At the risk of repeating myself, this post is about authenticity and deliciousness. I know I’ve talked about this before--about being from the South and eating cornbread; how my mother’s cornbread is very different from my grandmother’s cornbread, and how my grandmother’s cornbread is very different from my other grandmother’s cornbread. My conclusion was always that all of those approaches to cornbread are authentic.
But when you start a discussion about authenticity in food, there seem to be two camps. There are those to whom authenticity is narrowly defined--no, you can only make this dish in a very specific way with these ingredients; anything else is inauthentic. And then there are others who use various arguments to loosen the grip of authenticity--for example, how home cooks have always made dishes their own, not adhering to a recipe (often because there was no recipe to be found), but rather using ingredients dictated to them by what was available--from the garden, from the market, from the store. And so really, authenticity is flexible by necessity.
You can guess where I fall on that spectrum.
But one thing people don’t talk enough about (or maybe they do, and I’m just looking in all the wrong places) is deliciousness. Something may or may not be authentic, but is it delicious? I’m going to eat it, after all. What if you took an “authentic” recipe and changed a few things to make it more delicious? Has it lost its authentic patina?
But then, can a recipe be authentic at all? Recipes are a fairly recent invention, designed to transmit knowledge that is no longer passed down orally the way it once was. To some degree, recipes cannot be authentic. Recipes dictate--they tell you to go to the store and buy a specific set of ingredients. They tell you when and what and how much to add at very specific times. Some recipes, depending on the writer, are more flexible than others. But all of them create a situation that would have been alien to most of our great-grandmothers when they were learning to cook.
It may sound odd coming from someone who writes recipes for a living; from someone who is working on updating an enormous book full of recipes, but unless we are testing or developing a recipe, we almost never cook from recipes. Recipes can be wonderful--they teach, they let us know what to expect when we’re making something new to us, they introduce us to new things--but they are tyrants. Our favorite way to cook is to go to the market, buy what looks good, and then figure out what to do with it. Often, we look at recipes for ideas, but then we riff off them, using ingredients we already have on hand.
That is certainly the case with this recipe. The story goes, I was developing a recipe for parmesan broth for the next edition of the cookbook, and we happened to have some ramen noodles in the freezer. It was John’s idea to put them together. Then we garnished the bowl with vegetables from the farmer’s market. It made complete sense to us, and it turned out to be a very good idea indeed. It’s not really authentic, but it’s very delicious.
Other noodle dishes you might enjoy: Pasta e Fagioli , Sauteed Rapini Pasta, Thai Clam Pot
A note on Parmesan rinds: if you buy Parmesan, be sure to save the rinds. Simply freeze them in a zip top bag or container until you have enough to make broth. You can also buy Parmesan rinds at pretty much any store that sells real Parmesan and grates it themselves.
A note on ramen noodles: we found some high-quality frozen noodles at a local Japanese supermarket, and if you live in a larger city or just a place with a robust Japanese community, you should be able to find decent ramen noodles either frozen or in the refrigerator case of an Asian grocery store. Otherwise, simply use dried.
For the Parmesan broth, add to a medium sized pot:
1 pound Parmesan rinds
2 garlic cloves, peeled
3 leafy sprigs thyme
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
Add 8 cups water to the pot. Bring to a boil, then cover, reduce the heat, and simmer very slowly for 2 hours. Alternatively, you may use a pressure cooker--cook at full pressure (usually 15psi but it’s okay if your cooker doesn’t go quite that high) for 30 minutes. Strain the broth through a fine mesh sieve. You may cool and refrigerate the broth until ready to use--a cap of fat will form on top if you do this. Do not remove the fat--it is very flavorful and should be stirred back into the broth before using.
If using immediately, gently heat the broth in a medium saucepan. Stir in, if you have them:
(2 tablespoons white miso)
(One 4-inch piece kombu)
Keep the broth hot, but do not allow it to boil. Prepare the eggs. Steam:
4 large eggs
for 6 minutes. Make sure there are no cracks, no matter how tiny, in the eggshells. The steaming method works very well, but cracks will cause the white and yolk to leak out. Remove the cooked eggs to a cold water bath. Add to the steamer:
4 ounces (about 1 cup) snow peas
Steam until tender and bright green, 2 to 3 minutes. Preheat the broiler and place the oven rack in the lower third of the oven. Toss together on a sheet pan:
8 ounces shiitake mushrooms, thinly sliced, tough stems discarded (leave whole if very small)
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
½ teaspoon salt
Broil the mushrooms until browned and starting to crisp, 5 to 8 minutes. Cook according to the package directions:
1 pound fresh or frozen ramen noodles or 4 packages instant ramen (flavor packet discarded or set aside)
Divide the noodles between 4 bowls. Taste the broth for salt (either use salt to taste or soy sauce) and top each bowl with 2 cups of the broth (discard the kombu). Peel the eggs and carefully halve them over each bowl. Top with the snow peas and mushrooms and:
Mizuna, arugula, watercress, or another spicy fresh green