Baboon Pirates

Scribbles and Scrawls from an unrepentant swashbuckling primate.

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Location: Texas, United States

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Starving Student Staples

In my first semester back at college after a lengthy stint at the School of Hard Knocks, I had a place to live and my books and classes were paid for, but there was very little cash on hand. While most students got a job or went the work-study route to provide some coinage, my somewhat erratic scholastic habits forced me to concentrate solely on studies that first year back to boost the ol' GPA and improve my scholarship chances.

So, I lived on $25-30 a week for about a year, all my parents could spare to send me. That sounds like an easy feat, but everything I needed had to come out of that. Gas for the car (an old '74 V8 Dodge with a HUGE drinking problem), oil changes, food, cigarettes, booze, incidentals, everything. I remember my buddy Andy asking me where I worked, and saying "Lucky!" in an admiring tone when I said I wasn't employed. Heh. Admire this empty wallet and the half-smoked ciggies in the bottom of the pack that I've stubbed out so I can smoke later! Nope, it just sucked. A real treat was going to the Dollar movies on Saturday and sneaking into the other theaters afterwards to see more than one.

As a dedicated food-o-phile, the eating situation sucked the most. I quickly found all the local day-old bakery stores, and got bread pretty cheap. I cooked a whole lot of pasta and rice, and went through cases of the dollar-a-can Hunt's spaghetti sauce. Spices were onions, garlic salt, soy sauce, red chili sauce (Sriracha!!) and Tabasco, because they stretched the farthest. Protein sources were either beans, canned tuna or the case of giant #10 cans of government-issue USDA peanut butter I had snarfed from the commissary when summer camp shut down. This is the reason I refuse to eat peanut butter almost 15 years later.

And then there's ramen...those lovely compressed bricks of pre-fried noodles.

Believe it or not, ramen is even cheaper now than it was back then. There used to be a time you didn't see ramen outside an Asian food market. Still, it was common to catch it on special for 6 for a dollar, or even 8 for a dollar sometimes.

How to cook ramen? Let me count the ways. Even after money started coming in via grants & loans, ramen was still a cheap and easy meal. I finally perfected the recipe, and I'll pass it along to any other starving student out there.

The best part of this recipe is that it's perfectly scalable. Just remember this formula... For every 1-4 bricks of ramen, use one portion of the additional ingredients. You can make as little or as much as you like, depending on your hunger level. With a big enough saucepan, you can feed an army.

Here's the ingredient list:

1-4 bricks of ramen (any flavor... the ones with the chili or sesame oil inside are best)
Can of tuna (I used tuna in oil for the extra calories)
handful of frozen vegetables (I preferred peas, corn or broccoli)
1 egg
splash of vegetable oil
1/2 yellow onion
soy sauce
tablespoon of margarine

To cook, place frozen veggies & tuna in a large saucepan, and fill with water about 3/4 full. Dump in half of the powdered flavor packet(s). Set sauce pan on stove, and bring contents to boil. While water is heating, chop onion, break up ramen bricks into small pieces, and place wok on the stove over low heat. (You do own a wok, correct? If not, rectify the situation immediately!)

When water/tuna/veggie mix boils, dump in the ramen and commence stirring. It'll try to boil over, so be ready to pull the pan off of the burner. Let ramen cook for 4 minutes. When you hit minute #3, crack the egg in the saucepan and give it a light stir, then quit stirring lest you break up the egg bits.

When 4 minutes has passed, pour the whole mess in a colander or large sieve and let it drain. Turn up heat under wok to High, and pour in oil. When oil gets hot, toss in onions and let them soften. I usually leave them half-cooked so they have a bit of bite and heat left to 'em.

When onions reach the level you like, pour in the ramen/egg/veggie/tuna mix and commence to stir-frying.

Toss the noodles about until you start to see some brown on the edges. You're not looking for crispy here, you just want to get past the soggy boiled stage. Pour mix back in saucepan, stir in remaining flavor packet powder and margarine, and also chili sauce and/or soy sauce to taste.

Place saucepan on a kitchen towel or hotpad to keep from burning your hands, go sit on the couch and watch Magnum PI reruns as you scarf up the food. I usually got back from classes around 4 pm, and had this cooked and eaten by 4:30. That would hold me until the morning PB & J sandwich. Total cost: Less than $2.

When I finally landed my first job after college and could afford Real Food, I swore I would never eat this mess again. I swore off ramen forever. Yeah, right. Let me tell ya, lengthy unemployment spells are remarkably like being a starving student, only the depression level is much worse. I discovered last year I could still cook the ol' ramen, and it tasted... well, it ain't Pad Thai, but it'll keep you going.