Monday, December 27, 2010

The old standby

 Ah, Ramen; the often maligned, but reliable friend that is always there when you're in a tough spot. Why do we hate it so much, while we keep coming back to it as soon as the going gets tough?

The reason that Ramen is looked down upon comes from its most common use, as a last ditch supply for college students. Its also maligned because it is a very cheap and not all that nourishing, but mildly filling meal of uber-low budget.

But really, its all of our fault. We've taken the package as the complete meal, while what it mostly provides is a base. We look at the cover picture and assume that this is what the package contains, and we feel ashamed that this is all that we can afford in a land of steak and barbecue.

So is it possible to get
and turn it into


So how do we go about this then?

First, we have to understand what Ramen is. Ramen is a Chinese noodle soup that was exported to Japan a few centuries back. There are several variations, but overall, there are three components: the noodles, the broth and the toppings. It helps to understand how we may improve this dish at low cost that what's been missing mostly is... quality. Simply put, you get what you pay for. Products like Top Ramen are cheap, in both price and quality, and the end result reflects that. There are much better, and more varied versions if you are willing to dish out a bit more cash and get yourself to an Asian grocery store.

So, each packet contains a bunch of noodles and a packet of powder that forms the broth. In the more "upscale" Asian packets, you will also get flavored oils and some dried trimmings. However, you might not have access to those shops, so we'll look at the ways to improve what you have on hand.

To begin, if you went for the cheap stuff, throw out that broth pack. Seriously, its shite with way too much salt and next to no nutritional value. The noodles are your main component here. Just because its a packet of noodle soup doesn't mean that you have to use it as a soup. You could very well just cook the noodles in water, drain them and serve them with some toppings with a bit of sauce. I would avoid something Italian here, but use your judgment.

So, lets say that you've decided that soup was the way to go; well, if you went the extra mile and got the Asian stuff, then you're okay, skip to step three. For the rest, you need broth. While you could just use some bouillon cubes (and there are some good ones indeed), you may want to build it from scratch. So here's a dirt-poor way to make a flavorful broth:

You'll need some vegetables; I would recommend using that stuff you've been not using because it doesn't look all that fresh, or that's shriveled up, or that's dried. For our current purpose, I would go for something like a shriveled carrot, a bit of onion, some dried up cloves of garlic (smash it first), the leaves off of your celery (if any), a packet of soy sauce that's been forgotten in the fridge door, and a stronger flavor component, like dried shriveled mushrooms, some anchovies, or the leftover bones of those chicken wings you had last night. Make sure that you take all that skin off first.

Put all your components in a pot and add enough water to completely cover the contents. Bring to a boil, then lower it to a simmer, for about an hour of two. The longer the simmer, the better and stronger the broth. You may want to add a thing or two to flavor it, like a bit of ginger, some black pepper (whole grain if you've got any), a pinch of salt. Once that the broth has simmered to your satisfaction (or your patience), turn off the heat, pass the mix through a sieve and reserve.

Okay, so you now have a decent broth. You've already improved your Ramen a couple of notches, its time to move on the third step, the toppings:

Your choice of toppings will depend a lot of what you've got on hand. The quick and easy way is to just slice up some ginger and green onions and leave it at that. A few bits of seafood like shrimps or clams could do the trick. If you happen to have some roast meat on hand you could add some fine slices to the top, tho shredded meat is excellent too. As far as veggies go, a few leaves of spinach (fresh or frozen), Chinese cabbage, Kimchi, cilantro, Thai basil, chives, a wedge of lime, or dried sea weed, there are loads of possibilities.

Sure, it looks like Ramen got more expensive. But when you get right down to it, its something an investment. the game is to get the biggest bang for your bucks, so using all those bits and pieces that you've got lying around allows you to not waste as much resources as you would if you didn't use them. And if you've got too much broth, you can easily freeze it for later use. Just make sure that you label it so you'll know what's in that re-purposed plastic container.

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