The Healing Power of Congee {With Recipe}

Last June I started attending acupuncture for my severe digestion issues. They were so pervasive that they were bleeding into my mental health, and if that sounds dramatic, I swear, it doesn't do the situation justice. Now, I could write an entire series on how much I LOVE acupuncture and all the amazing things it has done for me personally, but today I want to talk about the first, best, easiest thing you can do for your body, digestion problems or not.

And that is to make and eat congee every. Damn. Day. 

Now, I don't want to front or anything. I am no expert on Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), or even on congee itself, but I have been a years-long sufferer of ill digestion, and I'm nearly a year in on my acupuncture and TCM diet regimen, so I have picked up a thing or two along the way. I've also read The Book of Jook, which is an amazing foundational book on TCM's eating philosophy, which I highly recommend if this interests you beyond your breakfast plate.

Let's start with the basics. What the heck is congee and why should you be eating it? 
Congee is a slow-cooked, broken rice porridge, not unlike a cream of wheat or cream of rice hot cereal you might get at an American grocery store. It's essentially one part rice to 8 parts water, and during the cooking process the water swells the rice so exquisitely that it bursts, turning into a creamy, slightly sweet, porridge. When cold, it congeals, but when heated, it becomes nice and creamy.

It is a staple food in China, and one eaten by the peasants, who incidentally, live longer than their wealthier counterparts who do not eat congee. It is also a foundational food in the TCM philosophy of eating because of its constitution (rice and water), its versatility in being paired with ingredients (and healing herbs), and its ability to slowly awaken digestion in a soothing manner, and therefore be a good breakfast food that promotes the positive movement of Qi--the energy life source, the gooooood stuff.


The idea, distilled, is this: raw food is hard to digest. We have to work really hard to break down food that isn't already what the principles would dub "the 100 degree soup." So, if you're throwing an apple in your gob first thing in the morning, well, you're working overtime. And in TCM, that is no way to gently awake the system.

Another way to think of this is to consider the stomach like a fire. Hot foods help stoke the fire, while cold foods are like throwing a damp towel on your digestive fires.

Congee is a terrific candidate for the job of digestive wake up because it's full of water (hydrating), rice is easy to digest, it's warm (no extra work on the stomach's part), and you can add lots of healing herbs and spices to make it even more beneficial. It stokes the fire. Also, if I've had any upset from the night before, this generally quells the beast, and gets me back where I need to be, digestively speaking.

Let's talk versatility
Congee is a great "base" food. Which is probably why it's so favored in TCM. As you can probably imagine, there are as many maladies as there are people in the world. While congee benefits everyone and anyone, if you are trying to heal, your protocol is likely to be more individualized. Luckily, congee pairs well with everything from sweet to savory. I enjoy mine with a variety of fruits, like blueberries, dried cherries, pineapple, or mango and I like adding a bit of raw honey and ginger and cinnamon.

But there have also been times when I have found I skipped breakfast. One reason I do this is if I am not hungry. My acupuncturist encouraged me to stop eating when I wasn't hungry (even if it's mealtime.) It's too taxing on the digestion, who is not signaling a need for food. There are times when I skip breakfast and instead enjoy congee for lunch with savory items, such as Irish beef stew, or my favorite, Beef Bourginon. It is SO delicious ramped up with some salt and lots of gravy!

Will it keep me full? 
The goal of congee is not so much to keep you full as it is to get your system started in the morning. It's a complex carbohydrate, so it breaks down a bit more slowly than others, so it is a great breakfast food for this reason. I'll also tell you a secret: for a person who has had digestive issues (and anxiety issues), feeling hungry is the best feeling EVER because it means 1) I'm not anxious, and 2) everything is working properly!

So the short answer is that unless you pair your congee with a protein, you'll probably be hungry again in about 2 hours. For me, this works because I have my congee about 10am, and then I eat lunch about 12:30PM or so. According to my friend, in school for Acupuncture, the optimal time to jumpstart your system is between 7AM to 9AM...but we aren't the breakfast police, so you do you.

So, is this easy? 
Is congee easy to make? The answer is YES, but for ease, it does require a crockpot. If you don't have a crockpot, you could use the stovetop, but it would require some babysitting, and I honestly have't tried it. However, it you do use a crockpot, it is so simple and easy that you can cook it while you are at work during the day, or while you are sleeping at night, as it has an 8 hour cook time on low. One pot is enough to last me a little over a week, and even share some with my mom. So make it on a Sunday and have breakfast all week long!

Ready for the recipe? Here she blows....

Simple Congee Recipe 

Time: 8 (inactive) hours | Makes: 1 large pot | Difficulty: SO EASY! 

You Will Need:

1 cup of white rice (I use organic white or jasmine, both are great!) 
8 cups water 

Special equipment- Crockpot 

Method

Add rice and water to crockpot. Turn on low and cook for 8 hours. If you are able, give it a stir a couple of times throughout the cooking process. If not, no worries. 

Cool and store in the refrigerator, and reheat for breakfast or whatever meal you fancy! 

Serve with your choice of sweet or savory toppings (see above suggestions). 

When Lying is a Good Idea

Last year, I was happy to discover that they were planting corn in the fields outside our house. It's so nice to have the privacy, I thought to myself. Until I remembered a story my friend Katie told me about how her two cousins got lost in a corn field for hours when they were children. "They were screaming and my Aunt couldn't find them. Literally," she said, "it was traumatizing." 

My daughter is, for the record, obsessed with corn. She tells me corn is favorite vegetable, and that corn stalks are her friends. So instead of panicking, I did what any decent parent would do. I lied. Yes, I did. At first, I had some misgivings about this, but after running it by a trusted friend, who assured me that it was the right thing to do, I felt it was totally fine. Her reasoning was that in tribal cultures there were myths that they would tell the children to help keep them safe, and this was no different. And we dubbed it "the safety lie." 

There was only one thing my daughter had been afraid of up to that point and it was called "The Lump." Don't ask me why, I guess the word just freaks her out, so I decided to leverage this to my advantage and, ultimately, hers. We told her that "The Lump" likes to live in the corn fields--that's where he makes his home--so it's important for us to stay out of the corn fields because, naturally, we don't want The Lump to get us. That was it. That was all I needed to say. She never touched a toe in those big, leafy corn fields, and when they plowed them down, she asked what was going to happen to The Lump. I told her he would go move to another field. No harm, no foul. 

Eventually she will get older and she will realize there are not Lumps that live in the fields, and this will be part of her maturation process. But in the meantime, it kept her safe, not lost in a corn field, and bought me some peace of mind. Sometimes you have to tell a little lie to keep kids on track. 

And you know what? I think we need to lie to kids a little more often. 

This became clear to me, particularly when it comes to Active Shooter Drills in daycares and elementary schools, as my daughter's new fears now extend beyond Lumps. After an intruder drill at daycare several months ago, my kid now ends phone conversations by saying, "hey, if any strangers try to come in your house, let me know!" and asks her grandma during sleepovers, "What will you do if a guy with a gun is waiting outside the house?" And as it turns out, she is far from alone. 

There are more and more reports coming out that children are being traumatized by these drills--that they are scared of going to school--or, like my child, think that a "bad guy with a gun may come in at any time." Personally, I don't think that these are things that five year olds should be scared about. Lumps, to my way of thinking, should be about as scary as it gets. 

Of course, I cannot fault the daycare for doing the drill. They are being prepared, and as a mom, I can appreciate that. Ditto for schools. But what I cannot get on board with is telling kids what they are all about because it's too much unnecessarily scary information. And the drills themselves are, in fact, scary for children. For god's sake, we need to stop telling little kids whose wild imaginations cannot process the thought of "active shooters" that we are doing a mass murder preparation drills. Call it a "hurricane" drill. Call it a "safety drill." Call it an "all out ostrich, put your head in the sand" drill. I don't care. I'm asking that we collectively get together and tell a little white lie to protect the innocence of childhood. 

Adults used to be comfortable lying to their kids about all kinds of things. Shit, my parents told me that a chicken lived behind our refrigerator because it made a strange clucking sound. And also, my mom told me that she was elf--a real elf--who traveled on Santa's sleigh to his workshop. I mean, how many of us are about to tell our kids that A HUGE BUNNY is coming to deliver presents?! And I get it, these things are "fun" and silly and traditional, but maybe that's more to the point. We will lie to our kids in the name of a good time, but not to protect their developing minds which deserve a safe haven. Nah, bro. I ain't down with it. 

Yes, they will look back and realize what it really was, and that we told them a lie. YES, we can give them more information the older the get, but NO we don't have to be explicit about what that means when kids are four, five, six or even seven. I think a lie--a safety lie--is in order. I even think that looking back, our kids will thank us for not giving them information they really weren't ready for. The worrying needs to be left to the adults because the adults are the ones who are equipped to fix it. 

And honestly, sometimes, for all our rigid morality, the truth is simply overrated. 

Easy Kale Salad Recipe

 I love an easy recipe. Extra points if it's healthy. This is one of those box checking recipes that is not only easy, but healthy, inadvertently vegetarian and gluten-free as well as having the possibility of being vegan. I KNOW, right?!

Every time I have made this, I have converted non-kale eaters to kale eaters. And when I made this the other day, and posted it to my Instagram Stories, I knew I needed to do a blog post because I made yet *another* discovery about this totally easy, totally amazing recipe. You wanna know what it is? Brace yourselves....

THIS KALE SALAD TASTES PHENOMENAL WHEN HEATED! 

Additionally, this is one of those recipes that you can add into your weekly meal prep rotation and enjoy all week, IF, (and this is a big IF) you can keep yourself from eating it within a day, which, in my house, we can't. Also, any of the ingredients in this salad are merely suggestions. If you prefer rice in place of quinoa, go for it. If you've got green onions on hand, throw them in! Fan of dried cranberries or cherries, by all means, DO IT! This is a recipe you can continually switch up with new ingredients, or just use to clear out the veggies in your fridge at the end of the week!

All of that, and you can shovel this delicious salad into your gob with zero guilt. What's not to love? Now, I like to buy the pre-washed big ol' bag of kale in the store, but I don't want to tell you how to live, so you can buy whatever kale you love best. My mother-in-law recently purchased purple kale and said it was miles above regular ole green kale. And, when it comes to the dressing, I kept it simple with olive oil and vinegar, but if I had lemons I would have squeezed them in too. Heck, an orange would also give it a zing. This is a salad you can take citrus risks with. So don't hold back--just taste as you go!


Lastly, I want to take a moment to build the tension and wax on the beauty of the colors in this exquisitely beautiful salad. Ever heard the phrase "eat the rainbow" when it comes to veggies? It can be easier said than done, but I feel so good when I can cram a bunch of colors into a dish. I mean, just beautiful amiright? Of course I am. I'm always right. I'm the rightest McRighterson that ever lived. That's why you came here--for my rightness and my recipes. Or at least my recipes, right? Right I am. 



Easy Kale Salad
Time: 30 minutes | Serves 6-8 | Difficulty: Easy 

You Will Need:

A really big bowl, preferably with a lid 

1/2 bag of pre-washed kale 
1/2 cup quinoa, cooked according to directions, and cooled slightly 
1 purple onion*, diced
1 bell pepper, diced 
3 carrots, peeled and shredded (I use my food processor because it's so easy!) 
Handful of nuts, your choice, I like pecans, pine nuts, walnuts or slivered almonds. 
6 cloves garlic, minced (you can use less if you prefer) 
2 heaping handfuls of parmesan cheese
Apple cider vinegar
Olive oil
salt and pepper 

Other (optional) additions:
Cucumbers
Tomatoes
Feta Cheese or goat cheese 
Roasted beets 
orange or lemon juice 
Fresh broccoli (uncooked) chopped finely 

Method:

 You're going to spend most of the time on this recipe chopping, dicing and slicing and then basically throwing everything in. It's your call whether you like to add as you go, or to prep everything ahead of time and add all at once. The only consideration you'll want to make is for the quinoa, which you will want to have cooled slightly. 

Start by filling your gigantic bowl about 3/4 full with your kale. Remove any large stems from your kale, and if you wish, tear it into smaller pieces with your hands. Add all of your veggies to your bowl and then mince the garlic into the bowl. Add your parmesan (if using) and then begin adding the vinegar and oil. 

What I like to do for the dressing is go a few times around the bowl, pouring as I go, first with the oil and then with the vinegar. This would be a fine time to add your citrus juice, if using, too. Then give the whole big bowl and big toss, taste and add salt and pepper. Repeat the process with the oil and vinegar until you've reached a balance that is good for you. This is the point where I like to call my husband in and say "hey can you taste this--does it need anything?" And then we taste and add and taste and add and basically we are just eating and it's delicious. 

If your bowl has a lid, it's also great to put the lid on and give the whole thing a good shaking!! Store in the fridge. Serve as a side to practically anything OR throw it in a bowl and pop it in the microwave for about a minute or two and enjoy hot! Mmmmmm. So good. 


*I will not say "red onion" because the onions are not, in fact, red they are PURPLE. I even did a not-even-close-to scientific Instagram poll which confirmed by visual hypothesis that these onions are not RED as originally named. So hitherto and therefore, such onions will only be referred to as purple herein. And whatnot. 

Stuff I Love: Spelt Flour

Last summer when my acupuncturist told me I needed to give up traditional wheat, I agreed with a reluctant heart. I knew that it was worth the try because I had literally tried everything else, but for god's sake, I'm Italian-American. NO PASTA? NO BREAD? It felt so...wrong. I was unhappy to admit, though, that cutting wheat out of my diet had a big impact on not only my gut health, but my mental health.

I would repeat to myself, as I prepared pasta for my husband and daughter, or watched them gobbling down a delicious wheat-based confection, "Nothing tastes as good as mental health feels." And it's true. Still, I'm a solution oriented kind of gal, and I am quite crafty in the kitchen, so I knew I could nail this problem of needing a substitute close to wheat that gave that same mouth-feel. Hehe. Mouth-feel.

That was when I came across two little words in a book about eating for your blood type... Spelt flour. It peaked my interest so I bought a bag on Amazon to see how it made me feel, and also how it was to cook with. Turns out, this stuff is pretty gosh-darn amazing, and I've been using it ever since. I order about 4 pounds at a time and it lasts about a month. In fact, it's nearly replaced flour in all my recipes, and my even my husband (ever the skeptic) likes it, too.

So what's so great about spelt anyway? 
Spelt is an ancient grain, so it predates modern wheat, though it's like a cousin to wheat in some round-about way that I will butcher trying to give an explanation on. Spelt has a super hard outer hull, which makes it naturally more insect resistant. This means it doesn't require the pesticides that are traditionally used on wheat, so it's free of pesticides, which I love. It also has less chromosomes than it's modern wheat counterpart, and a lower gluten content, so it's easier on the digestive system.

In addition, it's chocked full of good stuff like vitamin B2, manganese, niacin, copper, phosphorus, protein, and fiber. It tastes a lot like whole wheat, with a slightly nutty flavor.

Application
So, I will admit that spelt flour isn't 100% like regular flour. For one, the color is darker, and the taste is a little bit different, like a whole wheat. Maybe I would classify it as a "tang" that only nature can provide? But after going months without flour, for me, this made little impact. Like, when you haven't had a steak sandwich, or any sandwich, in months and then you have a freshly baked whole wheat flavored bun for the first time, you're just eating, eyes closed, and everything fades away.

The thing is, it absorbs water differently than wheat, but you CAN pretty much use it cup for cup if you're willing to experiment here and there with adding a little extra, and testing the waters. For example, I've used it in chocolate chip cookies, and the cookies will spread farther, and turn out a bit more crispy, but they are delicious. But in my fig cookies and chocolate crinkle cookies this Christmas, this flour performed beautifully (both those doughs, though, had to be chilled in the fridge for 24 hours.)

At this point, I use spelt for everything from pie crust to bread to tomato pie dough, and even slippery dumplings. The more I have worked with it, the more I know how to use it, so it's like any relationship in cooking: it gets better as you are more versed in using it. Pinterest is amazing because it has a wealth of recipes for using spelt, and below I am linking some of my favorites!

Spelt Flour Hamburger rolls
--> I use this recipe to make rolls, French style bread, and even focaccia bread (which I then turned into Philly style tomato pie!) This is a real winner.

Spelt Flour Tortillas 
I also don't eat corn, but these are super awesome and do the trick. I make a bunch and then freeze them so I can just pull out a couple when I need them.

Spelt Pie Crust (vegan option)
So you can make this with butter (which I do), but the recipe is for a vegan pie crust. This recipe also works for a double crust (top and bottom), which I used to make a chicken pot pie. YUM!

Spelt Flour Flatbread- 
This is my own recipe for a regular flat bread which you can replace spelt flour in cup for cup. It doesn't rise *quite* as high as traditional flour, but some people prefer it (some people being me). In my home, we eat this every Friday night, and it's one of my daughter's favorite meals! I half the recipe and make spelt flour flatbread for myself, and traditional wheat flatbread for my two lovelies who prefer that style because I am cool like that. 

Take-Out Fake-Out: Cold "Peanut" Noodles

Let me tell you about me and my group of friends: we are a chef's nightmare. Half of us are gluten free, some of us are dairy free. One is vegetarian, another is vegan. And I don't eat peanuts (among other things).  Most people would be intimidated by this set of challenges, but we manage to get together around food, like, a lot. We have become agile in cooking for different dietary needs. Seriously, you should come to one of our houses for dinner.

Under this shining review I just rendered, you would think that this <<AMAZING>> recipe would satisfy all of our gluten-free, dairy free, peanut free needs...alas, there is one person in our group who cannot eat this because he is allergic to almonds. You can't win them all.

All of this is to say that if you, like Charley, are allergic to almonds, you can swap out the almond butter for peanut butter, unless someone else in your group doesn't eat peanuts (like me) and then maybe you can try cashew butter (which I haven't). In addition, you could also use traditional wheat pasta instead of gluten free pasta. Your choice. Mah point: this is a versatile recipe that can feed a diverse crowd of 30 and 40-somethings with a whole range of dietary sensitivities and needs. And kids love it too. How's that for a tasty introduction?

This really is one of my very favorite recipes. It pairs well with a salad, or a meat, or a soup. You can make it ahead. You can enjoy it hot, or you can enjoy it cold. I know it says "cold" in the title, but trust me, it's good either way.

I do want to take a moment to talk about why I use a more traditional noodle instead of say, an Asian-style rice noodle. Because, after all, this is an Asian-ish dish. (I say "Asian-ish" because honestly, I don't know the roots of this dish. While it appears on many a Chinese take out menu, my understanding of Chinese-American food is that it's a largely American incarnation.) So maybe we are just heathens and enjoy these exclusively in America... if it's wrong, I don't want to be right.

The problem with flat rice noodles, or even vermicelli style rice noodles is that they tend to fall apart as you stir them with a sauce, and this really get under my skin. I have found that spaghetti and spaghetti-style rice noodles (my favorite brand is Tinkyada, by the way) stay intact and absorb the sauce really well. The ONLY problem with rice noodles is that they don't tend to stay as fresh in the refrigerator over time so you wanna eat these within a day or two, or heat them.

For serving, you can top these noodles with sesame seeds if you have them, diced green onions if thats your jam, and if you stray toward the spicy, Sriracha. YUM!

Okay. With all the formalities out of the way, let's dive into this recipe, shall we?!

Cold "Peanut" Noodles

Time: 25 minutes (active) 2+ hours (passive) | Serves 4 | Difficulty: EASY! 

You Will Need:

12 ounces noodles (spaghetti, gluten free or regular, your choice)
3/4 cup almond butter 
4 cloves minced garlic 
1/4 cup rice vinegar (I have also used apple cider, which is terrific too!) 
1/4 cup toasted sesame oil 
1/2 cup soy sauce 
1/8 cup olive oil 
1/4 cup pasta water 

Special equipment- blender or immersion blender (I prefer to use my immersion blender, but this totally a personal thing.) 

Method: 

Fill a large pot with water and bring it to a boil. 

While you are waiting for the water to boil, you can blend your ingredients to make the sauce. Place the almond butter, garlic, vinegar, sesame oil, soy sauce, and olive oil in a glass jar or in the blender. Blend until nice and smooth: 


You can taste the sauce and adjust a little if you like more acid (vinegar) or more salt (soy). But be warned, once you taste the sauce, you are literally going to want to eat all the sauce because it's outta this world! 

By now your water should be boiling. Go ahead and cook your pasta according to the directions on the package. When it's finished, I like to pull the pasta from the pot with a pair of tongs rather than draining it. 1) It makes it easier to get the 1/4 cup pasta water you'll want to add, and 2) it leaves a little extra moisture on the noodles. These noodles are going to absorb a hell of a lot of this sauce and the sauce will become nice and thick, so don't worry. Mama got you. 


Put your cooked noodles, your prepared sauce, and your 1/4 cup pasta water into a bowl and give it a good stir. I like to use tongs, but that's just me. You do you. The sauce may seem runny. It may seem like maybe you did something wrong. You didn't. Trust the process. 

Generally, I will let my noodles sit on the counter a little while until they aren't so piping hot. Maybe I eat some noodles out of the bowl while it's hot and yell, "YUM" into the void of my empty house (because everyone is at work and school and it's awesome.) When you're ready to stop plucking those hot, delicious noodles from the countertop bowl, put your noodles in the refrigerator for at least a couple of hours, giving it a stir in the middle somewhere to help it cool evenly. When it's time to eat, top with sesame seeds or green onions, and serve with a salad or a nice piece of meat! 


Enjoy in the company of people you love!