Noodle Bowl Night

Noodle Bowl Night requires a little story detour. In April, we traveled to Charleston, SC. I cannot express my love of this place enough. It was my 6th time there, and every time I fall more in love with the area and, especially, the food. It’s a mecca for those of us who are passionate about Southern gastronomy. And I’m not talking about fried chicken or mac and cheese, although those are wonderful Southern food staples. I’m talking about a literal resurrection of heirloom grains and vegetables, liberal usage of Southern farms that care about their meat products and raise their animals humanely (a requirement in my book), a new way overall of seeing Southern food. Plenty of Charleston-based restaurants are garnering national (and international) attention. A prominent example is Husk, a restaurant founded by Southern culinary “it boy” and fellow Virginian, Sean Brock. And by “it boy,” I’m not implying a passing fad here. At least, I hope his style of cooking isn’t just a trend. No, by “it boy,” I literally mean the man has “it.” He can take any number of ingredients and elevate them to otherworldly goodness. He can take something as ubiquitous as a cheeseburger and leave you speechless. I plan to write a separate post in the future about Husk and Brock, hopefully after another adventure before year’s end to Charleston.

It’s in Charleston that this story begins. On a whim, we tried out a place that is, to my knowledge, relatively new to the area: Two Boroughs Larder. Luckily, my husband is just as much of a food geek as I am, so prior to our spring trip he did some restaurant research and stumbled across this gem while reading a magazine. It was already on our “to try” list (because that’s how we travel), so try it we did.

And let me just say, this restaurant/larder mirrors my dream restaurant if I ever have the chance to go that route. The food is locally sourced (or at least it comes from the South). It’s innovative in that style that Southerners are coming to embrace: ingredients and preparation restored from bygone times when no part of the animal or vegetable was wasted (we tried fried pigs’ ears, which are fantastic, so don’t grimace at me unless you’ve had them yourself), ingredients that are incredibly salt-of-the-earth (we also had no-nonsense roasted Brussels sprouts), and ingredients that alone sing in their simplicity but become this beautiful, joyful, almost overwhelming chorus when assembled together (see: an egg sandwich that could be unassuming but bowled me over because of the freshness and quality of the ingredients; also, the bacon). See? I could practically write a dissertation about Charleston food finds.

ANYWAY, this story has turned into “Gilligan’s Island.” You guys thought you were just going on a tour, but it’s turned out to be much longer. To the point, finally: my husband ordered a noodle bowl the evening we were at Two Boroughs. It was our lucky night, as, I believe, the restaurant only offers noodle bowls on the menu on Tuesdays. And let me just say, he was smitten. I’ve never heard him rave about a food so much as he did this noodle bowl. Days later I was still hearing about the noodle bowl. I admit I tried it, and it was incredible, but I was too enthralled with my egg sandwich and the fact that, holy crap y’all,  Sean Brock was sitting within my line of sight. But that’s another story for another time. I was distracted, to say the least.

When we got home, my husband still mentioned the noodle bowl. So I decided, what the hey. I’ll try to recreate this thing. Or at least keep him quiet for a while, because dammit, I was already homesick for Charleston and didn’t need a reminder of what we were missing.

So I set about to recreate, or at least do a spinoff version, of this food of which I had only had one bite.

In a noodle bowl, I think the broth is the most important element (note: I am not an expert when it comes to noodle bowls, so, you know: take it all with a grain of salt). Now, my broth for this meal was already made and thawing out as I had leftovers from the last go-round. But, if you’ve made stock and/or broth before, you know it’s easy. There’s no reason, really, to buy the kind in the grocery store. Although you could and use it here. To the best of my ability and memory, I’ve included below a recipe for my version of a (somewhat) spicy pork broth. The most work you’ll do is strain the broth a few times through cheesecloth, which really isn’t that much work at all. I promise in the end it’s worth the effort, and it beats the hell out of the store-bought kind.

Now, the noodle part. Two Boroughs Larder, I believe, makes its noodles in-house. I did not. I chose the pre-made stir-fry noodles, but I’ve promised myself I will learn to make homemade noodles the next time around. (If you have a noodle recipe that’s tried and true, toss it my way!)

I had leftover Chinese barbecue pork (or char siu), so that was the meat for this bowl. The veggies included sauteed carrots, mushrooms, and red cabbage. I also made a super fast kimchi.

The beautiful thing about a noodle bowl is that you can mix and match what goes into it; the sky is the limit. I’ve kept in form with what my husband ordered that fateful evening, but you could use chicken, beef, duck, seafood, tofu…endless possibilities. If you need inspiration, check out the Two Boroughs Larder menu, which lists their usual noodle bowl add-ins.

If this all looks like a lot of different ingredients and bits and pieces, it really comes together quickly. You could even make the broth ahead of time and freeze/thaw as needed. The meat could be made ahead of time depending on the ingredients you use (for instance, I wouldn’t suggest getting a head start on seafood). If you have a wok, the veggies can be sauteed in no time. It’s really up to you how easy or complicated you want to make this. Hell, you could just make the broth and noodles and have a food that easily rivals the touted comfort and health benefits of homemade chicken noodle soup.

Homemade Spicy Pork Broth

Olive oil
3 Tbsp. soy sauce
2 lb. pork (You preferably want a cut with bones; the bones really add great depth and flavor to the broth. You could sub in chicken, beef, duck, etc.)
2 large carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
1 large onion, roughly chopped (no need to peel)
3 celery stalks, roughly chopped
4 garlic cloves, smashed (no need to peel)
1 tsp. whole peppercorns
2 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes

In a large soup pot, heat over medium high the soy sauce and enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan. Once the oil and soy sauce are heated, add the pork, carrots, onion, celery, garlic, peppercorns, and red pepper flakes. Saute over medium-high heat for about 10 minutes, stirring frequently to avoid burning the garlic. Add enough water to cover the meat and veggies (usually about 10-12 cups). Bring to boil, then reduce the heat until the broth is simmering. Cover and let simmer for a good 5-6 hours (basically until the meat is literally falling off the bone).

Once the broth is ready, pour it through a fine-meshed sieve into a large bowl. This will be the first strain of the broth. Set aside the sieve and its contents  because the meat can serve double duty in the noodle bowl or for a separate meal entirely.

In another sieve (or the same one used before; just remove the meat and veggies to a separate dish) place a piece of cheesecloth large enough to cover the sieve. Pour the strained broth through the cheesecloth back into your large soup pot (save the cheesecloth and sieve for the third and final strain). This second strain will catch any of the fat that simmered off the meat and leftover bits and pieces that may have sifted through during the first strain. It’s important to do these strains as you want the broth to be as “pure” as possible.

Place the broth back on medium-high heat and add salt to taste; let simmer for another 30-45 minutes. Then, strain the broth one last time through the cheesecloth.

The broth can be used immediately or individually portioned and frozen for later use. If you’ve retained the meat from the cooking process, just remove the meat from the bones and save for your noodle bowl or another meal (this will require picking through some of the veggies, but that’s not too difficult). Remember, the point is to get as much mileage out of your food as possible because you’ve (hopefully) invested in a good cut of meat.

Quick Kimchi

1 medium red onion, peeled and thinly sliced
1 medium carrot, peeled and cut into thin matchsticks
1 small cucumber, peeled and thinly sliced
1/2 c. apple cider vinegar
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. honey
1/4 c. water

Place the veggies in a Mason jar. In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar, salt, honey, and water (you could also add 1 tsp. of crushed red pepper flakes during this step). Pour over the veggies (make sure they are covered by the liquid; if not, just add more vinegar and water). Place the lid on the jar and give it a shake for good measure. Let sit in the fridge for at least 2 hours.

Sauteed Carrots, Mushrooms, Red Cabbage

Olive oil
1 large carrot, peeled and thinly sliced
2 c. mushrooms, thinly sliced
1 c. red cabbage, sliced
1 tsp. salt
Soy sauce

In a large wok or saute pan, heat over medium high enough olive oil to coat the bottom of the pan. Add the veggies, and saute for about 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Season with the salt and soy sauce, reduce heat to low, and cover. Let steam for about 20 minutes (or less if you like your carrots more al dente).

Stir-fry Noodles

This is going to be your last step in the noodle bowl “process” if you just buy the noodles pre-made. Follow instructions on the box. (Skip the stir-fry step as you want these softer.)

Noodle Bowl Assembly
-Pork (or your chosen meat)
-Sauteed veggies
-Quick kimchi
-Sesame oil
-Soy sauce

Place desired amount of broth in individual bowls. Add the noodles, the pork (or desired meat/seafood), and sauteed veggies. On the side serve the kimchi. Once the noodle bowl is ready, drizzle in sesame oil (don’t skip this condiment as it really makes all the flavors pop at the end) and soy sauce. Grab your favorite chopsticks and slurp away!