I love a good deal. I clip coupons. I shop clearance bins. I buy clothes at the end of the season so that I can take advantage of reduced prices. I even subscribe to blogs that alert me of great deals. So when I can make meals that are so cheap, they’re almost free, I feel virtuous.
Free? Well, not entirely. But with a few frugal actions, a few inexpensive pantry ingredients, and a bit of mostly unattended time, a meal (or several) for the family is served. While it’s not the most elegant of meals, to be sure, it’s certainly not lacking in flavor or nutrition. As far as I’m concerned, it ranks right up there in terms of most craveable comfort meals. And it feeds the family easily for well under $10.
What is this magical meal? Congee. Or jook, as it is sometimes called. Congee is a rice porridge eaten in many Asian countries, many times, for breakfast. (A practice of which I am quite fond.) At its simplest, congee is rice simmered with water until the rice breaks down and the porridge becomes thick. Of course, there are a lot of variations – including adding meat, fish, salted eggs, spring onions, or soy sauce. Regardless of how it’s eaten, it’s a humble, comforting meal, and a great way to stretch a dollar.
I first learned of congee from Jaden at Steamy Kitchen. She posted congee as a great way to use up the leftover turkey bones from Thanksgiving. Following her example, I made congee for the first time after this past Thanksgiving, loosely following her steps, and improvising a bit on my own. I was in love. I ate the congee for several days, and froze the rest to bring for lunch during the week. It was such a delicious, belly-warming delight to eat.
A few weeks back, after I found some free-range, naturally-raised turkey on sale for $0.99/lb, I immediately knew I would be making congee again. After I’d roasted the turkey, (I used the meat to fill enchiladas, top salads, and fill sandwich wraps) I placed the bones in a few large ziploc bags and froze them. (I do this with chicken carcasses as well to use later for stock.) This weekend, I pulled out the turkey carcass, threw it along with some veggies in a large stockpot, and walked away to do other things. You see, while congee takes some time to prepare, most of that time is hands-off. It’s great for a weekend when you have other tasks around the house – it just sits there, happily simmering away, while you go about your business.
Just how is this dish nearly free? First of all, most of us simply throw away turkey (or chicken) bones when we’ve finished roasting and eating. This makes these bones almost like they’re a free ingredient, as you’ve put something that was previously “garbage” to use! As for the remaining ingredients, the rice used in this dish might cost $0.75, and the onion, carrots, and celery, another $2-3. (If you also save carrot ends, peelings, and celery tops for stock – you can simply throw these all together in a ziploc whenever you have them, and place in the freezer - then these can be considered “free” too and can be used here.) The dried shrimp might be an additional cost, but they’re relatively inexpensive, as are the rest of the pantry ingredients. For me, these are all items that I keep on hand, so I spent next to nothing to throw this dish together. I’d estimate the cost for the ingredients at around $6 for the entire recipe, which means each serving is less than $1. Definitely a good deal!
This time around, I opted to include dried shrimp, which enhanced the “umami” flavor of the porridge, and I used brown rice to boost the nutritional value of the dish, allowing me to enjoy it for breakfast guilt-free. You certainly can change up or omit these types of ingredients as you see fit – congee is a dish that begs to be personalized. After my congee simmered for a good long while, a taste test confirmed my hopes – this porridge, while humble, was viscous, creamy, and warmly satisfying. After eating a few more spoonfuls (I had to double and triple-check the flavor, after all!), I packed the rest away for breakfast and/or lunches. I can imagine it already, with a squirt of Sriracha and a preserved duck egg. Yum. It’s gonna be a good week!
You don’t have to wait until turkey “season” to make this – if you roast chickens (or even if you buy rotisserie chickens), simply save up a few of the carcasses. I would imagine 3 leftover chicken carcasses would work perfectly here.
Turkey Congee, adapted from Steamy Kitchen
Turkey bones from a 15-20 lb turkey, with 95% of the meat removed (or the bones from 3 roasted chickens)
3 celery stalks, sliced
2 carrots, sliced (don’t even bother peeling)
1 large chopped onion (don’t even bother peeling)
5 quarter-inch slices of fresh ginger (don’t even bother peeling)
3 cloves garlic, smashed
9-10 cups water
½ c dried shitake mushrooms
¼ c dried scallops or shrimp (optional)
½ c shaoxing wine or dry sherry
2 c short-grain brown rice
1 T fish sauce
1 T sesame oil
2-3 T gluten-free soy sauce
2 carrots, peeled and sliced
Cilantro, for garnish
Put the carcass in a large stockpot. (You may have to break it up a little to make it fit) Add the next 6 ingredients and bring to a boil. (It’s okay if the water doesn’t completely cover everything.) Reduce to a simmer and allow to cook, covered with a tight-fitting lid, for 2 hours. Strain into a bowl to remove bones and solids, and pick the meat from the bones. Add meat back into the strained stock, along with the mushrooms, dried scallops/shrimp, wine, rice, fish sauce, sesame oil, soy sauce, and carrots. Bring to a boil again and reduce to a simmer, partially covered. Allow to cook for 2 hours or more, until the rice breaks down and the entire dish becomes thick. Adjust fish sauce and soy sauce to taste, and garnish with cilantro as desired. Serves 8.