By Ricky Castillon
Ramen noodles are almost synonymous with the typical college student. However, with some creativity, that packaged import could become something to impress yourself and your stomach.
First, start with the base dried ramen noodles that come in the packet. The smaller individually wrapped packets are better because they don’t come with any flavoring or powders already added, they come separate so you can use them at your discretion. For the slightly larger noodles that come prepared in their cups, all you have to do is rinse them out before beginning as to start off with a blank slate for whatever flavors you want to add later on.
1. Veggie Miso. Start by chopping whatever vegetables you could find at the grocery store for relatively cheap. There are a host of convenient pre-chopped options that are great for keeping around the kitchen for spontaneous cooking. Bell peppers are good, broccoli, asparagus, mushrooms, carrots, really it’s up to whoever is going to be eating that bowl. Next, bring enough water to a boil to fill everyone’s bowl. When the water is ready, fill your bowl with your noodles, veggies, and a healthy couple of tablespoons of instant miso paste (available in most Asian food aisles) and then SAFELY pour in your water. Use a ladle if you don’t feel like burning your hands with boiling hot water. Cover your bowl with something that will hold in all the steam and heat in the bowl, and leave it for about three minutes. When time is up, uncover, stir around with a spoon or chopsticks, and tuck in!
2. Add an egg. One of my all time favorite things to do to a ramen soup to instantly gormet-ize any flavor or recipe, is to add one egg yolk. This makes the broth creamy and eggy and delicious, and it’s not so hard as one may think. At first glance, separating an egg might seem a little advanced for someone who isn’t a frequent cook in their daily lives. This isn’t true at all. All you have to do is, in a separate bowl or over disposable container, crack open the egg but don’t remove the insides just yet. Remove the top half of the shell until you are left with two little eggshell bowls. Now gently move the yolk from one little bowl to the other and repeat. This action should keep the yolk in the egg bowls while the white falls into your other disposable container. It might take some practice so you don’t break the yolk, but once you get it down it’s the easiest thing in the world. Another simple way of separating the yolk is to crack open an egg and drop it into your clean hand. Move the egg around and use your fingers like a strainer. The whites will fall through and into whatever receptacle you’ve prepared while the yolk will stay in your hand. Once you have your yolk separated you can plop it right into your bowl after the water is added. Stir it completely through and leave to sit. Now that you’ve added a raw egg it is especially important that the soup cooks through completely. You should take all sanitary precautions you would normally take when cooking egg.
3. Spicy Kimchi. Kimchi is a dish of Korean fermented cabbage in spices and it is one of my favorite ingredients ever. When fresh it is crisp, tangy, spicy, and delicious and the longer it sits in its container the deeper and more developed the flavors become because the fermentation process never stops. It also has enormous health benefits, as it’s full of vitamin A, C, and probiotic lactobacilli bacteria. For this soup, start out by adding a tablespoon of chili paste (not to be confused with American “Chile-con-carne” this is a spicy pepper paste also available at your local Asian food aisle of the super market) and a great big helping of kimchi to the noodle bowl. Then add water, cover for three minutes, and enjoy. I also added gochujang, a spicy smoky Korean condiment, for depth.
4. Red Curry with Coconut Milk. For a more South-Asian flavor, this soup starts by adding a healthy couple of tablespoons of red curry paste to your noodles. Next, add water and let cook. You can also add whatever ingredients you like protein or vegetables, but I kept mine simple. Once your soup is ready, uncover and pour in your cold creamy coconut milk to cool down the spiciness of the dish. This may seem counterintuitive, but it is a very popular combination in cultures that serve a lot of curry. The curry is spicy and tangy and exciting while the coconut milk is sweet and cool and refreshing. The two do wonders together and result in a lovely creamy broth for your soup.
5. Tofu. Another great and super versatile ingredient is the compacted white blocks of soy known as tofu. There are a million things you can do with tofu from soups to salads, you can cook it, sautée it, or eat it raw. Again, as with the previous dish, it’s super good for you. Tofu contains all eight essential amino acids, is a great source of protein, iron, calcium, manganese, and phosphorus, among others. There are several different kinds of tofu ranging from soft to medium to hard. All this refers to is how firm the tofu is and how well will its structure stand against whatever you have planned. For this recipe I chose hard tofu (which is still delightfully soft and tender) because I sautéed it in a pan with a dash of peanut oil until browning occurs. This results in a nice cooked outside with a soft creamy inside. The tofu comes packaged in a sort of brine to keep it fresh, and as a result retains a lot of that moisture. Before doing any cooking with the tofu you will want to take it out of the water and onto a paper towel lined dish. Next comes the pressing. You don’t want to smash the tofu or ruin the delicate structure of the blocks, but you need to get that water out. Put another sheet of paper towel on top and add pressure. You can add a book or flat object to give you even control. Then chop up, cook, and add to any sort of soup you happen to be eating. This addition works beautifully with miso flavorings, spicy soups, complex broths with vegetables or simple noodles.
Remember, cooking is about expression and experimentation; don’t be afraid to try something new or to look at an old ingredient in a new way.