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In November, I was sitting in a waiting room killing time when I picked up Time Out Chicago. I typically would rather read the ingredients in commercial ice cream (yes, Polysorbate 80 is the most delicious polysorbate) than Time Out, but when I opened to an article written by someone I have admired from afar, Martha Bayne, I was compelled to read it.

The article hit very close to home. The article talks about the elevation of food discussion, and the excesses of the food culture in which I so happily, peripherally participate. In elevating the discussion and promoting the excess, the gap between the attention those eating multi-course tasting menu and then needing a pizza to top themselves off get and those who go to bed hungry on a daily basis widens, and not in a good way. In Martha’s story there were some great examples of how the food industry helps, but also a reminder that the needle is barely moved.

After reading the article and swallowing a little pride, I reached out to help with Martha’s Soup & Bread, a way that I could help, and was assigned to the All Things Cow-nsidered night. Beef. I was excited and so many ideas crossed my mind. I considered a pastrami broth with mustard seeds, kraut and rye berries, but I had just gotten finished with my first ramen broth. I was hooked. I had used pork and chicken, but surely ramen has been made with beef before. And no Maruchan beef packets.

I had a country ham ready for smoking which meant that I had a need to fire up the cold smoker. Beef and smoke is a combination made in heaven, er, Texas. What started as making the same ramen as before but simply adding beef eventually evolved into something different and this was the jumping off point. The framework was there, but the finished product was a few more degrees of separation from ramen than I was completely comfortable.

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The main components of the beef ramen that I originally had in mind, the beef broth and the beef navel chashu, would now be smoked. I picked up beef knuckles cross-cut and smoked them along with a beef navel - both from Butcher & Larder who participates in bone fabrication for Soup & Bread. The navel looks almost identical to pork belly, which, to me, is the traditional ramen garnish. This is where I originally thought I would stop, but ambition and a lack of self-editing took it further. Into the cold smoker went the knuckles and navel as well as a bunch of marrow bones. For 24 hours, the beef and bones were infused with oak smoke.

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Making tare, the typical ramen seasoning, usually includes simmering the sake, soy and mirin in hard roasted chicken backs. Instead of chicken, I roasted smoked marrow bones and simmered them with soy and a few items typically found at Texas/Oklahoma BBQs – Head Country BBQ sauce, Shinerbock, and cider vinegar. After nearly an hour, the marrow was scooped out and blended into the simmering liquid. It had the viscosity somewhere between almond butter and heavy cream. Amazing stuff. Worth making even without ramen.

BBQ Tare

  • 4 marrow bones and a random beef knuckle (smoked it you can)
  • 1 cup soy sauce
  • 1 cup beer
  • 1 cup cider vinegar
  • 1 cup BBQ sauce

Step one: Roast marrow bones, cool for a bit, scoop out marrow into pan.

Step two: Add remaining ingredients and cook over medium heat for 45 minutes. Remove marrow bones and blend marrow and sauce into a homogeneous mixture.

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Garnishes

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As a supplement to the beef navel chashu, I added some beef hot links. As one of the pickled items, I brought a quart of plain hamburger dill pickles. Again, I was thinking of Texas style BBQ here. Nori, green onions, and pickled shiitakes remained, as I believe that they are ramen essentials, but as I looked to add the egg, I realized that I could not possibly do all of the boiling and peeling needed to serve 45-60 bowls of ramen.

So I hacked eggs. Originally, I had tested out savory marshmallows, but the soup made that a molten gooey mess, so instead of a soft boiled egg, I took egg whites and smoked them (along with sugar) and made meringues adding a few tablespoons of soy sauce to the egg whites. My figuring is that they would appear as an egg, they were made of eggs, they were transportable, and finally they would essentially melt into the broth leaving a nice sweet smokiness. Even better, I used 4 egg whites to make about 75 meringues.

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Broth

Getting to work on the broth, I started noticing the body approaching ridiculousness. The texture of the tonkatsu broth was nice, but after only hours, the milkiness of the beef broth was noticeable. After cooking for upwards of 10 hours, I let the broth cool overnight. The next day there was a beautiful layer of fat, but hiding underneath was the jiggliest 3 gallons of beefiness I have seen. It was smoky and had the depth of a great ramen broth, but needed seasoning.

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I heated the broth and added the tare, turning the milky, white broth into a red-orange fat-slicked broth. The sweetness from the BBQ sauce in the tare was forward, but did not overwhelm the flavors from the dashi – kombu, shiitake and katsuobushi – or the beef, but it did not back down from them either. I would estimate, since I cut back on the soy in the tare, the saltiness was lower than normal, which also could have brought the sweetness forward.

Noodles

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With the broth and garnishes pretty well in place, I moved to the noodles. After some back and forth with Susanna Ok from Hapa Ramen in San Fransisco, I settled on somen. I had picked up 4 family sized boxes (2 soba and 2 somen), not knowing what to expect. After cooking up one box of somen (3 lbs. dry weight), I nearly peed myself with laughter. It filled an entire sheet pan with 3 inches of noodles (nearly 7 lbs. cooked). One box was 50% more than I needed. I portioned the noodles out, since we were working in a soup line, in cupcake pans at about 100 grams per serving. Towards the end of the evening, the noodles got a little stickier than I liked, but overall they served their purpose.

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I did not know what to expect at Soup & Bread, but Martha and the rest of the folks there were incredibly nice about my lack of editing. I had more extraneous items than everyone else combined, but with their graciousness, we got through. There were many delicious beef soups that night and even with nearly 3 gallons of broth, 5 lbs. of navel, 2 lbs. of hot links, 7 lbs. of noodles, and a bunch of other stuff, we managed to run out quickly.

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It was not about running out though and it especially was not about me and my soup, despite the post being about the soup. To me, it was an introduction to an event and a cause that I hope to continue to participate in. As much as I love cooking and eating, it is more important to me to have people fed who need food.

Note that if you are in the Chicago area, Martha is looking for cooks –  not necessarily chefs –  just people interested in making soup. If you are interested, please contact her at Soup & Bread.

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