We are all familiar with that countdown to January payday. Those five weeks from Christmas to the end of the first month of the year lasts an eternally long time, years not weeks, as we wait, nervously gazing at our empty bank accounts and wondering how much we should chip into our savings. January is the time of year to use those treasured Sainsbury’s Nectar points to buy a basket of groceries, to forgo the trip to the pub with friends, or delay filling the car with petrol for yet another week. So, all in all, January isn’t a popular month.
Now, I’m going to extend this month of misery to include February as well. Apologies. If anyone here, like myself, has more outgoings than initially expected then February – the shortest month of the year I’ll add – suddenly feels as long as that excruciating video on child-birth you had to watch in Year 6. It will be a month of thrifty living so sadly no extravagant meals out at the new Dishoom recently opened in Manchester or those Italian lessons I’m tempted to try. Instead it’s home safe and sound after work, no friends, and no fun.
But.. wait one minute…
When it comes to cooking I always enjoy a new project. I tug on my apron, do a couple of warm up exercises, stretch, limber up, and then dive head first into the kitchen. At the cafe, the menu is having a spring clean. There is too much out-of-season produce on there, such as butternut squash purée and poached pears which just screams autumn at me (and to everyone else who’s read this and this – excuse me, I’m utterly shameless). Instead, we need something warm and fresh so the head chef suggested a congee.
To those who don’t know, a congee is basically a Chinese savoury rice porridge. It doesn’t instantly strike you as ‘fresh’, however, when you stir fry some fresh ginger and garlic, maybe a little chilli, add a large handful of rice then jugfuls of stock you find yourself inhaling an aromatic broth. Oh so slowly, the rice cooks then breaks down as it absorbs all the liquid and zingy flavours, forming a pan full of what looks like loose risotto. From then you can fill it with anything you fancy. At work we’re considering mushrooms sautéed in garlic, topped with pickled turnips, vibrant chilli oil and sesame. Not to mention the naughty soy eggs, mottled tie-dye brown, gently cut in half to reveal the oozing bright yolks.
Not only is it fresh and warming, it’s hearty and fragrant, and, oh yeah, it’s really cheap!
All the ingredients are store cupboard essentials, just choose your toppings to suit your fridge contents. Aside from those opulent soy eggs, try a quick pickle with carrot, cucumber or green beans, a sharp crunchy balance for the shredded chicken, prawns or mushrooms stirred into the rice. Or keep it minimal with some wilted greens, a drizzle of soy sauce and slivered chilli. But treat yourself to an egg, you won’t break the bank. Budget life doesn’t feel so bad when you have a bowlful of this warming your insides.
Bacon and egg congee
Adapted from the Guardian, Zijun Meng’s recipe
Congees are best made with medium grain rice but is just as delicious with basmati, or even risotto rice, it will just have a different consistency. If you have money to burn include chicken, prawns or shredded pork, and use the bones or carcasses to make homemade stock. If you can’t afford these luxuries then embrace the stock cube.
This recipe makes enough for three so tub up your leftovers in the fridge and reheat on the stove with a splash of water until piping hot for an alternative bacon and eggs breakfast.
200ml soy sauce
2 cloves of garlic
3cm fresh ginger
4 spring onions
100g rice, I used basmati
1l chicken stock
3 rashers of bacon
Slivered spring onions and chillies
- First, the eggs. Boil the kettle. Pour the hot water into a saucepan and set over medium high heat. Once the water’s at a rolling boil lay your eggs one at a time in a slotted spoon over the pan. Pour any excess hot water from the kettle over each egg before slipping it into the pan. This prevents the eggs cracking when they submerge in the hot water. Cook for 5 minutes then drain and sit under cold running water until cool.
- Peel the eggs – be careful as they will be very fragile with runny yolks! Combine the soy, water and sugar in a bowl then drop in the peeled eggs. You may need to push them down with a plastic tub or lid as they will float. Leave them to soak for a couple of hours.
- When you’re ready to start the congee, rinse the rice in three changes of water then soak for 10 minutes. Crush the garlic, finely chop the ginger and the white ends of the spring onions. Set a large saucepan over medium heat, add a drizzle of sesame or neutral unflavoured oil and, once hot, throw in the garlic, ginger and spring onions. Stir fry for a minute or so to cook our the rawness of the garlic.
- Drain the soaking rice and toss into the saucepan with a splash of soy sauce. Stir to mix all the garlic and ginger with the rice before covering with chicken stock and reducing the heat to low.
- Keep the congee at a gentle simmer and check it every ten minutes or so to stir and ensure the rice isn’t sticking to the bottom of the pan. The rice will slowly breakdown and create a thick soupy porridge.
- When the congee is almost at your desired consistency, chop the bacon into chunks and fry until the fat is crisp. Meanwhile, choose your other garnishes and prepare them as you wish – finely chop the green ends of the spring onions, stir fry mushrooms, pick coriander.
- Taste the congee and season with salt, pepper and soy sauce. Ladle it into two bowls, scatter with bacon pieces, a soy egg sliced in half and anything else you fancy.