Egg noodles. I love this innocuous pasta. The rich, tender noodles comfort me when I have a cold, have suffered a challenging day or need to recover from a week of “research eating.” When they are buttery and cheesy, or topped with chicken paprikash, my childhood feels close. Fried crispy and topped with veggies, my first trip to New York’s Chinatown comes to mind. Brothy and enlivened with bold seasonings, I recall my first Tokyo ramen shop alongside a dear brother.
Perhaps those egg noodles are the reason a great big bowl of ramen proves so appealing. Not the cheap mushy instant ramen of college days; rather, the toothsome noodles nestled in rich broth, alongside chunks of vegetables, egg, roasted pork or chicken. Wow, I enjoy this hearty bowl any time of the day or night, cold weather or warm. Let’s make it at home.
Ramen’s convoluted history encompasses Chinese noodles and Japanese tastes. The story goes that Chinese cooks in Japan seasoned egg noodles in meat broth with soy sauce for a savory snack. The dish gained popularity in the 1950s for its low price and simplicity. Ever since, cooks happily tailor the combo into gourmet bowls with international influences. There are thousands of combinations all captured by the name “ramen.”
These days, many big cities sport ramen shops both plain and fancy. We stop for lunch, pre-theater, post-theater, midshopping and for a savory brunch. At home, a little advance cooking means a weeknight treat packed with flavor, little fat and big satisfaction.
Let’s start with the noodles. Look for egg noodles in the Asian section of most large grocery stores. I like Wel-Pac’s chuka soba just fine. More toothsome are the medium egg noodles sold in nest shapes by Blue Dragon and Sharwood’s. Plan on about 2 ounces uncooked noodles per main-dish serving.
Fortunately, these dried noodles can be kept on the pantry shelf for several months. And they cook fast — three to four minutes in boiling salted water. Working ahead, you can hold back a bit on the cooking; remove them with tongs to a plate and cool. Just before serving, give them a dunk back into the same boiling water for 30 seconds.
Noodles in hand, let’s talk broth. The best bowl of ramen is only as good as the broth. My favorite way to make a well-seasoned broth is in the slow cooker. I can leave it unattended while I’m working and come home to a house that smells good. The slow-cooker proves especially welcome in warm weather because it doesn’t heat up the house like a stockpot bubbling on the stove.
Diet gurus, health professionals and cookbook publishers rattle on about “bone broth” for good nutrition and hunger satiation. Save for vegetable stock, most stocks are in fact bone broths. The bones add flavor to water. Simple as that. Roast the bones if you like a roasted flavor in your cooking. When it’s really warm out, I skip the roasting of the bones and welcome the lighter-tasting broth.
Chicken wings make terrific broth — they add flavor and body and just enough fat for satisfaction. Ditto for pork neck bones. The combination yields great flavor for little money. You could stop there; simply roast the bones, add water and simmer away. Alternatively, for a seafood-based broth, use fish bones (not roasted) and shrimp shells and reduce the cooking time by half.
When making broth for ramen, I add some dried shiitake mushrooms for their umami quality along with green onion for sweetness and rice wine for interest. I also like to add a piece of seaweed to my broth. This sea plant adds an intriguing sea flavor. I simmer a small piece in water for a few minutes and then let it steep while the bones roast in the oven. Certified organic kelp from Maine Coast Sea Vegetables, sold at Whole Foods, similar to Japanese kombu, tastes good here.
Broth freezes beautifully. I package it in 16 ounce containers for easy thawing. Reheat the broth and season it highly with soy and/or miso paste before using. The following broth recipes are so good, you can drink them from a mug to help stave off hunger. For spicy ramen bowls, dissolve a tablespoon or two of Korean gochujang chili paste in the hot broth. It’ll make you perspire on a warm day — trust me, it’s worth it.
I like to add grilled chicken thighs and soy-wasabi cooked eggs to my bowl of broth and noodles. For variety, I also squirrel away bits of roasted meat and vegetables to tuck into ramen bowls. I especially like charred and roasted flavors in my broth. Armed with egg noodles and delicious broth, a custom bowl of ramen is at your ready. At home, anytime.
Here are some other ideas for additions to your ramen bowl:
— Pan-seared, sliced, fully cooked pork belly (look for this in Trader Joe’s refrigerated section)
— Thinly sliced roasted pork or grilled country-style pork ribs
— Grilled or steamed shrimp, peeled
— Grilled or pan-seared pieces of superfirm tofu
— Grilled or pan-charred sliced sweet onion or whole green onions or knob onions
— Grilled or broiled sliced eggplant seasoned with soy sauce
— Fresh mung bean sprouts and bamboo shoots
— Steamed peapods
SLOW-COOKER ROASTED BROTH
Prep: 15 minutes
Cook: 45 minutes, plus 8 hours in the slow cooker
Makes: about 8 cups
No slow cooker? Simmer the bones with the kombu water and remaining ingredients in a large pot, stirring often, with the lid partly covering the pot, for 3 to 4 hours.
1 1/2 pounds chicken wings, separated at their joints
1 1/2 pounds pork neck bones
1/4 to 1/2-ounce piece kombu (kelp), optional
4 green onions, chopped
2 dried shiitake mushrooms, broken
1/4 cup sake or Chinese rice wine (or dry white vermouth)
1. Heat oven to 400 degrees. Put wings and bones on a large baking sheet in an uncrowded layer. Roast, turning once or twice, until golden brown on all sides, about 45 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, if using the kombu, heat 10 cups water and the kombu to a boil in a large saucepan. Simmer about 10 minutes. Then let steep while the bones finish browning. Use tongs to remove and discard the kombu.
3. Transfer the bones with all their pan drippings to a large (4-quart) slow cooker. Add kombu water (or 10 cups fresh water if not using the kombu) and the remaining ingredients. Cover and slow-cook on low, 8 hours.
4. Strain broth into a container. Refrigerate covered up to 1 week. Freeze up to several months.
Shortcut broth: Simmer 1 quart of store-bought chicken, vegetable or seafood broth (check out your local butcher’s house-made broth if possible) with 2 tablespoons of mirin or dry vermouth, 1 or 2 tablespoons miso paste, 1 or 2 thin slices fresh ginger and 1 or 2 teaspoons soy sauce in a saucepan for 10 minutes. Strain before using.
GRILLED CHICKEN RAMEN BOWLS
Prep: 30 minutes
Cook: 10 minutes
Makes: 2 servings
I like to add a couple of spoonfuls of miso to give the broth body and flavor. Shiro miso is light and sweet — perfect for a weekday bowl of ramen. Shichimi togarashi is a Japanese chili pepper spice blend. Use a combination of salt, pepper and crushed red pepper flakes if it is unavailable.
4 cups slow-cooker roasted bone broth or shortcut broth, see recipes
2 tablespoons shiro miso, optional
1 to 2 tablespoons soy sauce to taste
1 to 3 tablespoons chili paste or Korean gochujang, optional
1/2 cup thinly sliced fresh shiitake mushroom caps (no stems)
3 medium egg noodle nests, about 5 ounces total
2 grilled shichimi chicken thighs, see recipe, thinly sliced
1 soy wasabi hard-cooked egg, see recipe, halved
2 radishes, very thinly sliced
1/4 cup sliced bamboo shoots
2 green onions, charred in a skillet or chopped
Small handful fresh bean sprouts
Chopped fresh cilantro
1. Heat broth in small saucepan until hot. Season to taste with miso, soy sauce and chili paste. The broth should be highly seasoned. Add mushrooms and simmer over low heat.
2. Have all the remaining ingredients ready and near the cooking surface. Fill 2 deep soup bowls with very hot water to heat the bowls.
3. Meanwhile, for noodles, heat a large pot of salted water to a boil. Drop noodles into the water; cook, stirring, until al dente (tender but still a bit firm in the center), about 3 minutes. Use tongs or a slotted wire basket to remove noodles to a plate. Save the cooking water for later.
4. When ready to serve, bring the noodle cooking water to a boil again and dunk the noodles back in to reheat, about 20 seconds. Dump the hot water out of the soup bowls. Divide the hot noodles between the heated bowls. Top each with half of the sliced chicken, egg, radish, bamboo shoots, green onions and bean sprouts. Gently ladle hot broth over all. Sprinkle with cilantro. Serve right away. Pass the pepper blend at the table.
Nutrition information per serving: 768 calories, 26 g fat, 8 g saturated fat, 360 mg cholesterol, 74 g carbohydrates, 13 g sugar, 55 g protein, 1,409 mg sodium, 11 g fiber
Soy-wasabi eggs: Mix 3 tablespoons soy sauce and 1 teaspoon wasabi paste in a small dish. Add 2 peeled hard-cooked eggs. Let soak, turning eggs often, 10 to 20 minutes until eggs are golden in color. Remove from soy bath.
GRILLED SHICHIMI CHICKEN THIGHS
Prep: 5 minutes
Cook: 12 minutes
Makes: 4 servings
4 to 6 medium boneless chicken thighs
Japanese shichimi togarashi
Finely sliced green onions
1. Heat a gas grill or prepare a charcoal grill to medium heat. (Or heat a broiler to medium high.)
2. Meanwhile, generously sprinkle chicken thighs on all sides with shichimi.
3. Grill chicken directly over the heat source (or on a pan set 8 inches from the broiler), turning once, until almost firm when pressed with your finger or a spatula, usually 10 to12 minutes. Remove from grill. Sprinkle generously with sesame seeds and green onions.
Nutrition information per serving: 314 calories, 20 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 180 mg cholesterol, 0 g carbohydrates, 0 g sugar, 31 g protein, 138 mg sodium, 0 g fiber
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