About seven years ago, my wife asked me to make this recipe from The Washington Post for dinner, and with that, the backbone of our winter diet was sealed.
The recipe was for arroz caldo, a Filipino chicken congee that was nothing short of pure comfort to my wife. But while she'd grown up with it, I had never even heard of it before. Still, the recipe by White House chef Cristeta Comerford seemed easy enough, so I made it that very night. From that moment forward, I was certain arroz caldo would be a fixture of my recipe rotation going forward.
There were a lot of attractive elements to the dish. For starters, it was quick to put together: from store to plate, I had it done in under an hour. The flavor was appealing, even to my then uninitiated palate—with the addition of ginger, garlic, and fish sauce, it basically tastes like a really good chicken and rice soup with a distinct Filipino/Asian profile. It was also incredibly hearty, making it suitable as an entire meal or a starter or snack in smaller portions.
Today, arroz caldo is such a part of my life that I associate it with all sorts of everyday things, like winter weather, rainy days, and even the common cold (yup, chicken soup has a challenger at my house). I honestly can't imagine my life without it. It's also one of those dishes that I feel no need to significantly change or improve upon, so here's how I've been making it, which more or less follows that original recipe and most traditional preparations, with a few tweaks here and there.
Trust me, you want crispy fried garlic to top the arroz caldo. I skipped this step for years, and still do sometimes when I'm lazy, but it's not nearly as good without it. Cristeta Comerford's recipe required the garlic to be sliced, soaked in milk, then fried in two cups of oil, which is a little more effort than I'm generally up for with this kind of rustic dish.
Instead, I fry the garlic the way my family does it—simply adding minced garlic to cold oil, slowly cooking it until it's a light golden brown color, then draining. The process takes all of five to ten minutes, and the added crunch and bite it gives the final dish can't be understated.
Making the Soup
I begin the the soup by softening some thinly sliced onion in a bit of oil over medium-high heat. Then I add about a tablespoon each of minced garlic and ginger and cook it all together until fragrant.
Chicken goes in next. If I had my way, I would always use chicken thighs, which are more flavorful and remain more tender than breast meat. My wife is one of those misguided white-meat people, so I end up making this more often with chicken breasts, which work well enough. Either way, I cut the chicken into bite-sized pieces and cook them until browned on the outside.
After that, I stir in black pepper and fish sauce, followed by a cup of jasmine rice—unwashed because the starch on the rice's surface helps thicken the stock.
Once the rice is well coated in the small amount of fat and liquid in the pan, I add the chicken stock. Homemade is preferable, but there's so much added flavor from the ginger, garlic, and fish sauce that even ho-hum store-bought stocks are transformed into something incredible.
I've found six cups of stock to be the magic number for the arroz caldo to reach the right consistency just as the rice has cooked all the way through, which takes about 20 minutes, covered, at a bare simmer. When ready, it should still be a bit soupy, so if it has thickened up too much, I add a bit more stock or water; if it's not thick enough, I simply let it cool a bit, which does the trick.
I like to add a tablespoon of fresh squeezed citrus at the end for a touch of brightness. Ideally this would be juice from acidic calamansi—a small fruit related to the orange and prevalent in Filipino cuisine—but with no reliable source for them, I usually use lime or key lime juice. A final seasoning of salt and pepper, and the soup is done.
After ladling the arroz caldo into bowls, I top it with plenty of thinly sliced scallion, crispy garlic, and lime wedges. Sliced hard boiled egg is traditional, but not used by my wife's family. When I suggested adding eggs at least for the photos here, I was told unequivocally by some unnamed force that eggs were to go nowhere near my wife's bowl. The way my wife wants her comfort food is the way she gets it.
That's the power of these kinds of dishes that are such a part of our lives. I may not have grown up with arroz caldo, but it's something I've come to love just as fervently, and I'm sure it will fill your heart with warmth too.