Japanese-style noodle bars keep popping up everywhere, serving deliciously slurpable soups that are so much more satisfying than the dried ramen packets of our college days (and offering almost-as-instant gratification). Classic Japanese ramen soups typically follow a specific combination of broth, noodles, meat and vegetables, but at home you can mix and match your favorite ingredients any way you want. Here's how to build your own ramen bowl at home:
1) Grab some noodles
Look for dried udon, soba or yellow curly noodles in the international aisle of your local supermarket. In a pinch? Use thin whole-wheat spaghetti. Boil about 8 ounces (1/2 pound) noodles for 4 servings of ramen.
2) Make a quick broth
Pork broth, called tonkotsu, is most frequently used as the base for Japanese-style ramen, but homemade or high-quality store-bought chicken broth works equally well. Heat 8 cups (2 quarts) broth until it's just simmering, then whisk in 1/4 cup miso paste (usually found in the refrigerated section of the supermarket near the wonton wrappers) and 1 tablespoon soy sauce. To make it vegetarian: Whisk the miso and soy into simmering vegetable broth or plain old water.
(New to miso? The richly flavorful, nutritious soybean paste comes in different colors based on how long the soybeans used to make it have been fermented. White miso has the most subtle flavor, while red or brown miso is deeply salty and pungent.)
3) Customize your soup
This is the fun part: Choose one of the following ingredient combinations — or pick from the list of add-ins to invent your own style.
Hot-and-sour ramen: This mash-up adds a touch of tangy Thai flavor to the soup.
Bring the broth to a simmer and add 1 tablespoon finely grated fresh ginger, the zest and juice of 1 lime, 1 thinly sliced Serrano or Thai chile and 1 tablespoon light brown sugar. Cook for 5 minutes. Add 1 dozen medium or large peeled, deveined shrimp to the broth and cook just until the shrimp turn pink. Divide between 4 bowls and add the cooked noodles. Garnish each bowl with chopped cilantro and serve with additional lime wedges on the side, if desired.
Meatball ramen: For a filling meal that's also kid-friendly, try this variation.
Bring the broth to a simmer and add 1 minced garlic clove and a pinch of crushed red chili flakes. Cook for 5 minutes, then add 1-2 dozen cooked fresh or frozen meatballs (depending on the size of the meatball). Cook until warmed through, then add 1/2 cup halved cherry tomatoes. Divide between 4 bowls and add the noodles. Garnish each bowl with minced flat-leaf parsley and serve with Parmesan cheese on the side, if desired.
Mushroom ramen: This simple vegetarian version gets its rich, complex flavor from sautéed mushrooms.
Thinly slice 1 pound cleaned, stemmed cremini mushrooms and cook in 2 tablespoons melted unsalted butter over medium-high heat for 5 minutes without stirring, until the mushrooms are browned. Stir and cook for 5 minutes more. Divide between 4 bowls and add the noodles. Top each bowl with a splash of sesame oil (mild or hot chili) and garnish each bowl with minced scallions and sesame seeds.
Egg and greens: For a new spin on a traditional Italian soup known as stracciatella, whisk 4 large eggs together with 1 tablespoon grated Parmesan cheese and a pinch each of salt and pepper. Bring the broth to a simmer and pour the eggs into the broth in a thin stream, whisking constantly so the eggs break into thin strands as they cook. Add 2 cups fresh chopped spinach and cook until the spinach wilts. Divide between 4 bowls and add the noodles. Garnish each bowl with minced scallions and serve with Parmesan cheese on the side, if desired.
Chicken-noodle ramen: Ramen + chicken noodle soup = ultimate comfort food.
Chop 2 peeled carrots into thin coins and dice 2 celery stalks. Bring the broth to a simmer and add the vegetables. Cook until tender (about 10 minutes), then add 1 cup shredded rotisserie chicken to the broth and cook until warmed through. Divide between 4 bowls and add the noodles.
Other excellent add-ins:
roasted garlic puree
hard-boiled egg slices
soft-boiled eggs, halved
fresh vegetables like broccoli and carrots
cooked corn kernels
toasted nori (seaweed)
sliced bamboo shoots