Rarified ramen

Japanese noodle soups for cold and - hopefully - rainy nights.

asian noodles 88 248 (photo credit: China Lee restaurant)
asian noodles 88 248
(photo credit: China Lee restaurant)
A delicious dinner last week at a Los Angeles ramen restaurant, which specializes in Japanese noodle soups, reminded me of how valuable a varied repertoire of noodle soups can be for home cooks. During the cold months, few main courses are as appealing as a steaming hot bowl of flavorful soup with plenty of noodles. After studying the restaurant's menu, I realized that there was a formula behind the many versions of soup offered. For the soup base, you could have chicken or meat broth, spicy, spicy/sour or flavored with soy sauce or miso (soybean paste). In your soup, beside noodles, you could choose chicken, roasted or sautéed ground meat, seafood, hard-boiled eggs, tofu or a selection of stir-fried vegetables. All the soups were brightened with fresh, lightly cooked greens - spinach, Chinese broccoli, other Asian greens or seaweed. We chose two spicy ones - one with miso, roasted meat and half a hard-boiled egg, the other spicy and sour with minced meat and pickled radish. Both were served in huge bowls and were rich, hearty and very peppery, dispelling the common image of Japanese food as a not-spicy cuisine. One was finished with sesame seeds, which provided a pleasing touch. Both were garnished with a generous handful of green onions, which added a delicious flavor. Anyone who craved more heat could add hot pepper oil from a bottle on the table. It was a cold, rainy night, and the flavorful, spicy soups were warming and welcome. Since I prefer meat in small quantities as a flavoring rather than as a dominant ingredient, I found the balance perfect. These were noodle soups, not meat soups, satisfying but not heavy. "Perhaps one of the most appealing qualities of Asian soups is that most can be prepared quickly, with a minimum of fuss, and yet provide infinite pleasure," wrote my friend and culinary tour guide to the Far East Nina Simonds in Asian Noodles. The noodles and greens need only brief cooking, and so do the meats, which are sliced very thin. For her Japanese scallion chicken noodle soup, she seasons chicken breast slices with soy sauce, rice wine and fresh ginger, then cooks them in broth with sweet rice wine and soy sauce. Last she adds green onions, ladles the soup over cooked noodles and sprinkles it with chopped toasted walnuts. The entire cooking time is less than 10 minutes. For a heartier Japanese beef and noodle soup with mushrooms, Simonds adds fresh and dried mushrooms, spinach and a touch of Asian sesame oil, which has the flavor of toasted sesame seeds. Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz, author of The Complete Book of Japanese Cooking, uses similar seasonings in a meatless noodle soup embellished with poached eggs. For extra punch, it is sprinkled with a lively seven-flavor spice mixture, which includes powdered chilies and sesame seeds. My friend Linda Burum, author of Asian Pasta, includes two kinds of mushrooms in her classic Japanese chicken and noodle pot, as well as green onions and ribbons of spinach. So important is it to keep the spinach as bright as possible in flavor, texture and color that Burum instructs to add it to the hot soup just before serving and to turn off the heat immediately. It's a great technique for adding flair and freshness to soups. She notes that these noodle soups can be varied by adding fried tofu, strips of briefly cooked salmon fillet or ground beef sautéed with soy sauce. You can make soups with a Japanese flavor even if you don't have the ingredients for the classic Japanese soup stock called dashi, made of kelp and bonito flakes. The key is to use a good-tasting soup base, whether it's your own homemade chicken, meat or vegetable broth or a packaged alternative. If you'd like to approximate a Japanese flavor, season the soup with soy sauce, sherry (sweet or dry) and a pinch of sugar. Instead of ramen noodles, wrote Burum, you can use spaghettini. And don't forget to serve the soups with chopsticks. CHICKEN NOODLE SOUP WITH SPINACH You can cook thin strips of Chinese cabbage, chard, leeks, celery, or zucchini in this soup instead of the spinach. 30 gr. dried Asian or other mushrooms 6 to 8 cups chicken broth, or broth mixed with water 350 gr. to 450 gr. boneless skinless chicken 170 gr. spaghettini Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste 300 gr. spinach, stems discarded, leaves rinsed, torn in bite-size pieces (about 6 cups leaves) 1 to 2 Tbsp. soy sauce 1 to 2 Tbsp. rice wine or dry sherry 1⁄2 tsp. sugar, or to taste 1⁄4 to 1⁄3 cup thinly sliced green onions Soak mushrooms in hot water to cover in a medium bowl for 20 minutes. Remove from water, rinse and squeeze gently to remove excess water. Cut off and discard stems if they are tough; quarter caps. Bring broth to a boil. Add mushrooms and simmer for 15 minutes. Trim visible fat from chicken, slice meat and cut slices in 2.5-cm. squares. Add chicken to soup and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, for 7 to 10 minutes or until just tender. Cook spaghettini uncovered in a large pot of boiling salted water over high heat, separating strands occasionally with fork, for 6 to 7 minutes or until tender but firm to the bite. Drain well and transfer to soup bowls. Just before serving, reheat soup if necessary. Remove from heat, add spinach and stir until spinach is wilted. Stir in soy sauce, rice wine, sugar and green onions. Taste and adjust seasoning. Ladle into bowls over noodles and serve. Makes 4 to 6 servings. SPICY ASIAN CHICKEN-NOODLE SOUP WITH BROCCOLI Use this soup to make use of extra cooked chicken or meat, or cook boneless chicken in the broth as above. Leek and carrot slices contribute a fine, delicate taste to the easy-to-make soup. For a special flavor, finish the soup with sesame seeds and sesame oil. 1 large leek, white and light green parts only 1 large carrot, peeled and sliced thin 5 to 6 cups chicken broth, or broth mixed with water 170 gr. spaghettini, vermicelli or fine soup noodles 3 cups small broccoli florets 11⁄2 to 2 cups thin strips of cooked chicken, turkey or beef 1 Tbsp. soy sauce, or to taste 1 to 2 Tbsp. sherry, sweet or dry 1 tsp. sugar, or to taste cayenne or other ground hot red pepper to taste 1⁄3 cup thinly sliced green onions a few drops sesame oil (optional) toasted sesame seeds (optional, for sprinkling) salt (optional) Quarter leek lengthwise, rinse well to remove sand between layers, and cut in thin slices. In large saucepan combine leek, carrot and broth. Bring to a simmer. Cover and cook over low heat for 5 minutes. Cook pasta uncovered in a large pot of boiling salted water over high heat, separating strands occasionally with fork, for 5 to 7 minutes or until tender but firm to the bite. Drain well and transfer to soup bowls. Add broccoli to soup and return to simmer. Cover and cook over medium-low heat for 6 minutes or until broccoli is nearly tender. Stir in chicken and cook until chicken is hot and broccoli is tender. Add soy sauce, sherry, sugar, cayenne, green onions, sesame oil and sesame seeds. Taste before adding salt; if broth was salty, salt may not be needed. Makes 4 servings. Faye Levy is the author of Sensational Pasta.