Congee is a classic Chinese comfort food. It’s a warm rice dish that is super versatile -- kind of like a blank canvas that you can adjust to suit your mood. If you prefer tasting the congee in its purest form, just cook the rice in a simple broth with a little salt and white pepper. If you want to take it to a place with textures and bold flavors, cook the rice with marinated proteins, then top it with crispy shallots, chopped soft herbs and maybe even a thousand-year-old egg. My version here adds the sweetness of butternut squash. As a young child, my mother would often add a vegetable element to congee to make it extra filling. Squashes were her favorite because they were naturally sweet and gave the congee a more pleasing color.
Another trick my mother taught me was to start by tossing the rice in salt. This will cut down on the cooking time, which is usually at least 45 minutes. The thing about congee is that it's a simple dish but there is a lot in the technique. You can't just walk away from it. You need to stand over the pot and stir constantly while it cooks. As the starch from the rice is breaking down in the broth, it becomes very sticky and can easily burn -- and once it's burned, you'll have to start all over because no topping can hide that horrible taste! That's why my recipe uses a nonstick saucepan, which will help prevent that common mishap. Congee might be a humble dish but it’s a dish that is a labor of love. Just think of it as a warm hug for your belly.
Put the rice in a medium bowl and cover with water; drain. Repeat twice; drain well in a fine-mesh sieve. (This will help remove some of the starch.) Transfer the rinsed rice back to the bowl and add 1 1/2 tablespoons salt with 1 teaspoon of the vegetable oil. Mix well with your hand or a rubber spatula and let sit for five minutes.
Meanwhile, pulse the butternut squash in a food processor until finely chopped. (If you are using a mini food processor, do this in batches.) Set aside.
Rinse the rice twice with cold water to remove the excess salt, then drain and transfer to a medium nonstick saucepan. Add the broth and butternut squash. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat to a medium-low simmer. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally to prevent burning, until the consistency resembles oatmeal and the butternut squash is completely soft, bright orange and incorporated into the congee, about 30 minutes. Add the white pepper and season with salt.
While the congee cooks, placed the eggs in a small saucepan, cover with cold water and add the vinegar. Bring to a boil, cover and remove from the heat. Let sit for 5 minutes. Drain and rinse under cold water; peel, then halve each egg lengthwise. Set aside.
Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons vegetable oil in a small skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Add the shallots and gently fry, stirring, until golden brown, 4 to 5 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon to a paper towel-lined plate. Lightly sprinkle with salt.
Divide the congee among 4 shallow bowls. Top each with 2 egg halves. Garnish the congee with the ginger, scallions, cilantro and crispy shallots. Drizzle with sesame oil, if desired. Enjoy while warm.
To reheat leftovers, combine the congee with up to 1 cup water in a saucepan to loosen it. Cook over medium-low heat until heated through.
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