Seasonal Pantry: Congee for breakfast

The Asian dish is similar to a porridge or creamy polenta, but made with rice.|

When my new acupuncturist, Lorelle Saxena of Santa Rosa, asked me if I’d ever heard of congee, I laughed, as not only do I love it but I’d also been enjoying a version Cesar Vernier of The Bone Broth Company has had at the Sebastopol Farmers Market recently.

Congee, also called chok, jook, porridge, babaw and a variety of other names, is known throughout much of Asia, where it is eaten as a restorative, a hangover preventative and/or cure, a simple healthy breakfast and a late-night snack when heading home from a night on the town.

There’s a lengthy blog post at Eat This Now, which you can find at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com, but there is so much more still to be said about what is, at its most basic, a simply porridge, like creamy polenta but made with white rice.

Lorelle Saxena recommends congee to her clients as an ideal breakfast and is so committed to the concept that she has a blog called “Year of Congee, Practicing What I Preach: 365 Days of Congee For Breakfast.” It is a delight, with great suggestions and recipes.

Although congee is traditionally made with white rice, it needn’t be limited to that. It can be made with brown rice, red rice, black Forbidden rice, short grain rice, long grain rice and even quinoa and other seeds and grains. At some point - when you use corn, for example, or barley - it probably should be called something else, though it still shares many of the delicious and restorative qualities of the original, especially when paired with the right ingredients.

When I make congee, I almost always start out with homemade chicken stock. Sometimes I add grated fresh ginger but more typically I put slices of ginger into the stock while it’s simmering, along with garlic, Italian parsley, whole peppercorns, an onion or a couple of shallots, a carrot, a stalk of celery. I cook the stock overnight, strain it and then simmer it again until it is rich and flavorful. I do this weekly in the winter and spring and once or twice a month the rest of the year.

Congee is good on its own, especially if you are ailing, but it soars when you add various toppings. I find a splash of soy sauce, a dash of toasted sesame oil and a bit of fresh cilantro essential. I like a squeeze of fresh lemon or lime juice, too. In addition, I typically add shredded chicken or pork, kalua pig, wild Pacific King salmon, Korean-style ribs, sautéed greens, toasted sesame seeds, seaweed, gomashio (a sesame seed-based condiment), a hard-cooked egg or a poached egg, along with a few shakes of hot sauce if I’m in the mood. If I have it around, I’ll add Hawaiian Chili Water, which I adore.

If you make a big batch on a Sunday (preparation time is minimal), it will provide breakfast for the week. The night I made it, I set it over a very low flame and let it cook very gently all night. After enjoying it the first time, I store it in glass jars and spoon what I need into a small saucepan each morning.

One of the revelations on Saxena’s blog is a dish her husband made that had me laughing out loud. If you’ve spent much time in Hawaii, you may have eaten loco moco, as hearty a breakfast as I’ve ever seen. I’ve had it exactly once, years ago, and whenever I think of it, I suddenly feel full. Although there are variations, the classic version consists of a bowl of rice topped with a hamburger patty, two over-easy eggs and brown gravy. Acceptable toppings include Shoyu soy sauce, ketchup and Tabasco. A purist, I opt only for the Tabasco sauce, though I have seen others add all three.

The congee version included a ground turkey patty, sautéed kale and homemade Sriracha hot sauce over a fairly thick rice porridge.

If you are new to congee or simply curious about how Lorelle Saxena and her husband make it, check out her blog at yearofcongee.blogspot.com.

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Just as I was about to make congee, a friend asked if I would like some stock he was making at Ceres Community Project, which is not far from where I live in Sebastopol. How could I refuse such a sweet offer? I packed my fresh chicken stock into freezer bags and awaited his. When he arrived, he explained he had made the stock with organic chicken and a selection of healing mushrooms, including reishi, long-valued for its curative properties. Late that night when I couldn’t sleep, I sipped the delicious congee and felt, at last, that I was getting better, cell by weary cell.

Brown Rice Congee

Makes 8 to 10 servings

¾ cup organic brown Jasmine rice

2 teaspoons kosher salt

1 tablespoon cold-pressed peanut oil

8 cups homemade chicken stock, chicken-mushroom stock or mushroom stock, see Note below

- Soy sauce, toasted sesame oil, lime or lemon wedge, hot sauce of choice

Put the rice, salt, peanut oil and stock into a medium saucepan, set over high heat, bring to a boil and immediately reduce the heat so that the mixture simmers very slowly. Simmer until the rice has begun to fall apart, about 2 or even 3 hours. Alternately, prepare the congee in a pressure cooker; it will take about 1 ½ hours or a tad longer.

Cool a bit, ladle into a cup or bowl and enjoy neat or with condiments and toppings of choice.

Note: I tend to prefer a fairly loose congee, closer to soup than, say, creamy polenta. If you prefer a thicker version, increase the rice to 1 ½ cups or reduce the stock to 5 to 6 cups.

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This recipe is adapted from one in my book “California Home Cooking” (Harvard Common Press, 1997) and it is ideal when you have leftover rice. You can use any green but if you’re in a hurry, spinach is the best because it requires such a brief time on the heat.

Congee from Cooked Rice, with Greens and Poached Eggs

Makes 4 to 6 servings

2 cups cooked rice, preferably white Jasmine

6 cups chicken stock

2 teaspoons kosher salt

2 tablespoon organic coconut oil or cold-pressed peanut oil

3-4 garlic cloves

1 tablespoon fresh grated ginger

8 ounces young spinach leaves, rinsed but not drained

- Black pepper in a mill

4-6 farm eggs

1 teaspoon white wine vinegar

- Soy sauce, toasted sesame oil and hot sauce of choice

Put the rice, stock and salt into a medium saucepan, bring to a boil over high heat, immediately reduce the heat to low and simmer very gently until the rice falls apart and the liquid thickens, about 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, put the oil into a sauté pan set over medium heat, add the garlic and sauté 30 seconds. Add the ginger, sauté 30 second more, add the spinach and use tongs to turn it as it wilts. It will take about 90 seconds. Taste, season with salt and season generously with black pepper. Stir into the cooking congee.

Shortly before the congee is ready, poach the eggs in boiling water to which you have added the vinegar; do not cooking them any longer than 3 minutes; 2 minutes is better.

Ladle the congee into individual bowls, add a poached egg to each serving, add condiments of choice and enjoy right away.

Michele Anna Jordan has written 19 books to date, including the new “More Than Meatballs.” Email Jordan at michele@saladdresser.com. You’ll find her blog, “Eat This Now,” at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.

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