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Cooking For One: Use your noodle to create easy ramen meals

Thursday, August 10, 2000

By Marlene Parrish

Maybe there's no free lunch, but 16 cents is pretty close. That's roughly the cost of a package of instant ramen noodle soup mix.

I seem to be addicted to these curly-knitted blocks of noodles, and I make some version of them for lunch about once a week. Ramen noodles would make an ideal lunch or supper for any solo cook who is too busy, tired or otherwise barely interested in cooking.

The label says boil some water, add the block of noodles, submerge, cook for 3 minutes and stir in the flavoring packet. The result is a lowest-common-denominator meal -- filling, but pale, bland and weak.

The trick is to doctor the noodles big time. Here's what I do.

Liquid -- Use broth instead of water. Canned chicken, beef or vegetable broth improves the flavor from the start. If the broth is salty, use only half the flavor packet.

Lumps -- Add bits of food. A couple of leftover shrimp, a diced piece of chicken, one big mushroom (sliced) or some diced tofu. Or break an egg into simmering broth and stir until it cooks into strands.

Vegetables -- Add 1/4 cup of peas or corn. I buy frozen vegetables by the bag so I can dip out as much as I want at any given time. Or give a reprise to chopped leftover veggies.

Flavors -- Add a few drops of toasted sesame oil, nickel-sized slices of gingerroot and a few drops of Worcestershire sauce. I almost always stir in a good shake of hot pepper flakes to ante up the taste.

Colorful garnishes -- Add chopped scallion, a torn spinach leaf or two, chopped parsley and a grated mini carrot.

You can throw all of the add-ins into the bottom of the soup bowl and pour the hot, brothy noodles over all; or add everything to the pot to heat through.

OK, so there's a ton of sodium in the flavor packet, a lot of which comes from that old bugaboo MSG. If that's a problem, you can pitch the packet and season your noodle broth with onion powder, garlic powder, soy sauce, lemon juice, Tabasco sauce or Worcestershire sauce.

When I use beef broth, I never use the flavor packet.

Then again, waste not, want not. When I have a flavor packet from roast chicken flavor noodles, I add the seasoning stuff to mashed potatoes, along with some chicken broth and olive oil, eliminating butter, milk and salt. It's mysteriously good.

I thought I was the Lone Ranger of Ramen until I found a fun little paperback, "The Book of Ramen," by Ron Konzak of Friday Harbor, Wash., who has made a thorough study of this subject. His cookbook is long on easy-enough recipes for soups, salads, main dishes and desserts. But lots of his recipes are a reach to fill the pages, such as a 17-ingredient recipe for Cream of Carrot Soup and a 19-ingredient Ramen Moussaka, both of which defeat the purpose of this almost-instant meal. But Konzak has drawn cheerful cartoons, and he has loads of ramen trivia, such as how the noodles get that way.

For instance:

The noodles are folded, put into a mold and lightly fried. Most manufacturers of instant ramen deep-fry the noodles. That accounts for the oil in the ingredient list and the relatively high calorie count.

Each package contains 80 strands of curly noodles. If you ironed them, they'd be about 16 inches long. And each package, when boiled, stretched out and laid end to end, contains about 100 linear feet of noodles.

What's in a name: Ramen noodles originated in China, where they are called lo mein. Ramen is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese characters for lo-mein.

The process for making ramen was invented in Japan, where the noodles are often referred to as "student cuisine" because of widespread use by university students with their obvious limits on kitchen equipment, time and yen.

The noodles have become so popular in Japan that ramen are to the city of Sapporo what baked beans are to Boston.

Ramen noodles hit stores on the West Coast of the United States about 1970. They are available now just about anywhere.

3-Minute Asian Ramen Noodle Soup -- 1 package Oriental ramen noodles, chicken broth, 1/2 flavor packet, few slices gingerroot, 3 chopped shrimp, few drops toasted sesame oil, sliced scallion, hot pepper flakes.

3-Minute Beef Ramen Stew -- 1 package beef ramen noodles, (no flavor packet), beef broth, 1 sliced mushroom, 1/2 small squished and chopped tomato, few tablespoons of peas, grated carrot, sliced scallion, bits of parsley.

3-Minute Buttered Noodles -- Cook 1 package noodles in chicken broth; drain. Toss noodles with a tablespoon of butter and top with buttered breadcrumbs. (To make the crumbs, melt 1 tablespoon butter in a small skillet and add 1/3 cup bread crumbs. Toss and turn over medium heat until crumbs are golden brown and toasted.)

Cost of the these meals? With add-ins, approaching something shy of a dollar.

Chopsticks are the best tool with which to eat the curly noodles. If you have a hard time holding chopsticks, now, in the privacy of your solo kitchen, is a good time to work on technique. The graphics and directions on a common placemat from an oriental restaurant make a good teacher.

Ramen Salad Crunchies

No need to make croutons when you have ramen noodles on the shelf. To a handful or two of salad greens, add segments of 1 orange for color and tang; 1/2 ripe avocado in pieces for smoothness; 1 chopped, hard-cooked egg for substance; a few mini carrots grated for color and crunch. Dress the salad with olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Add a good handful of ramen crunchies and toss again.

1 package ramen noodles
Few pinches seasoning from the packet
1 tablespoon olive oil
Salad greens and raw vegetables

Use the bottom of a glass tumbler to bash the unopened noodle package until the noodles are well broken.

Heat olive oil in a medium skillet over medium heat. Add broken noodles and a pinch or two of seasoning from the packet. Toss and turn until noodles are golden but not brown. Cool. Sprinkle generously over salad greens.

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