Thursday, December 6, 2007

Use Your Noodle

Most people know that the winter holidays are approaching because the weather turns windy and frigid. Others take notice of the Christmas lights on their neighbors window, or of the carols playing on a loop in their favorite store. Me? I know it's Christmas when I start craving noodle soup. Not the kind you probably lived on back in college, but the authentic ramen full of fresh veggies, meats and seafood. You see, my mother usually comes from Spain to visit around the holidays and she gets straight off of the plane and demands that we have ramen for dinner. It's become a Christmas tradition for us that no matter how cold or snowy it is, we always walk down 2nd Avenue and through the village to our favorite noodle shop on 10th street.

The restaurant's seating runs along a wooden bar (surrounding the tiny open kitchen), and seats only about 8 people. A small counter facing out onto the street seats another two, and that pretty much makes up the maximum occupancy. The staff's English is a bit wonky, but the menu is so short that you can easily point to one of the 5 soups to get your point across. It's usually so cold when we go that we end up being thankful for the cramped corners and steamy kitchen. My glasses always fog over with fragrant steam, but that's okay. I don't have to see it to know it's good.

Like with everything else I try once and love, I went through a period of noodle soup obsession. My search for the perfect bowl of wonton soup began when I lived in Chinatown and ended when I found Wing Wong, makers of the world's best wonton noodle soup (according to me, anyway). I then moved on to searching for the best bowl of ramen. After years of searching I ultimately came to the conclusion that there is a lot of bad ramen out there. But I also came across Rai Rai Ken, the restaurant that would becaome a Christmastime tradition.

This week, as the weather turned frigid and snowy, I felt the familiar craving for a warm bowl of noodle soup. Knowing that I'd be trekking through the cold and snow only to sit at the bar all alone was enough to convince me that I could probably make real ramen for myself. So I dug out the curly noodles I'd bought months ago with the intention of making stir fry and got to work on figuring out how to develop a decent recipe for noodle soup.

It quickly became evident that the most important components to nail down for noodle soup were...the noodles and the soup. The noodles were taken care of, so I moved on to the soup. Most good noodle shops will have a seafood based broth and a soy sauce based broth (which is usually just mixed in with chicken or pork broth anyway). I like both equally, so I decided to mix some homemade chicken stock I had in the freezer with a bit of shrimp stock, soy sauce, and a few other ingredients. Then I focused on the chunkies. I happen to be very particular about the chunky ingredients in anything that I eat/cook. I don't really like chunky sauces, or a lot of chunky business clouding up my soups. So I tossed in some yummy small shitake mushrooms, a few peeled shrimp, and some large pieces of spring onion for flavor and garnish.

If I'd had any leftover dumplings I would have tossed those in too, but evidently I can eat 16 dumplings in one sitting, so that was a no-go. It didn't really matter in the end, because the soup turned out great--just as warming and delicious as I'd hoped. I doubt that my mom will accept my soup as a replacement for the one at Rai Rai Ken, but at least I have something to tide me over until she gets here. Convincing her to walk 20 blocks in stilettos is half of the fun anyway, and only emphasizes what a treat their soup is. Here's how to make your own:

Ramen (1 very large bowlfull!)

3 cups stock (any kind you like)
1/4 tsp minced ginger
1 tsp white sugar
1/2 tsp sesame oil
2 1/2 Tbsp soy sauce
2 spring onions, chopped into 2 inch long pieces
6 raw medium shrimp, peeled and de-veined
1 cup shitake mushrooms, sliced
1-2 cups ramen noodles (cook using package directions)

1. Bring stock to a boil and add soy sauce, ginger, sugar, sesame oil, shitake mushrooms and spring onions.

2. When the mushrooms have started to soften, add the noodles and shrimp. Cook until shrimp are cooked through. Enjoy!


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