Sometimes I say something crazy like – “I’m going to make ramen!” and when my fiance Luke hears me say it, he actually takes it as “I’m going to make ramen, I’m totally going to do the thing.” You’d think after being together for almost five years now that he’d know by now that what I really meant was “I might think about making ramen, but who knows if I’ll actually get around to it or become totally distracted by something else like petting a dog or doing laundry or googling how much dream vacations might cost.” One day I was looking at Bon Appetite and offhandedly said I was going to make it, and I knew the moment I said it eventually it was something I was going to have to do because he was so excited. I looked at a lot of recipes for shoyu ramen, but the instructions on the Bon Appetite recipe seemed really straightforward so that was the one I decided to go with.
I have a confession… I’ve never had ramen. I don’t mean I’ve never had authentic ramen in a restaurant, I mean I’ve never had ramen ever, including those prepackaged sodium-laden instant noodles microwaved in a styrofoam cup. I know that people go crazy for both, but for some reason I’ve just never gotten around to it on my list of things to try, and it wasn’t a thing in my house growing up so I just didn’t have it. Although I’m sure at any point I could have spent a dollar (or less?) and bought a pack of instant ramen and make it in three minutes, where’s the fun in that, and why not make shoyu ramen that takes three days? Although as I type this David Chang has already proclaimed that the now ubiquitous ramen is dead, I’m more than ready to take on this recipe.
Although I have a terrible track record with anything involving dough (Luke once saw me get so mad trying to make spaetzle that I inexplicably tried to punch an open flame), I decided to make the noodles myself since I did get a nice shiny new pasta roller that was begging to be used. This recipe on Lucky Peach seemed perfect and I bought some pre-made backup noodles if mine turned out to be an inedible disaster. In learning to cook I’ve realized a backup plan is essential, at least for me (because hey – kind of person who punches fire over here.)
First things first, I went off collecting ingredients. I figured that it wouldn’t be too hard to find anything since there’s a plethora of Asian markets in and around Buffalo, and even Wegmans’ international section has a decent selection of stuff. WELL, I wound up having to go to the farmer’s market, Wegmans, and THREE Asian markets! It was mostly due to one ingredient — the dried kombu that is a pretty essential ingredient. If you’re planning on making this, honestly, I would just order it online. I wound up finding it at the expansive Ni Hoowa on Sheridan Drive, and it was only after I got home that I realized it expired 12/2014. Ugh! I made the executive decision that it would still be okay to use, mostly due to me being too lazy to track it down elsewhere or wait for it to be ordered online and shipped — it was the last place I went for it so the thought of going to yet another place (during the hellish winter maelstrom Buffalo is going through right now) wasn’t high on my list. I got the pork from T-Meadow Farms. Pork is such a foreign concept to me — I think I’ve eaten it twice and cooked it once… more on that another time though.
It’s stated that the recipe takes three days, which I’m sure scares some people away. The first day is hardly anything, soak this, mix that together — soaking the dried kombu overnight in water makes dashi which you use for the liquid in the stock. The second day was the most involved, browning the pork, then basically dumping in pork ribs, chicken necks and backs, ginger, garlic, bonito flakes, and dashi and simmering for around three hours to make a stock. I was pretty apprehensive about this whole recipe due to my “meh-ness” when it comes to pork, but I have to admit as it all simmered together I was pretty surprised to find myself hovering over the giant stock pot and huffing it.
Finally, it was ramen day. With Luke’s help we rolled out the alkaline noodle dough I made — that stuff is TOUGH! Just kneading I felt like my arms got a pretty good workout. We rolled it through what I now know is a very crappy and cheap pasta machine (just another example of you get what you pay for, I suppose.) We did manage to make something that resembled ramen noodles. I was really surprised it worked, I wasn’t expecting it to. I can definitely see how with a good pasta machine it would be pretty simple — KitchenAid pasta roller, I’m looking at you… Anyway, I had everything complete and was feeling pretty confident about how things were shaping up. I put a bowl together and I asked Luke (BTW – did I mention that he’s a professional photographer? And not the “hey, let me take sleazy pictures of you for Model Mayhem kind” but the “earns money from it and pays bills” kind) to take a photo of it… of course you can’t have a food blog without photos.
I only mention the photos because as we went into the other room where there was proper light, a certain dog crept off the couch, silently moved the gate that was in front of the kitchen door and ATE 90% OF THE PORK off the cutting board. Gone. He was so happy. My T-Meadow Farm pork that I had been browning and braising for hours until it was perfectly tender was no more. I couldn’t even be mad at him, I should have known that a gate propped up wouldn’t keep him out — especially because all day he was sniffing the air and peering creepily in the kitchen from around the corner wondering what was going on that he couldn’t be part of. Chops is getting up there in age these days so he’s adopted this “I can do whatever I want, I’m old, screw you young people!” attitude that is pretty difficult to deal with. Like “oh, yeah, you’re very dramatic in the morning about not wanting to get off the couch to go outside, but the moment I turn my head you zoom into the kitchen like a scavenger and see what you can find.” He didn’t even have the decency to try to look a little bit adorably remorseful. Maybe my backup plans need to not only include “What if I mess up this recipe, what will we eat instead?” but also “What if a dog eats everything while I look away for two seconds?”
At least everything else was still intact, so we split what pork was in the one bowl. It’s really hard for me to judge this dish because I’ve never had ramen so I literally have nothing to compare it to — regardless, it was amazing, and was perfect on a day when it’s snowy and crummy and the last thing I want to do is go anywhere (which I did anyway to have my taxes done, so that was SUPER FUN). Luke thought it was fantastic and he said it’s not the “best” bowl of ramen he’s ever had, but certainly the best homemade attempt he’s ever tried (he grew up in Toronto, and is obsessed with this one ramen place he goes to with his cousin called Santouka.)
I would make this recipe again in a heartbeat — it was pretty easy and hands-off and it makes a bunch, and if you’re scared off by the time, don’t be, because it’s not too much more involved than making stock, even more so if you buy pre-made noodles. There’s also so many other kinds of ramen that I’m now interested in trying. It’s sort of like pizza — it’s all pizza but there’s many different styles and even more toppings. Serious Eats has a great article that really breaks down all the types of toppings, bases, styles, and the differences between them — it really helped me a lot to actually get what ramen was about, because before this I really just viewed it as a sort of noodle soup without realizing how complex it was. I will be making other types of ramen down the road — the hardest part apparently is acquiring the ingredients (unexpired) and successfully keeping nosy pets out of the kitchen.