The Ultimate Comfort Soup: Congee

CongeeNow that cold and flu season has set in, it's time to start hunting down comforting soup recipes. Besides the requisite chicken soup that we all need in our cooking arsenal, there's another kind of dish that will cure what ails you when you've contracted the creeping crud: congee. For those not in the know, congee, also known as jook, is a creamy rice porridge that's a staple in Asian cultures. Consisting of rice that's been slowly cooked down to the point that the starches disintegrate into a bowl creamy goodness -- think risotto, only cooked longer -- congee is warm and easy to digest. Plus it's gluten free by default, can be make either vegan or vegetarian, and keeps well in the refrigerator for a few days.

Congee can be eaten sweet for breakfast, but more traditional recipes add in any number of savory ingredients, such as chicken, mushrooms, onions, and egg. Simpler, blander congee recipes can be fed to infants, used as a cold/curative curative, and won't upset your stomach further when you've eaten something that doesn't agree with you. Overall, congee might be the perfect food when you need a comforting dish that's easy on your digestive system.

If you're looking for wonderful congee restaurants in the Bay Area, you've got several options:

Congee is also easy to make at home. I like adding a tablespoon of butter or olive oil with just a sprinkling of curry powder, or else I make a more elaborate chicken jook for those days when I want something meaty. The recipe below is perfect for when you're not feeling well and find yourself craving a dish that's warm, nourishing, and easy to prepare.

Simple Vegetarian Congee

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Makes: 6 servings

Ingredients:
6 dried shiitake mushrooms
1 cup short-grain or glutinous rice (which is gluten-free, by the way)

4 cups vegetable stock

4-8 cups water

1 2-inch knob of ginger, peeled and diced

1 large carrot, peeled and finely diced
1 small head of bok choy, chopped

1 teaspoon salt + more to taste

4 tablespoons scallions, finely chopped

Preparation:
1. Soak mushrooms in enough hot water to cover them. Once they are soft, discard water, drain mushrooms and remove the stems. Chop coarsely and set aside.

2. Rinse rice once and set aside.

3. In a medium saucepan, bring stock to a boil over high heat. Once the stock is boiling, add rice and 4 cups of water. Bring to a boil again, then reduce heat to very low, allowing to gently simmer for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally and adding more water as necessary to create a creamy consistency.

4. After 30 minutes, add mushrooms, ginger, carrots, and bok choy. Let cook for another 60 minutes, continuing to add water and stir occasionally. You'll need to stir and scrape the bottom of the pot every few minutes to keep from burning.

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5. Once you've got a nice, creamy consistency and most of the rice grains have melted away into the stock, salt to taste. Serve hot in individual bowls and garnish with minced scallions.

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