coconut congee with chicken and greens

There are nights that fit together like puzzles.
I’m standing at the stove–it’s 5:00 and there is a coming and going in the house right now which is decidedly unsettled, although also joyous in a sun-through-the-window kind of way. I’m making congee, the thick rice porridge that is thickening in so many kitchens in the world right at this moment, although not in this country because we don’t seem to know congee as well as we should.

We are slated to go to our friends’ for dinner , and the request is that our contribution fits  in the theme of “Polynesian”. I have to admit that I don’t really know what that means. I google, and everything is pineapple. Sadie and I are allergic to pineapple, so that’s out. And what I really want is congee, because it’s been that kind of day and that kind of week, and I figure that if I make it with coconut milk, maybe the theme will apply. Most cultures makes congee in some form, so I’m probably safe.

Rice in the pot. Water, coconut milk, and a jar of whey in the fridge for good measure–all in the pot. I always have a hard time believing that so much liquid will go into that tiny bit of rice, but it always does. And here’s where the puzzle begins.

I have a meeting at 6. It’s town business, and there have been a lot of meetings lately just right at this magical dinner time, so the girls look at me through their eye lashes, betrayed. They will go on with Joey to the Polynesian dinner, and I’ll go to them after my meeting at Town Hall. “I’ll be done by 7!” I say, and there is a bit of eye rolling, framed, again, by those 2 sets of beautiful eyelashes that make me want to abandon this all, to forget the rest of the night and climb into bed with the both of them early, way before bedtime–to watch the Princess Bride together and hold one girl in the crook of each of my arms.

But instead I orchestrate the night while Sadie tells me about her latest trumpet lesson. I chop greens on the cutting board beside the stove, and I throw the chicken breast into the freezer so that when it is time, it will be easy to slice. I’m happy. And then the phone rings and there are too many sick kids and people working late. Polynesian dinner is cancelled. The puzzle pieces shift.

Still, there will be congee for dinner, and lots of it now, which is grand because congee leftovers are a security blanket in the refrigerator. I bustle around, stopping to stir every so often, and then at 5:45, I face the fact that dinner won’t be ready by the time I go.

“I’ll be home at 7! Let it sit, stir it every so often, and I’ll finish cooking when I get home.” A kiss, and hugs from the girls, and Joey says something or other as I go that makes me feel like the night is so much more possible, noble even. That he’s proud of me or he loves me or simply, “see you soon” with just the right tone. And then I’m off, a little hungry, but happy, and excited for my congee.

In 2 1/2 years of these nighttime Town Hall meetings, I have never left a meeting mid-way to call Joey. Until now, in the middle of a discussion about grey versus black streetlights, and me, sneaking into the back room to call, and to say he should go ahead and eat without me. Cut the chicken that’s waiting in the freezer. Stir the greens into the hot rice.

“It’s okay! I’ll give the girls noodles and I’ll wait for you.” The meeting continues. And I remember that I’m told myself I would never again go to a meeting without eating something first. And although I continue to focus on the color of the streetlights for another several hours (we went with galvanized metal, for all of you on the edge of your seat), there is a corner of my mind cutting the chicken in thin slices, dredging them in cornstarch, stirring them into the steamy pot and watching the slices turn white.

It’s nearly 10 when I finally get home, empty kitchen, pot on the stove. The pot has obviously boiled over at some point in its life this evening, but now it’s calm, warm, temperature turned off.

So this is the moment. The pot of rice porridge is just cool enough to transfer it to the fridge. The greens, chopped hours before and piled on the cutting board are as perky as if the night hadn’t run away with us. I peek in on Joey and he’s already tucked into bed with The New Yorker. It’s late, I’m hungry, and this is a perfect time to call it a day and eat a bowl of cereal for dinner.

Except not really. Because this is also the moment when I can make the decision to eat exactly what I want, when I can say, “Body? Thanks for all you do. We’ve done some good work today, and I’d like to thank you by giving you EXACTLY WHAT YOU WANT.” Sure  I’ll end up stirring the pot a little later in the night, and I’ll have to figure out what to do with a steaming 9-quart cast iron pot filled with heat. But I am a guest at my own table! And so I turn on the radio. I listen to Joe Biden and Paul Ryan duke it out, and I slice and toss and stir. My tummy rumbles and I don’t snack.

There is so much happiness in feeding other people. But interwoven with all of that is the importance of feeding ourselves. I’ve been thinking about dinner lately (more on this in a minute), how I get dinner on the table and what my strategies are. I don’t have charts or schedules–maybe that’s why I have so much comedy in my kitchen? But what I do have is a question, and I start there every time.  What do you want to eat?

Simple, I know, but such a good one. If dinner starts with that question, if it is led by your cravings, it takes a whole different shape. It becomes a process of you taking care of yourself, and it ends with the prize of dinner. It’s good for you, and it’s good for everyone else at your table, too.

Before we get to the end of the congee odyssey, let’s talk about that blue pot. Some of you who know me well might be familiar with my tiny orange Le Crueset round dutch oven. That pot and I have cooked to the moon and back, but for quite some some time now, I’ve been coming to terms with the fact that anyone who cooks regularly for seven, and semi-regularly for fifty (the parties get a little out of hand here) maybe should invest in a nine-quart. That’s the big one. I’ve been saying that the day I sell my second book, I would go down to the kitchen store in town and I’d leave with the pot. I’ve picked out the color over an over, and each time, it has been different.

That pot up there? It’s the big one. And Marseille Blue to boot. A few weeks ago, I went downtown and I walked out of the kitchen store with the pot (also, because the girls claim that this new book is their project too and they are absolutely right, a sodastream).

That’s right, the new book. THE NEW BOOK!

What I can tell you now, even as it’s just a twinkle in my eye, is that it will be about dinner. It will be about what to do with all those wonderful basic staples you’ve made–how to turn them into meals on the table. But it will also be about that question- that what do you want to eat? question, how to let cravings lead the menu planning, and how make even weeknight meals feel good and special and worthy of everyone actually sitting down to eat together. It will be about putting more love, more humor, and (it’s me we’re talking about here) probably more wine into dinner prep. And the flip side of that list? Less fear, less guilt, and less anxiety, hooray!

We’re a few years off from when you or I will actually hold the book in our hands (once I complete it, it takes a whole year to actually create it!), but I wanted to tell you now, when I’m in the notebook stage, deciding on recipes and format. Because the idea for this book has really come together from our conversations in posts from the last few years. (Here, here, and here, just for starters.) I wanted to thank you with all I have for being here with me, and for telling me about your lives and your meals and your loves. My new pot is almost big enough to cook enough congee for you all. But because it won’t travel so well in the mail, I’ll give you the second best thing: the recipe.

Congee is really all about the toppings. Years ago, we used to eat it for breakfast with hot sesame oil, cashews and scallions. If it’s breakfast, you can also treat it like oatmeal and go sweet. This recipe is from my friend Janet–she outlines all the options here. Since Janet taught me the chicken trick, I tend to make a whole dinner in a bowl, and I add layer after layer of whatever sauce I can find in the fridge. Kimchi. Ginger scallion sauce. Chili garlic sauce. It’s entirely adaptable, it can be everything you want it to be, and it will warm your belly in the best way.





  1. says

    Oh Alana… where to begin. How about one of my famous lists!

    1) So excited about the second book (and so will all the FSC Book Club members) and I just LOVE the subject. I need to love creating dinner again, and rethink the way I choose what we have for dinner (cravings- I barely remember thee). I started tonight with making orange chicken for the first time ever- because its what I was craving (and Chinese Restaurants are forbidden due to Miles’ food allergies). Thanks for the inspiration!

    2) As a family with multiple food allergies: WHY HAVE I NEVER THOUGHT OF COCONUT CONGEE?!?! I’m so excited for this recipe & the variations. Thank you for your congee craving.

    3) As a person who’s seen that new pot in action…I can say, without a doubt, its a workhorse.

    4) And finally, galvanized metal. good choice!

  2. Jennifer says

    Congratulations on the new book…I know it will be a while, but I can’t wait to read it! I bought your first book while browsing the cookbook section at the bookstore and absolutely love it; I have made a bunch of things from it and it has become a favorite in my cookbook library.
    And I hope you have many happy years cooking with your big new pot!

  3. says

    Congee is my comfort food. My mom would make a pot and add all the necessary ingredients. It’s great plain with a little bit of salt and just as good made with chicken broth or coconut milk with extra additionals.

    Congratulations on your new book (and your new pot!) and thanks so much for sharing!

  4. Kelley says

    I am so excited about the new book! Congratulations to you – on the book and the new pot. I am still loving my copy of Homemade Pantry – the number of post it notes grows every week.
    Congee – my next experiment!

  5. Jean Westbrook says

    Came across your book by accident (library mix up). I am an old lady that has never been a very good cook and am very poor when it comes to anything digital… but I am SO enjoying this book! THANK you … :) ~jean

  6. Dagny says

    This sounds delicious and will definitely be made in this house soon. And that Ginger Scallion Sauce recipe, that sounds like heaven.

  7. ELLEN says

    CONGRATS!…on everything! How did i ever survive without my Crueset pot? the greatest invention ….next to Starbucks, of course! ;o)

  8. Joanne K-J says

    Ok so Congee makes me giggle. When we adopted our daughter from China we were handed a baby, a bag of formula and a bag of rice cereal and a few meager details about her day to day life in the orphanage. One of those tidbits was that she was fed congee in addition to the thick sweet bottle concoctions typically given the babies. Being a diligent mom and a die-hard foodie I paid close attention to the congee served to us while in China. I also paid close attention to my husband’s and my daughter’s obvious dislike of it. And in spite of my pathetic attempts to make it palatable once home in my own kitchen it soon became only something to giggle about. We are still not sure which baby was eating the congee but it certainly wasn’t ours. Your recipe sounds like the best version of Congee I have ever read and I am a sucker for anything that includes coconut milk. We are a veggie family so I will be subbing in tofu for the chicken but it is time to dust off the Congee cobwebs and give it another try.

      • Joanne K-J says

        Ironically, I also just brought home a new pot, a 6.5 qt Tramontina, ceramic coated cast iron, lime green. It calls to me to cook in it and I see a pot of congee in it’s future (very appropriate since I christened it with a yummy coconut milk infused dal). I love your blog you have a wonderful “voice”. Much good fortune to you.

  9. Elizabeth Talerman says

    Alana – I’m delighted to hear you are at work on the second book and I can’t think of a more pragmatically magical topic. Brava! I also can’t wait to embark on my first congee but have a question. As I am a family of two people (and one small cat) should I still make this giant batch of goodness and then freeze some of it? With chicken and green in it or prior to them going in? Many thanks! Elizabeth

    • alana says

      Thank you, Elizabeth! (And nice to hear from you!)
      This recipe will halve perfectly, and then you’ll have less make your way through. I haven’t experimented with freezing congee yet, but I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t freeze well. I’d add the chicken and greens beforehand, and then it will be ready to go. I’m going to be experimenting a bit more soon (I think there will be congee in the book), but if you freeze it before I get to it, I’d love to hear about the result!

  10. says

    Yes! Story of my life (it’s 10 p.m.: what’s for dinner?!) I do find it so ironic that I spend so much time planning recipes and cooking for others and there are days when we’re sitting down to crackers and cheese and a dark beer for dinner. I LOVE the concept for the book — we all need something like this. It’s going to do famously. And wow that pot looks like a beauty! I’ve had my eyes on this pretty green Staub pot in Williams Sonoma but, alas, I’ve already used up my “I’ll treat myself from my advance” excuses long ago. :)

    • alana says

      Oh, Megan, I can guess the Staub you’re talking about! That deep emerald green? I’m all for celebration treats- how about a reward for the manuscript turn-in? Yes!

  11. Allison says

    I am so happy to read this post even if I am a bit late in doing so. First, I wanted to say that I think all debates should be done around a meal. Think of the “Town Hall” debate we just had and if it could have been done with both candidates and audience sitting around a big table of food it would have had a totally different meaning. We may even have a government that workes better.
    Second, I too am a busy mom. I often have to work late or have volunteer activities that take me away in the evening. I strive to have warm healthy home cooked meals and have to plan accordingly, but I have had the same dropped shoulder, head thrown back and whine come from 17 and 13 year old kids. I have come to realize that it is not so much that they might have to help finish dinner, but that their comfort of having me feed them and be there to make sure they are comforted is what is truly missed by them. Routine, is what it is and I am so happy and proud that I am missed and that even though Dad is a good sub. There is nothing like mom and food cooked with the love we put into it!
    Third, I can’t wait for the new book!

  12. Jennifer in BC says

    Yes! YEs! YES! I fully support, endorse, salivate at, cheer for, eagerly anticipate a book from your kitchen’s heart on dinner!! The one AND ONLY meal I can get the 4 of us around the table for! But I have to brag and say I knew there would be a second book. You still have so much to say!

    Can you consider putting in some of your past blog entries written about dinner time? So many of them are so wonderful!
    You write not just for yourself and a publisher Alana, but it’s so very apparent that you also write for us. Such a gift and blessing you are.

    I was reading this entry about the congee to my partner (I’ve never had a real congee before but made something last week that was supposed to be fried rice but became known as rice porridge!) Anyway, he perks up and says: “I’ve had congee before!” Floored me. So now I will stretch my culinary fingers once again and make this congee and see if it makes me his bestest girl!… Whoot!

  13. says

    I’m new to your blog and have fallen head over heels about it! I’ve just ordered your book on Amazon and can’t wait for it to arrive, and now you’re working on your second and…and…Yay! Additionally, I’m making congee tonight. What a great Friday night meal. Thanks you!!

  14. Jan K says

    Congrats on your new book (I cannot wait, I know it will be as good or better, if that is possible), and on your new blue pot (I am soo jealous) and on your beautiful blog. Can’t wait to try your congee and I did pop over and checked out the ginger scallion sauce, so excited to try that, it sounds simply wonderful. I cooked professionally for 20 years and I think I lost some of my love of cooking, reading your blog is bringing the joy and excitement back. Thank You

  15. says

    I just made this last night. I started it early, knowing it’d need a couple hours to cook, but then we weren’t hungry at 6 so it sat on the stove for another hour. It’s nice to have recipes that can sit for a while, that it’s ready when we want rather than recipes that you have to eat as soon as it’s done or it loses quality.

    We’ve never had congee before so the texture was a little odd, but we both enjoyed it and enjoyed finding topping that we like. I put chili-garlic sauce and walnuts on it, and my husband like sriracha, sesame seeds, and sumac berries. I will definitely keep this recipe around for times when we need a comfort food.

  16. Kathy in Chicago says

    I lived in Asia about 15 years ago, for a year. In Thailand the congee was with fish, in China it was with bits of pork, in Singapore it was served with dark sesame oil & scallions.

    Tonight I made this coconut congee. I used lower fat coconut milk, and it was beautiful. It has a slight buttery taste that reminds me of buttered grits, but much smoother. I am in love. And I will enjoy my lunches this week.

    Thank you so much for this beautiful recipe!

  17. says

    You’re making a new book, you’re making a new book! If I weren’t already in bed I’d be jumping up and down. How did I miss this?! So excited, and a very belated congratulations.

  18. says

    Thank you so much for this recipe!

    It’s so reminiscent of the steaming bowls of congee my husband and I had in Boston’s Chinatown when we were living long distance and I’d go pick him up at the bus station. Congee is warm, deeply so ~ and will thaw the most frosty of nights. It’s creamy and savory and wonderful.

    My family loved this recipe so much that even though I made a massive pot of it yesterday, it’s already gone ~ and another one is bubbling away on the stove as we speak!

    I can’t believe that during all the time I was cooking my son a dairy, soy, gluten and nut allergen-free diet, I never tried congee! He has outgrown the soy & gluten allergies, but darned if this isn’t going on frequent rotation whenever we want a creamy soup!

    side note: bought the FIRST book, and yes ~ now I am a cheesemaker!


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