Saturday, March 17, 2012

Easy Noodles I: The Basics for a Quick Lunch

Growing up and later in college, ramen noodles were a staple for me. Much has been written about how instant ramen noodles are going to kill you because of their utter lack of nutrition or their Franken-chemical origins. While the nutritional value of ramen noodles is easily contested, I don't think they are all that bad for you, especially if you don't eat them everyday. I would argue that if you are poor and need an inexpensive and fast lunch, instant ramen noodles can be used creatively as a base in healthier dishes that satisfy. The main strategy for preparing dishes with instant noodles is having a vegetable, a protein and sauce to complete the transition of ramen from a snack food to a nominal lunch.

This post will be the first in a series of 'Easy Noodles' recipes that will take you from basic white trash cooking with instant ramen to more develop noodle recipes that are only slightly more labor intensive.

The basic formula for Easy Noodles is something like this:

2 packages instant ramen noodles
1 cup frozen mixed vegetables
100 g of firm Chinese style tofu or chicken
1-2 cloves of garlic, minced
1-2 Tbsp of dark sesame oil
furikake to taste (optional)

Prepare the noodles either whole or broken in half or quarters. Discard oil packet. Use broth mix at your discretion - I normally use it. Pour boiling water over the noodles in a large bowl or in a small pot with a lid and cover. Use less water than when making noodles for soup and let stand longer than the instructions advise for noodles that are more heftier from absorbing more of the broth but still have some liquid at the bottom. Depending on the brand of instant noodles you use, the noodles will reach optimal readiness in 8 to 10 minutes. Do not heat noodles in boiling water on the stove.

While noodles are soaking, defrost 3/4 to 1 cup of your favorite frozen vegetables in 1/4 cup of warm water on medium heat for about 5-6 minutes. I like a kind called 'Mexico Mix' that has green beans, carrots, red peppers, corn and green peas. You can experiment with other types of frozen vegetables or vegetable blends.

In a flat no-stick frying pan, heat 1-2 tablespoons of dark sesame oil over medium high heat and add garlic, stir-frying for 1 minute. Add cubed tofu and cook in oil for 3-4 minutes until all sides are browned. If you don't have a non-stick pan (I don't) you can saute garlic and tofu on lower heat for about twice the cooking time to prevent sticking. Use a wooden spoon to stir the tofu.

If you are going to use fresh chicken, 100 grams is equal to about 1/1 to 1/3 of a raw chicken breast. Cut the chicken into small cubes and prepare just as you would the tofu, cooking slightly longer on high heat - about 6-8 minutes.

When the noodles are ready, simply top with warm vegetables, tofu and any condiments that you like such as furikake, soy sauce, teriyaki or tamari sauce or another tablespoon of dark sesame oil.

Variations: if you have time and a steamer, you could also prepare small amounts of fresh vegetables for the dish. A handful of broccoli with the skin removed and cut down to smaller flowerets will be ready in about the same time - 5-6 minutes. Carrots, cauliflower take more time but other fresh vegetables like snap peas, onions, bell peppers and bean sprouts could be stir-fried.

In addition, other meats could be used - leftover chicken, turkey, pork,. beef or frozen shrimp could be reheated using the same basic technique as for preparing the tofu above with slightly less cooking time - 3-5 minutes.


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