What a nutty weekend! This is how it went: We went out on Friday night to see a dramatic version of the “The Grand Inquisitor”, a story from within The Brother’s Karamazov in which Christ comes back to Earth during the height of the Spanish Inquisition. It was fabulous and fascinating…and my brain has been hurting ever since, puzzling over issues of freedom and peace and mystery and authority. Then I had to work all day Saturday collecting more dietary data from scores of immigrant women and children, which is fun because they are all wonderful and inspiring, but it is also exhausting. I came home at the end of the day to discover that a friend was going to surprise us with a visit for dinner. So I scrounged together dinner, and we all stayed up too late talking about this and that.
Sunday was beautiful and sunny, perfect for relaxing. Joel has decided he is going to learn to skateboard (I’m sure he would like me to let you know that he actually has learned by this point, after a couple of weeks of practicing), so we decided it might be a fun afternoon activity to go for a quick little excursion, him on his skateboard and me running alongside, er, actually I was more behind than alongside, but whatever. In the spirit of exploration, we took a couple of turns we had never taken before, and the next thing we knew we were a teensy tinsy bit lost. We stopped in a cafe to ask for directions and learned from the woman behind the counter that to get back to our car would be approximately an 8-mile jaunt. Oops. So, what had been intended to be a 4-mile run turned into a 12ish mile run, and by the end of it we were both thoroughly worn out. And very hungry.
My knees creaked and my calves sighed heavily as I wandered into the kitchen to figure out what to do about supper. I wanted something that would be no effort, particularly no effort to eat. Something soft and smooth and comforting. Actually, I really wanted a bowl of ice cream for dinner but I nixed that idea and decided instead to make congee, a Chinese rice porridge (I’m counting this as part of my campaign to become more comfortable with Asian cooking too). I read about congee a number of months ago on the Wednesday Chef and was quite intrigued, enough so that I made a little post-it note to myself that said “congee”, in scrawling letters. Sunday, I thought of it again.
Something about rice gruel is oddly appealing. It sounds restorative, and, in fact, it is. You know that part of the book Goodnight Moon where it says something along the lines of “goodnight comb, goodnight brush, goodnight nobody, goodnight mush…”? Congee is that bowl of mush. And I mean that in a very, very good way. It is deliciously comforting and regressive, just the way the picture book is. It is comfort food to the Nth degree, steamy and warm, full of body and flavor, but requiring very little by the way of dedicated focus, or chewing for that matter, when you eat it. It just slips down, ekes into your muscles and bones and makes you feel strong again. It is also a perfect thing to make with leftovers because the brilliance of congee, in addition to the hearty, fragrant porridge base is the toppings. Whatever you have leftover from other meals you can toss on top. A little of this and a little of that, chile peppers, pickled carrots, mushrooms, fried onions, seafood, cooked meat, any of it can be sprinkled on top of your bowl of congee. Then with each bite you get both your mush and various crunchy, crackly, smooth, salty, fiery textures and flavors in satisfying layers.
I did a little bit of research (a very little bit) on congee and learned that the traditional Chinese version is made just with water as the simmering liquid, meaning that the rice gruel is more subtly flavored. A little too subtle for my taste, so I drew inspiration from the Vietnamese version (chao xa ga) which uses chicken broth and lemongrass to add a bit more ooomph. I didn’t have lemongrass, so I just tossed in half a lemon instead and a couple of goodly sized chunks of ginger for good measure. I also started the porridge with a few veggies, thinking vaguely of how I would start a soup. These simmered merrily away until the rice was basically falling to pieces, their merry cooking disturbed only by the quick addition of some chopped cabbage near the end of the cooking time. And while the porridge stewed, I prepped toppings. I made some garlicky-soy saucy stir fried ground pork, which was perfect for adding some protein to make it a meal. Inspired by a picture I had seen of congee, I also tried to make some crispy shallots, except that I got distracted while they were bubbling in the oil, and I only remembered them when I noticed that a thick cloud of smoke was pouring out from the kitchen. Another oops. I rushed in, threw open the windows and discovered that I had accidentally made carbonized shallots instead. So much for that topping. I replaced them with some fried onions, but next time I make this, and there will be a next time because I am thoroughly in love with my new found comfort food, I will try to make non-incinerated crispy shallots because I bet they are delicious. But, it was delicious as it was too, and tomorrow I think I may have leftovers (maybe even for breakfast) topped with a fried egg. Yum.
Ginger-lemon congee with pork (serves about 6)
- 1 Tbs. olive oil
- 1/2 cup chopped carrots
- 1/2 cup chopped bell pepper
- 1/2 lemon, cut into 2 quarters (washed first)
- 2-3 slices (about 1/4 inch thick) of fresh ginger
- 2 cups of cooked rice (from 1 cup of uncooked rice cooked up the usual way)
- 4 cups chicken broth
- 1/2 tsp. salt
- 3-4 cups sliced Napa cabbage
- 1/2-1 cup water
- 2 Tbs. oil
- 1 onion, thinly sliced
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 tsp. brown sugar
- 4 Tbs. soy sauce, divided
- 1 Tbs. rice vinegar (or sherry vinegar)
- 1 squirt fish sauce (optional)
- 1 lb ground pork
- In a fairly large pot, heat the Tbs. of olive oil over medium-high heat, then add the carrot and bell pepper and cook for about 3 minutes. Then stir in the 4 cups of broth and the rice, and add the lemon ginger and salt. Bring to a boil, then turn down to a low simmer and cook, uncovered, for about 30 minutes, stirring now and then to keep the rice from sticking.
- After the 30 minutes, stir in the napa cabbage and 1/2-1 cup water and cook for about 15 minutes more.
- While the rice is cooking prepare the onions and the pork. In a large wok or frying pan, heat the oil over medium-high. Fry the onions in the oil until they are nice and brown. Then, remove the onions with a slotted spoon and transfer to a bowl. Add the garlic to the pan and cook 1-2 minutes.
- Add the brown sugar, 2 Tbs. of the soy sauce the rice vinegar and fish sauce (if using) to the pan. Then, stir in the pork, stirring it up well to get it all covered with the sauce. Cook, stirring frequently until the pork is completely browned. Then, add the last 2 Tbs. of soy sauce and cook for a couple minutes more. Transfer the pork to a little serving bowl as well.
- When the rice porridge is done cooking (a total of about 45 minutes), take off the heat. Ladle it into bowls and top each bowl with a scoop of the ground pork and a scoop of the fried onions.