When college student Toni Patrick returned from spring break a few years ago, she was short on cash and faced a scant cupboard of instant ramen noodles, frozen peas, and canned tuna.
Then inspiration hit: Why not test the boundaries of the ramen flavor packet? She bravely threw what she had into a bowl - and it proved palatable.
A year later, Ms. Patrick had developed reams of recipes for her book, "101 Ways to Make Ramen Noodles" (C & G Publishing, $9.95) for "anyone with little time, little money, and little or no cooking skills."
Her creations range from topping a bratwurst with ramen to mixing the frizzy noodles with maple syrup, brown sugar, and milk to form a dessert.
"To have something that is so easy and so cheap and satisfying is a great thing. You can put anything with it," she says. "You pull out whatever is in the cabinet and mix it together...."
Meager funds, jampacked schedules, and minimal culinary skills have sparked starving students nationwide to devise their own style of "gourmet" cooking - mixing butterscotch, hot dogs, eggs - even Cheez Whiz - with the 10-packs-for-a-dollar pasta.
Outcomes range from the outlandish (Ramen Cordon Blue, Polish Chili Cheese Ramen) to a somewhat more logical menu (Ramen Egg-Drop Soup, Ramen With Vegetables). There are even recipes for desserts such as Double Chocolate Ramen Pie (see recipe, above).
Instant ramen has long been popular in Asia, but took off in the US about 15 years ago because of its convenience and bargain-basement price.
Flavors have expanded from Oriental, chicken, pork, and beef to more than a dozen, including picante shrimp, chili and beans, Cajun chicken, tomato basil, and French onion.
"[Ramen] is like rice in that you can mix it with almost anything. I've tried some things you wouldn't think would be good, and they actually turned out to be OK," says Matthew Fischer of Dallas.
A recent University of Missouri-Rolla grad, he designed an online hub for ramen enthusiasts that boasts hundreds of recipe recommendations.
Mr. Fisher, who eats the tangled pasta two or three times a week, enjoys mixing chicken and garlic with his noodles. And students rave to him about how ramen is improved with the addition of grated American or Parmesan cheese.
Instead of gathering suggestions over the Web, Patrick's ideas arrived through a method more akin to chemistry class. She and her friends spent a school year huddled in her college kitchen mixing a little bit of this or that with a lot of ramen - sprinkling in plenty of onions along the way.
Recipes in her book, which were developed through trial and error, typically cost less than a dollar and take 10 to 15 minutes to prepare.
Patrick's favorite is Ramen Stir Fry, which she makes by mixing cooked noodles with diced chicken and vegetables, lightly sauteed together. Then she adds the chicken-flavor season packet.
Another of her choices is the Tuna Noodle Casserole. She fuses cream of mushroom soup and any ramen flavor (cooked and drained) with peas, tuna, and Cheddar cheese, then crumbles potato chips on top.
On her dessert menu are what she calls "haystacks," which, when arranged on a serving plate, may resemble the bucolic vista of a pasture. She cuts precooked Ramen into cubes, drops butterscotch and/or chocolate chips over them and bakes them for 10 minutes. Chips melt into the crimped noodles and, upon cooling, the cubes become crunchy treats.
Recipes like these appeal to Heidi Frederiksen, a grad student at Colorado State University who bought Patrick's book.
"I don't know many college kids [who] want to spend two hours preparing a gourmet meal," Ms. Frederiksen says. "The hardest part [with Patrick's recipes] is cooking the chicken."
Ramen can be a windfall to busy adults, as well.
Terri Armour of Tacoma, Wash., often whips up Ramen Cordon Bleu for herself and her 3-year-old daughter after work.
She makes it by fixing Ramen noodles as usual, then shredding pastrami into them. She adds Cheez Whiz or Alfredo sauce and places it on cooked chicken breasts.
"If you're on a budget, and you're sick and tired of eating ramen one more time ... add a good size dollop of Cheez Whiz - easily the best add-in for a change of pace," Armour advises. Sometimes she'll also toss in eggs, green onions, diced meat, carrots, or garlic.
Despite the Asian pasta's versatility, Armour will never forget one noodle experiment that went drastically awry.
She tried to convert ramen into "a bona fide stir-fry dish," she recalls, by adding cornstarch to the frying pan as thickener.
"It thickened, all right," she says, "into a big pile of cement."
Spring Ramen Salad
1 package chicken ramen noodles
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
1-1/2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons salad oil
1 teaspoon sugar
12 to 16 red and/or green seedless grapes, cut in half
1/2 cup diced apples
1/4 cup pineapple, diced
1 scallion, chopped
4 ounces sliced smoked turkey breast, cut in thin strips
1/4 cup walnut pieces
Cook noodles and drain. (Reserve seasoning packet.) Rinse noodles with cold water; refrigerate.
For dressing whisk together sesame oil, lemon juice, salad oil, seasoning packet, and sugar. Combine noodles, grapes, apples, pineapple, scallions, and turkey. Mix in dressing and walnuts. Taste, add more sesame oil if needed.
1 package any flavor ramen noodles
2 cups sour cream
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
1 tablespoon chives or scallion, finely chopped
1 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper
1 garlic glove, crushed
2 tablespoons butter
Cook noodles and drain. (Discard flavor packet.)
Stir together sour cream, 1/4 cup cheese, and spices. Stir butter into noodles. Fold in sour-cream mixture. Sprinkle with remaining cheese. Serves 2.
Double Chocolate Ramen Pie
1 package any flavor ramen noodles, finely crushed (discard seasoning packet)
2 cups chocolate chips
1 small package instant chocolate pie filling
2 cups milk
1/4 cup toasted slivered almonds (optional)
Spread ramen noodles evenly in a lightly greased microwavable 9-inch pie dish. Sprinkle chips on top. Microwave on high for 3 to 4 minutes or until chips have melted. Refrigerate until solid.
Cook pie filling mix with the milk, according to package directions. When thickened, pour it over the chip-topped noodles; refrigerate until chilled and pudding is set.
Top with whipped cream and toasted almonds before serving.
- Recipes adapted from '101 Ways to Make Ramen Noodles' by Toni Patrick.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor