Thursday, March 26, 2009

126. Congee (Chinese Chicken and Rice Porridge) (p. 122)

One of my favorite books of all time (and favorite movies, for that matter) is The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck. The story follows Wang Lung on his journey from a modest country farmer to a wealthy aristocrat. Throughout the rises and falls of his fortunes, Wang Lung always remembers his connection to the land and the importance of his family.

According to The Book (the Gourmet Cookbook, not The Good Earth) Congee was often eaten morning, noon and night in Chinese peasant homes. So it's no surprise that this recipe made me think of The Good Earth, and Wang Lung's humble and constant companion, O-Lan. As I made this hearty, rustic dish, I could picture O-Lan patiently tending the fire under a large kettle of rice porridge, and then serving it to Wang Lung and his crusty old father.

They say that good things come to those who wait, and that you can't rush greatness. But when it's already 6:30 and you're looking at a recipe with a total cooking time of five and a half hours, you do the best you can. Did I cut a few corners? Did I cook the stock for two hours instead of three? Did I cook the rice for one hour instead of two? Would it have been better if I hadn't rushed it? Yes on all counts. But, you know what? It was pretty good anyway. I really liked it, and I'd make it again when I have the time to do it right. (And just when will that be? No, really ... when will that be?)

Other than time (that's time, not thyme), you really don't need much to make this recipe. Start by cutting a whole chicken into eight serving pieces, put it in a pot and bring it to a boil, skimming off the gunk that bubbles up at the surface. The Book doesn't say whether you're supposed to put the carcass (what was leftover after I cut the chicken into serving pieces) into the pot. I didn't, but I suppose I could have. Reduce to a simmer and add some Chinese rice wine, some thick slices of ginger and a few smashed scallions. After about 20 minutes of simmering, the breast meat is cooked through. The Book says to remove one of the breast halves from the pot and set it aside to cool. This will become the shredded chicken served on top of the finished porridge. If I had it to do again, I would have removed both breast halves. There simply wasn't enough meat in the finished dish. Then, leave the stock to simmer for about three hours (or just barely two hours, if you are in a rush like me).

Strain the stock and discard the solids. Add the rice, bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for about two hours (or just barely one hour, if you are in a rush like me). The Book says that the finished porridge should have the consistency of oatmeal. Mine was a little more watery than it was supposed to be, but it was late and I needed to get to bed. Anyway, I was making this a couple of days before we planned on eating it. I knew that the rice would continue to absorb the liquid as it sat in the refrigerator. So, by the time we re-heated it, the consistency was just about right.

To serve, I topped the porridge with the shredded chicken breast, some finely sliced scallions, finely chopped ginger and some salt and pepper. The flavor was good, if somewhat subtle (I'm sure that this had to do with the abbreviated cooking time). But, it had a nice fragrance and the ginger, chicken and scallion flavors came through. It also had a slight, but pleasant, sweetness. The texture was a little mooshy, but in a comforting, and not off-putting way. I thought that because of all of the rice and liquid, this would be a real "belly-bomb" of dish, but surprisingly the meal didn't have staying power, and I was looking for more to eat later (cookies and ice cream anyone?).

Date Cooked: March 15, 2009
Degree of Difficulty: Easy
Rating: B


Melissa Bach Palladino said...

This is serious comfort food, and you're right, it is very subtle! When they say cut the chicken into eight pieces, they really mean the whole thing. Cut through the breast bone, split it down the back--you're not cutting off pieces for (say) frying, you're cutting it up so it will fit in the pot better. So yes, the carcass goes in, the better to deepen the stock!

Liz C said...

Wow - I've never had savory porridge. I'll have to give this a try.