The ramen diary
Can an old college favorite be made flavorful for 7 days of menus with mixed noodles?
The reasons to loathe ramen noodles are many.
One serving of the fried-then-dried noodles, when you add the package of salt — um, seasoning — that comes with it, has about a third of your daily allowance of sodium and about eight grams of fat. (And in case you don't read the fine print, those ubiquitous orange, yellow and red packages contain two servings, and the seasoning almost always contains monosodium glutamate.)
Ramen noodles aren't exactly the pharaoh of the food pyramid, but at less than 20 cents a package, they are cheap and easy to make, which makes them a favorite among college students. Just the thought of opening the crinkly plastic package and dumping a block of noodles into boiling water might take you back in time.
But in a recession like this one, maybe it's time to give ramen another chance.
With a few vegetables, an open mind and suggestions from ramen lovers on Twitter, could I turn that brightly colored package of ramen noodles into the base of a really good meal? To find out, I proposed a weeklong challenge to my husband: to make ramen interesting enough to eat for seven days in a row.
Without hesitation, he agreed. We stocked up on a dozen different flavors and brands of ramen and got to work on the first meal: regular old ramen noodles, cooked with a few pieces of broccoli and topped with sesame oil.
A quick history lesson: Momofuku Ando invented instant ramen in 1958, 10 years after living in Japan and watching impoverished people line up for bowls of hot ramen soup after World War II. He wanted to create an inexpensive meal that people could make quickly at home. The company he founded, Nissin Foods Co., now sells billions of packages of Top Ramen worldwide every year. For every American who only eats a package once in a while, there are many more who eat the noodles much more often than that.
As with hot dogs or ham sandwiches, just about everybody has a favorite way to prepare them. When to add the seasoning (if at all), what vegetables or meat to add (if any), to serve with or without the broth or even to cook them at all. (Uncooked noodles, as my mother-in-law will tell you, are the key to an addictive crunchy cabbage salad; recipe below.)
Broccoli and sesame oil have always been my go-to add-ons to ramen, but as soon as we finished the first meal on Day 1, I knew I was going to need more than that to make it through the week.
On Day 2, we added more vegetables, but the result was a so-so stir fry, which sank my spirits. Even our 2-year-old was getting tired of the noodles that are as curly as his hair. Adding more vegetables certainly made the ramen more interesting and more healthful, but something was missing.
Nothing like the thought of eating the same old ramen day after day to get the creative juices flowing. On Day 3, I toasted uncooked ramen with spices to make a mock chow-mein to serve on top of a ginger miso salad with pears. Aha! Texture and sweetness. That's what had been missing from ramen my whole life. Toasted noodles added a nutty crunch to the salad at less than the cost of regular croutons, and the pears added just a nuance of sweetness to the savory salad.
Cooked ramen can benefit from sweet and crunchy add-ons. By the end of Day 3, we were experimenting with dried cranberries and sesame sticks. Raisins, sweet chile sauce, sunflower seeds, chow mein noodles, bean sprouts, peanuts and sesame seeds also would add complexity to a dish that is often overcooked in the first place. (Part of the appeal of instant noodles is that they are fast, but if you cook them for more than few minutes, you'll end up with mush.)
Ian took over on Day 4, when he made so-called "fancy ramen," a 99-cent package that came with two envelopes of seasoning instead of one. Most grocery stores carry some kind of higher quality ramen, but for the best selection, head to Asian markets or stores with a large international section, such as Fiesta. Korean, Thai and Chinese ramen often have an oil packet as well as seasoning, which will lend itself to a more interesting dish, no matter how you prepare it.
Once we went fancy, we couldn't turn back.
On Day 5, we had friends over for dinner and served the slightly higher quality (and higher priced) noodles with a Thai peanut sauce (see recipe) along with a broth made with lemongrass from our garden. Everybody asked for seconds. The noodles in the cheapest packages on the shelf can get gummy when served without liquid. For noodles with a little more structure and reliable texture, splurge on the fancy stuff.
Egg and ramen are a classic college pairing, so on Day 6, we tried two egg and noodle dishes: a frittata with ramen, peppers and greens, and ramen with Thai-basil pesto topped with a fried egg. In both dishes, the egg certainly helped us forget we were nearing the end of a week of eating ramen. Maybe that speaks more to the egg than the mass-produced noodles, but I'll be adding a fried farm egg to my ramen from here on out. (Earlier in the week, we made an egg drop soup with the fancy ramen seasoning and a farm egg. A noble effort, but I wasn't a huge fan of the way the eggs glopped up. Egg drop soup is probably best left to our favorite Chinese take-out place.)
Can ramen noodles substitute for regular spaghetti? In a pinch. On the final day, we served our last package of ramen with chicken meatballs (see recipe) and tomato sauce, topped with a sprinkling of chopped olives and Parmesan cheese. It was a hearty meal that tasted more Italian than Asian, something good to know if you find yourself with a package of ramen in your pantry and no pasta. But pasta is cheap anyway, and regular spaghetti isn't fried in oil.
After seven days of ramen, I'm feeling a little heavy, a reminder that all those ramen noodle blocks are indeed fried foods not meant to be consumed every single day. But in moderation — or the next time you are running low on grocery supplies — ramen is worth getting excited about if you're willing to get creative.
LaVonne's Chinese Cabbage Salad
3/4 cup olive oil
3/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
2 tsp. soy sauce
1/2 cabbage, chopped
1 package of Top Ramen
1/2 cup sesame seeds
1/4 cup slivered almonds, toasted 10-15 minutes at 350 degrees
1/2 bunch of green onions, chopped
Combine ingredients for dressing and chill while preparing salad. Wash and cut up cabbage and put in a large bowl. Crush ramen in the package and pour on cabbage. Add the rest of the ingredients and mix well. Pour on chilled dressing and toss well.
— LaVonne DeLong
Thai Peanut Sauce
2 Tbsp. peanut butter, chunky or smooth
2 Tbsp. coconut milk (water will work in a pinch)
1 Tbsp. lime juice
1 Tbsp. soy sauce
1/4 tsp. red Thai curry paste
1/8 tsp. chile paste or red pepper flakes
2 tsp. sugar
Whisk ingredients together until smooth. Because of the varying thickness of peanut butter, add as much or as little water as necessary at the end to reach desired consistency. Mix with cooked ramen noodles and serve.
— Addie Broyles
1 lb. ground chicken
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup bread crumbs or crushed crackers
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tsp. dried oregano
1 tsp. dried parsley
1/2 tsp. red pepper flakes
1/2 tsp. salt
2 Tbsp. olive oil
In a bowl, combine everything but the olive oil with your hands until evenly mixed. Roll into desired size of meatballs (about 1 inch in diameter). Pour olive oil in a large skillet over medium to high heat and place the meatballs in the pan. Cook, turning the meatballs occasionally, until evenly browned, about eight to 10 minutes. Serve over ramen noodles that have been tossed with tomato sauce.