Monday, October 27, 2008

The power of ramen

Behold the lowly, cheap, ubiquitous ramen noodle. A package can be had for 15 cents, sometimes less. Prepared simply according to package directions they are a quick and tasty small meal. Doctored up or used like pasta, without the flavoring packet, they are versatile and offer countless possibilities.

Let’s say you need a fast meal. Would you rather wait 10-12 minutes for pasta or have your food ready in 3 minutes? I vote for the 3-minute choice.

While the water boils you can rummage through your fridge and find whatever you can: scallions are an excellent choice. Toss them in with the noodles while they boil if you prefer to get the rawness out of them. Toss in a few cherry tomatoes or leave them raw and quarter them.

Any leftover meat in there? Cut it into bite-size pieces. Nuke it. Or, take those scallions, tomatoes and the meat and warm it in the microwave. Nothing will prevent you from being ready to chow down in only the amount of time required for boiling the water and cooking the ramen.

Toss the hot noodles with some parmesan cheese and garlic, add tomato sauce if you have it. Ecco - Italian food! Leftover lamb, chicken, or beef and a splash of good yogurt – you’re now in the eastern Mediterranean. Open a pouch of tuna, warm it up, add those scallions again and maybe some jack cheese – tuna noodle casserole. Mac and cheese with noodles? Why not.

The possibilities (I risk repeating myself) are indeed endless. Eat them in a taco, a pita, between slices of bread. A noodle sandwich? Well, the other day (actually for two successive days) Peter and I ate eggplant parmesan jammed between the halves of steak rolls with slices of crispy bacon. Marvellous!

Perhaps you have looked at those packages of ramen noodles in the supermarket and mentally wrinkled your nose. I am not suggesting you should forgo pasta, only that when time is of the essence (or your budget), there is this alternative.

A meal for one is what 1 package is. Just think, for 30 cents and the leftovers you can make a lunch or late-night snack for 2.

Stir a dab of peanut butter into ½ cup of chicken broth, add scallions and a splash of nam pla (fish sauce) and chili flakes. You’ve just transported yourself to Thailand.

Add a can of clams with their liquid, some grated cheese, a bit of mashed garlic and you have a very serviceable substitute for linguini and white clam sauce. Make it a quasi-red sauce by mashing up some cherry tomatoes or adding spaghetti or tomato sauce you may have. Now you’ve got a red sauce.

Throw some medium sized shrimp in (shell them first) with the noodles, add something for a sauce (maybe even just the flavor packet they come with) and you’re hunger pangs will be gone. If the shrimp are small or already cooked, add them for the last few seconds of the 3-minute cooking period.

There’s always parsley, cilantro, oregano, or tarragon with grated cheese for a simple vegetarian version (got any leftover veggies on hand, or frozen ones?).

The secret of ramen is, first, to have them in your pantry. Buy 10 packages ($1.50 – big deal) of mixed types. If you don’t use the flavoring packet all the noodles are exactly the same. Have all of the ingredients I’ve suggested above on hand. Who doesn’t have peanut butter, maybe tuna, something leftover? You may not have nam pla. If not, it’s worth trying.

I’ve gone on long enough. Just wanted to share.

For a free excerpt of my book, “A Year of Food,” in which I opine, report, cook, muse and philosophize about everything that passed my lips for an entire year, write to me at:

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