Alimentary, My Dear
Iron Ration or Delicious Dinner? Ramen Has You Covered Either Way
By Tamia Nelson
December 16, 2014
Ramen has a well‑deserved reputation as a food of last resort. It's long been popular with college students, singles of both sexes, and anyone else who (1) can't cook (or doesn't have access to a proper kitchen) and (2) doesn't have the money or the time for a restaurant meal. Needless to say, I've eaten my share over the years.
But this rather dismissive summary gives ramen short shrift. Canoeists and kayakers often lack a "proper kitchen," and long days on the water can mean that time for cooking is in very short supply. There aren't many restaurants on most backcountry routes, either. Which makes ramen worth a second look. After all, it's light, cheap, and quick. It travels well, too. In the guise you'll most often encounter it on HyperMart shelves, it's packaged as a brick of noodles, and while a ramen brick isn't quite as durable as the kind made with clay, a broken brick of ramen is just as good as a whole one. So if you slip on the portage trail and the kitchen pack lands hard on some unyielding Shield granite, who cares?
Of course, nothing's perfect. Commercial ramen soup is a chemical feast, high in sodium and saturated fat. You probably won't want to make it the mainstay of your diet year in and year out, and if you're a salt‑sensitive hypertensive, you likely won't want to eat it at all. That said, and assuming you're willing to subject your heart and arteries to a gastronomic stress test from time to time, ramen is worth adding to your paddling menu. It makes a useful iron ration for days when time runs short — or at the end of trips that last longer than planned. And that's not all.
Ramen Is Versatile
It can even be transformed into the alfresco equivalent of gourmet fare. OK. You're right to be skeptical. I am exaggerating. Ramen dishes will never make it into the curriculum at Le Cordon Bleu. But they're worth the time and effort to prepare, nonetheless, particularly as the effort involved is small.
Let me prove it to you. But first, here are the ground rules: Unless I say otherwise, each recipe is based on one 3‑ounce ramen soup brick, and each will feed one reasonably hungry paddler — though you can always double, triple, or quadruple the given amounts. Just use a bigger pot. How big a pot, you ask? Well, I use a one‑quart pot for one package of ramen, and a two‑quart pot for two. (If you've any doubts in the matter, I'd recommend a trial run in your home kitchen.) And however large the pot, prep time is always short. This is ramen, remember? Boil the noodles according to package directions. They're ready to eat when they're as soft as you like them.
What flavor of ramen is best, and how much broth (seasoning) powder should you use? That's up to you. I often use only half of the seasoning packet — or sometimes none at all. It depends on the other ingredients I'm adding.
And finally, four cautionary notes, by way of emphasis:
- These are man‑cook‑safe recipes. If you can slice an onion without severing a fingertip, and then sauté it in a film of oil without setting fire to your shirt, you're good to go. But if you're still carrying scars from your last sojourn in the kitchen, simply let someone else do the cooking. (You can always do the washing up.)
- Ramen bricks will survive almost anything but total immersion. On the other hand, fresh ingredients must be packed and transported carefully to avoid contamination or spoilage.
- Test all new dishes at home before you take to the hills. No exceptions.
- Caveat cenator. Diner beware. The following recipes are suggestions. They're not commands. You know what you like. I don't. I'm not keen on hot peppers or fish sauce, for instance, but they might be your favorite things. Experiment, and let your own taste be your guide.
Now that these preliminaries are behind us, let's get down to business and …
Make a Meal of Ramen
I'll start with one of my favorites:
Egg Drop Ramen Make ramen. While it's on the boil, beat an egg gently in a small bowl or cup. When the noodles are nearly soft, drizzle the beaten egg into the broth, stirring the soup with a fork or chopstick. Thin strands of cooked egg form almost instantly on hitting the hot broth. Enjoy!
Peanutty Ramen Make ramen as directed. When the noodles have cooked, remove them from the heat, and stir one or two generous dollops of peanut butter into the broth. Keep stirring till the peanutty goop dissolves, then garnish the soup with whole peanuts, along with sliced, raw bell peppers or a dash of soy sauce.
Ginger, Garlic, and Sesame Ramen Heat a couple of tablespoons of sesame oil (hot or regular, according to taste) in a pot. Now sauté (1) a small piece of fresh ginger root (minced), (2) a clove or two of garlic, minced fine, and (3) a heaping tablespoon of sesame seeds. After no more than a minute — don't let the ingredients burn — add water to the pot and bring it to a boil. Now add a ramen brick, cook, and stir in the contents of the seasoning packet. Serve the soup garnished with chopped green onions (if you have them).
Curry Cashew Ramen Noodles Sauté chopped onions in canola or corn oil. When they're soft, sprinkle them with your favorite curry powder and mix thoroughly. Then add water to the pot, bring to a boil, and cook the noodles. When the ramen is ready, serve with a generous garnish of cashews.
Caesar Ramen Save a packet or two of the Caesar salad dressing that comes with many bagged greens. Cook ramen, and when the noodles are soft, drain the water and add the dressing. (Forgo the ramen seasoning packet.) Serve with a sprinkling of grated Parmesan cheese and top with croutons.
Cream of Chicken Ramen This recipe will serve two (or more). Boil water and add a ramen brick. Then, when the noodles are almost ready, stir in one or two packages of cream of chicken instant soup (Cup‑a‑Soup is probably the most familiar brand, at least in the States), plus a can of chicken (add the juices, too). Once the chicken is hot, you can serve the soup with crackers, or — if you're feeling ambitious — skillet biscuits.
Hungry‑Paddler Hearty Beef Ramen Unless the paddlers concerned have gargantuan appetites, this recipe will also feed two. Boil the noodles, but set the packaged seasonings aside unopened. When the noodles are done, drain off the water and then add a 15‑ounce can of beef stew to the pot. Return the pot to the stove (or fire) and heat until the stew bubbles. Tuck in!
Garden Vegetable Ramen Soup Fill a corner of your food bag with your favorite fresh, dried, or freeze‑dried garden vegetables. Peas, corn, carrots, cabbage, mushrooms, bell peppers, snow peas, onions and celery are all fair game. When it's time to make dinner, add these to the pot, along with enough water. (You'll need to add extra water if you're using dehydrated or freeze‑dried vegetables.) Bring to a boil. Once the vegetables are tender, crumble the ramen brick into the boiling water. Cook noodles and add seasoning according to package directions. Serve the soup when the noodles have softened.
Ramen has been a last‑resort meal for generations of students — and not a few kitchen‑shy singles. But it's also the hard‑pressed camp cook's friend. Always cheap and cheerful, these ubiquitous noodle bricks lend themselves to any number of tasty transformations, some of which border on gourmet fare. I've described a few of my favorite variations in the paragraphs above, but they're just a start. Why not tell me about your own? Drop me a note, and I'll be sure to pass the word along.
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