As the Outer Cape’s long trek to spring begins, Christopher and I are grateful for the reprieves we’ve had this year from winter’s cold grip. A good number of magically mild, sunny days, for one. And lots of traveling to look back on. Which brings me — or Christopher, actually — to the perfect soup for these early days of the New Year. Congee is the taste memory from our fall trip to Canada that he can’t seem to stop thinking about.
When we arrived in Toronto it was rainy, dreary, and cold. But Christopher was thrilled to be meeting with colleagues in person at their first conference since the pandemic began. The real proof of colleagueship, though, was a lunchtime escape from the windowless confines of the hotel led by a colleague from Toronto to a small Chinese restaurant.
It can be challenging to select from the banquet of Asian restaurants that seem to line every Toronto block. The delicacies of China, along with those of Korea, Vietnam, India, Cambodia, Taiwan, Thailand, and Japan, are on offer there. It helps to know someone in the know.
Ducking in from the chill and rain, Christopher ordered the congee, a simple rice porridge of which there are versions in many Asian cuisines. The Vietnamese version, cháo gà, is frequently served for breakfast. Congee is, too. And it’s considered a cure-all — good for anything that ails you.
Taste memories can get us only so far. Fortunately, congee can be made with ingredients that are easy to find here on the Outer Cape. The basic idea is rice cooked in a large quantity of liquid until it breaks apart to form the porridge. I like jasmine rice for its subtle flavor and aroma, but any rice will do — some cooks prefer the starchiness of short grain or sushi rice.
You want a flavorful broth, but there’s no reason it can’t be a vegetable version. If you are using chicken broth, though, you can make the porridge more substantial with diced leftover chicken or, even better, by simmering two skinless chicken thighs with the broth, adding the lemongrass, ginger, and garlic. Before serving you’ll just remove the meat from the bones, shred it, and stir it into the cooked porridge.
The plainness of the congee is a backdrop for garnishes that add color, crunch, and heat.
1 cup jasmine rice
6 dried shiitake mushrooms
2 cups water
7 cups vegetable or chicken broth
4 scallions cut into 3 pieces
2 to 3 stalks lemongrass, sliced into 3- to 4-inch pieces
A 2-inch piece of ginger, peeled and thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
1 tsp. kosher salt
- Briefly rinse the rice and set it aside. Give the dried shiitake mushrooms a quick rinse as well. Bring 2 cups of water to a boil and pour over the mushrooms. Allow them to soak for 30 minutes until rehydrated. Once the mushrooms are softened, slice them and reserve the soaking liquid.
- Put the broth in a large pot with the scallions, lemongrass, ginger, garlic, and salt. Boil gently for about half an hour, then remove and discard vegetables.
- Add rice and sliced mushrooms with their soaking liquid to the pot. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and cover. Allow the congee to simmer for one hour, stirring occasionally so that the rice doesn’t stick.
- After an hour, uncover the pot. The congee might look watery at this point, but it will thicken as it cools. Turn off the heat and allow the porridge to cool, partially covered, for 15 to 20 minutes. If after 20 minutes the congee is not thick enough, return to low heat and simmer for another 15 minutes.
- Serve in bowls with any combination of the suggested garnishes.