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Elevate Your Instant Ramen With Advice From ‘Top Chef’ Winner Melissa King

This past week, I hopped into a virtual cooking demonstration with the most-recent Top Chef winner, Melissa King –– who is set to guest judge both the next season of Top Chef and Bravo’s new Top Chef Amateurs show. Normally, a brand-sponsored cooking demo would probably warrant a “pass” — but this one featured a Top Chef and covered a subject I actually cared about: how to turn your instant ramen into something worthy of a family dinner.

King used leeks, bacon, miso paste, carrots, parmesan rinds, and some store-bought chicken broth to build a gorgeous “bacon parmesan broth” in which to bathe our brick of ramen noodles (scroll all the way down for the recipe). The whole thing took just under 30 minutes to make and really did taste like something that had been simmering for hours. That and some carefully placed garnishes turned a bag of instant ramen noodles into something that looked more like restaurant food than something used as currency in prison (which, incidentally, is a testament to the viability of any product).

As it turns out, Melissa King might be the ideal broth guru. As she first told us in her Top Chef post-victory interview back in June, even before she became a chef, she’d been helping make the family broth almost every night since she was five or six. That’s a lot of broth experience! If you want to know about soup, you could probably do a lot worse than listening to someone who has a “family broth.”

In any case, I recently got to pick King’s brain about her hottest ramen tricks (#ramenhacks) and the “Chief Noodle Officer” promotion she’s judging.

I did your recipe on the group call. I really enjoyed it. Do you have any general tips for spicing up your home ramen game?

I always try to think about, “How can I switch up the broth?” — if I do want to do a broth. And then I also think, “Well, sometimes you don’t need a broth.” You can cook the noodles and kind of do a dry, almost like a stir fry with it. So I think just trying to manipulate the ways that are often different than how you normally see it prepared is always a fun start. Then working within your pantry for other influences, whether you want to go more Italian with it, which is kind of what I did with the Parmesan broth, or if you want to take influence from maybe Latin culture and — I’ve actually seen a really creative… Let me think what that’s called, Birria, I think is what it’s called–

Yeah, Birria.

Taking that broth and using that and that stewed meat with the ramen noodles. So I think ramen is such a versatile platform where you can really just use that as a start, and then get really creative from that point on.

You used miso paste for that broth we made. Do you do that a lot? What do you think that adds?

I mean, I work with miso quite often in different applications, but I think specifically for this broth, it adds a lot of umami, a lot of depth of flavor. It gives it a saltiness, but not too overpowering. Yeah, I think that umami is what I was trying to get in this specific broth, with the Parmesan broth, the bonito flakes, the miso, the kombu. Those are all jam-packed umami bombs.

Do you always cook those noodles with just plain water?

I do if I’m creating a separate broth. I often do, yeah.

So you used to make broth every night, growing up, didn’t you?

Yes, bone broth was one of the first things I learned how to make, and specifically Chinese bone broth, and that was something that I would start when I came from home school. And then by the evening, after we finished dinner, we would finish our meal with a warm bone broth. I love making broth. It’s ne of my favorite things to eat, and to make, because you can layer so many flavors. At the end of the day, it’s water, but it’s really how you manipulate it and layer those flavors in.

How old were you when you started that?

I mean, I’ve been hanging out in the kitchen since I was like five or six, just with my mom, but I would say maybe like eight was when I started putting bones into a pot and filling it up with water and putting it onto the stove.

What was going in your bone broth usually?

You want bones that have a lot of, what’s it called — bone marrow and collagen. And so, I’d take those bones and blanch them with water, and it was just water. And depending on what type, I mean, I made so many different kinds, but sometimes there would be chicken bones with goji berries, dried jujubes, ginger. Sometimes we’d put carrots. Then there’s other kinds, where it’s more pork bone-based, and it would have watercress, dried figs, ginger. What am I forgetting in here? Oh, they’re like these little Chinese apricot seeds. What are they called in English? I actually don’t know what they’re called in English, because they’re not really the seed. Within the pit, there’s a little seed inside of the seed. But basically like Chinese herbs.

Were you roasting bones before you put the water in, or-

No, just blanching. Yeah, because Chinese style bone broths, you don’t roast the bones. French style bone broths, you do, depending. You can do blonde broths, or you can do roasted broths. Yeah, but it was just straight water, bones, letting it simmer for at least six hours, sometimes 10. The longer, the better. And oftentimes, the next day, it would be even better, because there would be a lot more collagen built up and flavor overnight.

Are you skimming anything off the top–

Oh, yeah. There’s always a lot of impurities from the bones, a lot of blood, and yeah, just all the nasties. You got to skim that off periodically throughout the simmer. And even just layers of oil and fat kind of build up, so that always my job when I was a kid, to sit there with the skimmer and skim the bone broth every 30 minutes or so.

Trying to get the fat off the top of broth seems such a pain in the ass.

Yeah, but the trick is to let it cool down, and then when it refrigerates and hardens, you can scoop it off, and then you reheat the broth.

Did you guys usually do that, or did you just leave the fat in?

Usually, I would just skim it off, because we would drink the broth later in the evening. But surely, the next day, once we cooled it down, if we had extra, and we were drinking it the next day, then yeah, absolutely, I would pull off the fat the next morning before we reheated it for breakfast or something like that.

What are the good things to have on hand for all the little ramen garnishes? It’s kind of the garnish that makes the dish, right?

Absolutely. Yeah, I think that’s another thing to think about when you want to elevate your ramen, is to think about all the fun little garnishes you can put on there, and I often try to think of textural components. Everyone loves the soy ramen egg. That’s, I think, a must. But so many other things you can do. Like for this particular recipe, you can put little pieces of crumbled bacon bits on top, if you really wanted to, or fresh grated Parmesan cheese, sauteing some mushrooms. You can do nori sheets. You can even take little pieces of tempura batter and fry that, drip it into the fryer, almost like you’re making funnel cake, and scoop off the little bits, and put those crunchies right on top. Those are pretty traditional garnishes. But yeah, there’s so many ways you can go with it.

It’s really whatever, I think, whatever you have on hand and whatever your mind can imagine.

I remember on Top Chef, I won $10,000 making a ramen dish, like elevating ramen on my first season of Top Chef: Boston. The care package that I had, had corn chips on top. And so, I made a cacio e pepe ramen, and then I took the corn chips and just crumbled it on top, to give it texture. And I thought it was great, “This is really tasty.”

So now you’re judging a noodle contest?

Yeah, we’re holding a little contest, to try to find the chief noodle officer for Top Ramen. We’re looking for someone really creative that’s going to take ramen and just bring it to the next level. They’re going to post it on Instagram and tag @originalTopRamen, as well as Chef Melissa King and follow us, in order to enter. And from there, I’m going judge and choose the winner, and they’re going to win $10,000. I think it’s a fun contest.

TOP RAMEN WITH BACON PARMESAN BROTH

Ingredients:

  • 1 teaspoon canola oil
  • 1 thinly sliced yellow onion
  • 1 thinly sliced whole leek, remove roots
  • 1 thinly sliced carrot, peeled
  • 4 thinly sliced garlic cloves
  • 3×3” slab of bacon or 5 slices of thick smoked bacon, diced
  • 1 Parmigiano Reggiano rind, about 2-3 ounces
  • 1 quart chicken broth
  • 2 teaspoon white miso paste
  • Ounce of bonito akes, optional
  • 1 strip kombu, optional
  • 2 Top Ramen package(s) (remove powder packet inside) •Dash of ground white pepper

Optional garnishes:

  • Soft-boiled egg or Soy-marinated egg (recipe below) •Thinly sliced scallions or japanese negi
  • Thinly sliced basil leaves
  • Mizuna leaves
  • Grated Parmigiano Reggiano
  • Sauteed King trumpet, wood ear, or enoki mushrooms •Chili oil
  • Toasted sesame seeds
  • Nori sheets

Directions:

In a large pot, over medium-high heat, add oil until hot. Add the onion, leeks, carrot, and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally, until completely soft, 8-10 minutes. Add a pinch of salt to help release the moisture of the vegetables and reduce the heat to a medium-low. Do not caramelize, the vegetables should be soft and translucent.

Add the bacon and cook over low heat to render the fat, stirring occasionally, about 4 minutes. Add the parmesan rind, chicken broth, miso paste, and optional kombu and bonito akes. Bring to a low simmer, cover, and cook for 30-45 minutes. For a stronger flavor, simmer for an additional 30 minutes to an hour. Season to taste with salt and white pepper. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve. Discard solids.

Bring a small pot of water to a boil. Add ramen noodles (remove packet) and cook stirring occasionally, until the noodles are just tender, 2 minutes. Drain the noodles and divide them into two separate bowls. Ladle the hot broth on top. Top each bowl with garnishes.

FOR THE SOFT-BOILED EGGS

Ingredients:

  • 4 eggs

Method:

Bring a pot of water to a boil. Add eggs in gently. Bring back to a boil and cook for 5 1/2 to 6 minutes.
Remove eggs and place them immediately into an ice-cold water bath. Let the eggs chill for 10 minutes before peeling.

FOR THE SOY-MARINATED EGG

Ingredients:

  • 4 soft-boiled eggs
  • 3/4 cup soy sauce
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 2 tablespoons rice vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon sugar

Method:

In a small bowl, add the soy sauce, sugar, rice vinegar, water, and mix to combine. Add the peeled eggs to the soy marinade, cover, and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, preferably overnight.

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