Sunday, October 26, 2008

Noodle Soup

After making dinner last night, I had a large pot of leftover chicken broth. While there are plenty of recipes that use chicken broth, I was in the mood to have it straight up -- after all, there are few things better in life than a hot bowl of pure chicken essence.

While I could have easily enjoyed the soup plain, with no enhancement, I was also realistic. While delicious, a bowl of broth will only fill me for so long. So I turned to a staple in Chinese households: noodle soup.

There are thousands variations to this hot, filling, comforting meal, and this is just my take on it this particular day. But there are two basics that provide the foundation and never change: soup and noodles. What else you put in can and probably will change, depending on what you have on hand. And that's why I love making noodle soup so much: as long as you have a base for soup (even water + soy sauce will do, if you're really pressed), you have noodle soup. Everything else is an improv, and depending on the maker can be teeming with meat and vegetables, or an austere experience, with few if any additions.

Since not everyone is fortunate enough to grow up with a mother who made noodle soup fairly consistently on a weekly basis when they were young (as I did), it might not be second nature to quickly and efficiently whip up this delicious meal. But once you have the right equipment and ingredients on hand -- and it doesn't take much -- I guarantee any feelings of hesitation or intimidation will go away, and you'll make it all the time.

Here are some of the basics.

1) You need a soup base. This can be leftover homemade stock, canned/boxed stock, a water-based sauce mixed with water, a quick broth made from boiling shrimp shells, or even, as mentioned before, water mixed with some soy sauce. Heck, you could even rip open a package of ramen and use the soup base from that. Use your imagination; it doesn't take a lot to create a usable stock for a bowl of noodles. Of course, the higher quality the soup base, the better your soup noodles will taste. :-)

2) You need noodles. I like soft noodles with medium thinness, somewhere between spaghetti and capellini. But you need the Asian kind, not Italian pasta, in order to make proper noodle soup. You wouldn't make pasta with Asian noodles, and the reverse is true as well. If you go to an Asian supermarket (such as 99 Ranch), the variety of noodles -- both dry and fresh -- can be overwhelming (rice, egg, flour, round, flat, thick, thin, everywhere in between). You can try each one, of course, to find your favorite, but as a quick recommendation for those who don't want to bother, this is the one I'm currently using and like it quite a lot:

Asian Taste Shandong Ramen (Thin), 5lb box

I like the size and consistency, as well as the simplicity of the ingredients: wheat flour, water, salt.

Sometimes I like much thinner noodles to have in broth, in which case I turn to these Japanese dried noodles, which has the same simple ingredients as the one above:

Japanfood Tomoshiraga Somen, 3lb box.

3) You may want to add additional ingredients to the noodle soup to liven it up a bit. The possibilities here are endless, but the key is that you want ingredients that cook fast: leafy vegetables, shrimp, sliced fish, mushrooms, fish balls, tofu, thinly sliced meat, cooked leftovers from previous meals (you'll have to use your judgment), or even crack a whole raw egg in (an excellent standby, as nearly everyone has eggs in the fridge).

The sky is the limit when it comes to personalizing your own bowl of noodles -- it will be delicious regardless of how much or how little you add to it. :-)

4) You may want to have additional condiments on the side, such as spicy chili sauce, seasoned tofu, pickled turnips, century eggs, again the possibilities here are endless. Roam the aisles of an Asian supermarket and you'll find a large selection to choose from. Again just to help you narrow things down if you're making this for the first time, here are my two staple condiments for noodle soup:

Some kind of chili sauce is essential to me, and I absolutely LOVE this one; I could eat it all on its own. Though I can and do eat very spicy foods, this particular chili sauce is fairly mild -- but it has a wonderful flavor. The pickled chili radish is also a favorite of mine, though again very mild.

Left: Kimlan Chili Radish; Right: Yonk Sing Chili XO Sauce

There's really not much to putting it all together.

First, boil a large pot of water. When the water's boiling, throw in some dried noodles. You can put just enough in for however many servings you're making, or enough for several extra servings if you have a lot of broth to use up. Generally I like to make extra, for the energy-saving benefit (you're boiling a pot of water either way) and also for the time benefit. Subsequent bowls of noodle soup will take half the time or less than it took to make the initial bowl.

When the noodles are soft and cooked through (about 6 minutes, or as instructed), turn off the heat and pour everything into a colander. The hot water will drain away and you'll be left with a bunch of hot noodles. Rinse the noodles with cold water to stop the cooking (you don't want them mushy), using your hands or chopsticks to move the noodles around to make sure they all get hit with cold water. Let that drain for a bit, then transfer the noodles to a large bowl. At this point, if you're ready to make the noodle soup, you can just portion out what you'll need, or if you're planning to make the meal later, stick the noodles in the fridge.

Regardless of what kind of noodles you choose, you should do this "wash." This step, though it might seem extraneous, is actually very important. Boiling the noodles washes out extra starch and any impurities, and perhaps more importantly, also reconstitutes the noodles, which soak up a lot of liquid. In this case, they'll soak up the water. If you throw dried noodles in with your soup base, they'll use that liquid to reconstitute, and you'll be left with no broth. When I was on my own and making this for the first time, I skipped this step, and the resulting bowl of noodles wasn't nearly as good as the ones my mother and grandmothers served. The initial boil-wash solved that. Also, it lessens the prep time for making subsequent meals if you've made extra noodles, as later on all you're doing is warming up the noodles in the soup rather than cooking them.

In a pot with plenty of room, start heating up enough broth to supply however many bowls of noodles you're serving. At this point I usually add ingredients that might take a little more time to warm through but that don't need to be cooked quickly (like raw eggs), such as large pieces of tofu, cauliflower, sliced fish, shrimp, fish balls, thickly sliced meat, mushrooms, etc., so that they're warming up at the same time as the broth.

When the broth comes to a boil, add items such as leafy greens, thinly sliced meat, or crack a whole raw egg or two into the soup. In this case, I used cooked chicken (from making the broth), cooked carrot (ditto), sliced mushrooms, and a few fish balls, all of which I added to the broth as it was warming up. Once it was boiling, I added a handful of spinach. Once you've made this a few times, you'll get a sense for when to add your additional ingredients. The one thing you want to avoid is adding too much at the end, after you've already included the noodles, because the longer the noodles cook in the soup (remember, they're already cooked), the softer they'll get and the more they'll soak up the liquid, which might leave you with a bunch of fat, mushy noodles and no broth.

Lastly, add the cooked noodles to your soup base. Bring it to a boil and let it simmer for a minute or two -- not much longer. Turn off the heat, portion out the noodles, ingredients, and soup, and you're done!

If you've made extra noodles, the next time you make this meal it will go even faster. Just start heating up the broth and any extra ingredients, and when it's boiling, take the cooked noodles out of the fridge and toss them in. Unless you've got some really complicated additions (but why would you? The beauty of this is how delicious yet fast it can be), it should take you 10 minutes tops to put a hot, steaming bowl of noodle soup on the table -- a meal that's filling, satisfying, and easy.

I should also note that adding ingredients and extra condiments to instant ramen noodles -- the kind you cook on the stovetop, not the kind you microwave -- is also a tried and true method for a fast and satisfying (though less healthy) meal. Ramen soup base is usually ideal for cracking in a raw egg once the soup is boiling -- you can then let it cook whole, or swish it around a bit and you've got an egg drop soup going.

1 comment:

Jade said...

I *just* did this the other day - and I totally used my new egg whites and it was delicious! I'm most excited by the noodle recs, though, because I've been having trouble finding an Asian noodle I really dig.