Broke Meals, Ramen Hacks and Food Snobbery
Last week at work, I ate shitty mall food court Chinese food for lunch. I relished every bite of it. As I walked in the room with that Styrofoam container, several of my coworkers looked on incredulously. They were surprised that I would deign to eat from such a place. I was surprised at their surprise. They called me a food snob. They were being good-natured about it, and I suppose I can see where they were coming from, but it rankled a bit.
Photo by Nicholas L. Hall Not very haute; all kinds of happy.
It rankled because my attitudes about food have always been about happiness, pleasure, excitement and sharing. It rankled because I've spent a lot of time talking about food with my coworkers, sharing restaurant recommendations and recipes, running the gamut from authentic Japanese Omakase in Ohio, to how to replicate Chik-fil-A sauce. I've cooked for them out of The French Laundry and Alinea Cookbooks, but I've also made them many of the simple, staple meals of my youth, like sausage and sauerkraut. It rankled because I don't think of myself as a snob.
The comment did get me thinking about my history with food, and about how my attitudes have changed over time, shaped by my upbringing and my adult life in equal measure. Through a childhood with three brothers and not a lot of money, to my first few years as a married adult and not a lot of money, thrift has always informed my cooking and eating habits. The ways in which that manifests itself have shifted over time and with changing means, but I'm still the guy who takes every scrap of leftovers (even from fancy restaurants) and who uses every scrap of everything in some way. Don't throw out that 1/4 cup of leftover rice, I'll use that in something!
In our early years of marriage, before I really learned to cook, that thrift manifested itself in ways I (thankfully) no longer have to follow. There are a lot of staple meals from those lean years that I can simply never revisit. They were eaten too often, and with too little enthusiasm, to ever grace my table again. "Tuna Rice," for example (one cup of rice, one can of tuna, one can of Ro-Tel), will never again find its way into rotation. But "The Never-Ending Soup Pot," a thrifty convention borrowed from my great grandmother, is a constant. So, too, are Ramen Eggs.
Truth be told, Ramen Eggs began as a late-night, nothing-in-the-fridge meal, intended to soak up booze. It does that admirably. I have no doubt that it's absolutely horrible, from a nutrition standpoint; a gut-bomb of cholesterol and sodium, with very little redeeming value. It's also inexplicably delicious if eaten under the proper circumstances. I don't think we've ever eaten this before midnight, or while sitting at the dining table. This is 3 a.m. couch food of the first order, but it's also something that we crave fortnightly.
Photo by Nicholas L. Hall I prepare my Ramen Eggs in a Swedish pancake maker, signed by Bjorn Borg, but you can use any old pan. (Yes, that was a combined Home Improvement reference, Martha Stewart joke)
Typically, for us, Ramen Eggs are consumed on those late nights when the kids didn't eat dinner until 10 p.m. and we didn't eat with them. Once they're all tucked in bed, we indulge in our secret feast, getting a sort of illicit pleasure from eating junk food out of sight of the kids. They woke up, once, in the middle of a midnight Ramen Eggs meal and wouldn't go back to sleep until they got to try it. Now they think there's some sort of Ramen Egg conspiracy wherein we parents stay up late every night, eating Ramen Eggs and generally having a laugh. Man, I remember being a kid and thinking all the wrong things about adulthood.
The Ramen Eggs format is pretty simple. Take a package or two of ramen. The flavor doesn't really matter, thought I prefer "Oriental," mostly because it's the flavor I grew up eating every summer while my parents were at work. One seasoning packet gets dumped into a bowl and beaten with half a dozen eggs, more or less, depending on how hungry you are. You have to move pretty quickly through the steps, as the Dead Sea level of salt in the mix starts to cook the eggs pretty much on contact.
The noodle bricks get tossed into boiling water, the strands separated with a fork as they soften, for exactly two minutes. Drain the noodles thoroughly and toss them into the skillet you should have ready, with a little bit of oil heated to a shimmer. Stir-fry the noodles until they begin to appear more opaque at the edges. They may take on a bit of color; don't let them brown much or they will get mushy. This should take no more than a minute or two.
Once the noodles are pan-fried, toss the eggs and seasoning mix on top and turn the heat down to medium-low. Push, toss, and stir the egg and noodle mix, trying to ensure that the noodles stay evenly distributed. Cook to your desired level of doneness. I find that Ramen Eggs are at their best when served fairly loose, with the eggs acting as a sort of creamy sauce, much like in carbonara. Remove from the heat and serve immediately, with plenty of chile sauce.
Photo by Nicholas L. Hall This is delicious. Please, don't EVER give "Tuna Rice" a go.
The finished dish is a mess, but it's a mess of salty, fatty, spicy goodness. It's intensely flavorful and intensely satisfying, and I will always love it. I love it because it tastes good and it makes me happy. I don't care one whit about its pedigree, or lack thereof. As far as snobbery goes, I don't really care if sharing this changes anyone's mind. I just wanted to share it, because that's what I do with food.
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