“30 cloves of peeled garlic”
Those words alone should have been enough to dissuade me. Or any normal human being. But instead I found myself on the subway Sunday morning, heading to my friend Michael’s, with a backpack reeking of pork braised in thirty – yes, thirty – cloves of garlic, along with a small army of mason jars filled with stock and chicken schmaltz.
So why travel 40 minutes from home with a backpack stuffed with unidentifiable, pungent edibles that, under different circumstances, would’ve gotten me swiftly escorted to airport security? Ramen, baby. That’s why.
I’ve had ramen on the brain for a few weeks now, and it turns out I’m not the only one: Lucky Peach recently compiled a Guide to the Regional Ramen of Japan. Grub Street and Rachel Khoo both featured stories on the topic last week. And just a few days ago, NOWNESS re-posted its short film, “The Eight Chapters of Ramen“, about NYC ramen chef-extraordinaire, Ivan Orkin. It’s a topic that’s been part of the zeitgeist for a couple of years now, but I get the sense that this year, 2015, will be ramen mania, full steam ahead. Consider yourselves warned.
In theory, I’m really into the idea of ramen – the salty broth, packed to the gills with umami; the melt-in-your-mouth pork belly; the slippery noodles and soft-boiled egg; the chopped scallions and squishy shiitake. The obnoxious part about food trends is that they prove you can have too much of good thing. At some point, they become so pervasive that you start to wish they’d never caught on. (Remember last year’s fetishisation of grilled cheese? The countless photos of triple-decker grilled cheese sandwiches oozing all over everyone’s social media stream? The specialty grilled cheese shops that started popping up everywhere, like a rash you couldn’t get rid of? Mac-n-cheese grilled cheese! Poutine grilled cheese! Bacon-double-cheeseburger grilled cheese. Scary, scary times.)
I think it’s fair to say that in North America, ramen is still walking that fine line between novelty and ubiquity, two extremes that often lead us down the disappointing path of sub-par food. I’ve never been to Japan, but I can tell you that some pretty ho-hum – not to mention obscenely-priced – bowls of ramen have crossed my lips in this town, with blah-tasting broth, missing pork, or a missing egg, or some other delicious thing missing that you then have to order on the side, at an extra cost. Gah! Why??
So at some point I figured, why not make my own ramen? Heck, then I could have the egg AND the pork AND all the other bits. The only problem was that I’d never actually made ramen before, and it seemed like a pretty long, laborious, intimidating process (it’s actually not so bad, but more on that later). For a first attempt, I needed to recruit someone else – a partner in crime, a compadre, a guardian angel – to bolster my confidence and see me through to the end.
Enter Michael – the man who whips up daunting recipes from the Momofuku cookbook like it’s nobody’s business, and who knows exactly where to get hard-to-find Asian cooking loot, like bonito dashi granules and togarashi. He didn’t even flinch when I suggested (with a string of exclamation marks) that we make a 5-part recipe that included 30 peeled cloves of garlic (p.s that’s just for the pork, friends), plus homemade garlic oil and homemade fried garlic powder. Most people would look at me cock-eyed if I’d proposed the same feat to them. You want to make WHAT? You’re going to PEEL all those cloves? Are you out of your mind? But not Michael. That’s one of the reasons I like him. Not only does he get that level of insanity, he actually partakes in it.
The recipe we used – appropriately named “The Vampire Slayer Ramen-Express” comes from Mandy Lee’s site, Lady and Pups. She lays everything out, step-by-step, with pretty photos and her signature dry wit. For the full recipe, click here.
Now, before you get going on this one…some words of advice:
- make components ahead – don’t try to make all of the ramen components in one day. Doing that will want to run from the kitchen and jump off a bridge. Pick a quiet day at home to make the stock (which you can then keep in the fridge or freeze). In this case, I made the stock and braised pork on the Saturday to serve on the Sunday. It was a breeze cause there was no rush – just me, the stock, the pork and a few back-to-back episodes of Broadchurch. On his side of things, my compadre made the garlic oil, garlic powder and soft-boiled eggs ahead of time, so once we got together, all that was left to do was boil the noodles, rewarm the (already soft-boiled) eggs in their shell, heat up the pork, and add the soy milk to the stock before putting it on the stove to simmer.
- don’t worry about making noodles from scratch – we sure as hell didn’t. The dried ones (not instant!) from the Asian grocery worked out perfectly.
- simplify your stock – you’re trying to achieve an opaque broth that is neutral-tasting (don’t go sticking a bay leaf in there, friends). Mandy Lee even suggests not adding salt, which is sound advice seeing that it allows you to adjust the seasonings according to whatever recipe you’re making with the leftover stock.
- don’t skip the pork bones in the stock – just don’t
- keep an eye on that braised pork – make sure that the braising liquid doesn’t dry up; baste it/turn it from time to time during the cooking process and add more liquids if necessary. I wasn’t paying attention and my braising liquid dried up in the last 20 minutes in the oven, resulting in shrivelled (albeit, tasty) shiitakes and pork that was a little less moist than it should’ve been.
- if you can’t find a hunk of prosciutto – any dry-cured ham will do for the stock. In this case, my butcher suggested some cured (and cubed) Bayonne ham, and it worked out great.
Now go forth and make ramen, you crazy fools!