The humble ramen noodle dresses up nicely, thank you.
Almost 100 readers answered our call to submit their favorite ramen recipes. Each started with a block or so of the curly dried noodles that are ubiquitous in college students' kitchens, the shopping carts of budget-minded cooks and, apparently, prison commissaries. Two of the entrants told us they were behind bars.
Our winner is Seema Shintre of west St. Louis County, Mo., who flavored the noodles with fresh vegetables and a spicy coconut-peanut sauce to make her Zesty Curried Coconut Ramen.
We gave special weight in our judging to those recipes that minimized or eliminated use of the seasoning packet that comes with instant ramen. The first two items on the packet's ingredient list are salt and monosodium glutamate, which cause the sodium content in a single package of ramen to reach as high as 1,820 milligrams -- more than three-quarters of the recommended daily value. (A package of ramen is listed as two servings, but we don't know many people who eat less than a whole package.)
Our runner-up was Terry Jacobi of Manchester, Mo., who submitted an old magazine recipe for Ramen Vegetable Pancakes.
Honorable mentions went to Cindy Young of Chillicothe, Mo., for Ramen Dessert Pizzas and Bill Mueller of west St. Louis County for a Ramen Slinger.
Our colleague Joe Holleman called it perfectly when he referred to Young's dessert pizza as "Ode to Elvis," owing to the peanut butter and banana in the topping.
And we recognize that no one is going to confuse the Ramen Slinger for health food, but then again, no one ever eats a slinger for their health.
Curried Coconut Ramen (Seema Shintre)
2 (3-ounce) packs ramen noodles, any flavor
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper or to taste
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1 cup shredded cabbage (see note)
1 cup thinly sliced mushrooms
1 cup chopped broccoli
1 tablespoon peanut butter
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 cup coconut milk
1 teaspoon curry powder
1 teaspoon sambal oelek or similar Asian hot sauce
1/2 teaspoon salt or to taste
Juice of 1 lime
1 tablespoon crushed peanuts
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
Cook ramen noodles in 2 cups of water. Drain noodles, reserving cooking water. Place noodles in large bowl.
Heat oil in wok or large skillet over high heat; add crushed red pepper and garlic. When garlic starts to brown, add cabbage, mushrooms and broccoli. Stir-fry until vegetables soften slightly and start browning on the sides. Combine vegetables with noodles and set aside.
In the same wok or skillet, combine peanut butter, soy sauce, brown sugar, coconut milk, curry powder, hot sauce and salt; bring to a boil. Add noodles and vegetables, toss well and turn off heat. Add 1/4 cup reserved cooking water and stir, adding more cooking water until sauce reaches desired consistency. Add lime juice, toss, and let rest for 5 minutes so flavors can meld.
Sprinkle with crushed peanuts and cilantro; garnish with lime wedges.
Yield: 4 servings.
Per serving: 420 calories; 26g fat; 15g saturated fat; no cholesterol; 9g protein; 39g carbohydrate; 7g sugar; 4g fiber; 840mg sodium; 60mg calcium.
Note: You can add any vegetable of your choice. If you want to make the dish spicier, add chopped hot chilies to crushed red pepper and garlic, or add more sambal oelek when making sauce.
Ramen Vegetable Pancakes (Terry Jacobi)
1 (3-ounce) package ramen noodles, any flavor
1 medium zucchini, shredded
2 green onions, chopped
1 carrot, shredded
2 eggs, beaten
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Break noodles into 4 pieces and cook according to package directions. Reserve seasoning packet. Drain noodles.
Mix noodles, zucchini, green onions, carrot, eggs, flour and 1/2 teaspoon of seasoning from ramen packet; stir to combine.
Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Using half of the mixture, form 4 pancakes, pressing down to flatten. Fry until golden brown, about 2 to 3 minutes per side. Remove and keep warm; repeat, using remaining 1 tablespoon oil and remaining ramen mixture.
Mix soy sauce and lemon juice; pass at the table as a dipping sauce.
Yield: 4 servings.
Per serving: 230 calories; 13g fat; 3.5g saturated fat; 105mg cholesterol; 7g protein; 22g carbohydrate; 4g sugar; 2g fiber; 480mg sodium; 40mg calcium.
Ramen Slinger (Bill Mueller)
1 (3-ounce) packet ramen noodles, preferably beef flavor
1 (12-ounce) can chili
1 cup shredded Cheddar cheese
1 cup chopped white onion
Hot sauce, optional
Bring 2 cups of water to a boil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add noodles and cook for 2 minutes, stirring frequently. Stir in flavor packet.
One at a time, crack each egg into a cup and slide the eggs into the pan, on top of the noodles. Cook, basting with the cooking water, until eggs reach the desired doneness, flipping the eggs if desired.
Pour in chili, reduce the heat to medium-low, and stir gently to keep eggs intact. Cook for 2 minutes or until chili is heated through.
Transfer to one or two plates; top with cheese and onion. Pass hot sauce at the table.
Yield: 1 to 2 servings.
Per serving (based on 2, made with turkey chili with no beans): 655 calories; 33g fat; 17g saturated fat; 330mg cholesterol; 42g protein; 47g carbohydrate; 8g sugar; 4g fiber; 2,160mg sodium; 535mg calcium.
Ramen Dessert Pizzas (Cindy Young)
4 bananas, sliced
1/2 cup honey
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
4 (3-ounce) packages ramen noodles
1 cup peanut butter
1 cup chocolate chips
Optional garnishes, such as shredded flaked coconut, chopped nuts, raisins
In a large skillet, combine bananas, honey and brown sugar. Cook over medium heat for about 5 minutes, stirring gently, until heated through. Let cool slightly.
Break each block of noodles in half at the fold, creating 8 flat noodle cakes. Discard the seasoning packets or reserve for a future use.
Place noodle cakes on a jelly roll pan or in skillets with tops. Spread the top of each noodle cake with peanut butter. Divide the banana mixture evenly over each cake, then top with chocolate chips plus coconut, nuts, raisins or any garnish of your choice. Cover with foil or pan tops and let stand for about 10 minutes, allowing chocolate to soften.
Yield: 8 servings.
Per serving: 630 calories; 29g fat; 10g saturated fat; no cholesterol; 14g protein; 84g carbohydrate; 46g sugar; 6g fiber; 330mg sodium; 40mg calcium.