Ramen: A Japanese noodle soup dish, consisting of Chinese-style wheat noodles served in a meat or fish-based broth, often flavored with soy sauce or miso, and featuring such toppings as sliced pork, dried seaweed, kamaboko and green onions.
OK my friends, I know this sounds a little crazy coming from an Italian chef, but the definition you just read is a major part of the story you’re about to read.
I recently was relaxing in Vail, Colo., and my wife asked what I wanted for lunch. I had been reading an article in one of my many “foodie magazines” I’d brought with me on this trip, so I shouted out: “Ramen. I would like ramen for lunch.”
My wife laughed and said, “Sorry, I have already been to the store, and I didn’t buy you any of those little packages.”
Not that we ever have had those in our inventory at home, but she knew what I was referring to.
If you happen to follow “what’s hot” in food trends for 2015, you probably have already heard about the “Ramen Craze” that’s hitting American cities. I’m not talking about the little packages that every college kid survives on in their dorm rooms. I’m talking about the real McCoy. Check out David Chang’s great magazine Peach and the articles this month on ramen.
My wife thought I was crazy when I told her that perhaps we should just make our own. She told me she had heard of a new restaurant in Vail that served some of the best ramen that local food critics were recommending. I told her maybe we needed to do a little research and go try the restaurant, but in the meantime I was making up a grocery list to do my own homemade version.
Yes, an Italian chef was going to prepare ramen, and I was going to put an Italian flair to the dish.
I love pork and chicken, so I thought I would make a nice chicken broth and roast some pork belly for the main ingredient of the dish.
I know eggs are a big part of the broth, but I really don’t just toss a soft egg in my soup.
I am more used to an Italian-style Chinese egg drop-style soup called Stracciatella, which comes from the verb “stracciare” or “strappare,” meaning “to tear.”
My mind began to race, and I really thought I was onto something. I thought that if I was going to do research and prepare this dish, I probably would want to share it with guests at my restaurant. This could be a huge new project and a big hit. Seriously, it’s not often that an Italian chef veers off the path of authenticity — especially not me!
After a while, with my mind speeding along, I also thought I would like to put some greens in the dish. And not just ordinary spinach. Perhaps a little escarole? I knew my ramen needed something crunchy, so of course I was adding snow peas and perhaps a little ginger for even more flavor and some mushrooms.
Garlic and leeks would surely be on my ingredient list. A little chopped parsley would round out the seasoning, as I’m not really big into cilantro.
The broth would be the most important part of this dish, because that’s my real base. We had just returned from the Le Creuset store, where I had just purchased a beautiful five-quart soup pot. My grocery list was almost complete, so it was off to the local store.
The rest of the family was skiing the slopes of Vail while I worked on my new project. I was very content in my nicely heated condo while the temperature outside was close to 10 degrees below zero, with record snowfall in the area. Let the family ski and freeze. I was very happy working in my kitchen.
I had picked up chicken and a nice chunk of pork belly at the grocery store, and with a very simple dip in soy sauce and brown sugar spread on top, I slow-roasted the belly until the internal temperature reached about 145 degrees.
In the meantime I painted the chicken with a little dab of tomato paste, added a generous amount of salt and pepper, and placed it in the oven to roast. This is one of my little tricks for a hearty and rich stock.
When the chicken reached 160 degrees, I removed it from the oven and added it to my boiling pot of water, leeks and ginger. I then placed a lid on my new Le Creuset, lowered the fire and just let the chicken go to work in the broth.
Did I mention anything about the noodles I would use? Most grocery stores do not carry the Japanese ramen noodle, so my suggestion is to purchase packages of ramen in the grocery store, discarding the little seasoning package.
You can also use angel hair thin pasta, but I prefer the ramen noodles. Most ramen noodles are made from four basic ingredients — wheat, flour, salt, water and kansui, which is essentially a type of alkaline mineral water, containing sodium carbonate and usually potassium carbonate, as well as sometimes a small amount of phosphoric acid.
After about two hours, I was ready to put the final touches on my very own ramen dish. I added ginger, scallions and garlic, as I was really preparing a Chāshū Ramen, with chicken broth instead of miso. Hey, like I said, this was my own version, a dish I would call Italian Ramen when I finished.
I added the escarole and some soy sauce about 15 minutes before I planned to serve the dish, along with some very thinly shaved dry mushrooms. I cooked the ramen noodles in a separate pot, and when I was ready to serve I found the biggest bowls I could in the cabinet to place the noodles in, after draining.
The next step was easy. I removed the whole chicken and broke it down, removing all bones and the back, adding that to the pot and stirring.
The final step was just a little tricky. In a separate bowl I whisked three eggs and, just like I would make my Italian Stracciatella, added them to the pot in a long, slow stream. I love the little tears that form. One thing to remember: Never stir the soup after this.
I then let it all simmer on the stove for about five more minutes. I then ladled the hot broth into the bowls, adding some minced raw scallions and chopped parsley on top, placing the pork belly on top of it all.
I served it with a cutout of sheet of Nori (seaweed) and placed it on the table. I dusted the top with some grated Pecorino Romano and served to my family as the first guests of my Italian Ramen.
To my surprise, the dish looked very authentic. I stayed at the head of the table and waited as my family looked up after eating the first couple bites. The minute I saw my daughter smile and wink at me, I knew I had succeeded.
Wow! This could be a big hit, not only at the Mirabile household but at our restaurant. Would I dare? You’re going to have to just wait and see. Keep your eyes and ears open, and you might just see a “Coming Soon — Italian Ramen” sign popping up in Kansas City.
Chef Jasper’s Notes: Ramen should be served with chopsticks and a ramen spoon. Also, don’t feel embarrassed — it’s OK to slurp when enjoying this dish.
Chef Jasper J. Mirabile Jr. of Jasper’s runs his family’s 59-year-old restaurant, consistently rated one of Kansas City’s best Italian restaurants. In addition to running the restaurant with his brother, Mirabile is a culinary instructor, founding member of Slow Food Kansas City and a national board member of the American Institute of Wine and Food. He is host to many famous chefs on his weekly radio show “Live! From Jasper’s Kitchen” on KCMO 710 AM and 103.7 FM. He also sells dressings and sauces.