My ultimate comfort food is congee (粥), especially when the weather is cold. It's smooth consistency and gentle flavours are especially soothing when I'm feeling under the weather and in need of something light and comforting. The most basic version of plain congee is a blank template - ingredients and condiments can be added to create the flavour that you desire, and the result is an infinite number of flavour combinations. It's no wonder there are restaurants dedicated to serving congee.
Congee varies considerably depending on the region. I grew up eating Cantonese-style congee (廣東粥), in which the rice is completely married with the water, resulting in a delightfully smooth texture that is not too thick and not too thin. Chiuchow-style congee (潮州粥), on the other hand, is very thin and more akin to cooked rice in broth, since both elements remain completely separate. Fujian-style congee (福建粥) is the complete opposite, and often thick enough to eat with chopsticks.
When I was growing up, my mom would cook congee either on the stovetop or in the rice cooker. Cooking it on the stovetop is the most traditional way to do it, but requires a watchful eye and some skill to ensure that the rice does not stick to the bottom of the pot over the course of the cooking. I confess that I haven't had much experience cooking congee this way. I used to always cook it in the rice cooker, which takes advantage of the "porridge" setting, and also allows the congee to continue cooking slowly while it is in the "keep warm" mode overnight. I much prefer making congee this way because it is completely hands-off and requires minimal effort on my part. In recent years, I've discovered that the slow cooker is an even better way to slow cook congee over the course of 8-10 hours, and I'm very pleased with the results.
There are three basic elements to making congee: the rice, the cooking liquid, and the flavouring. I find that using 2 parts long-grain white rice and 1 part short-grain white rice (eg. glutinous rice or Japanese sushi rice) creates the smoothness that I personally prefer. I have also substituted half of the long-grain rice with brown rice on occassion. The most basic cooking liquid to cook congee is water, however, chicken broth, shrimp broth (made from boiling shrimp shells in water for about 10 minutes), and the soaking liquid of dried seafood (eg. dried scallops, abalone, etc.) can help add flavour the the congee. Most of the flavour comes from any additional ingredients that are added to the congee, which can include fresh meat, leftover carcass or bones, fresh or dried seafood, offal, preserved duck eggs, nuts, vegetables, etc. Since seafood requires minimal cooking time, the best way to prepare seafood congee is to prepare a plain congee base first, and then cook the seafood in the base just before serving. Even in such little time, the natural sweetness of the seafood will permeate the congee.
My favorite congee flavours are chicken and shitake mushroom, chicken and abalone (picture below), seafood, and turkey (using the leftovers bones from a roast turkey Thanksgiving or Christmas meal). My favorite time to make slow cooker congee is on Friday night just before I sleep because it means that I'll wake up to the wonderful aroma of congee, and the congee is ready to eat for Saturday breakfast, brunch, or lunch!
Chicken and mushroom congee (冬菇雞粥) (Makes 10 bowls)
2/3 cup long-grain white rice (using the rice measuring cup)
1/3 cup short-grain white rice (using the rice measuring cup)
10 cups water
2-3 chicken breasts, bone-in, skinless
8-10 dried shitake mushrooms, soaked in water overnight
Light soy sauce (生抽)
Maggi soy sauce
2 scallions, finely chopped
1) Rinse rice well, and put it in the insert of a slow cooker.
2) Combine sesame oil, sugar, and light soy sauce in a bowl, and marinate the chicken breasts for a few minutes.
3) Meanwhile, drain the mushrooms, and discard the soaking liquid. Rinse well under tap water, and squeeze out excess water. Cut off the mushroom stems, and slice the mushroom caps.
4) Add the chicken, mushroom, and water to the slow cooker insert, and mix well.
5) Set it to cook for 9 hours on low.
6) When the congee is fnished cooking, carefully take the chicken breasts out and place on a small plate. Remove the bones, and using a pair of chopsticks or a fork, shread the chicken breast. Season with a few drops of Maggi soy sauce, and add the shredded chicken back into the congee.
7) Add the chopped scallions to the congee, mix well, and serve.