Tuesday, April 2, 2008

This recipe has slowly evolved from "Shanghai Chicken Rice Gruel" in Kenneth Lo's Chinese Regional Cooking (Pantheon, 1979). What drew me to it was the fact that a whole chicken was poached in the rice gruel, then removed and the meat served separately, something that is often done worldwide when meat is cooked in broth. Gradually, I went my own way with this dish, which means that it is not, in the pure sense, a congee at all, and all the better for it.

In the first photo, you see the kickoff ingredients, namely those that go into the congee itself: rice, garlic, ginger, minced bird pepper, chopped onions, and half a chicken. The first half of this chicken has already gone into a congee, and took with it all its giblets, so this one will be that much lacking. If I had them, the contents of the little sack—always a crapshoot, but ideally the heart, gizzard, liver, and neck—would be on display here, too, all but the neck chopped fine.

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A note about the rice, which you can see in the glass bowl on the left. (The glass behind it holds ginger ale, plus the trimmings from the ginger root, which give it an admirable intensity.) Most of the rice (7 ounces) is Tamaki Gold, a high-quality short-grain rice which I prefer for congee, since it doesn’t totally dissolve, even after hours of cooking, and thus bestows the gruel with some welcome texture. To this I’ve added an additional ounce of brown Kalijira rice from Bangladesh, which is a lovely mix of variously colored tiny grains. I thought it would add a bit of extra color and flavor, but it completely vanishes during the cooking process. What I should do is cook it separately and mix it in at the very end, or perhaps switch entirely to Tamaki "haiga" rice, a short-grain rice where the coating is milled from the grains but the germ left intact. Another day.

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Here is a picture of the congee, about to be covered and left to simmer for two hours. The liquid is two quarts of water, seasoned with 2 teaspoons of salt and a tablespoon of Chinese light soy sauce (Pearl Bridge). The greens are two pieces of what our Asian grocery termed “Chinese mustard greens” — I’m cooking a little sample here to see how aggressively flavored it is and how long I’ll need to cook it, when it’s time to do the vegetables. When I fish it out, after having taken its photograph, it turns out to be delicious and needing of a bit of cooking time. Note taken. As for the gruel, the trick is to keep it a bare simmer. Now I’m off to turn the chicken over (just once) and then take a nap....

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