I am a very nostalgic person and highly prone to introspection. I think this is a large part of why food writing is such an important outlet for me, because food is so much more than just food. It’s memory, love, excitement, art, joy, and more. A recent email from a reader, with a subject line that read “When food is more than food” struck a chord with me. The email shared the person’s memories of growing up in Japan, his mother lovingly preparing food for her family, and the impact that has had on his life.
The email reminded me of a favorite quote from Michael Rosen. Rosen wrote, in the Introduction of Cooking from the Heart, “The flavors, aromas, colors, and textures of the foods we have shared create impressions more profound than mere gustatory recollection. Along with recognizing key sensations . . . come so many associated experiences: where you were, who joined in the meal, what you had been doing just before, as though pulling one container from the crowded larder of your memory forced the entire contents of the shelf to spill onto the counter.” Rosen also wrote, “Each chef’s table—whether oceans, generations, or cultures away—will link with yours as though we were all sitting down to eat at one universal table assembled from each of our individual leaves.”
As I think of the wonderful email that I received, I’d like to reword what Rosen wrote. I think that as we share those containers that we pull from the larders of our memories, each of us, whether chef or home cook, will link our tables as though we were all sitting down to eat at one universal table. Creating, capturing, and sharing at the world table is one of my greatest pleasures in life. What memories are you creating in your kitchen and at your table?
I recently made a pot of oxtail ramen, a twist on traditional Japanese tonkotsu ramen. Tonkotsu ramen is made with pork bones, and the flavor of the soup comes primarily from the broth made from the pork bones than from the tare (sauce used to add flavor to ramen broth). The broth is made over many hours, the bones simmering slowly in liquid on the stove. The final assembly of the soup is quick, it’s the preparation that takes patience and love.
During a recent trip to the grocery store, I happened to walk past the meat counter and saw a display of oxtails. I quickly grabbed several packages to take home, not knowing what I was going to make with them. Oxtails are very bony and gelatinous, requiring slow cooking to turn them into something delicious. As I considered the possibilities, the thought of slow cooking made me think of the process of making ramen stock, and I knew at once that my oxtails were meant to be made into ramen.
I simmered the oxtails in a pot, along with water, kombu, and some vegetables for seven hours. Then I separated the meat and the broth and put them in the refrigerator. When we were ready to eat, I made some soft boiled eggs, cooked the noodles, made a simple tare out of miso paste and garlic paste to accentuate the flavors of the oxtail broth, and brought the oxtail broth to a boil. In each bowl I put a small spoonful of tare, a handful of noodles, and some oxtail meat. Then I ladled the steaming oxtail broth over everything and mixed. Each bowl was garnished with a softboiled egg and some julienned scallions.
This is the type of meal that requires patience and love, but results in a bowl of rich comfort food. It was a meal that ended in my girls giving me big hugs after they had finished eating. Whether they realized it or not, I think they tasted the love that went into the meal. I hope that as they look back on their childhood, they’ll remember our kitchen as the heart of our home. The place where we laughed, played, and spent time with one another. Even if they don’t remember specifics, I hope that the feelings produced by time spent in the kitchen and together at meal time will stick with them, and that they will carry them into adulthood so that they will want to create those types of memories for their own families. This oxtail ramen was born from memories of steaming bowls of ramen eaten on cold autumn days in Japan, and has been seasoned with new memories of my little girls noisily slurping their noodles at dinner time. So much more than just food.
Makes about 6 servings
For the Oxtail Stock:
5 pounds oxtail, cut in cross-sections of roughly the same thickness
1 medium yellow onion, cut into quarters
1 large leek, green part only, cut in half and rinsed thoroughly
1 1/2 ounces fresh ginger (a section about 3-inches long), sliced
1 head garlic, separated into individual cloves
One 8-inch square piece kombu (kelp)
2 teaspoons coarse sea salt
1. Parboil the oxtails: Place the oxtail sections in a large pot and cover them with cold water. Bring the water to a vigorous boil over high heat and let it continue to boil for 2 to 3 minutes. Drain and rinse the oxtails in clean water. Scrub the pot clean and return the oxtails to the pot. (This step makes a cleaner stock, because it helps remove bits of marrow and other impurities that will cloud the flavor of the stock.)
2. Make the stock: Add the onion, leek, ginger, garlic, and kombu to the pot. Add enough water to cover all the ingredients by 1-inch, and bring the mixture to a slow boil over high heat. Turn the heat to low, and gently simmer, uncovered, for 7 hours, adding water as necessary to keep the oxtails covered.
3. Remove the oxtails and submerge them in a clean pot of cold water for 10 minutes. Drain the sections and bring them to room temperature, then store them in an airtight container and refrigerate until ready to use.
4. Discard all the remaining solids, then strain the stock through a sieve lined with cheesecloth into a clean pot. Stir in the coarse sea salt, and let the stock cool at room temperature, then store in the refrigerator overnight to let the flavors develop and the fat separate to the top.
For the Garlic Miso Paste:
1/3 cup shiro miso (white miso paste)
3 garlic cloves, crushed
2 teaspoons oxtail fat, taken from top of chilled oxtail stock
1. Stir the miso and crushed garlic together in a small bowl.
2. In a small skillet, heat the oxtail fat. When it has melted, add the miso mixture, and cook it over low heat, stirring constantly, for 5 minutes. transfer the mixture to a small container, and set it aside until ready to use.
For the Soft-Boiled Eggs:
6 large eggs
1. Place the eggs in a saucepan and cover with cold water. Bring the water to a boil over medium-high heat, then cook the cooks for 1 minute 30 seconds. Immediately remove the eggs and rinse them under cold water until they are cool enough to handle. Remove them from the water and pat the shells dry with a kitchen towel. Set the eggs aside until ready to be served (or make ahead of time and keep chilled in the refrigerator, for up to 3 days).
For the Oxtail Ramen:
Prepared Miso Garlic Paste
16 ounces dried chukasoba noodles, cooked according to package directions
Cooked oxtail meat, fat removed and meat shredded
7 cups Oxtail Stock
6 Soft-Boiled Eggs
8 scallions, white parts only, julienned in 2-inch lengths and soaked in cold water until needed
1. Remove the pot of chilled oxtail broth from the refrigerator. Scoop off the white crust of fat, leaving a few bits of it for flavor. Place the pot over medium heat and bring to a rolling boil.
2. Place 1 tablespoon of the miso garlic paste into each noodle bowl. Drain the cooked noodles and divide them among the bowls. Add some of the shredded oxtail meat. Add 1 to 1 1/2 cups of hot ramen stock to each bowl. With a pair of chopsticks or tongs, lift and stir the noodles several times so that the miso garlic paste dissolves.
3. Crack each egg shell at the larger end, lightly tapping it on a hard surface. Then carefully peel the shell away. If necessary, use a small spoon to gently scoop the egg from its shell. Carefully slice each egg in half and place on top of the noodles. Drain the scallions and use to garnish. Serve immediately.