Monday, October 28, 2013

Hot love: congee redux

A couple of years ago I posted about congee, using a recipe from Simon Hopkinson as my starting point. I still think that is a pretty great way to make this classic Cantonese bowl of comfort food, but I have found an even better basic recipe, one that tastes like it just came out of the best Chinatown deli in the world.

This is simplicity itself, a dish so fragrant with its key ingredient—broken jasmine rice—that just washing the rice causes me severe hunger pangs. The rice is then tossed with a bit of salt and oil to marinate it before it is simmered, and the aromas keep on getting stronger until it is time to eat, and by then I am utterly ravenous.

Broken jasmine rice
There are as many ways to make a proper bowl of congee as there are for good chicken soup. But after grilling lots of friends, I've come up with a couple of truly great recipes. The basic one comes from Helen Luo, who fell in love with the congee they served on the night shift when she worked as a nurse in a Guangzhou hospital; the nice lady in the canteen gave her this secret, and I’m passing it on to you. The variations below are also terrific.

I realize that 17 cups of anything might seem like a terrifying amount, but this is good stuff that goes down quickly. Think of it as soup. But if these 17 cups are still causing you distress, divide the recipe in half if there are only two of you and you are not that hungry.

The second time you make this, I guarantee you’ll make the whole amount.

Basic congee and variations
Guǎngdōng zhōu 廣東
Guangdong
Makes about 4 quarts

Congee:
1 cup broken jasmine rice (white rice hands-down works better than brown here)
¼ teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon fresh peanut or vegetable oil
Marinating the grains
17 cups filtered water

Optional seasonings during the cooking:
1 cup broken soy batons (fuzhu; see Tips), soaked in hot water and chopped
1 tablespoon mushroom seasoning, or regular soy sauce to taste
¼ cup rice wine (Mijiu)
2 tablespoons finely minced fresh ginger         
Unseasoned stock instead of water

Garnishes (choose from any or all, or follow one of the variations below):
Some oil from the Fried Green Onions
Stir-fried mushrooms, vegetables, meat, poultry, or fish
Eggs fried sunny-side up
Shredded green onions, chilies, cilantro, and/or ginger
More soy sauce or some chili oil and/or goop, roasted sesame oil, freshly ground black pepper

1. Rinse the rice in a sieve until the water runs clear, and then place it in a heavy-bottomed, large pot. Mix the salt and oil into the rinsed rice and let it sit for at least an hour so that it gently seasons and tenderizes the grains.

2. Add the water to the pot, stir, and bring to a full boil before lowering the heat to a gentle simmer. Cook the congee for 40 or so minutes, stirring occasionally and always scraping the bottom of the pan, until the grains have bloomed and the liquid has thickened. (You may also use an automatic rice cooker with a “porridge setting.”) The congee will be ready when the grains have blossomed into soft little puffs, but don't overcook the rice to the point that it becomes gluey. It's important to be able to see each individual grain and to be able to feel them as they gracefully glide across your tongue.
The grains "blossoming"

3. The most important key to a perfect bowl of congee is cooking it to the exact point of doneness—everything else is secondary. Taste the congee and adjust the seasoning as needed.

4. Divide the congee into 4 to 6 large soup bowls, leaving enough room for a generous assortment of garnishes. If you want, let people decorate their own bowls. If you have any leftovers, microwave just before serving it so that the rice doesn't mush down as it heats.

Variations:

Lotus leaf congee (héyè zhōu 荷葉粥). This gorgeously scented rice porridge is a specialty of the Yangtze River area and is usually served cool during hot weather. With little side dishes, it makes an elegant and tasty way to beat the heat. A good alternative to the lotus leaves are bamboo leaves. Make the plain congee above but add either 1 dried lotus leaf or 2 dried bamboo leaves that you have soaked until pliable and wiped clean. Remove the leaves before serving.

Chaozhou-style congee (Cháozhōu mí 潮州糜). Follow the directions above for the basic congee, only use 12 cups of filtered water instead of 17, which will give you a thicker, glossier rice porridge that will serve around 4 people. (This is also the go-to recipe for people who are not feeling well. Be assured that if you are sick in China, you will be fed lots of plain congee and good old chicken soup.)

Sweet potato congee (hóngshŭ xīfàn 紅薯稀飯). This is a specialty of Southern Fujian and Taiwan, where whole restaurants are dedicated to nothing but this delicious congee and an assortment of small dishes that can be chosen from a menu or from a steam tray table. Make the Chaozhou-style congee above, but while the rice is cooking, peel 2 or 3 red sweet potatoes and cut them into large (1-inch) squares. Steam the sweet potatoes or simmer them in a small amount of water until they are barely cooked through, and then add them to the congee about 10 or 15 minutes before it is done; add more water if necessary to make the congee as thin or thick as you like it..

Pork and preserved egg congee (pídàn shòuròu zhōu 皮蛋瘦肉粥). Flavor plain congee with 1 tablespoon mushroom seasoning. Toast 2 Chinese crullers (youtiao) in a toaster oven until crisp. Meanwhile, heat ¼ cup toasted sesame oil over high heat and add ¼ cup julienned ginger; fry the ginger until crisp, then remove to a small dish. Add ½ cup julienned pork to the hot oil and stir-fry until it has lost its pink color, then divide the pork and oil among 4 to 6 large soup bowls. Cut 4 preserved eggs (pidan) into thin wedges and divide them among the bowls. Heat the congee until it almost starts to boil, and then divide this among the bowls (extra congee can be added to the bowls halfway through the meal). Sprinkle the bowls with ½ cup finely chopped green onions and ¼ cup fried peanuts. Cut the crullers into thin rings and serve on the side as crunchy bits to add to the congee during the meal.


Tips

Broken jasmine rice is one of the great pleasures of the Chinese grocery store. For one thing, it is considered a “second” and so is cheaper. But since it has been broken up into small pieces during the milling of the rice, it also breaks down quickly into congee. The fragrance of jasmine rice is unequaled and gives the congee a terrific perfume.

For the soy batons, I use the broken pieces at the bottom of the bag. You will always have these no matter how careful you are, and this is a great way of using them up. If you don’t have soy batons on hand, fresh or frozen soy skins are fine, too; just use an approximately equal amount. These provide creaminess to the congee.

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