All Hail the Rice Cooker: Brown Rice Congee with Poached Egg
The story which I am about to tell is 100% truthful, although it seems a twist of fate. It resembles a certain food column in the New York Times, where the cook seems to have “nothing in the kitchen,” yet turns out impeccably braised meats and pie crusts presumably by accident (Yes, Melissa Clark, I’m thinking of you!).
But rest assured, last night Old Mother Hubbard (aka Octopus Gourmet) went to the cupboard (or rather, bookshelf) and found it bare. To be honest, cooking was the last thing on my mind. After an unrestful night’s sleep, I had a headache and really just wanted some miso soup. The problem? No miso. The dining hall just wasn’t an option– there are only so many times a day one can frequent the salad bar.
I inspected my ingredients and mulled over a few options. Literally everything was almost out: I had but a scant handful of brown rice and one lone packet of soy sauce. No fresh vegetables, unless you count kabocha squash and celery. Here is what I did have:
- Dried shiitake mushrooms
- A few kinds of dried seaweed
- Dried Chinese shrimp
- Oyster sauce, sesame oil, vinegar, salt and pepper
- Eggs that needed to be used up
- Does tap water count?
Like the menorah that burned for eight nights, the combined powers of my rice cooker and Asian dried staples somehow created a miraculous elixir, something along the lines of a Macrobiotic “stone soup.” Rather than drag out the induction burner, I threw almost everything into my rice cooker and hoped for the best.
Congee, or zhou, is one of the world’s most comforting foods, but it is nearly almost always made with white rice. I, alas, had only brown rice, which retains its chew and doesn’t thicken the same way, but is delicious in its own right. After pouring what was left of the rice into the rice cooker, I added shiitake mushrooms, a few dried shrimp, and a lot of water, then let it cook. It wasn’t long before it had come to a boil and the rice had begun to soften.
In the meantime, I had decided to use the kabocha squash as a side. If I haven’t mentioned this already, kabocha is my favorite food in the entire world– I adore its sweet, nutty flesh and hearty texture, especially when I’m feeling under the weather. And the best part about kabocha? It may be the only vegetable I know that tastes better steamed than roasted. So I cubed it, put it into my steamer insert, and let it steam while the congee simmered.
Fifteen or so minutes later, the squash was tender and the congee ready for flavoring. As I suspected, it tasted of absolutely nothing. I sacrificed my soy sauce packet and a few twists of the black pepper mill, then tasted. Fail. The soup lacked body. Even if I had had more soy sauce, it would have only made it more one-dimensionally salty. All of a sudden, Eureka! I had it. Oyster sauce (the key to perfect fried rice, by the way) is both savory and sweet, with a slightly fermented smell. I added a hearty tablespoon and tasted the congee again with a huge smile on my face. The oyster sauce added just the right amount of “roundness” to the soup.
After a few minutes, I generously drizzled the whole concoction with sesame oil, sesame seeds and chili paste. As for a garnish, cilantro or scallions would have been ideal, but I had none. No matter. I sprinkled on some celery leaves and ate the congee straight out of the rice cooker.
The runny egg yolk thickened the broth, adding an almost roux-like creaminess. Meanwhile, the kabocha squash had somehow infused with the umami elements of dried shrimp and shiitakes– it, too, had become multilayered in flavor. As I alternated bites of kabocha with slurps of unctious congee, I could hardly think, my tastebuds were going so wild.
How did what had begun as having “nothing” on hand turn into such a feast?
Brown Rice Congee with Seaweed and Poached Egg
- a scant 1/4 cup brown rice
- Water to cover
- 6 dried shiitaki mushrooms
- 4 dried shrimp
- 1 packet soy sauce (a few tsp)
- 1 TBSP oyster sauce
- A fist-sized lump of dried Chinese seaweed
- Black pepper
- 1 tsp sesame oil
- 1 TBSP chili paste, optional
- 2 eggs
- Sesame seeds and celery leaves, for garnish
- Plug in your rice cooker
- If you want to save time, you might consider boiling the water in an electric kettle first, or you can just add it with the rest of ingredients and wait a bit longer.
- Add all the dried ingredients except the seaweed to the rice cooker, cover with water, and set to “cook.”
- Wait (times will vary) until the brown rice is slightly mushy but still chewy.
- Add soy sauce, oyster sauce, salt, pepper, and seaweed, letting it wilt.
- Meanwhile, crack an egg (or two, as I did) into a small container and slide into the simmering congee. Cover and cook for 2-3 minutes, until the egg is cooked to your liking.
- Turn off the rice cooker and drizzle with sesame oil, chili paste, chopped nori, and celery leaves.
- Prepare for a foodgasm.
Simply Steamed Kabocha Squash
- 1 kabocha squash, cubed (no need to peel)
- Salt and pepper, sesame seeds, optional
- Insert the kabocha into a steamer over boiling water or congee and cover.
- Let steam 10 minutes, or until soft.
- Serve, flavoring if you desire.