Food and Drink

Simmer Down: Brandon Jew's Vegetarian Congee

"The more flavorful the stock, the better the jook will be."

Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

I’ve been eating porridge for breakfast and dinner going on three days in a row, and I owe it all to Brandon Jew, Executive Chef and owner of Mister Jiu’s, Moongate Lounge, and Mamahuhu in San Francisco. This deliciously starchy bowl of aromatics will glue you back together when and if you feel a bit undone from our current world of chaos.

When probed for a congee memory from his past, the James Beard nominee speaks warmly about his mother’s recipe, a curative bowl that was “always made when someone in the family was feeling sick,” but loved so dearly that it’s also served “at all holiday gatherings too.”

But the dish also appeared along his many trips to Chinatown with his grandmother as a child, where sweet air diffused from vats of frying donuts, ducks hung like ornaments, and many varieties of congee-the dish they’d treat themselves to after a day of market shopping-awaited them. This treat manifests now in his own organic brown rice and steel cut oat version.

Brandon Jew is intimately familiar with this dish, not just in a culinary sense or from personal memory but also from what reads as a devotion to understanding food heritage, something that makes his recipe and the development of it, feel that much more enriching.

Congee, or jook as it is known in Cantonese, is an ode to the joy of toppings. Jew’s recipe is advertised as a vegetarian one, however, I myself do not advertise as a vegetarian and as a result my toppings included but were not limited to, salmon roe and bonito flake, along with Chef Brandon’s suggestion of roasted chanterelle mushrooms, matsutake mushrooms confit in rosemary oil, slivered young ginger, scallions, and toasted pine nuts.

Jew notes that your stock is the backbone of your congee. “The more flavorful the stock, the better the jook will be.” Boiling a stock is a sentimental display of home and hearth, if you’re a soup romantic like me. You’ll need to give yourself a couple hours to build the relationship with the ingredients in your pot. Here is where the hazelnuts, white miso, sesame seeds, and hojicha (toasted barley) tea leaves, among other veggies, will luxuriate. After two hours, the pot is filled with a silky, taupe colored broth that smells of savory heaven. Upon adding your rice and oats, “make sure to let it boil for at least 30 minutes. The action and movement of a rolling boil will burst the rice kernels and release their starches,” Jew says. It should simmer thereafter for another 10-ish minutes, until it reaches that desired gooey consistency.

Next, it’s a game of garnishing. Taking a trip to your local Chinatown to scoop pre-pickled tidbits is a quick and easy way to accessorize your porridge. That said, here are some of Jew’s cooking tips on a few toppings, as the recipe is for the porridge/stock only:

  • Toasted Pine Nuts: spread nuts evenly in pan on medium heat, and swirl in pan to distribute heat evenly for a few minutes. Keep an eye on this, they can burn quickly.
  • Mushroom Confit: coat pan in ¼ inch layer of olive oil, use medium heat and add diced shallots. Cook until translucent. Add sliced and lightly salted mushrooms to oil, with rosemary. Cook each side for about 8 minutes, or until crisp. Then add more oil to the pan, nearly to cover them, and let simmer for another 10 minutes. Store in a jar with residual pan oil.
  • Roasted Mushrooms: coat mushrooms in olive oil, salt, pepper, thyme, melted butter if you feel like it. Add diced shallot, and spread on a baking sheet. Cook at 400 for 12-15 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  • Pickled Mushrooms: bring 1 cup rice wine vinegar, 1 cup water, ¼ cup sugar to a boil. Add mushrooms and let cook for 15 minutes. Strain, or don’t, and store.
  • Soft-boiled egg: boil a pot of water, and prepare an ice bath separately. Add eggs to boiling water and let boil for 6-7 minutes. Place in the ice bath immediately after, crack shells gently and peel when ready, under gently running water.

Brandon Jew’s Brown Rice and Steel Cut Oat Congee

Serves: 6-8

Stock:

  • 350g carrot, sliced in one-inch chunks
  • 40g dry mushroom stems
  • 200g chinese celery
  • 375g white onion, peeled and quartered
  • 3 each bay leaves
  • 10g toasted sesame
  • 150g toasted hazelnuts
  • 30g hojicha (toasted barley tea)
  • 5qts water

Directions:

1. Add all ingredients to a pot, bring to boil, and lower to simmer.

2. Let simmer for 2 hours, then strain.

3. Once strained, and add 200g white miso.

4. (Whisk to declump if needed.)

5. Bring finished stock to a boil.

6. Add 100g Quaker organic steel cut oats.

7. Add 150g Koda farm organic brown rice.

8. Leave on boiling until it starts to thicken, about 30 minutes.

9. Turn down to simmer and let thicken for another 10 minutes.

10. Season with salt to taste and garnish.

Garnish:
(see notes)

  • Roasted chanterelles
  • Confit matsutakes in rosemary oil
  • Toasted pine nuts
  • Sliced young ginger

Greer Glassman is a Thrillist contributor.

Food and Drink

What We Learned About Fish From Spending An Afternoon With Josh Niland

It’s time to stop putting your fish in water, you’re killing the flavour

fish in coolroom
Photo By Natasha Bazika

“How do you want your fish,” says a fishmonger dressed head to toe in black, to a customer ordering a kilo of Greenback Flounder from Coorong, SA. The customer is unsure of how he wants the fish but asks the fishmonger for advice after telling him what he plans to do with the fish. Immediately the fishmonger knows how to cut the flounder, wraps it in paper, and hands it off to the customer—but not before giving a tip or two on how to cook it. 

“This is how we sell trust and instil confidence,” says Josh Niland who appeared from around the counter, donning his chef whites and a crisp white apron. We’re in Fish Butchery, Niland’s fish shop in Paddington, 20-metres down the road from his two-hatted seafood restaurant, Saint Peter. It’s a humble fish shop that feels luxurious when you walk in. Perhaps, it’s the cased sausages hanging in the front window, or the glass cabinet with one of everything they’re selling that day on display. You won’t find piles of fish or large blue trays of ice with fish lying on top. Everything is in controlled cabinets, including the oysters.

The shop is long and narrow with exposed brick walls, which Niland explains had a previous life as a hair salon. “I never wanted the shop to be uptight, but I did want it to be beautiful, a place you could walk in, order fish and chips, or a piece of fish to cook at home,” says Niland. In the middle of the room, there is a slab of white-marble serving as the backbone. This is where the fish is descaled with what Niland likes to call a ‘beartrap on a stick’. Although some fishmongers wield the beartrap, flinging scales up their arms, others use a knife, slicing the scales in one long strip, resembling snakeskin. 

“The fish here will be used for sushi and sashimi,” Niland explains pointing at the fish being scaled by a knife. “What we’re trying to do here is to get between the scale and the fish, so we can control the texture of the fish and remove moisture from the fish.” 

Removing moisture from the fish is something we don’t see often, but as Niland explains, it is the most important step in preparing the fish. “You know that fishy fish smell you get a waft of walking into a fish market or other fish shop,” Niland asks. I briefly pause to remember smelling nothing when I walked into Fish Butchery, except the faint smell of fries sizzling in the fryer. “Well that’s because moisture gets into the skin, and when that happens water rapidly breaks down into ammonia, resulting in a fishy smell.” It’s another reason Niland often gets lost when a customer asks for a fish that’s not too fishy.

As he explains, fishy fish are only “fishy” because of the way it’s stored and handled. Which explains why the fish scaled with the bear claw are immediately hung, away from moisture. 

descaling fish
Photo By Natasha Bazika

“When the scaler rips up the scale, it leaves an open pocket where the scale used to be. This pocket is quite deep and what usually happens is the fish is washed down then dipped in water. The water sits in that pocket, and after some time creates a fishy smell,” explains Niland. 

This is the core of Niland’s philosophy. Removing moisture from the fish opens up a realm of opportunities that exists beyond the conventional method, according to Niland.

Our next step takes us to the cool room, where rows of gutted fish are hung up on silver hooks as butchers do to meat. They’re not swimming in buckets of ice or water, instead, they are dangling a safe distance from each other, careful not to touch one another. The coolroom is set to an optimal temperature, there is no fan blowing in the room, and only when the fish is ready to be served, then it will be unhooked and dealt with accordingly. 

“Every step from the catching, killing, and preparing is important in achieving flavour,” says Niland who points out a row of garfish in a dry tray. “If you kill a fish properly, there shouldn’t be any lactic acid, which you can tell by the flesh—it looks cooked.” 

So what’s the best way to humanely and effectively kill a fish? According to Niland, brain spike or bleeding the fish keeps the fish from flopping around, building up chemicals that can affect the flavour later on. 

Bringing the attention back to the garfish, Niland explains there are moments when fish tastes better. This tray of Garfish is ready to go, but then Niland points to a hanging coral trout which has until Friday before it’s served on someone’s plate. 

chef showing fish in coolroom
Photo By Natasha Bazika

“This fish arrived today, it’s been scaled and gutted, but it won’t be ready until the end of the week. That’s not the case for all fish though, this tuna I would serve on day 8 or 9,” says Niland. “There’s a point where a fish’s fat is more prominent, which again comes back to removing as much moisture as we can and controlling the handling and environment from day one.”

Niland sources produce from fisherman around Australia and he takes only whatever he can get. 

“I go to the airport to pick up fish once or twice a week from my sources, and I’ll visit the Sydney Fish Market daily to see what they have, but at my shop, I serve whatever I can get my hands on,” explains Niland. “Our customers ask for recommendations so we tell them, King George Whiting is excellent today, and we might offer tips on storing it at home, how to cook it, and if I have a recipe card, I’m more than happy to share.”

As Niland explains it, not everyone knows how to cook a certain fish, and he wants more people to choose an unfamiliar fish, something they haven’t had before or cooked before. The best way to do so is by helping his customers understand the product. “The bottom line is we want people to have a better experience with fish,” says Niland. 

This stays true to his sustainable approach to fishing and his pioneering nose-to-tail eating method for fish. “The global standard is that half goes in the bin, which breaks down to about a 45% fillet yield,” says Niland who remains unaffected after 10-minutes of chatting in the cool room. “For every two fish, we only need one. I use about 95% of the fish.”

We finally leave the coolroom, to approach a small fridge, where fish are being dry-aged, but in a different control to the dry ageing fish in the coolroom. “It’s just another way to experiment with the flavour and natural method of prolonging shelf life,” says Niland. 

“I’m always thinking, how can I articulate the flavour of fish differences between coral trout and snapper.”

cuts of fish
Photo By Natasha Bazika

Niland’s experimentation finds him continually exploring low-temperature storage, probing which fish works best for it, and noting when a fish reaches its sweet spot. More like a mad scientist, Niland is far from a conventional fishmonger, as he dives deep to push boundaries on how seafood is caught, shopped, and cooked whether at home or at Saint Peter. 

One look at his book, The Whole Fish Cookbook, is enough to convince you of his outrageous, funny, and loopy suggestions on what to cook, including coaxing delicious dishes from fish eyeballs. liver and even fish blood. 

If there is anything we can take away from spending an afternoon with Josh Niland, it would be his pioneering penchant for demystifying fish, his care and attention to preparing fish, and his sustainable seafood philosophy, that we hope catches on around the world. 

Niland enjoys the complexity of fish, yet breaks it down for us so that we can enjoy and achieve a perfectly cooked piece of fish at home. His humble approach to seafood is nothing short of inspiring. He wants to change the world, but it’s not going to be easy and you get the sense he knows that, but he continues, one fish at a time, to change how we cook, eat, and look at fish.

Related

Our Best Stories, Delivered Daily
The best decision you'll make all day.
icons/states/check

Please enter a valid email address