Sunday, December 15, 2013

Breaking Bad Habits (In the Category of Mean What You Say.) #52Weeks

I developed an impressive number of bad habits – vices if you will – before I turned age 25. I won’t enumerate them all for you. (How tedious for us both!) But as I’ve survived into adulthood, mental maturity (not the same as adulthood), and now middle age, I realize that I have successfully put aside many of them. Cigarettes for example, which I can still say I spent more of my life with than without – I have finally kicked that habit for the last time. Jim Beam and ginger ale, once my favorite dancing couple, is also now a thing of my past. As are most hard liquors in fact – it just hurts too much the next day. Coffee and donuts no longer begin my morning. Macaroni and cheese, pasta dressed simply with garlic butter and grated parmgiano reggiano, fresh-baked bread and any number of other carb-intense comfort foods on which I once subsisted – I haven’t kicked these entirely, but my usage is way down.

A few of my vices I plan to enjoy until I die.

It appears that my bad ramen habit will be one of them. As with many of my vices, I started using ramen noodles in high school. They were fast. They were yummy. They were my go-to after-school snack. Back then I didn’t make soup. Like a true junkie, I drained the water, added the full flavor packet, and reveled in the salty, savory, tender, curly noodles. I carried this addiction to college (along with some other vices), where I met peers who were equally afflicted. Purists, all, we didn’t share recipes, we merely swapped admissions of which “color” we thought tasted the best. After all ramen wasn’t an ingredient, it was the entire meal. (Two servings per pouch? I don’t think so.)
My gratitude to for posting this picture of the Ramen Flavor Rainbow on the Internet.

I like to eat healthy. I try to cook fresh, light,  (mostly) organic vegetables and lean, hormone-free meats these days, for as many meals as possible. Except for lunch -- every weekday, for lunch, I make soup -- wonderful, delicious, chock-full-of-fresh-veggies-and-tofu soup. And it starts with a packet of Top Ramen Chicken Noodle flavor in the orange pouch.

Kim’s Lunch Soup
Crunch one package of Top Ramen Chicken Flavor noodles into a microwave safe bowl. Add 1-1/2 cups of water, the seasoning packet that came with the noodles (some days I only add half and pitch the rest – the sodium levels are obscene), two teaspoons of fresh minced ginger root, 4-5 white button mushrooms sliced thin, a generous dash of ground white pepper, a few dashes of soy sauce, and a few dashes of hot sauce. (Or add 2-3 tablespoons of finadene sauce, which is my preferred.) Cover and microwave for about 3 minutes. Add two handfuls (about one cup) of fresh baby spinach leaves torn into pieces. Cover and microwave for another 2 minutes until spinach is just cooked and noodles are al dente. Add 1/8 cup of tofu cut into bite size cubes and 1 tablespoon of fresh sliced scallions. Serve immediately.

Sometimes I add an egg that I’ve scrambled and cooked omelet-style in sesame oil to the finished bowl. It absorbs the broth without getting mushy – my twist on egg drop soup. Sometimes I get really ambitious and buy wonton wrappers, which I slice into strips and fry in canola oil. It only takes a few seconds until the dough crisps into brown crunchy fried noodles. Lightly salted, they are delicious on top of my lunch soup or straight out of the zipper bag I store them in.

I recently tried to break it, my bad ramen habit. I really did. I’ve read the articles detailing just how difficult processed ramen noodles are for the human digestive track to break down. I’ve watched the YouTube video that shows just how hard it is to digest.  After I watched the YouTube video, I tried to modify the recipe to use healthier ingredients. I boiled whole wheat thin spaghetti the Sunday evening before the work week to a perfect al dente, tossed the noodles in sesame oil, and stored it in a zipper bag to be added to the soup bowl as needed. I concocted my own, lower sodium, seasoning mix and used homemade chicken stock instead of water for extra flavor. This variation of my lunch soup is also delicious, but it takes too long to prep on Sunday, and even with all the prep, it takes more minutes of my lunch hour to prepare, time I cannot spare.

At some point toward the end of graduate school, I walked away from ramen. I don’t recall why. For many years thereafter, I dined out for lunch: Charlie’s Chinese Restaurant (the hot and sour soup, the chicken with garlic sauce…), Burger King Whoppers with cheese, heavy pickle, no onions, KFC 3-piece crispy strip meals with cole slaw and macaroni & cheese, crispy Taco Supremes from “The Bell,” Arby’s Roast Beef & Cheddar with a side of potato cakes and extra Horsey sauce – I ate it all, all the time. Truly, fast food at lunch became one of my all time worst habits. Ever. As bad as smoking for my health – I have no doubt of that.

Over the years, my lunch food indulgences began to turn on me. Charlie moved away, and the food quality at his eponymous Chinese restaurant tanked. I’m not sure which of us changed, but suddenly, one day, Burger King Whoppers with cheese became moments of pleasurable taste followed by hours of heartburn. The same happened with my other fast food lunch favorites, one at a time, so I switched to salads – usually spinach salads. I really love spinach; I always have. (As a kid, I loved Popeye the Sailor Man. I would eat large mouthfuls of spinach and then wait for my biceps to bulge the way his did in the cartoon. It was one of many life lessons in disappointment. Cheerios never gave me the strength of the Cheerios kid either. Advertising is such bullshit.)

When my husband and I bought the house in Christiansburg, I just came home and ate leftovers for lunch, but then the company I worked for started to fail. I was laid off in job cut round number 3, and I found work about 30 miles away. Lunch at home became an impossibility. With fast food and my GI tract still in an abusive relationship, I started “brown bagging.” (My insulated lunch bag was actually teal and purple.) Eventually, I got bored with eating variations on the theme of cottage cheese and fruit, carrots and water, or spinach salads with decadent blue cheese (the components of what would turn out to be a failed diet). Then, in 2006, I rediscovered ramen. I don’t recall what inspired me to add spinach greens and mushrooms, ginger root and scallions. Tofu came late to the party, as did the optional egg, an effort to get more protein while eating less meat. My husband’s version of finadene sauce, as he learned it when he lived on Guam, adds the heat I love. On a good day, my lower eyelids sweat as I slurp my soup. And every day is a good day.

As a bonus, my lunch soup has never given me trouble digestively; I’m certain it’s the fresh ginger root.  Even so, I cannot lose the image of undigested ramen noodles squirming and writhing in a stomach like maggots. Honestly, it detracts from my enjoyment of the pleasant balance of flavors and textures. I want to make a healthier version of this soup work, because I am addicted to it; I think the hot sauce induced endorphin hit hooked me. But, as it was with my nicotine habit, quitting Top Ramen in the orange pouch has proven much easier to say than do.  The addiction grows stronger with each relapse; and the reasons to try again to quit become more elusive. Especially when you compare my ramen soup to a Burger King Whopper with cheese, because on paper, the soup looks pretty healthy.

Burger King Whopper With Cheese
Kim’s Lunch Soup with Top Ramen Chicken Flavor
Fat (g)
Sodium (mg)
3,172 (full ramen seasoning packet)
Carbs (g)
53 (3 dietary fiber)
64 (4 dietary fiber)
Protein (g)
Vitamin A (%)
Vitamin C (%)
Calcium (%)
Iron (%)
Potassium (mg)

Hmm. I’m glad I made that table. I suddenly feel much better about my Top Ramen lunch soup. I’ll revisit the gruesome video another day to remind myself that I need to rein this habit in – perhaps cut down to only three days a week rather than five. I have since discovered Marco & Luca’s hot and sour soup, so I now have a second supplier for my spicy soup habit. It’s good to have a steady source for one’s addictions to keep the withdrawals at bay. Why break a habit if it feels good? I'd rather kick back with a bowl and slurp soup -- sweat the tension away.


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