Sometimes the best defense against looniness is a fertile imagination. Of course, sometimes looniness and a fertile imagination look a lot alike, so you have to be careful.
When I was single and living in New York City and kind of tired and perhaps it's fair to say a little bit lonely, I took a page out of my preschool pupils' book and conjured up an imaginary friend for myself. Unlike the little girl in my class who spent a good portion of the morning sitting in her coat cubby having an animated conversation with her pal, I kept it kind of discreet. What works when you are three begins to look a little silly when you are in your mid-20's (this rule of thumb applies to more than just social skills). But I got full mileage out of my mental companion. Though companionable, he was really more of an imaginary valet or personal assistant--more Jeeves than Pooka. Racing from teaching to graduate school, I would think of all the little tasks I could slough off to Gustavo (he looked kind of like Raul Julia), like picking up my laundry or ironing my clothes or shopping for groceries or getting me a plane ticket to Paris (double imaginary points). I took the time to imagine he would always pick up fresh flowers while he ran these errands, but let the record reflect my assertion that I never once actually spoke out loud to him or left him a note. I swear.
No more graduate school in my life now (there are days I wish I was in school, but far more of them when I thank my stars that I am not). No more lonely. So Gustavo has retired. As I move from roasting to chopping to whipping, from the holiday parent assembly to the holiday floor-mopping, my defense against any encroaching looseness on the grip of the sanity controls takes the form of the imaginary mailbag. Dear Raisin, What are you making for Thanksgiving?
Thanksgiving this, Thanksgiving that. What do I feed everyone between now and Thursday, and still have time to make Thursday happen?
Congee is nice, but do you ever wonder about all that whiteness being good for you as you eat bowl after bowl of it? Dear Raisin, Am I better off simplifying things as much as possible in order to preserve the time, energy and sanity necessary to have a pleasant, lucid, seated conversation with friends and family, or should I give in to temptation and make all 7 kinds of brussels sprouts that I have bookmarked? No one outside of my head has actually asked me any of these questions. But the answers are so easy to provide that the mere act of answering them will give me all the lift I need to sail through the next few days like a float in the Macy's parade (thank goodness for stretch pants). If you really want to know what I think I may make for Thursday, head over here, where I have a handy list. If you, like me, face the predictable and unpredictable caloric needs of groups of humans ranging from two to seven (in number) and 7 and three quarters to 88 (in age), then questions two and three, above, have one answer: brown rice congee, which is demystified below. In answer to question 4, the market is probably out of brussels sprouts anyway (such is the present demand), so you are better off sticking to the one type and safeguarding all your faculties for a confab with your Aunt Matilda. Heaven help you selecting which recipe, though. I am still weighing my options. There is so much I wish to sit still and be grateful for, though, that I will force myself to choose. brown rice congee You are going to get a monster headnote here, but the recipe is easy as can be, especially if you have already made the white rice version and consequently do not have to spend any mental energy wondering if this is going to work despite how weird it sounds. The main differences are, not surprisingly, more water and more time. Despite the hours of cooking, it basically cooks itself, so can be left to its own devices on a back burner while you make tracks to Turkey Town on the front ones.
Just like its paler cousin, the brown rice version is equally happy made plain, or with tiny slivers of fish or chicken. It is particularly happy as pictured above: with a tangle of dark greens or broccoli, stir-fried with plenty of garlic and ginger and tamari, and maybe some of this (or whatever equivalent you have handy) on top. Its grainy simplicity is a nice ramp-up to (or recovery from) the digestive olympics on Thursday. I doubled the batch, which produces a metric ton and will mean that any time anyone is hungry or you are called upon to feed your family in the present despite the peeling and chopping you are doing for their future nourishment, you can just grunt and gesture with your elbow to the pot of congee, from which they are welcome to help themselves. But you can halve it if you like, in which case you can probably add all the water at once (it wouldn't all fit in my pot; had to cook down for a while first). 2 c short-grain brown rice 24 c water 2t kosher salt
optionally: 1 whole boneless chicken breast, partially frozen (really--makes slicing enormously easy) 2t cornstarch (optional) Put the rice and water (as much of it as will fit) into a large, heavy pot and bring it to a boil. Lower the heat to a gentle simmer, and cook and cook and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 4 hours. While the white rice version requires focused stirring at the outset, to get the grains in good suspension in the water, this one doesn't really demand that until the last hour, when you will want to stir at shorter intervals so you don't scorch the bottom. This is when I added the last four cups of water, as well, because they would not fit before then and because the increasing thickness demanded it. When the mixture looks like soupy oatmeal, you are done. Stir in the salt, and serve it with something delicious on top. If you'd like to add the chicken, use a very sharp knife to slice the breast very thinly cross-wise, and then stack these slices and cut them into thin ribbons. Toss the chicken slivers with the cornstarch, and stir them into the hot congee. They will cook almost instantly. If there is a reason that you don't want cornstarch, just omit it; no substitution is necessary. You can also sliver up some fish to add similarly, or get your protein another way by adding some crumbled-up firm tofu to your stir-fried greens.