When in doubt, go with the noodles. That about sums up my approach to many situations. Ordering at a new restaurant, conquering cold and flu season, or making dinner for a picky pack of pre-teens. There is something oh-so-comforting about noodles, whether served hot or cold, with or without sauce, as the star of a dish or playing a supporting role.
The other wonderful thing about noodles, from my perspective, is that just about every culture and cuisine incorporates them in some way. Spaghetti and meatballs. Chicken noodle soup. Beef Stroganoff. Lo mien. It makes me hungry just to think about all the options.
Of all the noodle dishes out there I’m really partial to a good bowl of ramen soup – that Japanese/Chinese hybrid that is really considered a junk food in Japan — albeit an addicting and indulgent one. Ramen reminds me of a particularly fun evening in Kyoto, where my husband and I honeymooned. We were on a mission to find a little ramen shop — a Ramen ya — recommended in one of our travel guides. We stumbled in and sat together at a small counter wrapped around the tiny open kitchen, ordered some things by gesturing and nodding at the menu and other diners’ dinners, and slurped our way through steaming bowls of noodles with pork in a salty broth and plates of some of the crispiest fried chicken I think I’ve ever eaten, complemented by cold beer. Lots of cold beer. And I think the trip back to our hotel included some singing, though I’m not entirely sure whether that’s a true memory or one inspired by both the beer and the conviviality of the evening.
Junk food or not, the secret to a good ramen is two-fold: start with a good broth, and use the freshest noodles you can find — the soft, pliable ones in the refrigerated section of the grocery vs. instant dried. Avoid the semi-cooked variety if you can (too many preservatives). And if dried is all you can find, go for plain old dried vs. instant dried. Frankly, if your choice is between dried and semi-cooked, choose the dried. And please don’t succumb to using the little flavor packets that come with some noodles. Nothing but chemicals and flavor enhancers. We can do better, which is what I’m going to share with you shortly.
Ramen broth is the subject of pretty lively debates too. If you’ve ever watched the film Tampopo (No? Then download it this weekend and enjoy!) you know the lengths to which the heroine went to make the perfectly seasoned, not-to-greasy, soul-enriching broth for her Ramen soup. And though it wasn’t one of Tampopo’s go-to seasonings, one of my favorite broths uses miso in the stock — something often used in northern Japan — making it a perfect autumn/winter soup. Rich, satisfying and warming and a great base for seasonal veggies like broccoli, cauliflower and carrots.
Now, real Ramen aficionados get picky about the toppings and their placement in the bowl, but I just can’t get too caught up in all that. While I appreciate the authenticity, I’m more interested in getting a tasty meal on the table and having some free rein with the flavors my family appreciates. So we omit things like bean sprouts and mushrooms and sliced fish cakes when we make this at home, though personally I like them and you could certainly add them to your version. We load up on carrots and broccoli — both on the girl’s “approved” veggie list. And the thinly sliced meat that goes on top tends to be something that is leftover — roast pork or steak. It punctuates the dish but the broth and noodles are the real stars. Use what you have on hand, from chicken to shrimp to tofu, depending on your taste.
If all this has you licking your lips, here’s how you can make a bowl of your own.
Warming Miso Ramen with Broccoli, Cauliflower and Carrots
10 ounces fresh Ramen noodles, or three single-serving packs of dried noodles
1 1/2 tablespoons vegetable, canola or grapeseed oil
1 small head of cauliflower, trimmed into bite-sized pieces
2 carrots, peeled and cut into 1/4 inch rounds
1 small head of broccoli, trimmed into bite-size pieces
2 garlic cloves, finely minced or pressed in a garlic press
4 cups good-quality chicken broth
3 tablespoons miso paste (brown if you have it, but white miso works fine)
4 tablespoons soy sauce
1 scallion, white and light green parts sliced into thin rounds
Several washed handfuls of mizuna, tatsoi, arugula or baby spinach (optional)
Approximately 6 ounces of leftover roasted meat, like steak or pork, thinly sliced…you can also use cooked chicken or shrimp or tofu
1/2 thinly sliced hot chili pepper — jalapeño, Serrano, Thai bird chili, etc. (optional)
Roasted sesame oil (optional)
Begin by heating the vegetable oil in a large sauce pan. Add the cauliflower and carrots and sauté until just barely softened, 3 – 4 minutes. Add the broccoli and garlic and sauté until the broccoli begin to turn a vibrant green and is firm-tender. Add the chicken broth, miso paste and soy sauce. Bring to a slow simmer.
Meanwhile, bring a large stock pot filled with water to a boil and cook the noodles until they are just done. Drain and rinse and divide them into serving bowls.
Ladle the broth over the noodles and divide the veggies evenly among bowls. Top each serving with several slices of whatever protein you’ve chosen, some of the sliced scallions, and several leaves of mizuna/tatsoi/arugula/baby spinach if you’re using it. Add several slices of the chili pepper and a drizzle of roasted sesame oil if you’d like.
Serves: 4 – 6
Parent rating: Three-and-a-half stars, which kind-of splits the difference between my “I hope there are leftovers” rating and my husband’s “I’m not crazy about miso” rating. I still encourage you to try this version, especially if you’re a miso lover. You can always add more garnishes, from the previously mentioned bean sprouts and mushrooms, to things like Sriracha Hot Sauce and sesame seeds. Likewise, use the veggies you have on hand. It may not be a traditional Ramen soup, but I guarantee you’ll be very happy with this dish by loading up on the produce you enjoy.
Kid rating: We did some creative plating and left the scallions and chili peppers off their portions and served the veggies on the side, which resulted in a four-and-a-half-stars rating. Both our daughters really like this dish and enjoy slurping noodles as much as my husband and I did back in Kyoto. There is just something so homey about this soup and you can’t help but feel good after a bowl!