Ramen Revisited: Rainy Day Antidote
President Obama is on the radio outlining his plan to save the auto industry. His voice is filled with fierce determination. He wants to move ahead and assure us all that U.S. car manufacturing won’t die, but he clearly wants to teach some lessons along the way. No more free rides. I listen as he reaches out to those ailing from this weak, terrible economy. Outside my office window, rain spits. It’s all enough to make a girl depressed.
Out come the rain boots, the slicker, and the dog. Off we go into the woods to try to fight the extreme grayness that seems to be taking over. It’s so easy to hear bad news these days. It takes a serious effort to stay on the sunny side.
The mud on the trail feels like it’s sucking my black rubber boots into the early spring earth and the dog is lagging behind drinking from every puddle she finds. I am getting crankier and thinking about turning back. But I make a promise to myself: I won’t go home until something shifts. Like the President, I am determined to move ahead, and find a new mood, a new outlook on this Monday morning.
I have used this line before. I suddenly remember when, several years ago, my oldest daughter left her hour-long interview at the college of her choice. We walked out of the ivy-covered stone admissions building. “I blew it,” she said, as if her statement were fact. “There’s no way I’ll get in. I’m screwed.” We got into the car and drove; she ranted and got more dramatic and darker with each city block. Near her grandmother’s apartment in a neighborhood she was familiar and comfortable with, I pulled the car over.
“I think you need a walk,” I told her. “Get out.” She looked at me like I was a crazy stranger. “I mean it. You need to clear your head and shift. Walk back to Granny’s and meet me when you’re ready to talk.”
She sat there silently and gave me the kind of stare that only a teenager knows how to give.
“You’re serious?” she asked.
“Yup,” I said and she got out of the car, slammed the door hard enough to almost do damage, and was gone. I drove away and was filled with panic. What did I just do pushing my daughter out of the car into the city streets alone? I circled the car around and looked for her, but she was nowhere to be seen. I parked, went to my mother-in-law’s apartment, and waited anxiously. An hour later my daughter returned, safe and happy. She found a street fair. She saw some “cool art,” and felt “way better.” (P.S. She got into the school. Early admission!)
Walks are like that — the way they clear your head and bring back memories you thought were long gone. In fact, walking is the best therapy I know. And walking with a loving canine is an extra dose of medicine. About an hour into my walk I was splashing through the puddles like a happy child. The grump in me had dissolved. I followed the dog past some scrubby brush. There, alongside a rapidly running stream, I caught sight of tiny, baby skunk cabbage. Popping out of the mud was miniature, four-inch maroon and green spottled leaves. When skunk cabbage unfurls and is fully grown it has an awful, off-putting odor and looks like some scruffy wild cabbage someone scattered in the woods. But in the very early spring these tiny plants look like exotic orchids. They are the first “flower-like” plant to appear around here, and for me it was just what the doctor ordered. I was ready to head home and have a different kind of day.
Inspired, wet, and cold, the way early April in Maine can be, I turned to my other refuge — the kitchen. If walking is my number-one therapy than cooking comes next. (It’s hard to cook well when you’re in a truly bad mood.) I was brought up to believe that chicken soup was the cure for all that ails you. So that’s where I started. A big pot of chicken and vegetables gently simmered on the stove, the whole house filled with the scent of sunnier days. But this rainy April night called for something a bit more exotic and promising than plain-old-chicken soup. So I decided to make Japanese-style ramen soup, adding miso paste, scallions, ginger, coriander, spicy chile paste, and ramen noodles to the broth. An antidote for a difficult day, one I highly recommend.
Ramen for an early, rainy spring day
You can use canned chicken broth and deli roasted chicken, but you definitely won’t get the deep, satisfying, rich flavor that only homemade chicken soup can provide. Look for miso, fermented soybean paste, in supermarkets, health food stores and specialty food shops. I use baby spinach and Swiss chard here but you can substitute any green you like.
The Chicken Soup:
One 3- to 4-pound chicken
2 carrots, cut into 1-inch pieces
2 stalks celery, cut into 1-inch pieces
¼ cup chopped parsley
1 onion, peeled and cut into thin slices
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 bay leaf
2 eggs, optional
1 ½ tablespoons vegetable oil
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons chopped fresh ginger
1 tablespoon fresh ginger cut into very thin slices
3 scallions, chopped
14 cup miso paste
1 ½ tablespoons soy sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil
8 cups chicken broth, see above
2 ½ cups cooked chicken, cut into thin slivers
12 ounces ramen, soba or udon noodles
2 cups baby spinach or other greens, chopped
¼ cup fresh coriander, chopped
Hot pepper sauce
Make the chicken soup: place the chicken, carrots, celery, parsley, onions, salt, pepper, bay leaf, and peppercorns in a large pot and add enough water to just cover the chicken. Bring to a boil over high heat; reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook for about 1 hour. The soup is ready when the chicken is tender and cooked through (place a small knife in-between the breast and the drumstick and the meat should pull away easily) and the broth is flavorful. Taste the broth and season to taste. If the broth still tastes weak increase the heat to moderate and cook another 15 to 30 minutes. The chicken soup can be made a day or two ahead of time. Cover and chill until ready to cook the ramen.
To prepare the ramen:
If you want to add “traditional” soft boiled eggs to your ramen: place the eggs in a small pot and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil over high heat. Remove from the heat and let sit, covered, for 4 minutes. Drain the eggs, rinse under cold running water. Peel the shell and cut the eggs in half lengthwise and set aside.
In a large pot heat the oil over moderate-high heat. Add the garlic, chopped and sliced ginger and cook 3 minutes, stirring. Add the scallions and cook another minute. Use a soft spatula or spoon and mix the miso paste into the garlic and ginger, making sure it’s smooth and isn’t clumping up in any areas. Add the soy sauce and sesame oil and stir it into the miso mixture. Cook 1 to 2 minutes. Slowly add the chicken broth and let the mixture come to a simmer. Add the cooked chicken and half the coriander and let simmer over low heat for 15 minutes. Taste for seasoning and add a dash of hot pepper sauce; you want the soup to have a slight bite but not be bland or overly spicy.
Meanwhile bring a large pot of lightly salted water to boil over high heat. Just before serving add the noodles and cook until tender, about 3 to 8 minutes, depending on the type of noodle you choose. Follow the directions on the package being careful not to overcook the noodles as they will continue to cook in the hot broth. Drain the noodles.
To serve, divide the noodles into 4 large soup bowls. Divide the spinach on top of the hot noodles and ladle on the broth and chicken. (The hot broth will “cook” the raw spinach leaves.) Sprinkle a bit of the remaining fresh coriander on top of each bowl, and top with half an egg, if desired. Serve hot with chopsticks and an oversized spoon. Serve hot pepper sauce on the side. Serves 4 hearty portions.
Kathy Gunst is a cookbook author and the award-winning "Resident Chef" for WBUR's Here and Now (heard on over 60 public radio stations). Her newest books, Stonewall Kitchen Breakfast and Stonewall Kitchen Winter Celebrations will be published by Chronicle Books in September 2009.