One of my favorite dishes begins with one of the simplest, cheapest and increasingly common man-made ingredients on store shelves today.
In 2003, according to the online version of the Japanese newspaper, Asahi Shimbun, the Chinese ate close to 30 billion servings of the stuff, or 40 percent of the world’s total appetite for it.
If there’s any negative dietary effect to be found in it — other than wheat, if you’re gluten intolerant — it’s a high dose of sodium. But then, that can be easily removed.
Though the Chinese, in fact, originated it, the Japanese are one of the world’s most prolific sources, peddling close to 900 brands. When you buy it here, it’s most likely a Japanese brand.
And if you’ve ever had to live in a college dormitory or subsist solely on a student’s income, you’ve eaten plenty of it.
Ramen noodles make a helluva great snack, if a rather dull dinner meal. The sodium, by the way, is in those little silver “flavor” packets that come with the noodles. If you have a salt problem, ditch the packet and use a little chicken, beef or shrimp broth instead.
With so many of us eating these “meals” for 20 cents or less, I’m no doubt preaching a little to a well-schooled choir that also no doubt has figured out far more creative ways to dress up ramen than I have. For me, toss some fresh carrot, onion, celery and parsley stems into the boiling water (or broth) for a couple of minutes before adding the noodles; chuck in a few bits of raw or cooked chicken, turkey, pork, beef or a few small frozen shrimp; then cook ’em up, eat ’em down — with a generous dash of nanami togarashi, the Japanese chile pepper, sesame, seaweed and orange peel condiment that can be found at most any decent grocery.
That’s fine for just us kids, for sitting around slumped behind a TV table and slurping away while nitwits on Fear Factor gag down un-aged rat meat with maggot sauce.
But with a little more effort, you can turn ramen into a meal fit for company, the kind you’d put on a clean T-shirt for.
I’ve published the recipe before, a slight adaptation of “Ramen Radiator,” a creation of the clown prince-scientist of the TV Food Network, Alton Brown. It’s contained in his creatively constructed cookbook and food science text, I’m Just Here for the Food (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $32.50).
Brown whimsically named it for the shape of ramen “loaves,” and uses it to demonstrate the technique of steaming. I give it to you here as a deeply flavorful, healthy standby that’ll have you stocking dried wild mushrooms; the sweet Japanese rice wine, mirin; sesame oil and miso powder or paste, if you don’t already.
(A Tip: Always buy ethnic foods from ethnic markets to get the best quality and the lowest available prices.)
Alton Brown’s Ramen Radiator, with Ad Libs
1 teaspoon each, olive and sesame oil
8 ounces of sliced fresh or reconstituted dry brown mushrooms – shiitakes, creminis or, if you’re feeling lavish, morels
1 3-ounce package ramen noodles
2 8-ounce fillets of halibut or other firm, mild white fish (I like mahi mahi, for its sweetness)
Freshly ground white pepper (black’s fine, if you want)
1 tablespoon honey
Pinch of dried chile flakes
6 medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
1/2 Vidalia (or other sweet or large yellow) onion, cut in half then sliced into thin semicircles
4 scallions, sliced diagonally into 1-inch pieces
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1/2 cup mirin
2 cups miso or vegetable stock
A splash of Vietnamese fish sauce, if you want to deepen the mystery of the flavor combinations
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Heat a sauté pan on high, add the oils, then the mushrooms, and toss, cooking until caramelized, about 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer to a plate and set aside.
2. Cut the “loaf” of ramen noodles in half. Season the fish with salt and pepper, spread half the honey on each and sprinkle with chile flakes.
3. Line two serving bowls with aluminum foil; make sure there’s plenty of overhang. Put half the noodles in each lined bowl; top with the fish.
4. Spread the mushrooms, shrimp and onions around the bottom; top with scallion pieces.
5. Pull the foil up around the food, leaving an opening to add the liquid (combined soy sauce, mirin, miso or stock and fish sauce, if you like).
6. Crimp the foil packages closed, set on a sheet pan and bake for about 25 minutes. Set the pouches back in the bowls, open and serve with chopsticks and spoons.Ric Bohy is editor of Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org