Cheap, easy to prepare and relatively filling, instant ramen is the go-to staple of bleary-eyed, penny-pinching college students everywhere.
Instant ramen doesn't have to be boring, however. In fact, it's more versatile than you might think. New York star chef David Chang recently dedicated several pages of his ramen-themed first issue of Lucky Peach magazine to innovative ways of revamping the heavily processed foodstuff into more palatable – even delicious – dishes. His recipes include such clever creations as Instant Ramen Fideos, cooked in a pan with shellfish and chorizo, and Instant Ramen Gnocchi Parisienne, puréeing the noodles with milk and eggs to make a gnocchi dough.
To help those of you returning to campus life (literally or figuratively) this fall, we've asked chefs for more ideas on how to reinvent your ramen.
Ramen with peanut butter
Yes, you read that correctly. Adding a spoonful of peanut butter to your bowl of instant ramen may sound a little weird, but Alana Peckham, chef of Cru restaurant in Vancouver, swears the combination works – especially for spicy ramen.
"It's like a spicy peanut sauce," she says. "It thickens up the soup ... [so]it's not so much of a noodle-in-a-cup idea. It almost makes it seem as though the soup base was reduced down."
Peanut butter can also be mixed with a dollop of hoisin sauce, some lime juice and fish sauce to make a dressing for tossed noodles, she suggests. Cook the noodles as you would normally, drain them, reserving some of the cooking liquid at the bottom of the pot. Add in all the dressing ingredients, along with the packet of flavouring, and toss together. The hot cooking liquid will help melt the peanut butter for an even coating. Finish by adding some vegetables, and perhaps some meat such as Chinese sausage or barbecued pork.
Noodles with Korean banchan
"My girlfriend usually takes care of the fixing up of the ramen, and she's really good at it. We just had some the other day, actually," says Dustin Gallagher, chef of Toronto's Grace restaurant.
Mr. Gallagher likes kimchee-flavoured ramen, but he advises against using the entire flavour packet. "The salt in it gets a little out of control."
He suggests buying an assortment of banchan, or Korean side dishes of pickled and prepared vegetables, such as kimchee, green onion and seaweed, and some nori, or dried seaweed (available at Asian grocery stores). Cook the noodles in boiling water, and in a separate pot poach an egg for about three to five minutes in water spiked with a little acid, such as vinegar or lemon juice, at medium-high heat. Add the egg to the noodles, and garnish with some julienned nori, fresh green onion and banchan.
Duck leg-duck egg stew over ramen
Just because it's instant doesn't mean you should rein in your cooking skills. Chef David McMillan of Montreal's Joe Beef restaurant suggests buying a couple of raw duck legs and removing most, but not all, of the skin. Take the meat off the bone and dice into big chunks. Sauté with a small carrot, a small stick of celery and a French shallot, all chopped. Deglaze (or dissolve all the brown bits at the bottom of the pot) with two heaping tablespoons of ketchup and a dollop of soy sauce, and add a bottle or half a can of Guinness, with an equal volume of water. Cover and let simmer in a 300F oven for a couple of hours. Once done, bring the stew to a boil on the stovetop, and take off the heat. As soon as it stops boiling, break in a duck egg. Count to 30, then stir the egg. Spoon the mixture over the cooked ramen noodles and serve.
As though reciting from Dr. Seuss, Mr. McMillan rattles off all the possibilities for using the leftover stew: "Duck leg-duck egg over asparagus, duck leg-duck egg over halibut, duck leg-duck egg over duck breast … " You get the point.
Chilled noodle salad
"For a staff meal once, we bought, like, 12 packets of Mr. Noodle and made a chilled salad with it," says Matt DeMille, chef of Toronto restaurant Enoteca Sociale. "It's pretty good, actually."
Cook the noodles, then chill them, Mr. DeMille says. To make a vinaigrette, mix some rice wine vinegar with sesame oil, a little soy sauce and about half the packet of seasoning. Toss the noodles in the vinaigrette and add some sliced green onions and plenty of shredded carrots and daikon.
"All the vegetables are raw and crunchy," Mr. DeMille says. "It's kind of like a pasta salad, with kind of an Asian twist to it."
Alternatively, he suggests, take the uncooked noodles and pulverize them in a food processor to use as a crust for chicken, fish or pork chops.
Chef Charlotte Langley of The Whalesbone Oyster House in Ottawa cautions that she's never tested this before, but if given a packet of instant noodles, this is what she'd do:
Take the noodles out of the package, whole, and fry them in shallow oil. Crisp each side until golden. Top the noodles with slices of Chinese barbecued pork. Mix soy sauce, rice vinegar and fresh lemon juice with the flavour packet to make about a quarter cup of liquid total. Add to the pan. Take a leaf of Savoy cabbage and lay it over the noodles, so it acts as a lid, under which the noodles and pork will steam. Throw it all in the oven for half an hour at 300F.
Transfer onto a plate and, using the same pan, cook an egg in the remaining liquid. Serve with the egg on top, and finish with a sprinkle of sesame seeds.
Instant noodles with Thai-style hot and sour soup
In Thailand, street vendors often will offer instant noodles as an optional addition to their hot and sour soup, says Angus An, chef of Maenam restaurant in Vancouver.
To make the soup, infuse chicken stock with galangal, lemon grass, shallots and chilies. Simmer for about five minutes, then add whatever protein you wish: minced pork, pork balls or seafood.
Discard the flavour packet and cook the noodles separately before adding to the soup.
"If you boil the noodles in the soup, you tend to end up getting that preservative smell of instant noodles," he warns.
To finish, season with lime juice and fish sauce.