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Thursday, February 27, 2014

All aboard the congee train: Guest post by Jenjen!

Jenjen and I have been friends since I was 12 and she was 9. Well, we were more like younger sister and older sister; we even still call each other "Meimei" and "Jiejie," the Chinese honorifics that older and younger sisters call each other. I would post a photo from those days, but I was going through a heinously awkward phase and I don't want to subject you to it. (Jenjen was always completely COMPLETELY adorable, though.)

When she moved to New York for graduate school, we became grown-up friends, big-time.  Jenjen (along with our sister-in-spirit, Mayumi) danced a hula with me at my wedding
Photo credit to Mayumi Shimose Poe

and held Kamal when he was a teeny-tiny.
photo credit to Mayumi Shimose Poe
Like me, Jenjen grew up with congee. Here's her lovely piece on her grandmother's congee. 

Jook was never really my comfort food.  I never craved it when I wanted to make myself feel better after a bad day.  When I was a kid, it was what my mom fed me when I was sick.  So naturally, it was always bland because I couldn't taste anything.  On the other hand, Turkey Jook is a whole different ballgame to me.  

Every Thanksgiving, I would look forward to the post-feast meals almost more than the actual meal itself.  My popo (grandmother) would transform the turkey carcass and meal remnants into this lovely rich broth that would take center stage in an incredibly luxurious jook.  But, it wasn't just about ravenously devouring bowls of that jook with my family; it was about my alone time with my popo while we made it together.

My popo was one of my biggest influences in my early childhood.  Instead of hiring childcare while my parents worked, she was my secondary caregiver.  And she'd regale me with stories of her own childhood, where she worked in the Hawaii sugar cane plantation fields, while she kept me busy with yard work or kitchen duty.  So now, I frequently look back to her kitchen time life lessons when I'm in my own times of distress.  

She taught me about honor, love, family, respect, sacrifice, ....she taught me to be a warrior, like her.  And she did it all between washing vegetables, brandishing her giant meat cleaver, and tossing morsels in her wok; while I hungrily watched at the hem of her worn out draw-string denim apron.  So while we made turkey jook, one of her biggest lessons from that was to not waste any food.

Her particular brand of turkey jook was different from the rest of the island.  Mainly because it involved throwing everything we didn't finish into the pot to flavor the broth.  So naturally, it tasted different every year.  But, for some reason we'd undoubtedly always have leftover raw carrots that she'd finely dice and throw in for color and sweetness.  So to this day, I can't have turkey jook without specifically going to buy carrots for that purpose.  

I've had many years where my peers would laugh at my family's odd carrot-filled turkey jook.  But, I just smile at them.  Because to me, that's my popo's wisdom "chop-suey-ed" into a bowl, and served steaming hot.  Thank you, Popo, for the love, the wisdom, and the laughs.  I hope to make you proud as the warrior that I've become today.

Turkey Jook
(sorry, there are no measurements. Popo never measured anything except by saying..."oh, throw a little of this, and a little of that. Use your tastebuds.")

-Turkey carcass (reserve the leftover turkey meat)
-leftover vegetables
-green onions
-star anise (small handful)
-sesame oil 
-soy sauce
-1 cup white jasmine rice
-2 large carrots, finely diced

Sautee the ginger, onions, green onions, and star anise in sesame oil on medium high for a few minutes, until onions have become translucent.  Add turkey carcass, leftover vegetables, and enough cold water to cover.  Bring to a boil.  Cover and put on simmer for 2 hours.  Strain broth out.  Sautee another onion and cilantro in a stock pot for a few minutes.  Add rice and coat.  Add strained broth and bring to a boil (approximately 9:1 water to rice ratio).  Simmer on medium low and stir frequently for 2 hours.  In the last half an hour, add in the diced carrots and turkey meat. Add a few dashes of soy sauce, to taste.  Serve hot with cilantro leaves as garnish.

[Mmmmm. Jenjen says "...needs thousand-year-old-egg." But I think it looks perfect just the way it is.]

Saturday, February 22, 2014

An event of historic proportions

You guys! This right here? This is a photo of my child eating congee.

If you read this post, you understand why this is such a huge deal. 

Here's the bowl of congee I made for myself yesterday morning, which Kamal kept trying to put his own spoon into, which prompted me to give him his own little ramekinful. 

It's just bai zhou topped with sautéed baby kale and one and a half of Adam's perfect soft-boiled eggs. (The other half-egg is on Kamal's breakfast plate). 

Since Kamal has consistently refused rice and since I've committed to eating congee every morning for a year, I will typically make us separate breakfasts, like this one. 

Our breakfasts one day last week: Kamal had roasted sweet potatoes, roasted chicken, sauteed spinach and spaghetti in meat sauce. I had brown rice congee, an egg over-easy, roasted chicken and sauteed spinach.

But yesterday morning gave me hope! I mean, look at this! He was so into it! He's only just learning about eating with utensils and yet he's spooning up that congee like a champ!
Okay, in this photo there's technically nothing actually on the spoon, but whatever. Points for effort, kiddo. 

The rest of the day was just golden, probably because when you start the day with congee things tend to go well. There was some two-wheeling and kumquat eating:

And then later in the evening Kamal helped Daddy fix dinner. 


Of course, this morning when I optimistically gave him a serving of congee, Kamal studiously removed it all from his bowl onto the dining table, and then dramatically flung a piece of congee-covered kale onto the floor. Chagrin! 

But a few minutes later, he trod across the discarded kale, and its congee coating made it stick to his foot. And then with a delighted expression he discovered the kale stuck to the bottom of his foot, sat down, peeled it off, and ate it. Parenting moral: Progress, such as it is, is not necessarily linear. 

Friday, February 14, 2014

Adam's perfect-every-time boiled eggs

bai zhou topped with spinach, roasted chicken, Adafina Culinary's fabulous kim chee, and the perfect soft-boiled egg

Mayumi made tea eggs, and posted a question about them to my Facebook page: "Once (the eggs) had sat in the marinade, I had a hard time removing the shell without losing significant chunks of egg. Tips?"

Truth be told, Adam and I had the exact same problem. Peeling the first tea egg for the pretty photo was a huge, time-consuming pain in the booty. The next time we make them, we're going to go back to the way my mom did it: completely hard-boiling the eggs and peeling them fully before putting them in the marinade. This way, you get richer flavor, and you get it quicker, but the trade-off is, of course, that you don't get that gorgeous marbled effect.

Lots of friends chimed in with their best egg-boiling and -peeling tips: my friend Kim reminded us that fresher eggs are much harder to peel than older ones and a couple of other friends agreed; Kristina suggested white vinegar in the boiling water; Andrew mentioned shocking boiled eggs in ice water after cooking; and Suchandra linked to this really neat idea for tidily baking your hard-"boiled" eggs. (I'm totally trying baked boiled eggs the next time I need to make a really large batch!)

When Adam boils eggs, they always turn out perfectly and are super-easy to peel. Here's his tried-and-true method. And it absolutely does help to start with eggs that are a couple of weeks old. Supermarket eggs are pretty much always old enough. 

Adam's Perfect-Every-Time Boiled Eggs

1. Bring enough water to easily cover your eggs to a boil.

2. Every egg has one rounder end and one end that's more pointy. Pierce the rounder end of the egg (Adam uses a thumb tack). Sounds tricky, but this is easy to do once you're used to it. 3. Carefully lower your eggs into the boiling water--a slotted spoon is a perfect tool for this--and adjust the heat to maintain a simmer, not a rolling boil.

4. Set a timer for six minutes if you want very soft-boiled eggs, nine if you want hard-boiled eggs, and somewhere in between for somewhere-in-between eggs. Keep in mind that eggs of different sizes will cook a little differently. (The eggs in the photo above are large eggs, but not extra-large, and they cooked for seven minutes.)

5. Drain the water and then run the eggs under cold tap water for 30 to 60 seconds.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Other people's congee!

I'm so excited by how many people have jumped on the congee train. Here are some photos from folks of their own congee. They all look so delicious!

You remember Anne's lovely chicken and leek congee, of course; here's a photo to remind you. 

If Wes Anderson did a congee photo shoot, this is what it would look like.

(let's nobody forget to include Cody!)

The fabulous Laura von Holt, a.k.a. Von Hottie, made this beautiful bowl of congee topped with egg, spinach, shiitake mushrooms, and sesame oil. 

Says Laura: "It's delicious & reminds me of eating plate lunches in Hawai'i. I drew a heart with Sriracha sauce because Lorelle says food is best for you when it is made with love." Awwww. And it's true!

Lucie, a gifted cook, baker and yogi, made bai zhou topped with egg and greens ("Reminds me of my grandma's house," she says): 

and then a savory congee made with homemade stock and topped with tofu, greens and sesame seeds. 

I literally can't look at this photograph without my mouth watering.

My friend and fellow acupuncturist, Lesley Custodio of Feel Well Acupuncture in San Diego, made this exceptionally healthful savory quinoa congee. 
Quinoa always gets this adorable little curly tail when you cook it.

Here's how she did it: "I first sauteed onions and garlic in olive oil. When they were golden and caramelized, I took them out. Then I added some leftover rotisserie chicken and ginger and let it cook for a little bit before adding water and quinoa. I think I used about half a cup of quinoa and 4 cups of water. I added safflower (hong hua) and a bay leaf and let it boil away. When I'm ready to serve it, I add back the onions I took out (my Mom's secret trick!) Salt and pepper to taste too."

Lesley's quinoa congee is a terrific example of a whole-grain congee. Even though I feel strongly that the small amount of white rice consumed in a bowl of congee can't have more than a negligible impact on the blood sugar levels of a basically healthy person, variety is a nice thing. Moreover, having a whole-grain option can be important for diabetic or pre-diabetic people.

Another great whole-grain congee option: Jenjen's brown basmati rice congee, cooked with kale, ginger and cilantro. 


Jenjen and I have been friends for twenty-something years, and she's one of those people that you know you can turn to kind of no matter what. Like Jenjen, this congee sounds warm and comforting--perfect February food. 

Here's Mayumi's gorgeous congee, topped with tea eggs, roasted nori, chopped scallions and Sriracha.

Mayumi and I have also been friends for forever, and she is as lovely a writer as she is a friend and congee-dresser.

Tara and Les Goodman run the phenomenal Adafina Culinary catering company, and they are congee eaters from the way back. Tara sent me this photo of  her Saturday morning breakfast: "This morning's congee: made with chicken carcass broth and topped with chopped ginger, fermented black bean chili sauce, cilantro, fermented cabbage and crispy onions."

See that squat brown ceramic crock in the back left there? That's the fermented cabbage, and it's getting it's own blog post one day soon.

Um, holy moly. 

Another fellow acupuncturist, Molly Shapiro of MBS Acupuncture in Bethesda, made this bowl of deliciousness:

You can read her recipe and experience with congee in Asian countries in her thoughtful blog post, right here

And the beautiful people at Wishbone restaurant in Petaluma put this gorgeous sweet congee on their brunch menu!

And then they served it in the most adorable mini-French-oven you ever saw in your whole life.
Black forbidden rice cooked in coconut milk and topped with toasted coconut and fresh fruit. This is the decadent way I started my morning today. It was like eating dessert first--but I still felt all wholesome and virtuous. Win-win! 

Speaking of sweet congees, the next sweet congee recipe I'm looking forward to trying is this Warming Pear and Ginger Congee,  written by another acupuncture colleague and friend, Michael Ishii of Stonewell Acupuncture in New York City. It's a recipe written with autumn in mind, but it sounds perfect for the unusually dry California winter we've been having.

Thank you all so much for sharing your congee adventures with me! Please keep them coming--you can shoot photos and recipes over to me at

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Chicken rendang congee

Adam served me this bowl of congee this morning, and I was all like, "There's no way I can eat that much congee!" And then I ate it. 

Adam has made this congee twice in the last couple of weeks already, and it's one of the most delicious applications of congee I've ever had. He was inspired by two recipes in James Oseland's beautiful cookbook Cradle of Flavor: the Chicken Rendang and the Celebration Rice. This recipe is Adam's interpretation of both of those recipes with congee as the medium.

Why you should make it, too: the ginger, galangal, and cardamom are all herbs used in traditional Chinese medicine to, among other things, improve digestion and regulate metabolism. Cinnamon has anti-inflammatory properties, and it can also help control blood sugar levels, which makes it an appealing congee addition if you're concerned about white rice's impact on blood sugar.  The shredded coconut adds some fiber, and many of the ingredients, including ginger, galangal, garlic, turmeric and lemongrass are used in traditional medicine cultures around the world to treat upper respiratory infections, stomach bugs, and the flu virus. It's also so pretty--fresh turmeric root gives it a bright golden color, and minced kaffir lime leaves dot that golden field with a deep, vibrant green. And did I mention it's delicious? Because it is.

Finding all this laid out on the counter before I go to bed makes me feel loved. 

2 cups basmati rice
1 cup unsweetened shredded coconut
approximately 3 inches of fresh ginger root
approximately 3 inches of fresh galangal root
approximately 3 inches of fresh turmeric root
6 cardamom pods
2 3-inch cinnamon sticks
1 large shallot (3-4 ounces)
3 large garlic cloves
3 or 4 whole star anise
3 lemongrass stalks
6 pandanus leaves
2-10 dried arbol chiles (or your favorite dried chiles)--Adam used 5 or 6 here; use more or less depending how spicy you like things
4 dried daun salaam leaves (also called Indonesian bay leaves, or sometimes Indian bay leaves)
one teaspoon sea salt
one teaspoon turbinado sugar
5 kaffir lime leaves (not pictured), plus more for garnish
2 whole chicken legs (about 1.5 pounds, not pictured)
One tablespoon of olive oil (not pictured)

Lightly smash the cardamom seeds using a mortar and pestle, or the back of a big knife, or bottom of a flat pan. You don't need to fully crush them; just press them enough so they've opened a bit.

Peel the ginger using the back of a spoon and slice it thinly.
Peel the turmeric using the back of a spoon and grate it with a microplane.
Peel the galangal, which is tougher than the ginger, with a knife or vegetable peeler, and slice it thinly.
Peel and mince the garlic.
Thinly slice the shallots.
Chop the dried peppers into small pieces, which makes it easy to separate seeds out. Discard the seeds unless you like things superspicy, in which case include them.
Tie a knot in each of the pandanus leaves; this makes it easier to find them and remove them after cooking
Lightly bruise lemongrass with a heavy pan (again, you're not crushing it; you're just squishing it some to release flavor) and cut it into manageable lengths
Lightly crumple the kaffir lime leaves in your hand--once again, you're just releasing their essence a bit, not breaking them apart.

Wash the rice and add everything to your rice pot except the chicken. Mix it all together well, and fill your rice pot about halfway full with water. Then heat the olive oil in a heavy skillet and brown the chicken on all sides.

Here you want to sort of bury the chicken in the rice mixture, so it's fully covered by rice and spices and coconut, then fill the rest of the pot with water. You could also substitute chicken stock for some or all of the water, but I prefer just water.

Now turn on your rice cooker, following the manufacturer's directions for cooking rice (or congee, if it has that setting).  If you're using a pot on the stove, bring the mixture to a low boil, stir, cover and reduce heat to a low simmer for one to two hours, or until the chicken is fully cooked and the rice grains are losing their individual borders, releasing their starch, and reaching a creamy, rich consistency.

I wish you could smell this picture.

Serve your chicken rendang congee topped with minced kaffir lime leaves and the Sweet and Sour Cucumber and Carrot Pickle from Cradle of Flavor. (If you're even a little bit interested in Indonesian or Malaysian cuisine, or just generally expanding your culinary horizons, both Adam and I highly recommend this book. It's a favorite in our house; we've loved everything we've tried from it.)

Sweet and Sour Cucumber and Carrot Pickle with Turmeric

If you're wondering where to find some of these ingredients, many well-stocked Western grocery stores carry fresh ginger root, fresh turmeric root, and fresh lemongrass. Pandanus leaves and kaffir lime leaves can be found either fresh or frozen in many Asian markets, and daun salaam can usually be found in Asian markets too, in dried form.

That's what I call a happy meal