I was thinking the other day that I spend a lot of time both on this blog and Eat to Blog complaining. Specifically, complaining about how disappointed I’ve been with vegetarian ramen (and other noodle dishes) around NYC. And even more specifically complaining about the vegetarian broth. So far only my beloved Chuko has given me a great vegetarian (vegan, actually) broth. But what makes me think it’s so easy? So many restaurants have failed to deliver, could I do any better? I decided to try at home. And guess what? I nailed it. First try, knocked it out of the park. So the gauntlet as been thrown, it’s not so hard. I’m even going to tell you how I did it.
I started by borrowing from the best — Chuko. I had seen a video online about how they make their veggie broth, and it’s very simple. They soak konbu, a type of kelp, to create an umami rich liquid. They heat it, and then they add miso paste and blend the mixture. The blending not only mixes the miso into the broth but emulsifies it, giving it a buttery texture. The only problem for me was that I didn’t have any konbu. I live in NYC, I realize it would be pretty easy for me to get konbu. But I decided to make this recipe as simple as possible, with ingredients that were pretty easy to get for anyone. So what could I do for umami, instead of kelp? Mushrooms, that’s what. You may remember my fondness for using shiitake stems, and I had some shiitakes in my fridge. But I didn’t want just a straight mushroom broth, I wanted more flavors. Then I turned to another recipe for inspiration: French onion soup.
For the broth: Slice a large white onion into thin strips. Add a tiny bit of vegetable oil to a pot, turn the heat to medium, and add the onions with a pinch of salt. Cook slowly, stirring occasionally, for about 30 minutes. Don’t let the onions brown; you’re just looking to get them sweet and soft. After half an our of cooking, add shiitake mushrooms, chopped, complete with stems. Also add a few cremini mushrooms, chopped, a few cloves of garlic, crushed, and a bit more salt. Leave the heat low, and cook the mushrooms and garlic slowly with the onions for another half an hour. Then add a few dashes of soy sauce, stir it together, and fill the pot with water. Raise the heat, let this come to a boil, then lower the heat and let it simmer for yet another half an hour. Strain through a colander or mesh strainer, then return the liquid to the pan over heat. Add a heaping spoon of miso paste and blend it together. The mushrooms and onions you strained out have served their purpose, and have no place in the ramen, but you can eat them separately if you want.
It’s a lot of prep work, but it’s worth it for the flavor. In a restaurant setting you’d have to do this prep work in advance, of course. At home you don’t have to stay idle while cooking the broth; you can use the time to work on the toppings and the noodles.
For the toppings: One of my favorite ramen toppings is a soft-cooked egg. I used the method from America’s Test Kitchen to make mine. Fill a small pot with about a half-inch of water, cover, and bring to a boil. When it boils add as many eggs as you can fit into the pot, cover it again, and cook for exactly six and a half minutes. Then drain the eggs and put them under cold running water for a few minutes to stop the cooking. You can use the same pot for the next step: this time, fill it with an equal mix of water and soy sauce. While it boils peel a couple of turnips and cut them into large chunks, about an inch square. Add the turnips to the boiling soy/water mix, and cook until tender. Then strain them and set them aside. The other toppings don’t need to be cooked: firm tofu, sliced thinly; scallions, finely sliced; and more cremini mushrooms, sliced paper thin. By thus time the broth will probably be ready, so you can move on to the noodles. Fill the smaller pot with water one more time, add some salt, and bring to a boil. Cook the noodles according to the package directions — I used mung bean noodles, aka cellophane noodles, which are not traditional, but it does mean that my recipe was gluten free (I used a GF miso) and without the egg would actually be vegan. But speaking of the eggs, go ahead and peel them under cold running water. The whites should be set but the yolks still runny.
To assemble the ramen: Warm the broth up, then add a few of the sliced mushrooms, scallions, and cooked turnips to warm them through. Add a serving of the cooked noodles to the bottom of a bowl. Pour a serving of the broth over the noodles. Lay the sliced tofu over one side of the bowl, sliced mushrooms on other side, and a pinch of scallions on another. Slice one of the eggs in half and top the bowl with it. At Chuko they provide a chili-garlic sauce for topping. I used my friend Chitra’s tomato achar in place of that. The achar has chilis, tamarind, and other spices, giving a dose of spicy, sour, and sweet to the soup. Serve with chopsticks and a spoon. You’re welcome.