A Few Things of Importance
Francis Lam's Let-My-Eggplant-Go-Free! Spaghetti

Corinne Trang's Rice Porridge with Chicken and Lemon Grass (Chao xa ga)


I have been doing a lot of stock-cooking lately. Beef bones, chicken wings, bay leaves, peppercorns - these all have moved to the front of the burner lately as I adjust to a life without ready-made chicken or beef stock base in my fridge. Who would have thought that of all the goods stocked in an American grocery store, I'd come to miss Better Than Bouillon most of all? Not I.

First of all, I underestimated my reliance on it. Second of all, I had no idea that it would be so hard to come by anything other than granulated bouillon (ick) or very, very expensive jars of chicken stock (we're talking 2-cup servings for, oh, 5, 6, 7 euros a pop) in Germany. So I make a lot of stock these days. Combine that with the fact that I have the most adorably tiny freezer (if by adorable you understand that I mean infuriating) and my new normal is coming up with weekly reasons to eat soup.

Of course, as I'm sure many of you would love to yell at the screen right now, Better Than Bouillon, even if miles - many of them - better than granulated, does not hold a candle to homemade stock or broth. Still! I loved it so. It really was a cornerstone of my kitchen. Anyway.

S. Irene Virbila wrote the loveliest article the other day about congee, Chinese rice porridge, a simple meal of rice cooked in water that you then get to gussy up with all kinds of delectable things: chile paste, roasted peanuts, drizzles of soy sauce, fried ground pork. In all my years in New York and during my long love affair with Chinese food, I'd actually never eaten congee before. I tried to go for dinner at Congee Village once and was thwarted by the masses waiting ahead of me for a table. And let's be honest, rice gruel or rice porridge always sounded a little disappointing. A little too medicinal for dinnertime. Like something you had to grow up eating to love.

Silly, silly girl.

Because I'd had a big pot of chicken stock hanging out in my fridge for a few days, I decided to make the Vietnamese version of congee, chao xa ga, which has a slightly more flavorful base (chicken broth boiled together with lemongrass and chili) than regular congee. You cook rice in that fragrant broth until it's soft and (almost) falling apart - the recipe said to cook the rice for more than an hour, while I stopped after 45 minutes. Cooked, shredded chicken meat bolsters the porridge a bit, turning it into a proper meal, while fresh lemon juice and chopped cilantro or saw leaves brighten up the final plate. A plate gobbled up so fast I'd almost rather not admit it.

I initially meant to make this for dinner last night, for three men at our table. But I got a little spooked by the idea that rice porridge might be more of a lady's meal - after all, would I be able to sufficiently feed hungry dudes on something as delicate-sounding as lemon grass-scented rice gruel? After eating it for lunch, by myself, I decided I need to have those friends over again to make up for the error of my ways. Flavorful, filling, slightly spicy and - of course - delicious, I almost felt guilty enjoying chao xa ga all on my own.

Best of all, while I sat here in my Berlin kitchen, waiting for my Vietnamese soup to cook, planning to make Hunanese chopped salted chiles (did the water just spontaneously burst forth in your mouth?) for when I make a proper Chinese congee, I was struck yet again by how much fun cooking can be, how deeply satisfying a venture it is - you have directions in front of you from someone you must trust, who got those directions from someone else herself and so on, you follow those directions, you stand back and suddenly you're in the middle of eating a meal that people on the very opposite side of the universe might be having for lunch right now. Pardon me if that sounds rather obvious or silly, but it made me very happy indeed.

So next up, congee. And then my chicken broth/stock stockpile will be depleted once more, and it'll be back to the stove with chicken parts again. So, tell me, readers, what's your very favorite broth or stock recipe? What do you come back to again and again to stock your freezer with?

Chao xa ga (Rice Porridge with Chicken and Lemon Grass)
Servings: 4 to 6

9 cups chicken broth
2 stalks lemon grass, trimmed (outer leaves, tough green tops and root ends removed), cut into 1-inch pieces and lightly crushed
2 to 3 red bird's eye or Thai chiles, stemmed
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 cup jasmine rice (or similar rice)
2 cooked chicken legs, boned, skinned and shredded
Coarse sea salt
1/2 cup julienned saw (ngo gai) or cilantro leaves
Lemon wedges for serving

1. Pour the chicken broth into a pot and bring to a gentle boil over medium heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low, add the lemon grass, chiles and fish sauce and simmer for 30 minutes. Add the rice and cook, uncovered, for 45 minutes to an 1 hour.

2. Stir in the shredded chicken and season to taste with salt. Continue to cook until the chicken is heated through, about 15 minutes, or if the chicken is freshly cooked and still warm, just until combined. Divide the congee among 4 to 6 large soup bowls, garnish with the herb leaves and 1 wedge of lemon for each serving.