I feel a special shade of terrible.
I’ve been trying to solve my hanger problem. It’s a twofold issue:
1) I forget to eat when I’m working, thus allowing many hours to go by without eating, and then get confused about why everything has suddenly become so difficult. Consequently, I tend to eat something like a spoonful of peanut butter or a cracker or something to keep myself functional, which is not ideal because I cannot survive on these things alone.
2) I’ve been having larger issues with food lately, namely that nothing interests me and cooking has suddenly turned into a chore, as sometimes happens when you live alone and just get tired. My current depressive episode has not been helping. I don’t want to cook, which means I don’t have tasty leftovers for lunch, which means that I don’t eat all day and then just end up going out a lot at night, which is expensive.
I’ve been casting about for solutions, and last week, I came across an intriguing one: Homemade pot noodles. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that many of you have probably eaten instant noodles at some point in your life, that some of you still eat them/have nostalgia for them, and that those who do still eat them may include additions like fresh veggies and whatnot to liven things up.
What about making your own, though, which allows you to control everything that goes into them and potentially use higher-quality ingredients? If it worked out well, I could have a really great solution to my perennial lunch problem. I know that many people like to prep meals for the week on Sunday afternoons because they work out of the home, so why not join them?
I was curious about three things:
1) What would be the expense outlay to get set up, and how would ongoing costs work out? Would this be economically feasible?
3) What’s the actual prep time, and what do you need in order to make these? Are they easy to prepare in a limited kitchen or in an environment like a hostel or homeless shelter?
3) Would these really work out and taste good, especially after a few days in the fridge when things might get soggy? (The recipe suggests that four days is pretty much the cap, which means that if you make them on Sundays, they’re likely to be edging on the outside of acceptable by Thursdays -- great for people who don’t work on Fridays, not so great for those who do.)
So I set out to find out, selecting Instant Noodles with Vegetables and Miso-Sesame Broth (basically vegan as given if you’re careful with ingredients, including the base, which you’ll obviously need to sub out, and I added some miso-sesame roasted tofu for extra protein) and Thai Coconut Curry With Shrimp (not vegan or vegetarian, but easily made so by subbing tofu for the shrimp or just leaving it out, subbing in a vegetable base, and subbing in tamarind paste for the fish sauce, or just adding a bit of soy sauce and salt).
1) As it happened, I was mostly out of the pantry staples needed to do this, which was the result of a weird confluence of circumstances. That turned out to work out well, because it allowed me to get a good idea of how much you’ll need to spend on staples (like miso, soy sauce, tahini, sambal olek (my preferred garlic/chili sauce), and so forth), along with jars.
The news was pretty grim: My grocery store bill was $100. However, there are some caveats here. I happened to be in Fort Bragg at the time, and thus only had access to a pretty expensive grocery store that caters to yuppies and middle class people. I suspect that you could cut costs at, say, a Chinese grocery store that has many of these ingredients available much more cheaply (compare coconut milk at $1.89 to coconut milk at $.79, for example). Likewise, things like jars are far cheaper at places like Ikea than they are at trendy grocery stores where they are marked up because hipsters will pay extra.
Ongoing weekly costs are going to vary depending on which ingredients you use and how exacting you are with measurements at the store; picking up a single carrot from the bulk produce is probably cheaper than buying a bag (although carrots make great between meals snacks, so, your choice). You could spend as little as $5 (and maybe even less if you have a discount grocery store, don’t use animal products, and so on) and as much as $10 (if you, for example, buy a block of roasted tofu like I did, which was $4.59 -- and, of course, I would have saved money by roasting my own tofu, but, lazy).
That means that after your initial cash outlay (which is no small potatoes for people on shoestring budgets, but could be distributed over several paychecks by picking up some key staples when needed rather than all at once, and just trying one recipe at a time until the larder is built up), individual per-unit costs may vary from around a buck to two bucks to potentially even more if you’re using slivers of filet mignon and gold leaf or something.
2) Actual prep time: About 20 minutes, which surprised me, because recipe prep times are often off. I ended up needing a cutting board and sharp knife, measuring spoons (I cheated and just used spoons that were lying around because I only have one set of measuring spoons and I was not in the mood to wash and dry my teaspoon after each use), a grater (for ginger, which you could also mince with a knife), and a stove along with a pot for cooking noodles -- which may not be necessary, depending on what kind of noodles you use.
I’m not going to go into the details of each recipe because they’re at the links, but I will note that as mentioned above, I added in some tofu to the Miso-Sesame Broth recipe. I also used fresh udon noodles (another thing that pushed my bill higher, because I couldn’t get them very cheaply where I was), and to make sure they’d be thoroughly cooked when I pulled that jar out for lunch, I briefly cooked them, shocked them in cold water, and tossed them with oil. I also left the spinach out, because I wasn’t in the mood to buy a full clump of spinach and only use a handful of leaves.
For the Thai Curry, I left everything more or less the same, but I used tiny shrimp because the regular shrimp seemed like they’d be a little oversized for my purposes, and I sliced up a handful of Brussels sprouts, discarding the inner core, and added them just for a little extra vegetable goodness. I considered making one with fish sauce and one with tamarind, but I forgot. Whoops.
Could you prepare these recipes in a limited environment? Yes and no. If you have a studio with a hotplate, a sink, and counter space for cutting up veggies, you’re set. If you don’t use ingredients that need to be precooked (caution: things like meats need to be cooked because these pot noodles only sit in boiling water for a minute, and that is not long enough to safely cook ingredients like meat), you don’t even need the hotplate.
In a hostel environment, if staples aren’t lying around in the pantry (sometimes they are, sometimes they aren’t), it’s not really that feasible unless you’re willing to incur the significant cash layout and then either leave your ingredients behind or lug them around with you. The same goes for cohousing and homeless shelters.
In all cases, you need access to a fridge for storage to keep ingredients from going bad.
3) Did they work? Here are my tasting notes from each day:
Monday: Thai Coconut Curry With Shrimp
First, a note of caution: Boiling water with chilled glass is not always a winning combination, even if the glass is heat-resistant and tempered. It’s a good idea to either leave your jar out for 10 minutes or so, or to run hot water over it. This also allows the delicious pool of flavorings at the bottom to warm up so they don’t chill the soup.
Overall marks: 9/10
Flavor: Great -- really refreshing and warm while also being filling. That said, the proportions given for the flavor goo were a little too intense for my tastes. I would have cut back on both the bouillon base and the red curry. However, given that my measurements may have been less than exact, this could have been operator error. I still ended up drinking most of the broth at the end.
Texture: Fantastic. The noodles weren’t soggy, the mushrooms were nicely cooked, the Brussels sprouts shreds were on-point. The shrimp were well warmed, and I was curious about how Tuesday’s tofu would heat.
Lessons learned: Consider either using the measuring spoons like an adult, or being more careful with seasoning proportions. Go ahead and fill up the jar with seasonings and noodles, they won’t run over or swell up excessively. (This was a concern that occurred to me after I packed the jars.) Add more vegetables next time.
Tuesday: Vegetables and Miso-Sesame Broth
Overall marks: 7/10
Flavor: Here’s where I was surprised, because I love miso and sesame and the combination is dynamite. But this was just way too salty. I think that’s again because the proportions were a bit off, and next time I am going to back way down on the amount of bouillon used in the hopes of cutting back on the saltiness a bit. I could barely taste the sesame at all! I left almost an inch of broth in the jar because I just couldn’t drink it. Boo.
Texture: Great. The veggies were cooked through (the carrots had a mild crunch, as I like them, if you like softer carrots, I recommend parboiling and shocking before you put them in the jar). The chunks of tofu I added held up well and cooked all the way through. I did note that the seasoning clump on the bottom was pretty cold, so I recommend running warm water thoroughly over this jar, if you can, before pouring boiling water in.
Lessons learned: Back way off on the bouillon, and maybe on the soy sauce as well, to cut the salt. Consider adding more vegetables! Also, more sesame seeds wouldn’t hurt.
Wednesday: Thai Coconut Curry With Shrimp
Overall marks: 8/10
Flavor: I was impressed at how well the flavor held up after hanging out in the fridge for a few days. As with Monday, I felt like the soup had a lot of layers of flavor going on, and it was well-seasoned. (However, if you don't like heat or prefer your food a little mellower, I recommend backing off on the chili sauce.)
I enjoyed guzzling up the broth after my soup consumption concluded, and found a few errant goodies in the bottom. I would recommend steeping for around two minutes and shaking partway through to encourage the flavor to fully percolate -- I ended up with very concentrated broth at the end.
Texture: Intriguingly, the noodles were a little chewier than I like in this case, which surprised me, since they were perfectly cooked on Monday. I suspect this may have been because the seasonings at the bottom of the jar were quite cold (see Tuesday's complaint) and that consequently, the hot water may have cooled down more quickly, thereby not allowing the noodles to cook through.
Otherwise, the texture was quite good, though. My Brussels sprouts and mushrooms were cooked through, and the pre-cooked shrimp were still firm.
Lessons learned: I really do need to run warm water over the containers, or place them in a dish of warm water, or let them rest at room temperature, before making my instant noodles, otherwise things might get a little cool. In this case, I dinged the overall score down because of the noodle texture problem, which I suspect was avoidable.
Thursday: Vegetables and Miso-Sesame Broth
Overall marks: 7/10
Flavor: This day's round actually wasn't as horrifyingly salty as Tuesday's, but it felt a little blah. None of the flavors really came through in terms of the sesame and miso. As with Tuesday, the bottom ingredients never really heated through, which was a bit disappointing.
Texture: Fairly good, except that the tofu was starting to break down, so it fragmented a bit. The noodles had a good bite to them -- cooked but not soggy, and the carrots were well-cooked, as were the mushrooms.
Lessons learned: I may just have packed both of these jars a little too tight, in addition to being a little heavyhanded with the seasoning. That said, I don't think it would have killed these jars to sit another day, so you could totally make a week's worth of lunches and not face a grim scene in the jar on Friday morning.
Overall, I'm calling this project a tentative success. I clearly have a little more recipe tweaking and learning to do, but I'm looking forward to adding these to my lunch options; on Thursday in particular, having a quick lunch totally saved my bacon when I was under the gun with a ton of deadlines and facing the need to get ready for a conference.
The biggest lessons learned: Go easy on the seasonings, pack judiciously, and allow your jars to come to room temp/run hot water over them first.
Go forth and experiment...and report back with your findings!