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Top 5 Ramen Hacks

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The life of a food critic is often far less glamorous than it may seem. Truly.

For as many fine dining meals as I may eat, I eat far more often in my own kitchen. And most of those meals are leftovers designed to last for at least a few days. But while the majority of my home-cooked meals are dollar-stretching standbys like cassoulet and Hoppin' John (it's not just for New Year's!), I shamefully admit to eating Ramen noodles on a fairly standard basis.

Feel free to judge me now.

However, I learned back in college that Ramen tastes absolutely foul when prepared according to the package's instructions. (Not to mention that little flavoring packet is a vicious sodium bomb.) Instead, I came up with all manner of "hacks" to make the noodles taste better while still staying within a pretty small budget.

Here are five of my favorite Ramen recipes, good for small budgets and large appetites. (And none of them involve breaking off pieces of Ramen blocks and dipping them into salsa. You're welcome.)

Cut-Rate Carbonara

A like to keep a jumbo bag of frozen peas on hand at all times. Aside from soothing the burns I often inflict on myself, they work thrown in nearly any dish to add a quick-cooking vegetable and they're very inexpensive. Not to mention, frozen peas are usually far better, quality-wise, than what you'll get in the produce department.

For this hack, boil your Ramen noodles in a sauce pan until they're starting to soften. Add a handful of frozen peas. Drain the noodles and peas when both are cooked, then transfer immediately back to your hot pan. Crack one egg over the noodles and peas, then whisk quickly until the egg is completely incorporated into the mix. The heat from the noodles and pan will cook the egg and transform it into a sauce. Top with cracked black pepper and salt to taste.

Very minimal cost, plus you'll get protein and vegetables from the egg and peas. (And despite the cholesterol present in both the egg and the noodles, this is still a lot better for you than restaurant-made faux carbonara sauce with heavy cream.)

Super-Fast Shepherd's Pie

Again, break out the frozen peas. If you have a bag that's both peas and carrots, even better, because you'll need them both.

Brown a half-pound of ground beef with salt and pepper to taste and boil your noodles in one pan and your peas and carrots in another while your oven is pre-heating to 350 degrees. Pam-down a baking dish, then make three layers: ground beef on the bottom, peas and carrots in the middle, Ramen noodles on top. Bake for 5 to 10 minutes.

This sounds silly, but it's a very fast and very hearty dish that's great for colder months as well as for leftovers (unless you're cooking for two). And if you want some added flavor, you can always use a bit of the "Beef" flavor packet in your Ramen package in the ground beef, but a little goes a long way.

Crunchy Ramen Salad

When I have to make a quick dish for company or take a dish to a potluck, I make this Asian-inspired salad. When people realize there's Ramen in it, they actually want to know the recipe even more. Go figure.

Shred a head of cabbage (red or green), then toss it with rice wine vinegar and olive oil to taste. While that's marinating, crush a package of uncooked Ramen with a meat tenderizer or whatever you have handy. Don't crush the noodles too finely, though -- they're going to act as croutons. Toss the Ramen noodles into the cabbage slaw salad along with salt, cracked black pepper and sunflower seeds (these are optional) to taste.

While you could stop here, there are endless ways to further customize this salad. My grandmother likes to add sugar and green onions (a version of her recipe is here) while I like to add Mandarin orange slices and diced shallots.

Breakfast Stir-Fry

Get out the eggs again, and bacon if you have it. (Pro-tip: You should always have bacon.) Boil your noodles and then drain them thoroughly.

Meanwhile, you should have cooked two pieces of bacon in a non-stick skillet and set them aside to cool/drain on some paper towels. Transfer the drained noodles into the same skillet and stir-fry them in the remaining bacon grease. Chop or tear the bacon into pieces and throw it in as well. Plate your noodles, then quickly fry an egg in the skillet and top your breakfast Ramen with the fried egg. Salt and pepper to taste.

In addition to being quick and easy, you only dirtied one pan. And it's probably the only pan you have, isn't it?

It's Not Delivery, It's Ramen

Now, stay with me for the last one. I discovered this recipe years ago and only cook it once in a blue moon, but it's fun and tasty and incredibly quick. You can also clean out your crisper drawer making it. Yes, it's Ramen pizza.

Unlike the original recipe, I don't like to use pepperoni because it's one of those things I don't keep on hand. I do, however, always have random cheeses and vegetables to get rid of and almost always have a jar of marinara sauce (although regular tomato sauce will do just as nicely as long as you salt it).

Boil your noodles, drain, then arrange them on the bottom of an oven-safe skillet. Top with marinara sauce and shredded cheese along with any vegetables you have on hand -- squash, onions, bell peppers, olives, broccoli, more tomatoes. I even use anchovies if I'm cleaning out the pantry. Put the "pizza" under your broiler on high for just a couple of minutes, or until the cheese is bubbly. Cut into wedges and enjoy!

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