Thursday, September 6, 2012

NOT Your College-Style Ramen!

When I am looking for a seriously balanced meal, it has a lot to do with colors and textures. In my experience, Japanese food has really brought this mantra together for me. Between Ramen and Bento boxes, they really have the pillars of color and texture down. Not only does it make food interesting, but it is a fantastic way to ensure that you are receiving the most complete nutrition possible from your meal. Whenever you are challenged to make a rainbow come out of your pantry and fridge, you can bet that you will be getting a variety of proteins, vitamins, minerals, veggies, fruits, everything coming your way.

Just so I can break this down for you, let's take today's dish: Ramen. Most people know Ramen thanks to our friends at Maruchan, who fed us for about $0.05 a package back in college. I have been eating them my whole life though. Admittedly, it was probably the first "meal" I learned to make--hey, you have to start somewhere...boiling water and emptying a "seasoning packet" was where I began. Anyways, I would take a guess that a large majority of those acquainted with college-style ramen are probably not too enamored by the thought of ripping open a pack of ramen and making a gourmet experience out of it. I am here to change your mind, dear friend.

Ramen can be so many things. The stigma comes from just eating the noodle and seasoning base by itself. I've done it, I'll admit, but now that I know how to construct a decent ramen, I'm never going back. The little packet is meant to be just a base, the serving suggestion picture is not a joke. Fresh carrots, ginger, and shrimp aren't going to transfigure from the dust in that foil packet, you actually have to cut them up and throw them in the bowl!

In its most basic form, Ramen can be a whatever soup. You can grab whatever is available in your fridge, pantry, or even leftovers and turn it into a decent meal. What I try to do is add in that color and texture dimension and make it really spectacular. If you are up for the ramen challenge, I recommend that you try a different ramen each time. Experiment with sesame oil, fish oil, vinegars, Sriracha hot sauce, seasonings, vegetables, meats, everything you have available. This soup can have purely vegetables, or meat (roast beef or chicken are great), or fish (shrimp, seafood, sushi fish). Just make sure that you make everything fresh and portion it evenly with the other ingredients in the bowl.

This time in particular I had the following ingredients available: red cabbage and garlic, egg, zucchini, ginger, caramelized onion, and nori seaweed. Those were my week's leftovers...yes, life is exciting when that's the case. The important thing to note is the number of colors and textures--yes I'm going to keep revisiting that-- red cabbage with crunch and a vibrant violet color, fried egg with its rich and velvety golden yolk and gelatinous white, zucchini's beautiful green with a soft bite, ginger's spice and subtle yellow tone, caramelized onion in all its sweet and sultry darkness, and finally nori seaweed which actually looks black at first glance, but is a deep green and has a texture all of its own. Red, gold, white, green, yellow, brown, black and crunch, gelatin, velvet, soft, snap, sweet, and salty. I feel complete just thinking about it, and we haven't even seen the seasonings!

The additional flavorings I added included sesame seeds, sesame oil, oyster sauce, and soy sauce. Really, when you are talking about Asian dishes, it is all about the seasonings. Once you invest in the right collection of oils and sauces, you are good to go (and so is your wallet because let me tell you, ramen isn't going to break the bank). However, if you are just rocking a bottle of Kikkoman in the fridge door, you will survive---I mean, look at the powerhouse of flavors up there! You are welcome to go Mark Bittman style and keep it simple, I won't hate on you. The best ramen is completely subjective, so I am going to keep reminding you all: experiment with what you like, with what you have, with your soul in your cooking and you will turn out something awesome!

I'll leave you with a few directions from this ramen just to get you started:

Homemade Ramen Noodle Soup
Ramen noodles
Caramelized onion
Red cabbage
Fresh ginger
Nori seaweed
Sesame oil
Oyster sauce
Soy sauce
Sesame seeds

To begin: all of your ingredients should be prepared and separated for assembly later on. For this ramen, I had braised red cabbage and garlic that I had made up the day before. I also had caramelized onions that I whipped up at the beginning of the week. I fried an egg easy with a little sesame and olive oil. I matchstick-chopped the ginger and zucchini, and I shredded the nori seaweed. All of this awaits assembly in the beautiful ramen bowl. To prepare the ramen noodles you need to bring some water to a boil--as much water as you want broth. Cook the noodles in the boiling water for three minutes. I added the zucchini and ginger to the noodles after those three minutes and covered it with a lid to steam them up a bit (5 minutes) before I added the other ingredients.

To finish: pour the ramen noodles (and steamed veggies if you so choose) into your serving bowl, then distribute your ingredients evenly over top. I like to split the bowl up into little sections where I lay the ingredients next to each other in a circle. Then you can drizzle your oils and seasonings to taste. At this point you can behold the beauty of your lunch, which will give the soup enough time to cool off. When you've finished meditating on how absolutely glorious your masterpiece is, you can dig in. I like to gradually mix the ingredients together, but I'm sure you can just go crazy and homogenize the ramen right at the beginning--just make sure not to sacrifice the broth to your tablecloth.

Sit down with this steaming bowl of ramen, a nice cup of green tea, the window open to a cool breeze and try to experience this meal. The sensory benefits you derive from this are incredible: the colors, the textures, the flavors, and the feeling of satisfaction you get are all so worth it!

(and it's easy as pie!)

Enjoy my friends!

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