BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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Top Ramen

When fresh noodles meet hot broth, some sort of strange alchemy occurs. It’s easy to understand the allure of ramen, and yet mysteries still abound, lurking at the bottom of each steaming bowl, compelling slurp after slurp as if the secret might be hiding in that very last spoonful. How on earth can such simple, humble ingredients meld together into something so sublime? Where exactly do those immense, throat-gripping savory flavors come from? Which came first; the pasta or the soup?

I paid a visit to my friend and accomplished chef Philip Gelb in hopes of answering these questions and gaining some insight on the way of the noodle. The promise of ending up with a taste of fresh, handmade ramen may or may not have been the primary excuse for attending his often sold out class. Either way, I got much more than I signed up for, which is the essential wisdom behind this dish.

It turns out that like most foods, there is no magic going on behind the scenes. Rather, the foundation is built upon quality ingredients that are treated with respect, prepared with the utmost care to coax out their full potential. The richest, most umami-infused broth you’ve ever splashed across your palate contains a minimal number of components, but is slowly simmered for a number of hours, allowing the water to reduce while the latent flavors to naturally emerge and intensify.

Ramen masters jealously guard the formulas to their patented brews, but even the die-hard fanatics rarely make their own noodles. Without means of mass production, the temptation to cut corners by sourcing acceptable starchy options is understandable, and indeed Sun Noodle provides very good ramen noodles for approximately 90% of the trendiest shops around the US. No, that’s not an overstatement, but the honest truth. Few other manufacturers have mastered the art form quite like the Hawaii-based company, eliminating a huge amount of labor for innovative restaurateurs nationwide. No matter how good this high standard may be, still nothing compares to the delicacy of a fresh ramen noodle made by your own two hands- And perhaps a pasta roller if you can afford the luxury.

Chewy, soft, and bouncy in all the right ways, the ramen noodle gets its great acclaim from its inimitable texture. Though traditionally imparted by kansui, a solution of potassium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate that serves to toughen wheat proteins and create the signature mouth-feel for these distinctive strands, a more accessible alternative can be found right inside your kitchen cabinet. Philip smartly induces the same sort of chemical reaction in standard baking soda by burning it in the oven. Aromatic in a less than pleasant way, he recommends doing this step in bulk so that you only need to suffer the fumes once. You may question your sanity as the stench rises in growing waves, but you must persevere through the pain! The rewards on the other side of this acrid wall are great. The difference between alkaline noodles and plain old spaghetti are like night and day.

Toppings are another discussion entirely, but my impression is that pretty much anything goes. Consider it the pizza of noodle soups; strong opinions about what is “right” and what is “wrong” are prevalent among purists, but if it tastes good, there’s no reason not to indulge. For this demonstration, key additions include deeply savory shiitake mushrooms, fried tofu, spicy pickled bean sprouts, and roasted cabbage. Crazy as it may sound, a whole head of cabbage is simply rubbed with olive oil and tossed in a slow oven for two hours, yielding an impossibly buttery and dare I say meaty morsel that very well could steal the show in a lesser bowl of soup.

The beauty of this combination, though, is the perfect balance of ingredients. Each addition is a strong player in its own right, capable of standing up to competing flavors without drowning each other out. While some continue to argue about whether it’s the noodles or the broth that makes the bowl, the real secret is that it’s neither. It’s the bigger picture of the dish altogether that makes ramen so great, and anyone focusing on just one piece of the puzzle is bound to be disappointed. Sure, it’s quite a bit more work than tossing a quick-cooking block of instant ramen on the stove, but every eater owes it to themselves to try the real deal at least once. You will never regret the time spent when you consider the true satisfaction gained by fabricating each and every facet by hand.

Homemade Ramen
By Chef Philip Gelb

Ramen Noodles:

1 Cup Semolina Flour
1 Cup White Flour
1/2 Teaspoon Sea Salt
1/2 Teaspoon Burnt Baking Soda*
3/4 Cup Water

*Burnt baking soda is needed to alkalize the dough. Place approximately 1 cup baking soda on a sheet pan and bake at 250 F for 1 hour. Store in an airtight container for a few months.

Mix both flours, salt and burnt baking soda. Add water and stir well. Knead by hand for 20 minutes or until very smooth and pliable. Wrap tightly and refrigerate overnight.  Bring dough to room temperature and knead again for 10 minutes. Wrap tightly and let rest 1 hour. Roll out noodles to desired thickness and cut into thin strands.

When ready to eat, drop noodles in rapidly boiling water for about 1 minute or till desired texture. Serve immediately.

Makes 4 Servings

Kombu Stock:

Water
Dried Kombu
Dried Shiitake Mushrooms
Yellow Onion
Scallion
Fresh Ginger
Celery
Carrot

Place all ingredients in water to cover, add heat, bring to simmer, lower heat, cover, simmer for 2 hours. Drain all solid parts out.

Optionally, roast some or all the vegetables first for a darker, richer flavor.

Experiment by adding other vegetables such as cilantro, pumpkin, sweet potato, celery root, parsnip, lemongrass, and so forth as desired.

Soup:

12 Cups Kombu Stock (Above)
1 Cup Mirin
3/4 Cup Sake
1 1/2 Cups Soy Sauce

Combine all ingredients, bring to simmer and cook 5 minutes to burn off some of the harsh notes of the alcohol. Balance with more shoyu or mirin if needed, to taste.

Makes 7 Servings

Topping Options

Roasted Cabbage:

1 Whole Head Green Cabbage
Olive Oil

Rub cabbage generously with olive oil and wrap tightly with aluminum foil. Roast at 350 for 2 hours. Let cool completely before slicing thinly.

Quick Pickled Sprouts

1 Pound Mung Bean or Soybean Sprouts
2 Quarts Boiling Water with 1/8 Teaspoon Baking Soda Added
2 Tablespoons Rice Vinegar
3 Tablespoons Soy Sauce
1 Tablespoon Toasted Sesame Oil (FOR SPICY SPROUTS add hot chili oil instead)

Plunge sprouts into boiling water. Immediately remove and rinse well under cold water. Place blanched sprouts in a bowl and add vinegar, soy sauce, and oil. Toss to coat.

Shiitake Mushrooms

6 – 8 Dried Shiitake Mushrooms
1 Cup Kombu Stock
1 1/2 Tablespoons Granulated Sugar
2 Tablespoons Soy Sauce

Bring water to boil with sugar and soy sauce. Add shiitake and cook over medium-low heat until the liquid evaporates.

Slice each mushroom into several sections. Use one mushroom per bowl of soup.

Tofu

1 Pound Firm Tofu, Drained
Oil for frying

Cut tofu into 1/4-inch wide strips and pat dry. Deep fry tofu till crisp.

Printable Recipe


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Copper-Plated

All that glitters isn’t gold, but if you’re lucky, it might just be copper. If that sounds like a bum deal at first glance, then you haven’t yet experienced the glory of copper cookware. Renowned for its ability to retain heat and distribute it evenly across the surface of any food, not to mention its undeniable aesthetic attraction, it’s easy to see why copper is the real gold standard for professional chefs. It’s also about as expensive as 24 karats, which is why these gleaming pans are rarely seen outside of the most elite professional kitchens.

That is, until now. Copper Chef is bringing this beautiful vessel to the masses, in gleaming non-stick square pans that boast incredible versatility far beyond the traditional format. The catch is that they’re not actually copper through and throught; copper-coated aluminum with a steel induction plate is a more accurate, albeit less alluring description. Though skeptical of the grand claims made by “As Seen On TV” products, I still couldn’t resist the offer to give them a trial by fire.

No matter what these gleaming pans are made of, color me impressed. With or without a protective layer of oil, not a single thing stuck to the surface, which meant that cleanup afterward was a breeze, too. With capabilities that go far beyond a standard sauté or stir fry, the full set includes a brilliant square stand for steaming, as well as a perfectly fitted mesh basket to facilitate effortless frying. The less traditional square shape may be a detractor for some, but I can only see more opportunities here, as these pans can actually be used as fully functional baking dishes as well. That’s right- You can bake your brownies in the same saucepan that you prepared dinner in! For anyone on a tight spatial budget in a tiny apartment kitchen, the incredible benefits of being able to consolidate pans needs no further explanation.

Almost as soon as I got my hands on this lovely cookware, I knew exactly how to put them to the test: baked mac and cheese. Not just any stove top instant mac, of course, but a fully baked, one-pot rendition, completed with only the Copper Chef pan in service. Turns out that my trial was no challenge at all, resulting in a beautifully baked slab of cheesy, gooey mac and cheese with a crisp breadcrumb crust on top after the first attempt. Looking back on it even now, it seems absurd that it could have been so easy; no boiling or draining water, no transferring slippery noodles into a casserole dish, no whisking sauce separately with all burners firing.

The quest for the perfect mac and cheese is never-ending, but I would implore you to give this one a trial by fire. I doubt you’ll find a baked rendition that’s altogether so quick, easy, and deeply satisfying. For all the shortcuts it takes in preparation, there are no concessions made to taste.

One-Pan Baked Macaroni and Cheese

1 Tablespoon Olive Oil (Optional)
1/2 Cup Diced Onion
1 Clove Garlic, Minced
2 Tablespoons White Miso Paste
1 Tablespoon Dijon Mustard
1 Tablespoon Tapioca Starch
4 Cups Unsweetened Non-Dairy Milk
2 Cups (1 8-Ounce Package) Shredded Vegan Cheddar
1 Pound Penne Pasta (Uncooked)
3 – 4 Cups Broccoli Florets

Breadcrumb Topping:

2 Slices (About 1 Ounce Each) White or Whole Wheat Sandwich Bread, Toasted and Crumbled
2 Teaspoons Nutritional Yeast
1/4 Teaspoon Smoked Paprika
1/4 Teaspoon Dried Basil
1/8 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper pepper
2 Tablespoons Fresh Parsley, Finely Minced

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

Place the Copper Chef pan over medium heat and begin to heat the oil, if using. It’s not necessary to prevent sticking, but to add a touch more richness to the finished dish. Once shimmering, add the onion and garlic, sautéing until translucent and aromatic. Stir in the miso paste and mustard, and sprinkle the tapioca starch evenly across the top. Try to avoid dropping it in just one place to prevent clumps.

Slowly pour in the non-dairy milk of your choice while stirring continuously. Cover the pan loosely and allow the liquid to come just to the brink of a boil. Uncover, reduce the heat to medium-low, add in the cheddar shreds, stirring and simmering gently until melted. Finally, introduce the pasta and broccoli, mixing thoroughly to incorporate and distribute all of the goodies throughout. Let simmer, undisturbed, for about 8 minutes.

Meanwhile, mix together all of the ingredients for the breadcrumb topping except for the fresh parsley. Sprinkle the mixture evenly over the top, and very carefully move the pan into the oven. Bake for 20 – 30 minutes until golden brown. Top with the parsley and serve hot!

Makes 6 – 8 Servings

Printable Recipe


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San Francisco Secrets

Certain attractions turn up in every guidebook: The sea lions at pier 39, the cable cars, Golden Gate Bridge, and so on, and so forth. Someone who’s never even set foot on the left coast could probably list the very same roundup of must-see sights, and for good reason. They’re unarguably iconic pieces of San Francisco that add to its unique allure, but if you only browse the list of the city’s greatest hits, you’ll miss out on richer adventures that would exceed even the most accommodating itinerary.

Even if you’ve lived here for years, it’s easy to turn up new hidden gems, tucked just around the corner from familiar streets and everyday haunts. Something as random a tiny park perched atop a sloping ridge, for example, complete with the most wicked concrete slides you’ve ever tumbled down.

The Seward Slides were clearly made with adults in mind because the velocity that sends any unwitting participant hurtling down that steep knoll might be too intense for those with a more delicate constitution. Locals recommend bringing sheets of cardboard for heightened speed, but provided you have a sturdy pair of pants to gird your loins, you definitely won’t need any assistance to enjoy a brief thrill park experience.

Situated next door to Kite Hill, it’s a beautiful, miraculously quiet oasis in the city, a scant handful of blocks away from Dolores Park. Be mindful of the neighbors as it’s at the heart of a residential area, and clear out by 5 PM when the park officially closes each day.

Don’t be afraid to venture off the beaten path. No matter how long you spend in the bay area, there’s always more to discover.


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Summers on Ice

It has long been rumored that Mark Twain once asserted “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” Although readily disproven, the false quote still haunts the bay area to this day, resonating with those more accustomed to the sweltering sunshine seen further down the west coast. Even I’ll admit a certain disappointment when heading downtown on a mid-July day calls for a jacket and long pants, but it’s an entirely different story just across the bay. Berkeley and Oakland regularly send the mercury rising 10 – 15 degrees higher, and there’s no telling what sort of tropical conditions exist just a few miles further out towards wine county. By the time I’m ready to head home, the disparity finds me swimming in my heavy layers, gasping for the relief that only a frozen treat, or two, can bring.

In such a desperate state, nutrition is rarely top of mind, truth be told. Anything cold and preferably sweet will do, never mind the sugar rush and crash soon to follow. After one too many midday food comas, I’ve found it essential to stock only the good stuff in the first place, making the best choice also the easy choice.

Thank goodness for Pro(Zero), my top protein powder pick of the moment. Blending with any liquid as smooth as silk, thickening like a dream, and possessing a rich sweetness far beyond the label might indicate, it’s everything you could ask for in a powdered supplement. Okay, there is one more think you might one: Good taste.

Previously available only in a limited palate of flavors, the latest release of a Chai Latte rendition has stolen my latte-loving heart. Warm spices mingle with a hint of coffee flavor, both in perfect balance, the combination of the two is a real snacking showstopper.

A thick, frosty protein shake does wonders to tame the typical hunger pains, but all it takes is a humble popsicle mold for crafting next-level summertime satisfaction. Initially inspired by a leftover protein shake left in the freezer for too long, it was obvious that my oversight was no mistake, but a hint of unlocked potential. All it needed was a stick.

Flecked with bold, invigorating spices and the perk of your favorite caffeinated beverage, these frosty treats are no mere syrupy ice cubes. Flakes of toasted coconut add texture, while coconut milk provides a decadent, creamy backdrop. Each bit has all the richness of typical ice cream, but without the need for any fancy equipment, or for loosening your belt afterwards.

To all the hot, busy, summer days ahead: Bring it on, do your worst. I’ve got some delicious backup ammunition in my freezer now, ready for instant refueling.

Coconut Chai Freezer Pops

1 3/4 Cups (1 14-Ounce Can) Full-Fat Coconut Milk
1/2 Cup Plain or Vanilla Non-Dairy Milk
1/4 Cup Light Agave Nectar
1/4 Cup Pro(Zero) Natural Chai Latte Protein Powder
1/4 Cup Unsweetened Shredded Coconut, Toasted
1 1/4 Teaspoons Ground Ginger
1/2 Teaspoon Ground Cinnamon
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Cardamom
1/8 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper
1/4 Teaspoon Salt
1/2 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract
1/8 Teaspoon Anise Extract (Optional)

The procedure here really couldn’t be any simpler: Whisk together the coconut milk and non-dairy milk of your choice along with the protein powder, mixing thoroughly to ensure that there are no remaining lumps. Add in the toasted coconut, spices, salt, and extracts, and stir well. Pour the resulting mixture into popsicle molds, insert sticks, and place them on a level surface in your freezer. Allow at least 6 hours before serving, and preferably overnight.

If you have trouble getting the pops out of the mold, run the outsides under hot water for about 60 seconds to loosen them.

Makes About 6 Medium Freezer Pops

Printable Recipe

This post was is sponsored by HPN Supplements, but all content and opinions are entirely my own.


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The Final Final

It’s a familiar, if vexing routine. Intense stress of a difficult semester becomes condensed into the span of a few days, complete with a mountain of busy work that will never serve any purpose in the real world. Study, lose sleep, slave away on essays, and ultimately jump over another hurdle. Pause for a few weeks and repeat, ad nauseum. The relentless cycle of schoolwork and deadlines holds scant appeal these days, after a lifetime of compulsory education followed by an extended part-time approach to earning a degree. Still in the throes of this final wave of exams, I’m ready to get off this hamster wheel once and for all. This is my final round of finals.

Hard to believe that relief is in sight, at long last. Many years went by when I couldn’t even say for sure if I was a Sophomore or a Junior, graduating in 2015, 2016, or just graduating, period. Working online, separated from a physical campus by hundreds of miles, I was completely in the dark; there was no light at the end of the tunnel at all.

No one could have predicted what a crazy, twisting path lay ahead, nor how the journey might shape my life, far beyond basic intellectual enrichment. Pulling me across the country to this foreign land that I now call home, it may not be paradise and sunshine every day, but it sure is beachy-keen compared my once hermit-like existence.

Once the very last wave of grades crashes ashore, I can’t say for sure what the future might hold. Heck, I can’t even say what I’ll eat for dinner tonight! All I know is that there’s still so much more ahead, and I couldn’t be more thrilled to have built my nest here in California to see it through.

That’s all to say, please forgive any blogging interruptions until graduation! Your regularly programmed posts will return shortly.

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