Monday, June 3, 2013

OMG a Recipe: Ramen Soup - Free to Be You and Me

We're into the early stages of summer, so what do we all want to eat? Spicy Hot Ramen! Probably not likely, but there is something to be said for eating hot food and then experiencing the benefits of evaporative cooling as you become a human swamp cooler, hunched over a giant steaming-hot bowl of noodles. Soup's on -- let's get ready to sweat.

Spicy ramen... there's soup in there somewhere - Photo by Wasabi Prime

I noodle around with noodle soups now and then, and I think Asian soups like Japanese ramen or Vietnamese pho are the most fun to eat because they're designed to be edible blank canvases. You can customize those noodle bowls to your liking. You get a savory, flavorful broth, some plain noodles, and then have at it, adding a variety of fresh, pickled and cooked ingredients, designing some really great flavor combinations and textural experiences.

Kukai ramen's ooey-gooey egg, and some dan dan from Szechuan Chef... just because - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I was reminded of how good a well-made bowl of ramen can be, even on a hot day -- I went with my friend Linda, aka, Salty Seattle, to Kukai Ramen and Izakaya over in Bellevue. Yes, I finally made it to Kukai. It had been on my edible list of to-do's for a while since their opening a few months ago, but I was taking my time to head over there because along with the raves, I'd hear how crowded it always was and I was biding my time to let the initial new-ness die down. I don't really care about hitting a place in its chaotic, crowded honeymoon phase, I much prefer a quiet afternoon to head over with a friend to have a pleasant, stress-free lunch. We got there around opening time, 11am, which was perfect. The ramen comes out pretty fast, which makes sense -- it's literally fast food in Japan, eaten at light-speed with noisy abandon. We had their tonkotsu shoyu ramen, a combination of the traditional soup bases, mixing the pork-based broth with the soy sauce-flavored broth, turning it into a rich, savory Wondertwins-activated super-soup. The real draw of Kukai is their soft-boiled egg. Plenty of noodle places serve boiled eggs with their soup, but Kukai does it like. a. bawse. with the still-creamy yolk center. I was on a serious noodle-kick that day because I headed over to Szechuan Chef, which is right across the parking lot from Kukai, because I felt a crave coming on for hand-shaven noodles, and their hand-shaven dan dan is nutty-spicy goodness. While nothing to do with ramen, I just felt like I needed to throw that in, because them's fine noodles.

Kukai's soft-boiled eggs get a lot of lip service, but I don't want that to overshadow their broth, which is really well-done and flavorful. And that leads me to this post, which is all about building flavor for a soup base. My at-home version of ramen is completely nontraditional, but the point of home cooking is to make something to your taste, since chances are you're going to be eating it for a few meals.

The several-day duck stock/spicy ramen experience - Photos by Wasabi Prime
My favorite style of ramen is more along the lines of the Hawaiian-ized saimin. Less-opaque broth, but heavily salted, usually flavored with soy sauce and shrimp shells. My at-home version of ramen is a constantly changing thing. The broth is made with whatever stock I have on-hand, but the last time I took the time to make ramen, I actually made a duck-based soup broth. I had the leftover frozen carcass of a roasted duck from the holidays, which I simmered with a bunch of vegetable scraps like onion tops, carrot tips and ends, celery, whole garlic, and in this case, since I knew it would be for a ramen-style soup, I added more flavorful ingredients like star anise, extra whole black peppercorns and whole chunks of ginger. The star anise is a must-have when building that Asian-style soup base; you don't taste the licorice flavor so much as it adds a nice complexity to all the herbal flavors of the vegetables. Since this was a small batch of stock, I just threw in two star anise pieces and that was plenty.

This version of a ramen broth is somewhere in between a spicy shoyu/tonkatsu soup, with additional flavorings added to the finished stock, so you don't really have to go the extra mile of making a duck-based stock from scratch. Plain chicken or beef broth will do just fine. Plus, making your own stock can be a challenge if you're pressed for time -- it really adds an extra day, since I like letting the stock settle overnight so that I can skim off any excess fat and separate any stock sediment that settles to the bottom. If you like doing everything from-scratch, go for it, but if you're like most people and are so busy you don't know if you should scratch your watch or wind your butt, don't worry about it. The stock's visual clarity isn't crucial, since one of the added ingredients is miso paste, which clouds it up a bit, and then I also add the Almighty Rooster-riffic Sriracha for heat, soy sauce for both color and saltiness, some sugar to balance the savory and some rice wine vinegar to brighten it up a little.

The soup is one thing, then it's all about the add-ons - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Soups like ramen or pho are akin to painting, if you've ever had the artistic yen -- it's all about building layers. You're building a background of depth and visual interest with the ramen broth, and then the foreground is built up with whatever you want to add to the soup. In this case, I added some spicy seared pork, but you can add any meat of your choice. It's a great way to get rid of leftovers -- a bit of roasted chicken, sliced cold and then added to the hot soup is delicious. Plain tofu works, too. I also like adding sliced bamboo shoots from a can, kimchi, fresh bean sprouts, cooked greens like Swiss chard or kale, and a soft boiled egg, split down the center. Fresh corn is good, or even canned baby corn works in a pinch. Somewhere in the middle of that ingredient hurricane, some noodles are probably a requirement -- I had some udon noodles in the spicy duck soup, but they were literally buried under all the toppings, which was a nice reminder that you can forgo the noodles altogether and not miss them. A quick finish with fresh green onions and some garlic-chili sambal, and it's good to go. The point is, there's no wrong way to build your ramen soup bowl -- put what you like in there and to hell with tradition.

So along those lines, here's my recipe for the spicy ramen base that says to hell with tradition or eating typical summer foods in June. Be a rebel, eat spicy soup in summer!

Spicy Miso Ramen Soup Base

3 quarts of stock (chicken, beef, whatever you have handy)
1/3 cup of red miso paste
1 tablespoon of rice wine vinegar
1 tablespoon Sriracha (more if you like it extra spicy)
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon sugar

Get a large soup pot and heat to medium high. Add all the ingredients and some of the stock, using a whisk to break down the miso paste. Pour in the rest of the stock and allow soup to come to a boil before taking it down to a low simmer. Taste and modify to your preference, adding more spice, sugar or soy sauce. It's your soup, make it how you like it!

Keep warm for serving with ingredients of your choice like noodles, vegetables and meat. The soup is just a base, so build as you wish.

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