils (masur dal) or husked mung beans (mung dal)
1-2 tablespoons clarified butter (ghee) or olive oil
1 2-inch-long stick of cinnamon
5 whole cloves
6 black peppercorns
1/2 -1 teaspoon cumin seeds
3 cardamom pods
3 small green chiles, such as serranos, slit to their stems
1 small onion, minced
2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more to taste
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
Rinse the rice and lentils (together is fine) in several changes of water, until the water runs clear. Set them aside.
Heat the ghee in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Toss in the cinnamon, cloves, peppercorns, cumin, cardamom, and chiles; let them sizzle for a minute or so. Add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until it softens and begins to take on a bit of color.
Add the rice, lentils, salt, turmeric, and enough water to come an inch above the ingredients. Stir, taste the water, and add more salt and needed.
Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, cover the pan tightly, and cook for 15 minutes.
Turn off the heat and let rest for at least 10 minutes.
Uncover, fluff with a fork, and enjoy hot.
Michele Anna Jordan, the author of 24 books to date, eats congee almost daily. Email her at email@example.com