Lisa Brunette

Crockpot Congee: A Quick, Easy, and Healthy Rice Dish

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By Lisa Brunette

When I showed you how to cook a perfect pot of stovetop rice every time, I mentioned that next up I'd demonstrate a quick-and-easy recipe for a crockpot rice dish. That dish is the Asian rice porridge known as congee. Never heard of it? Well, neither had I until a friend spirited me away to a delightful, unexpected place in Seattle's International District called the Purple Dot Cafe, where I had my very first bowl of this heavenly porridge.

Congee's secret is a relatively low ratio of rice to water - and a slow cooking time. For this dish, I used 1 cup of rice to 10 cups of water instead of the usual 1:1.75. If that sounds like it might produce a bland-tasting ricey soup, never fear. Congee's packed full of ginger, garlic, and onion, making it just the thing to eat in the fall, when your body's readying for the winter season. In fact, the recipe I'm using below is adapted from Thompson Acupuncture's Ancient Roots Nutrition video series. Lindsey Thompson, as a previous guest here at Cat in the Flock, suggests congee as one of three recipes in her segment on the fall season in Chinese medicine. It's my favorite of all the recipes in the series.

But I'm breaking out of the fall mold here with a late-winter congee, and that's okay. The copious amounts of ginger in the porridge is a great spice for the transition season here between winter and spring. I had a whole head of cabbage I wanted to use - this porridge is full of it - and cooking rice by crockpot method is also part of my quest for a permaculture badge in food preparation and preservation. Not to mention, I was hankering for a bit of congee, and since I'm a few thousand miles away from the Purple Dot, that means I have to make it myself!

All right, on to the porridge.

Ingredients: 

  • Half a head of cabbage (or more if you desire)
  • A half or whole white onion
  • Fresh ginger root
  • Anywhere from 3-8 cloves of garlic, to your preference
  • Soy sauce, tamari, or coconut sauce
  • 1 cup of rice to 10 cups of water
  • Salt (optional)

1. First, dice at least half a head of cabbage and one onion. For this batch, I used a whole head of cabbage because I wanted to, but you use what you want. As Lindsey says, "Congee is really forgiving," so don't sweat the exact amounts. You can dice them small if you prefer, but I like my vegetables chunky. Place these in the crockpot.

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2. Next, grate a good amount of ginger into the crockpot. I used a whole, small-sized root. Depending on your love of ginger, you can use less - or more. Note I used a Microplaner to grate the ginger - I have to credit Lindsey for this tool as well, as I first heard about them from watching her video series. They come in multiple grate sizes meant for everything from nutmeg to cheese and are really handy to have in the kitchen.

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3. You can add in garlic, too, and the same rule applies - as much or as little as you wish. We like garlic, and I tolerate it much better when it's slow-cooked like this, so we went for a lot. Pro tip! Garlic cloves are way easier to peel if you pour boiling water over them first. I just found out about this from the first episode of the Netflix show Nadiya's Time to Eat (love her!). I was skeptical because every 'easy tip for peeling garlic' I've tried hasn't really worked that well, but this one actually does! 

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Now for the garlic, I just use the traditional garlic crusher. I've had my OXO for going on seven years, and it works great. For me the Microplaner isn't as useful because cloves are too small to grip without the risk of grating your finger.

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4. Now for the rice. Like I said above, the ratio is 1 cup of rice to 10 cups of water. I used white basmati rice this time, but you can use any white rice. I'm not sure about brown, though; I think its "chewiness" might not work for congee. But feel free to experiment!

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Lindsey's original recipe called for 10 cups of water. But it also contained fewer veggies, and since I went for the whole head of cabbage plus dialed up on the garlic and ginger, I added a couple of extra cups of water to compensate, for a total of 12. Remember, congee is forgiving! I've made crockpot congee numerous times, and it's always turned out tasty and satisfying.

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5. The last step is to season it with a bit of tamari or soy sauce, according to Lindsey, or with coconut sauce if you're me. Soy and tamari are both high-histamine products, which triggers a mast cell reaction for me. Yeah, it bites because I love the taste of soy (and tamari even better). I struggled with this through 13 years of vegetarianism and beyond, though, and it's just better for me to say no. The coconut sauce is sweeter, so I add a bit of salt to bring it over to the umami side of the palate. Then you can start the crockpot, cooking it for 6-8 hours on low. Lindsey recommends eight, but I've had success at just six. Still, it's good to know you can set this all up in the morning, work an 8-hour day, and come home to congee. It fills the house with the exhilarating aroma of garlic and ginger.

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And it tastes great. Though it's low in protein, you can drop an egg on it or eat it alongside a grass-fed beef patty, as we often do, to round out the meal. You could even top it with crumbled bacon, ham, seeds, nuts, or cheese, though I'd hate to subtract from the clarifying quality of the meal by adding a dairy product, especially if you're trying to bust a cold. 

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So there you have it: crockpot congee! But if you're ever in Seattle, I recommend heading to the Purple Dot to get your congee fix. You'll be glad you did.

(Note: We'll always tell you if we're getting a commission or anything else in exchange for mentioning or linking to the products, services, or establishments here on Cat in the Flock, but none of that's happening in this post.)

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How to Cook a Perfect Pot of Rice Every Time

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By Lisa Brunette

It's tempting to buy prepared foods, whether that's shelf-stable packaged stuff or frozen. We're all really busy of course, even if we're working from home these days because you know, working from home is still working. But what if I told you the only thing standing between you and healthy living was a mere 15-20 minutes of cooking time per week?

Yeah, that's right: You can just say no to the 'ronis and the helpers because chances are, they're not really saving you any time at all. 

It takes just 15-20 minutes to cook up a simple pot of rice, and then you have a grain that will last you all week. Rice is versatile enough to use 3 meals a day - just add fruit, milk, maybe some nuts, and maple syrup, along with a little flax meal, for breakfast. 

I bet the prepared foods aren't saving you any money, either. There's a serious markup on those things, and to make matters worse, what you're paying for isn't even really 'food' at all, but a lot of fillers and additives that are almost wholly divorced from their origins as plants or animals.

Making your own grain every week (it doesn't have to be rice) is a great way to save money and eat healthier. It can also have an impact on climate change to cook grain from scratch rather than rely on highly processed ingredients that likely traveled long distances and couldn't have come into being without fossil fuel-based agriculture. Even better if your grain's local and organic, but you know, we're not purists here. Try your best.

1_2 cups rice

Now for the steps toward rice nirvana:

1. Measure the right ratio of rice to water. If you're starting with 2 cups of white basmati rice, as shown above, that means a corresponding 3 1/2 cups of water. Pay attention to the directions on the package. Brown rice will have a different ratio, as will wild rice, etc.

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2. Place the rice and water together in the pot, and feel free to add a flavoring or fat. Some good candidates: stock you've prepared ahead of time yourself (a worthy endeavor and vastly better for you than any stock or bouillon you can buy; we will cover how to do this in an upcoming post, but it's easy, I promise); beef, duck, or other fat; bacon grease, olive oil).

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Use a large enough pot, with a lid that allows some steam to escape so the pot doesn't boil over. This can happen even in the simmer stages, so it's key to have a good quality pot with steam holes in the lid, such as the stainless steel one shown here, which I've had since a friend of mine bought it when she came to visit me in the early 90s. She took one look at my paltry kitchen cookware, pronounced it deficient, and went out and came home with this. The lid was missing for a time when I left it at a post-wedding party at another friend's house; but that friend recovered it years later when packing to move. And that is the story of this pot. Back to the rice: Next, bring the pot to a boil.

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3. Just as it reaches a boil, turn the heat down to low and cover. Simmer for 15-20 minutes. A timer is a great thing here, especially if you are working from home. You can start the rice, put the timer on, and voila! You've got rice in 15 minutes.

If you need it to go longer than that, never fear. Sometimes I turn it to the lowest setting and simmer for a full 30 minutes because that works better for my timing, and the rice turns out perfectly.

It's really that simple. You can even store the rice in the same pot you made it in. You can now whip up quick meals by adding veggies and a protein to that rice in a variety of ways. Our favorites:

  • Sauté kale and bacon together and mix it with the rice
  • Steam broccoli, brown ground beef, and mix it with the rice and a little tamari or coconut sauce
  • Cook chicken thighs, onions, and olives together and serve it on a bed of rice
  • Serve shredded, sautéd cabbage and carrots with peanuts on rice

As an added note, learning to cook grain yourself from scratch (four ways) is part of my Permies.com certification in food preparation and preservation. This is step one for me; next up is to show you how I cook it in a crockpot, which for me means a nice homemade rendition of a favorite from Seattle's International District restaurants: congee. Stay tuned...

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The Garden in Winter, 2021: Pruning Trees, Just Noticing

Ice on dill umbel.
Ice on dill flower umbel.

By Lisa Brunette

We tend to think of gardening as a strictly warm-weather activity, not something to do during the winter months when the garden goes dormant, especially in climates that enjoy a full-on cold season, like here in the Midwest. During the decade I lived in the Seattle area, I found a certain quiet solace in the months of seemingly unending rain, as the winters were mild, the landscape electric green with moss. Here the green gives way to brown, and then white. That's a different kind of beauty, equally welcome.

There's good reason to take a cue from nature and have a rest ourselves. So for the most part, I've put the hard gardening work aside, and I'm just out noticing things. Like how lovely these dormant plants are after an icy cold snap.

Ice on  sedum flower.
Ice on sedum flowerhead.

But there are things to do in the winter garden, such as prune trees. I've been out there on milder days, trimming back an overgrown knock-out rose bush, as well as taking care of errant suckers and misshapen limbs growing into each other's paths on the fruit trees. I'm taking a light hand with these, however. After reading a lot across the full-spectrum debate about whether to prune or let nature take its course, I've decided on a just-right-of-center road. Or maybe just-left-of-center? I'm not sure what's left and what's right when it comes to trees. What I do know is extreme permaculturists say don't prune them at all, yet the mainstream orchardists tell you to get out there and hack away. I've opted to let the tree tell me what it needs.

Yeah, I'm not joking: I stand there and listen, sensing. I tune in for the shape of the tree to emerge. I cut suckers. I cut branches that cross paths, interfering with each other. Besides that, I leave the tree alone.

While pruning is best done while the trees are dormant, the truth is, there's not much else one can do this time of year. Outside, at least. Inside, of course, there's a pile of seed catalogs and planting charts galore! But only if you're a nerd like me.

Bird bath in  snow.
One bird bath...
Ice on bird bath.
Two bird baths.

Besides the sheer beauty of the garden in winter, another thing to notice is that a great many creatures continue to call the place home. The Dark-eyed junco is a winter visitor to the feeders and bird baths, so much so that some here in the Midwest call them our "snowbirds." 

Like the bird feeders, our bird baths operate year-round, with plenty of takers as soon as the ice and snow melt. Mourning doves in particular like to chip away at the ice as it's melting. One morning the sleet froze in painterly drips all over everything.

Ice on birdhouse.
Gourd birdhouse.

A fresh snow dusting offers the perfect opportunity to see who's frequenting the garden, judging by the tracks they leave behind. One thing I learned from this is that the rabbits use the paths I've created in the garden. Or maybe we just agree on where the paths should be. Here's a set of fresh rabbit prints, crisply outlined in the snow.

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Wabbit tracks!

You might recall my 'dances with rabbits' moment, as described in "When It's Time to Take a Break from Yoga - and Go Outside." Rather than cursing their existence, especially when they eat my food plants, I've opted to learn as much about them as I can by observing them. We have a brush pile a family uses as a warren. They help me out by pooping in the garden, and since I don't have any domesticated animals, it's the only manure my garden gets. One day this winter, I saw a nice pile of rabbit pellets right at the base of the apple tree. Free fertilizer.

After taking note of them for a year, I know exactly what they like to eat and when, and it's all part of that aforementioned nerdy planting chart. Early in the spring, when we plant tender peas and lettuce, which rabbits love, at a time when their other food choices are slim, I will cordon the food plants off with fencing. 

The rabbits aren't the only ones making tracks.

Critter tracks in snow.
Lots of critters, leaving their mark.

Squirrels are abundant, of course, and this time of year our grey squirrels get white tufts on their ears, as if they've grown winter earmuffs. Where are the raccoons, chipmunks, opossums, moles, groundhogs? Maybe their tracks are in the mess above, or maybe they're dormant this time of year. I guess I'll have to research that. I look forward to seeing them again in spring if so.

But for now, I'm pretty content to keep the feeders stocked with seed and the bird baths clean, to look out the window at the scene, or to bundle up for a wander outside, just to see what there is to notice. Like the garlic, I can wait till spring for the real work to begin again.

Garlic in snow.
The garlic bed, snug under a covering of snow. They're fine, though. Garlic can handle a good snow covering. They'll resume growing in the spring and be ready to harvest in June.

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The Cast Iron Egg Test: Does It Slide?

By Lisa Brunette

We've been meaning to post an update to the cast iron series for some time, as we ended up modifying our care and maintenance just a bit, and the result is pretty much the perfectly seasoned cast iron skillet. One way to test this is to fry an egg in the skillet and see if it can easily slide around on the skillet surface, as in the video above.

You can see the surface of the skillet has a lovely sheen. The egg doesn't stick. Neither does other food, such as these greens I cooked up right after the egg.

I'm taking part in an online permaculture education program, and I've just earned my first step toward a badge in food preparation and preservation by being able to demonstrate the above egg slide. But how did I get there? By taking the advice of permaculture author and educator Paul Wheaton as detailed in this cast iron how-to. For us the big takeaway was to just use a lot less water in the cleanup stage. 

That was something to wrap my mind around at first, for sure. I mean, I'd already come a long way from my weird American phobia of germs enough to forgo soap when cleaning the cast iron cookware. That's important because soap strips away that 'lovely sheen,' which is in fact a hardened layer of grease and oil. But as Wheaton points out, it's not that you can't ever ever use soap, it's that you're really better off if you can avoid it. 

So when I researched enough to see that we were probably using way too much water when cleaning the cast iron, I had to again quiet down the voice that worried the pan somehow wouldn't get 'clean' enough. Kind of silly when you think about it, since the pan is constantly getting heated enough to kill off any 'germs.' Besides, studies have indicated for years that we're probably screwing up our immune systems by killing off perfectly good microbial flora in our environments.

What really sealed it for me is this interesting phenomenon: I found that the less water we use, the cleaner the pan is. Why? Because the surface became truly non-stick, so food just slipped right off of it. Here's our typical cleanup now: simply wipe with a paper towel!

So that's our latest advice: Just wipe out the pan after cooking if you can. If you need to scrub, use a non-abrasive scrubber*, with just a little bit of water to loosen the food bits. If you do this, it's a good idea to set the pan back on the heat for a bit to evaporate the water, and then rub the pan with oil before storing.

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Photo courtesy NonToxicHomeShop.

*Some people use rock salt, though we have not tried this. We have also not tried these chain mail cast iron pot scrubbers available on Etsy, though it's on our list. (That's our affiliate link, by the way, so if you buy one using the link, we might get a commission.)

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So much more about cast iron here.

Or go directly to The Skillet Feeding You: How to Cook with a Cast Iron Skillet


'Cat in the Flock' Featured on Shoutout Miami!

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By Lisa Brunette

Though I call the Midwest my home and the Pacific Northwest my second home, my writing chops were forged during the two years I attended graduate school for an MFA in creative writing at the University of Miami in Miami, Florida. That tropical locale made its mark on me in more ways than one. When I close my eyes and travel back to the Miami of my memories twenty years ago, I'm awash in sensations: the flash of shocking royal blue as a flock of wild macaws flies overhead; the salty scent of the sea breezes, carrying hints of spicy aromas from Caribbean flora; the staccato rhythms of samba, salsa, and Cuban rhumba blasting from open cabana bars and car windows.

My second novel, Framed and Burning, is set in Miami, and if pushed to say so, I think it's my best of the series. It captures the light and dark sides of Miami's culture, the authentic and the plastic, the natural and unnatural.

So it's a terrific honor to have Shoutout Miami publish a full feature on Cat in the Flock - as well as my day job biz, Brunette Games: "Meet Lisa Brunette: Novelist, Blogger, and Game Storyteller." The feature is part of a series on "Thinking through the first steps of starting a business." Those featured in the series with me include an art dealer, a fitness coach, an interior designer, and more.

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Miami keeps wanting to claim me.

Three years ago, I was the subject of another Miami-themed feature story, this time in VoyageMIA, "Conversations with the Inspiring Lisa Brunette." It's been instructive to compare where I was then to where I am now. Brunette Games has grown from a solo act to a team of 10 (five writers, five voice actors), and Cat in the Flock has fully morphed into a lifestyle blog with seven authors writing at a rate of one article per week.

One thing that hasn't changed: I can still manage the inversion pose that tops the VoyageMIA piece (also below), only these days I give Anthony's back a break and use my FeetUp yoga prop instead.

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From back in our acroyoga days.

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