Because after a Certain Age, the flavor packet Just Doesn't FlY
You know you're a grown up when making ramen at home means getting out the pots and pans, as opposed to tearing open a flavor packet and sheepishly turning on the microwave. (At least you think you're a grown up. The reality is, you're probably still sucking down a bowl of this rich, pork-y goodness around 2:00am, after a late night out that may or may not have involved some paint-peeling karaoke and unnaturally bright cocktails, somewhere in the depths of Little Tokyo. Just me? Man, I hope not.
If the only ramen you've ever had came in a yellow and orange plastic packet with a side of roommates, shower shoes and questionable judgement, it's time to put down the Maruchan and experience the real deal.
The good stuff is unctuous and murky. It's packed full of salty and rich pork fat and often lent an unmistakable umami by fermented miso paste and the silkiness that only a runny egg yolk can produce. It's heaving with yellow-tinted, alkaline wheat noodles that hold up firmly in the broth and have a distinct chew that can't be beat. Topped with everything from pork belly and bok choy to soft-boiled eggs and seaweed, a bowl of ramen is a veritable blank canvas made vibrant by the call of your cravings. Ramen is what you want when you've had a soul-sucking week, a big night out or too many kale salads in a row.
Have I made ramen the hard way? Yes. I have roasted bones and slow cooked pork and spent the better part of three days cooking one dish. Was it worth it? Yes. Is that going to happen any time soon? No. With three jobs and the dream of some semblance of a social life, I'm not sure that slow-cooking pork solo in my kitchen with a glass of wine for three days, is a responsible use of my time.
While you'll never find me ripping open something with the words 'chicken flavor' stamped across it, I do recognize that there's a happy medium to be found. Homemade, but made quickly.
Makes about 4 servings
Place your mushrooms in a bowl and cover them with a cup of boiling water. Let them reconstitute.
Meanwhile, in a large pot, melt the coconut oil over medium heat and add the pork. With the back of a wooden spoon, break up the pork and cook it until it is no longer pink - about 3 minutes, then add half the sliced scallions and season it with salt and pepper. (Remember, miso is a bit salty, so keep that in mind when adding salt here.) Cook for a further minute.
Add the miso paste to the pork and mix to combine. Then, add the broth, soy sauce and Sriracha. Strain the mushrooms from the water, and pour the mushroom infused water into the soup, reserving the mushrooms as a topping. Bring the mixture to a simmer, and cook for about 10 minutes. During the last 3 minutes, add the bok choy.
While the soup is simmering, cook your noodles according to the instructions on the packet and soft boil your eggs. (For a perfect soft boiled egg, I gently submerge mine into moderately boiling water and cook them for 6 minutes, then dunk them in ice water to stop the cooking, before I peel them.)
Divide the noodles among your bowls, and add the broth with the pork and bok choy. Top your ramen with the mushrooms, grated carrots, remaining scallions, and halved, soft-boiled eggs. If you're feeling spicy, throw on a little more Sriracha.
This shouldn't take you more than about half an hour to make, once you get the hang of it. That leaves you with plenty of time to rehearse your karaoke game plan, so that next time you're better prepared.
As for the ungodly hour at which you choose to consume this delicious creation, well that depends entirely on how grown-up you're really feeling.
*Miso paste can be found in Asian supermarkets and in the refrigerated portion of the international section of Whole Foods.
(Full disclosure - the noodles in the photograph are spaghetti noodles, because if I don't make a shopping list, I basically can't function properly.)
Because sometimes, nothing beats a potato
Before you go getting the wrong idea, I just want to clarify something. Yes, I'm the girl who knows how to slow roast a pork shoulder, who swirls coconut cream artfully across the top of a bowl of homemade soup, and who makes almost everything from scratch (ugh, I know, sometimes I wanna punch me, too), but I'm also the girl who never has anything in the fridge, can call a tin of tuna and can of Pinot Noir dinner, and forgets that tequila, chips and guac do not a three course meal make.
It's all about checks and balances. I've certainly lived years of making sure the fridge was stocked and preparing three square meals a day (somehow I managed to be a child of the 80's and a 1950's housewife all rolled into one), but these days, breakfast is the only guarantee – the rest of the day I make no promises to myself. Sometimes I'm a put-together 33 year old who eats like she lives in the pages of a glossy food magazine, and sometimes I'm a college student who calls coffee and seven almonds, lunch. (Ok, so in college I probably would have skipped the almonds and opted for a packet of wine gums instead, but you know, older, wiser, etc...)
I'm great at cooking for others, when company's coming and when inspiration strikes – I'm just not so great at the moments in between. I forget that treating myself to what I am capable of is as important as sharing it with others. (I feel, perhaps, that there is a greater life lesson to be learned here, but I'm running on two scoops of almond butter and black coffee, after having shed a probable 40% of my water weight in a hot yoga class, so I'm not thinking bigger than my pruned self can handle right now.)
In an effort to do my mind and body a solid, I will occasionally make a big batch of something to have in the fridge, so that in those moments of irresponsible, non-adulting, I have satisfying and healthy nourishment at arms-reach. And once that batch is made, I can spend a full week eating it. Fortunately, if something's good and I'm into it, I'm slow to bore.
Between Halloween, a couple of late nights that led to late mornings, and work, this past week was a bit of a struggle. And when I struggle, all I can think of, is soup. From butternutty, to brothy, to roasted and tomatoey, a big pot of something steaming, soulful and savory is just about the only thing I want or want to make. For me, comfort is bowl-shaped and served with a spoon, and my state of mind is, more often than not, evidenced by the contents of my dish rack.
Having already gone down the butternut squash route last week, I shifted my focus to another classic: Leek and potato.. I've always loved this combination - it's simple, hearty and totally satisfying. Unfortunately, it's often laced with heavy cream or half and half, and delicious as that may be, it just doesn't sit right with me.
So I decided to skip the dairy and amp up the flavor by adding sweet potatoes instead. The soup is not overwhelmingly sweet, as the russets balance it out, but if has a depth of flavor that is needed in the absence of white gold.
Coarsely chop your cleaned leeks. Make sure all the grit and sand is rinsed out - these guys are deceptively dirty!
Add your bacon to a large, non-stick pot, over low-medium heat and render the fat until the bacon is cooked but not crispy.
Add the butter or oil to the pot and then add the leeks and sauté, moving them around occasionally so they don't burn, for about 10 minutes until soft. Add the minced garlic and cook for a further minute.
Add both the russet and the sweet potatoes and move them around the pot, to coat them with oil.
Finally, add in your vegetable stock, increase the temperature to achieve a firm, steady simmer, and cook the potatoes until soft - about 20 minutes.
Remove and discard the bacon, and working in batches or with an immersion blender, blend the soup to your desired texture. I like to leave a few little bits and pieces whole, but if you like it smooth - make it smooth! Season the soup with a healthy dose of salt and pepper.
To top it off, you can add a little sour cream, crème fraîche, or (in my case) goat's milk yogurt, some crumbled bacon and chopped chives.
I can't say that it cured me of a stressful week or one (very mild) hangover (awful but effective blue Powerade and 3 Advil did that), but it certainly gave me great comfort and the feeling that I was taking care of myself properly. Well, ish.
Now where's a pack of wine gums when you need 'em?
*If you want to stay vegetarian, simply skip this, and add about a tablespoon more of butter or coconut oil.
**It took six cups for me - but depending on the size of your potatoes it may take a little more. You want them completely covered with stock when boiling. And you want there to be enough liquid in the pot to achieve soup and not potato purée. Any time I make soup, I like to have an extra carton or batch of stock on hand, just in case.
Because there's something comforting in the predictable
Today I made butternut squash soup, because last year I made butternut squash soup. And you know what? I take great comfort in that.
It never ceases to amaze me how culinarily ritualistic we are in this country. Every year, like clockwork, when the last day of September rolls into the first day of October, the stone fruits and tomatoes of summer give way to the weightier squashes and sprouts of winter, and an entire nation switches its focus from the frivolity of warm weather fare, to the serious business of food with the intent to sustain.
Of course it makes sense - eating seasonally is not only environmentally sound, it's also a hell of a lot tastier. Sure, you can probably find a pear at the grocery store in the middle of April, but where exactly that pear comes from, and whether or not it tastes anything remotely like it should, is a separate issue. Just because it's available, doesn't mean you should be eating it.
But eating seasonally is more than just a smarter and more responsible choice - it has become an anchor that roots us in ritual, helps us understand the passing of time and gives us something to look forward to with every year that passes.
I think it's fair to say that we come to grips with where we stand through what we eat, and at no time of the year is that more apparent than during its final months.
October, for example, gives way to our annual obsession with all things pumpkin. (And I truly mean obsession - I'm pretty sure our economy would collapse entirely, if pumpkin farmers woke up one morning and decided to diversify.) The tenth month of the year isn't official without the introduction of cinnamon and nutmeg, and an almost abrasive shift from a varied color palette to food that takes on an overwhelmingly orange hue.
November may be the penultimate month of year, but more significantly, it is a time for butternuts and delicatas, and cranberries baked into everything - only to be followed by December, which culminates in a symphony of root vegetables roasted to the point of sweet caramelization and dessert-like satisfaction.
We are creatures of habit, tradition and the comfort they provide, and in a country of culinary innovators, we find ourselves churning out the exact same dishes year after year, because of it. Summer is for innovation, and winter reminds us of where we come from. We round out the year with grandma's pies, mom's stews, dad's cocktails and 'so-and-so's world famous something-or-others,' that have been passed down for generations.
So this year, like last year, and the year before it, I give you butternut squash soup with ginger - because if it ain't broke...
Set your oven to 400*F.
Slice you squashes in half, scoop out the seeds, oil the cut sides, season them with salt and pepper and place them, cut side down on a lined baking sheet. Roast them for 45 minutes to an hour, until soft
Meanwhile, add the coconut oil to a large pot over low-medium heat. Cook the onions until soft and slightly caramelized about 15-20 minutes, then add the ginger, garlic, brown sugar and cinnamon. Cook for a further minute.
Scoop the squash out of the skin and add it to the pot along with four cups of broth. Cook the soup for 15 minutes, until the squash has virtually 'melted' into the broth. At this point, you blend it. I use an immersion blender, but if you don't have one, carefully blend it in a standing blender in batches, then return the soup to the pot. If you feel the soup is too thick, and resembles baby food more than soup, add more stock.
Cook for a further 5-10 minutes and then season it with salt and pepper. Finally, stir in the butter, for a shiny, smooth and rich finish.
I like to top mine with some pumpkin and pomegranate seeds, and a swirl of coconut cream, because the combination of squash, brown sugar and coconut is absolutely divine! (And because everything's better with a little texture and a good garnish!)
As I sit here, eating my familiar and delicious squash soup, with Thanksgiving and Christmas fast approaching, I can already taste the meals that lie ahead. I can taste them, because I've been having them for the past 33 years. And I can tell you right now, if the brussel sprouts with walnuts and maple syrup don't make it onto the table, there will be uproar.
Tradition, in our very modern little family, is not to be messed with.
because Nothing Puts hair on your chest, like hot pink soup.
You may or may not have had Aquavit. This depends entirely on how many crazy Danes, Swedes and Norwegians you have in your life. For those of you who haven't had the pleasure, I think it's time to rectify that situation.
The Russians have vodka, the Mexicans have tequila and the Scandinavians have Aquavit, or as we Danes call it, snaps. This stuff will warm you up on a cold winter's day, keep you singing long into the night on a warm summer evening and take you by surprise when you realize that it's only a tiny shot-ful, until you've had 12.
This Nordic tipple comes in many different varieties, ranging from clean and pure, to spiced and infused, and at 37 - 40% proof, it packs a hell of a punch. Think of it like gasoline, but, you know, herbaceous.
Usually enjoyed with food, snaps is brought to the table at celebrations and casual Sunday lunches alike, and is a staple in Scandinavian dining. For my family, it is most notably enjoyed at Christmas time, as we stand, freezing our 'numser' off in the middle of a sub-zero forest on the 26th of December, enjoying a picnic of leftovers, while the youngest members of the family complain about how damned cold it is.
They're right, of course. It's stupidly cold. To any who pass us by, we look like a band of lunatics, dressed in every article of clothing we own, with fingers on the verge of frostbite, eating open-faced sandwiches, singing songs, and drinking snaps.
Photo: My sis (on the right) and I, wrapped in fur, boiler suits, and about four additional layers.
Lunatics? Yes. But the snaps makes us forget how cold it is. All children in our family eventually understand that once you graduate from warm cider (which they mostly use to dunk their frozen hands in, only to realize that it's even colder once they pull them out! Been there, done that) to this medicinal liquor, the picnic becomes a lot more fun.
The problem is, of course, when you get back from the picnic, the fireplace is roaring, and your internal temperature normalizes. I believe the saying is something like 'one snaps, two snaps, three snaps, floor.' Or is that tequila? Six of one, half a dozen of the other, I say.
It's at this point that we enjoy a big bowl of warming soup to comfort, fill and satisfy. Mom usually whips up a big pot of hearty sausage and bean soup, but I like the idea of pairing another Scandinavian staple, beets, with just a touch of Aquavit. The beets are earthy and sweet, the liquor adds a pop of herby depth, and the (very non-Nordic) coconut milk, mellows everything out. Plus, it's hot pink soup - reason enough I do believe.
To a large pot, over medium heat, add two tablespoons of coconut oil, the diced onion and all three spices, and sauté until the onions are translucent, stirring often so the spices don’t burn, about 15 minutes.
At this point, deglaze your pot with a 1/4 cup of Aquavit. This is absolutely my favorite part. When the spirit hits the heat, the smell is just incredible. It’s herby and piney, and brings back memories of long lunches and never-ending evenings. Cook, allowing the alcohol to burn off slightly, while retaining some of the liquid, about 2 minutes.
To the pot, add your whole, cleaned beets, coconut milk and vegetable broth. You want the beets completely covered. They obviously vary in size, so if you’re having a hard time getting the liquid to cover them, you can certainly slice the beets in half.
Cover the pot, and cook, at a steady simmer, for 45 minutes to an hour, until the beets are completely cooked through.
Remove the beets from the liquid, allow them to cool to the point where you can handle them, and, using a couple of paper towels, slide the skins off the beets.
Return the beets to the liquid, add the remaining two tablespoons of Aquavit, salt and pepper to taste, and cook for 5 minutes longer.
Finally, using an immersion blender, blender or Vitamix, carefully blend the soup until completely smooth. Serve the soup topped with some thinly sliced radishes, for crunch and bite.
So, here's some free advice: Make friends with a Scandinavian. Soon enough, you'll be sat long into the night, singing songs, telling tales and laughing wildly. And with any luck, you'll find yourself frostbitten in the middle of a dark forest, surrounded by 22 crazy loons, delightfully numb and happy.