One way I have been balancing the cold dryness this winter is by eating congee – basically rice cooked with lots of water on low heat for a long time to make a moist soupy base for many different dishes. I was reminded of congee by Sarah Adams of Yuki Herbs here in Concord, NH (www.yuktiherbs.com), who made an amazing congee soup with shitake mushrooms and leeks in a broth laced with a myriad of healing herbs like astragalus and mallow, flavored with adzuki bean miso and red pepper flakes. If you don’t know what some of those ingredients are, don’t worry. Congee can be made much more simply and still be delicious and healthful – although if you want to try and emulate her recipe, as I have, go for it. It is very satisfying.
I started playing with congees, sometimes making them really soupy, sometimes more thick like a porridge. Zach Brown of Burlington, VT, another creative chef, said he was taught to make congee with leftover rice, and suggested using rice milk to soften the rice into congee. He inspired me with his use of black beans and beets in the various congees he has made.
One of my current favorites it to add the beets and carrot grounds from my juicer to cooked congee along with black beans and brown rice vinegar and some sort of salt, soy sauce or miso paste – a salty fermented soy-or-other-bean-and-sometimes-rice paste that melts into a flavorful soup base. You can find miso in health food stores, if not in your regular grocery.
I have made this congee really thick and dry by cooking it down till the rice grains break wide open, then added the carrots, beets, rinsed canned black beans, brown rice vinegar and salt, and bulked it up with toasted sesame seeds. Instead of juicer grounds, you could substitute grated vegetables of any kind, cooking them for a little while in the congee to soften if desired. It tastes great as is, although I really like it rolled or scooped into romaine lettuce leaves and drizzled with lemon juice and sesame or olive oil. I haven’t tried it yet, but I think this thick congee would make a great veggie burger. Maybe with a little chickpea or rice flour to hold it together, although with the sesame seeds it may not need it. And with Nel Norwesh of Manchester, NH’s delicious za’atar – a tangy middle eastern spice combination of sesame seeds, dried sumac, salt, and I think thyme? It would be delicious.
This morning for breakfast I ate a soupy forbidden black rice, brown rice and sweet rice congee with the beet, carrot and black bean mixture and chickpea miso, with some sweet potatoes on the side. Perhaps not your typical breakfast fare, and yet Paul Pitchford, in his iconic tome Healing with Whole Foods, states that congee, or hsi-fan – rice water – is commonly eaten as breakfast food in China. It is easily digested and so helps the body assimilate the nutrients from other foods added to the congee. So helps break the fast…
Pitchford describes congee as a handful of rice simmered in five to six times the amount of water in a covered pot for four to six hours on warm or on the lowest flame possible, or in a crockpot. And that it is better to use too much water than too little, and that the longer the congee cooks the more powerful it gets. From that general recipe you can experiment as you like. And while it seems daunting to cook something for four to six hours, just put it on the stove when you get home and let it cook – not for the meal you are eating now but the ones you will eat later. Then you’ve always got some rice ready, just add vegetables and flavoring.
I’ve included a sample and very general recipe here to inspire you, eat it any time of day. Try it as is, and use it as a springboard for your own creations. Share them here if you like, we all inspire each other.
Kale, Carrot and Shitake Congee
1 cup short grain brown rice
5 cups water
2-3 carrots, sliced into rounds
2 cloves garlic (optional)
4-6 dried porcini or other mushrooms (optional)
1 cup sliced fresh shitake mushrooms
2 cups kale chopped into bite sized pieces
Miso – any kind – I like brown rice, barley, adzuki bean and chickpea, in that order for this soup…
Fresh ginger root (optional)
Bring rice, water, and carrots to almost boiling, turn heat to warm and let cook for at least four hours, adding water if necessary. If desired, add garlic cloves and ½ inch of sliced ginger now. Leave the ginger in large rounds so you can decide to eat it with the soup or take it out if that is too spicy. Alternately you could add the ginger at the end, see the last instructions in the recipe.
Add water and cook until desired consistency, I’m imagining a soupy porridge for this congee.
Let dried mushrooms soak in cold water for at least ½ hour.
Add fresh shitake to congee during last 20 minutes of cooking
Add kale during last 15 minutes of cooking.
Add porcini and soaking liquid during last 5 minutes.
Place one tablespoon miso per serving in deep bowls right before eating. You don’t want to cook the miso in the soup, as it is a living food and overheating will kill it. Serve it to order. Mash the miso with a spoon into a small amount of congee in each bowl before adding the rest of the serving, to blend the miso into the whole soup rather than leaving it in a little clump in some of the soup. Ladle congee into each bowl, stir well, and top with scallions. Squeeze lemon juice to taste. Optionally, grate ginger root on the smallest holes or your cheese grater and squeeze the juice, and some of the grounds, onto the congee. Adjust seasonings to taste.