It seems we're all price-watching and bargain shopping a little more than we used to. We're finding ourselves in the kitchen more often because we're eating out less. But we still want meals that are relatively healthful, and we don't have a lot of time to prepare them.
It's a challenge, for sure. But the good news? We're all going to become experts at putting together bargain-priced ingredients to create quick, flavorful and pretty-good-for-you meals.
As I scooted through the grocery store the other day, heading to the meat section to pick up some sale-priced chicken breasts, I came upon a huge bin filled with colorful packages of ramen noodles. During the summer, I sometimes buy a package now and then, crumbling the crunchy, uncooked noodles into an Asian-style cabbage salad. It's been many years since I actually cooked the noodles, flavoring them with the seasoning packet that's tucked inside of each package, eating the cooked mixture as soup. There was a time when I appreciated the hot, salty broth and the slippery noodles sliding down my throat. Maybe when I was in college or maybe when I was a budget-minded newlywed. Now -- not so much.
On this day, though, each little package was only 17 cents. Pretty tempting. I read the ingredients list on the back of the package. The flavored soup base packet showed the first three ingredients to be salt, monosodium glutamate (MSG) and sugar, in that order. MSG is a controversial food additive that enhances flavor. Some research suggests it harms people's health, linking MSG to obesity, migraines and behavioral problems in children. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration says MSG is safe for most consumers. I try to avoid it.
Out of curiosity, I checked out the natural food section of the store and found packages of organic ramen noodles. I picked up a 99-cent package of the garlic pepper-flavored noodles and discovered the first three ingredients listed for the flavored soup base were natural sea salt, Chinese mushroom powder and organic sugar. MSG was nowhere on the list. For 99 cents, I thought it would still become an economical, healthful meal when turned into a dish with some chicken and maybe some vegetables. I tossed a couple of the small noodle packets into my basket and continued on my way toward the chicken breasts.
Once home, I immediately cleaned all the bone-in, skin-on chicken breasts to prepare them for my favorite method of roasting, producing lots of moist and flavorful cooked chicken meat that I divide into portions for refrigerating and for freezing. Having some cooked chicken on hand means I can put a meal together in just minutes, anytime.
For every four chicken breasts, I prepare a seasoning mixture by chopping four chubby cloves of fresh garlic with two tablespoons of my favorite dried herbs and two teaspoons of coarse kosher salt. After rubbing the fragrant mixture under the skin of each breast, I tuck in a couple of thin slices of fresh lemon or orange. The prepared breasts go onto a foil-lined baking sheet with sides and get a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of freshly ground black pepper. Then into the oven they go, roasting for 30 to 40 minutes, depending on the size of the breasts. When my instant-read digital meat thermometer shows me the internal temperature of the white meat has reached 165 degrees, I take it out of the oven and let it rest for 10 minutes. The juices will settle and the plump breasts will continue to cook as the temperature rises to 170 degrees. I chill the cooked meat before chopping or slicing and dividing into meal-sized portions.
Ramen Noodles with Chicken, Broccoli and Peanuts is a meal that goes together in no time. The noodles cook in four minutes or less, the broccoli is stir-fried to crisp-tenderness over high heat in minutes and the cooked chicken is ready to go. The medley of hot ingredients is doused with a sweet-tart seasoned liquid mixture of honey and fresh lemon juice. Peanuts add wonderful taste and texture to the mix.
The silky noodles slid down my throat just as I remembered. The flavors in my mouth were reminiscent of a spicy noodle dish that I order at my favorite Thai restaurant. And to think I made it right in my own kitchen. Fast, economical, relatively healthful and best of all, delicious.
Ramen Noodles with Chicken, Broccoli & Peanuts
2 (2- to 3-ounce) packages ramen noodles with seasoning packets
2 tablespoons peanut or canola oil, divided
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/4 cup honey
2 cups broccoli florets
2 chubby cloves of garlic
1 to 2 cups thinly sliced cooked chicken
1 cup chopped roasted peanuts
Red pepper flakes to taste
Cook ramen noodles according to package directions, without the seasoning packet from inside the package of noodles. The seasoning packets will be used later. Drain the noodles and rinse with water. When well drained, transfer the noodles to a large bowl and toss with 1 tablespoon of the oil. Set aside.
In a bowl or 1-cup glass measure, mix lemon juice, honey and seasoning mixture from both packets. Blend well and set aside.
In a large skillet or stove-top wok, heat remaining 1 tablespoon of oil. Add broccoli and stir-fry until it is crisp-tender. Add minced garlic and stir-fry for another minute. Stir in lemon juice, honey and seasoning mixture. Add cooked noodles and toss together well. Stir in the peanuts. Season (cautiously) with red pepper flakes. Serve immediately. Yields 2 very generous entrée servings or 4 healthful-sized entrée servings.
Tips from the cook
--To change up the flavor, use toasted sesame oil for tossing with the noodles and for stir-frying. Try adding some minced fresh gingerroot or green onions, shredded fresh basil or mint.
--If you'd rather not use the seasoning packet that comes with ramen noodles, just enhance the honey and lemon juice mixture with herbs and spices to suit your personal taste.