Ready to serve.
The word ‘ramen’ for most people conjures up images of college days or other times in their life when money was scarce and nourishment needed to be had on the cheap. Plastic bags of dried noodles with an accompaniment of soup base powder, that was primarily salt, in a small foil packet. This is a travesty. A disgrace. An outrageous insult to the soul of the real deal. Bear in mind, fair reader, that I’m not shunning the product in its entirety. The noodles are perfectly serviceable. Most of the offense comes from the contents of that little foil packet. Let’s face it though, at 20 cents a pack you get what you pay for. Most people know that going into the deal, and I’m just as guilty of slurping them down as the next guy, but with a well-stocked pantry and/or freezer you needn’t suffer through another nearly flavorless salt-bomb. My love affair with Asian style noodles has been long, and it all started with those horribly addictive foil packets. Once I started exploring outside the bag, though, and once I got my hands on the good stuff, my addiction only worsened...
Ramen was one of the many things that the Japanese adopted as their own. As with many other Japanese dishes, the impetus came from China in the form of chow mein. They are a little more delicate in flavor, but fresh Ramen noodles differ little from chow mein still. The biggest difference is in how the Japanese use them as opposed to the Chinese. Often in delicate broth-based soups. Though, the heartier chow mein noodles are used in one of Japans favorite dishes and (I’m convinced of this) what could be their greatest export next to sushi, Yakisoba. That’s another post, however.
The raw ingredients.
This is a dish I recently made for myself that is a good representation of Ramen done right. Simple ingredients and simple, technique driven preparation. The format of soup/noodle/garnish is usually a very forgiving one. As long as the right noodle is served with a sauce of the right intensity the rest of the cast of characters is more or less interchangeable. I wouldn’t recommend that approach with this recipe though. Maitake mushrooms are very delicate, and easily stepped on or shoved out of the way by other flavors in my experience. With that in mind I would advise against using other mushroom varieties in conjunction with them under any circumstance. Just let them and (in this case) the clams shine on their own, the noodles and the broth will do the rest of the work. Fresh Ramen can be found in the freezer section of most Asian or Japanese markets, and some have a section dedicated to refrigerated or frozen noodles specifically.
Ramen with Baby Clams in Dashi: Serves 2
- 1 lb. Littleneck, manila or any small variety of clams
- 1 bottle Hakutsuru Draft Sake
- 2 tsp. peeled and minced fresh ginger
- 1 tsp. crushed garlic
- 3 cups(ish) dashi stock
- 1 bunch Maitake mushrooms, sliced thin, stems discarded
- ¼ pound snow pea pods, cut across into ¼ inch strips
- 1 lime
- 2 packets or bundles fresh Ramen noodles
- 1 bunch scallions, thinly sliced
- Soy sauce
- Kosher salt
- Shredded nori and sesame seeds for garnish
Tightly closed and ready to steam. (Insert tight clam joke here.)
Start by putting a large pot of salted water (1 gallon or more) on a back burner over high heat and bring to a boil for the noodles later.
While that's coming to a boil check the clams thoroughly. The general rule when cooking ANY bi-valve is if they are open when they’re raw, they’re garbage. If a tap doesn’t get the little bastard to close its shell, throw it out. And conversely, if they are closed after they’re cooked, they’re garbage. In either case you may be dealing with a dead mollusk, and it’s not worth finding that out the hard way. Throw it out.
After inspection, heat a 2 quart sauce pan over medium heat with a small amount of sesame oil and a small amount of any other light, tasteless oil. Sesame oil can be overpowering, so it’s sometimes a good idea to cut it
Ready for a sake steam bath.
with a lighter variety like peanut or canola. When the oil is hot and with your Sake already opened and at the ready, stir in your crushed garlic and minced ginger. DO NOT LET IT BROWN! Continue stirring for about 30 seconds, or until the smell of garlic and ginger fill the kitchen, and pour in half of the Sake. Bring to a boil and reduce the Sake by ¾, then add the clams and cover. Steam the clams for 90 seconds and check on them. If they aren't open yet replace the lid and count to 10, repeat until they do. When they are open kill the heat and pull them out of the pot. It will not take long to cook them and the penalty for overcooking is tiny rubber balls of unchewable nastiness. Remove them to a plate and after they have cooled a bit pull the meat out of the shells. All but the 6 prettiest shells, leave the meat in these and use them for garnishing the finished plates or pull the meat but place it back in the shell for easier extraction at the table.
All opened and fit for consumption.
Now put the dashi in the pot with the clam cooking liquor and bring to a simmer. DO NOT BOIL! Boiling will destroy a well-made dashi. If you need a recipe for dashi stock, it’s simple. Soak a strip of konbu in 2 quarts cold water for 30 minutes then bring to a simmer. Remove the konbu, add 6 onces shaved bonito flakes and bring to a full boil then immediately kill the heat and let it sit, unmolested, for another 30 minutes, or until the fish flakes fall to the bottom. Strain and use, refrigerate, or freeze.
Once the soup base is at a simmer, add the soy sauce in small amounts and taste between each addition. The goal of this is so the soy flavor doesn’t dominate the broth. Once you can taste the soy on even terms with the dashi add some kosher salt to bring the salt content up to where you would like it to be. You want the broth to be about as salty as seawater. This may seem like overkill but the noodles will absorb it, and if the salt content isn’t high enough once the noodles are added the whole dish will taste flat. Add the noodles to the boiling water on the back of the stove and cook as the package directs. Probably in the neighborhood of 4-5 minutes. Drain and rinse the noodles
Evicted from their homes, but not finished yet!
under hot running water until the sticky film coating them is gone. While the noodles are draining and rinsing, now that you’ve seasoned the soup the way you want it we can add the mushrooms and snow peas and stir until the peas are cooked. Cook ONLY until the snow peas are bright green, any longer and their color will be unappealing and they will lose most of their sweetness to the soup liquid. At this point add the shelled clam meat and heat through. Squeeze the lime juice into the pot until you can just taste it. Lime, too, can overpower.
Block of dashi pulled from the deep freeze and into the pot.
To plate, put the noodles in serving bowls and ladle the broth over, making sure to distribute the veg and clams evenly. Arrange the reserved clams still in the shell around the bowl and add the sliced scallion, black and white sesame and shredded nori, and serve.
Veggies in for a VERY quick swim.
Some of these instructions may seem a little intense. For optimum flavor this is not a dish you can walk away from, though. It will need constant attention, but it will come together and ready to serve in less than half an hour if you already have dashi on hand, so this is also not a long babysitting job like a stock.
(Tip: make dashi, or any stock for that matter, in large batches and freeze it in usable portions for future consumption.)
These are not high level techniques, in any case. If you can’t focus on your cooking for half an hour at a time then I can’t help you anyway. At that point I would suggest following the package instructions and just cover your ramen with water in a bowl, add the contents of that foil packet, and let “Chef Mike”(rowave) do the work for you.
Pre-dinner snack. Sashimi plate of Surf clam, Hamachi belly, and Bonito tataki.
Live well and cook better,