When the Purse is Empty

I love noodles; I love soup.  What better pairing of the two is there than in a hot, steaming bowl of Ramen! My only experience with ramen is the lowly instant kind and I am a huge fan.  It is warm, adaptable, cheap and quick to make - all endearing traits in my busy life. I have also been reading up on traditional Ramen and added it to my "Must Try Soon" list, but haven't had the time yet. An overview on the subject of traditional Ramen  including local variations can be read at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ramen.

A traditional cold version
I was first introduced to instant Ramen by my older brother.  He was living on his own and just bought a new car.  Money was very tight and food was one thing he didn't have a lot of money for.  So a great big bowl of loaded Ramen could be had for $1-$2, truly a life saver.  When my kids were getting ready to move out and/or travel overseas, I  organized a one-on-one "make a cheap pot of Ramen" lesson for each of them.  It came in handy as they used it at one point or another, especially the two that traveled overseas for a year.

So what makes for a great bowl of instant Ramen?  I am sure everyone has their own opinion.  You have a package of potential - noodles, soup base and instructions.  Where you go from there depends on what you personally love and what your money situation is.  Probably the most economical is if you just add an egg and some frozen peas, but the variations are truly endless.  To make it a full meal you need the following -

Protein - This can vary widely.  It can be leftover meat from dinner the previous night, chopped up sandwich meat, a raw egg stirred in when the water comes to bowl (think Egg Drop Soup), pieces of tofu (my favourite is cubes of deep fried tofu), canned tuna, canned beans and the list goes on.  I have even seen a version with hard boiled egg halves placed on top of the finished soup as decoration.  The only thing you need for a quick meal is a protein that is either cooked or cooks very quickly (such as small shrimps or scallops). Be careful if you use uncooked beef, chicken or pork.  I would slice it very thin and add it right at the start or saute it ahead of time and stir in at the end.  Just be sure it is properly cooked.
Vegetables - The list is long here.  You can use frozen or fresh.  Just pick your favourite, or a combination of veggies that you like. This is a meal for one so you don't need a lot.  For fresh I personally like baby bok choy, broccoli or snap peas.  My daughter likes carrots.  When using fresh vegetables, be sure they're cut in pieces small enough to cook in 3-5 minutes.  For frozen I prefer petite peas (or corn niblets).  Peas seem to freeze better than other vegetables and don't get an odd texture.  Just before serving, you can also stir in fresh bean sprouts and/or minced green onion to give it some zip and a bit of crunch.

Ramen - There are so many brands and flavours from meat to vegetable, regular to spicy.  Just pick what you love.  I haven't found a favourite brand yet, I just look what's on sale.  The price can range widely and go over $1 per package, but most stores have regular sales where you can get them for around 25 cents each.  That's when I load up as they have a long shelf life.

Other - There are a couple things I like to add to my Ramen that are totally optional such as a small splash of Dry Sherry or Cooking Sherry and a dash of lite Soy Sauce.  I also keep Tabasco on hand.  I buy the regular flavours and then if I want it spicy that meal that day, I add a few drops of hot sauce just before serving.  Other great additions could be grated ginger, Chinese Five Spice and Sesame Oil.  These last three should all be added right at the start to make sure the flavours blend.

Notes -  While all the brands pretty much have the same directions I have altered them slightly.  I like a little less water so I only use  1-1/2 cups instead of 2.  I also break up the noodles in the package so they are in more bite size bits instead of long strings.  It's easier to eat without making a mess.  I also have cut the calories by only using half the noodles.  The other half I make another day using a package of commercial bouillon to create the broth.

1.  Put 1-1/2 cups of water in small saucepan.  Add fresh or frozen veggies, bouillon package and optional items such as Sherry, Soy Sauce, grated ginger, Chinese Five Spice or Sesame Oil.  Bring to a boil.

2.  While the broth is heating up, you can start adding whatever protein (except raw eggs).  When the water starts to boil is when you would slowly add the raw egg.  Stir the water briskly as you add it to break it into Egg Drop like pieces.  Some people prefer to whisk the egg first, but I prefer to keep it simple and not dirty another dish.

3.  Now add your packaged instant Ramen noodles, give them a stir and remove the pan from the burner. Cover the saucepan with a large ceramic soup bowl turned upside down at this point (or a lid if you don't have one).  This helps retain the heat so the noodles can finish cooking and warms your bowl so the soup stays hot while you eat.

4.  Let sit for about 5 minutes until noodles are tender. Add a couple drops of hot sauce is you feel like a spicy bowl today.  Now is also when you would add optional things like green onion, bean sprouts and/or hard boiled egg halves if you want them.

5.  ENJOY!  If  you haven't broken up the noodles, a pair of chopsticks or a fork is in order.  If you did break them up, a large spoon can be used.  Drinking the broth from the bowl and slurping is of course allowed. :)

With the raw egg, frozen peas and ramen bought on sale, I have eaten more than once for less than $1 - a true lifesaver in my 20's - and when watching calories, I find using half the noodles still makes a filling dish full of flavour. This is a great lower calorie, lower carb option. I also had my eye out for a gluten-free alternative and may have found a solution.  I recently came across Tofu Shirataki Gluten Free Spaghetti shaped noodles in a grocery store by the YMCA on Burrard St.  In this case you would use 1-1/2 cups of your favourite gluten free soup stock and  cook as above, adding the noodles at the very end.  I haven't tried it yet, but will let you know when I do.

So go wild and experiment until you come up with your own unique version.  Honestly, you shouldn't have more than 5 minutes of prep for this, so dinner should be ready in 10-15 minutes overall.  Perfect after a busy day and soothing on a cold winter night.