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April 13, 2015

Instant ramen hack

     らしゃいませ !!!
                 ~ A common greeting, shouted at customers entering a restaurant in Japan

A bowl of ramen is a strong contender for the title of perfect food. Combining the soothing warmth of soup with the joyous carbohydrate heft of pasta, it packs a wide range of flavors and textures into a single bowl.

My first introduction to the dish was a virtual one, courtesy of a friend who arranged a viewing of Tampopo. The film is director Juzo Itami's love letter to food in general, and ramen in particular. The Japanese take ramen very seriously, as befits a dish of such depth and complexity.

Since watching Tampopo for the first time almost two decades ago, I have been fortunate enough to eat ramen across the Japanese archipelago, including Fukuoka, the birthplace of tonkotsu (pork broth) ramen featured in the film. When placing the order at the counter, we were asked how chewy we wanted our noodles - the only restaurant in my experience where this choice was offered. The soup, prepared by a man who has been running the stall for over 50 years, was incredible.

Unfortunately, the nearest ramen restaurant is over an hour's drive. When the desire for a bowl of noodles cannot justify the trip, I start with that college staple - instant ramen - and make it my own.

This recipe maximizes both value and deliciousness of two quick meal staples - instant noodles and a rotisserie chicken (do not judge - sometime you want to roast a chicken, and sometimes you just want to eat one, right now). A store-bought or home-roasted chicken is the ideal starting point, providing the meat for the soup and the bones to make a deeply flavored, complex broth. Be sure to save all the unattractive bits - they hold the flavor!
Roasted chicken broth
The recipe will make enough for two or three bowls of ramen; the broth is robust but neutral, and of course can be used as a base for any dish that calls for chicken stock. For a larger batch, save up chicken carcases in the freezer (increase the amount of vegetables accordingly). The stock can be frozen in two-cup portions (with shredded chicken meat) for ramen at any time.
  • 1 roasted chicken carcass (bones, fat, skin, gristle, juices)
  • 1 onion, peeled
  • 1 carrot, peeled
  • 1 garlic clove, peeled
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 3-5 peppercorns
  • Salt
  • ½ small parsnip, peeled
  • 3-4 sprigs parsley
  • 3-5 sprigs thyme
  • ¼ celery stalk
  • ½ leek or 1-2 scallions
Smash the garlic clove.

Thinly slice the vegetables. A mandolin makes quick work of the task, producing uniformly thin slices. Mine is from Kyocera, with a ceramic blade and adjustable slice thickness. I bought it more than 10 years ago (in Tokyo) for around 20 dollars, and it was an excellent investment. I use it almost every day and the blade is just starting to dull.

Place all ingredients in a small pot, and add enough cold water to cover by an inch. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Add a generous pinch of salt, skim any foam from the surface, and lower the heat to an aggressive simmer. Continue cooking (adding boiling water if the bones are exposed) until the chicken carcass completely falls apart and the broth is a rich golden color, between two and three hours.
N. B. It is possible to cook the stock in as little as 45 minutes, but the flavor will not be as rich and require a longer reduction time during the ramen preparation.

Instant ramen noodles, hacked
The combination of flavors, while not strictly Japanese, is a personal favorite. The broth flavorings and ramen toppings are limited only by your preference and their presence in your refrigerator. Tweak and adjust until you get your perfect bowl.

Ramen broth
This method works equally well with any home-made stock (non-roasted chicken, veal, beef, turkey and even vegetable). Avoid the store-bought stocks - the point here is to make something more delicious and less sodium-heavy than the instant soup packet included with the noodles.
Adjust the amount of hot pepper to your preference, or leave it out entirely.
  • 2 ¼ Cups roasted chicken broth
  • 1-2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
  • ½ inch piece of ginger root, peeled and cut into matchsticks
  • 1 cayenne (or other hot) pepper, cut in half, seeds and veins removed (these have the highest concentration of capsaicin)
  • Splash of soy sauce
Place all ingredients in a small saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Lower heat to an aggressive simmer and leave to reduce for around 5 minutes. Reducing the stock by ¼ cup will intensify the chicken flavor and allow the aromatics to infuse. N.B. If using the 45-minute version of the stock, start with 4 cups and reduce to half of the original volume; add the aromatics after the reduction is almost complete.

While the broth is reducing, prepare the toppings.
Ramen & toppings
  • 1 pack instant ramen, noodles only
  • 1 scallion
  • ½ small carrot, peeled
  • handlful lettuce leaves (spinach, arugula or other tender greens)
  • 1-2 sheets seasoned, toasted nori (seaweed)
  • shredded chicken meat
  • sesame oil
Slice scallions into thin rounds. Cut the carrot into matchsticks. Shred the lettuce. Cut nori into small rectangles.
Once the broth is reduced, add the ramen noodles and cook according to package directions or to the desired consistency (5 minutes in my case instead of the recommended 4). 2 minutes before the end of cooking time, add chicken meat to the pot to heat it.

Place shredded lettuce or other greens in the bottom of the bowl - the heat from the broth will wilt the greens. Once ramen are cooked, add the noodles, chicken meat and broth to the bowl. Top with scallions, carrots and seaweed; add a splash of sesame oil and a sprinkling of sesame. For an authentic experience, feel free to slurp the noodles.

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