Ramen Wizard Ivan Orkin On Why He Keeps 40 Pounds of Meat In His Freezer

This is Cooking in Quarantine, the newsletter in which I ask the best chefs in the world what to make when you can't leave home. If you like it, share it with your friends.

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A Note From Me, Which You Should Feel Free To Skip If You’re Just Here For The Food

The world is scary right now. For me, yes, and for my family, but it’s scarier for the kids whose only reliable meal, school lunch, may no longer be there for them. For the parents who were working two jobs to feed their kids—and now have none. For the people without homes, who couldn’t isolate themselves even if they wanted to. 

In moments of fear, it’s hard not to despair. 

But. 

We aren’t powerless. We can donate to charities helping out those who need it most. We can call our elected officials—and tell them they need to act. We can wash our hands, stay in our homes, and get the fuck away from old people so we don’t get them sick. 

I hope you do all of those things. 

But I also hope you seek out reasons to smile whenever you can in the coming weeks, especially if you, like me, are relatively safe. That’s why I started this newsletter. Because across the world, from Wuhan to Washington, people in quarantine have been finding joy in cooking. And I want to make it easier for you to follow their lead. Because we need moments of reprieve; moments of solace; moments of joy. And in food, I hope, we will find them. 

Thank you for signing up to receive this newsletter. Thank you for considering donating to the organizations doing the most good. And thank you for refusing to let despair stop you from making the most of every day—and every dish. 

That’s enough of me.

Now, Ivan Orkin.

Our Inaugural Guest: Ivan Orkin

Sandy Koufax. Natalie Portman. David Lee Roth. These names are as integral to Jewish identity as Moses, Judah, and Joshua. Why? Because they are the Jews who did what millions of haters throughout history said our people could not do: They managed to be both Jewish and Cool. 

Well, it's long past time we added a name to the Mount Rushmore of Cool Jews: Ivan Orkin. 

Ever since he first started working as a dishwasher at a sushi bar at 15 years-old, Ivan has dedicated his life to the culture and cuisine of Japan. So much so that he has called himself "expat Japanese." The eponymous chef at "Ivan Ramen" and "Ivan Ramen Slurp Shop," as well as the author of the "Ivan Ramen" cookbook and co-author of “The Gaijin Cookbook,” Ivan is known as the greatest purveyor of ramen on planet earth. And everything else on his menus — from his crispy eggplant with tahini to his Japanese fried chicken with toasted garlic caramel (yeah, toasted garlic caramel) — is almost offensively delicious, too. 

You may have seen him on Netflix's “Chef's Table” or in the kitchen at one of his restaurants, where, unlike many of his fellow illuminati chefs, he actually still cooks.

He kindly offered to be my first guest—and as soon as we started talking, it was clear he was boiling over with great advice. (Sorry, Dad, for the pun.) (My Dad really hates puns.)

Some topics we covered:

*Why curry rice is the best dish to cook at home

*Why you should freeze 40 pounds of meat (if you are willing to brave the lines at Costco)

*How to spruce up spaghetti

*What to cook if you want to spend a day making something

*What to make when you’re feeling down

*How to stay healthy while cooking at home

Some of Ivan’s tips apply to the moment we’re living through. Others are more like rules to live by. (Needless to say: His pantry is a bit different than the average person’s.) But everything he says is worth hearing. And everything he cooks is worth eating. 

Why Curry Rice Is the Best Dish To Cook At Home

Ivan: You can buy 10 boxes at H-Mart. They cost $2.50 to $3.50 a box, and you can add anything to it. [Editor’s note: It doesn’t YET appear to be sold out online.] You can add cabbage or carrots, you can add bacon, you can add leftover chicken, it doesn’t matter. You can melt the curry blocks into water or into stock if you have it. As I write in The Gaijin Cookbook,  and as I do at home, you could braise a whole pork shoulder and freeze it in small amounts, and whenever you want curry, you have this box of curry roux, but you could turn it into something very luxurious without a lot of effort. It’s always very satisfying, and I think, in most cultures, stew in general is considered comforting and warming. We have a pot of curry once a week, at least. I generally tend to cook double or triple when I cook, so there’s leftovers.

READ: Ivan Orkin’s Easy Pork Curry Recipe

Why You Should Freeze 40 Pounds of Meat (If You Are Willing To Brave The Lines at Costco)

Ivan: I’ll come home with forty pounds of meat and just break it all down in a big stockpot of salty water, so I have brined pork chops, chicken breasts, and sirloins. I do this because I’ve found that it’s always easier to run out and get a head of lettuce than it is to get meat. It makes it easier to plan a meal. And it lasts three months.

I try to avoid Costco, because you end up coming home with a lot of shit, and I’m very wary of too much Costco exposure, but when I buy meat, they have very reasonable prices and they have very good products, especially if you buy the organic or primes. It’s as high quality as anything.

Editor’s Note: Ivan puts his money where his mouth is. Literally. Here’s an Instagram of him eating steak tartare he made out of Costco’s Prime Strip Loin:

Broke down a Prime Strip Loin from Costco and reaped the benefits of the trimmings. That and good Cabernet is what it’s all about. #chefslife #homecooking #rawmeat
February 21, 2020

How To Spruce Up Spaghetti

Ivan: I’ve always blended jarred sauce with canned tomatoes to make a proper tomato sauce with just canned stuff. I’ll use Trader Joe’s sauce and then add in one or two cans of whole peeled tomatoes and cook that down so you get a pretty decent sauce in much less time.

What To Cook If You Want To Spend a Day Making Something:

Ivan: If you have the Ivan Ramen Cookbook, you could make a bowl of shio ramen.

All of the ingredients in my ramen could easily be in your freezer or pantry. You could have pork belly and dried fish to make dashi; you could have flour and make noodles—that could be an all-day project, and it’s totally doable.

[Editor’s Note: I don’t have pork belly or dried fish in my freezer or my pantry, so don’t feel bad if you don’t either. But if you do, awesome. Follow the recipe linked below.]

READ: Ivan Orkin’s Shio Ramen

What To Make When You’re Feeling Down:

Ivan: Definitely things like fried pork cutlets and rice porridge.

The way I cook rice porridge is, I cook the rice for many hours and season it, crack an egg into it [to] poach in the porridge, and add tons of katsuobushi [Bonito Flakes]. It’s something for everyone in the family if they’re feeling miserable.

[Editor’s Note: Even if you don’t have katsuobushi, Japanese rice porridge (Okayu) is easy to make, as long as you have rice, water, soy sauce, and salt. Here’s a recipe that seems similar to Ivan’s. For his recipe, check out The Gaijin Cookbook.]

The other day, my cat of 16 years died. We were all pretty bummed out, so I grabbed some pork chops that were brined and made Tonkatsu. 

[Editor’s Note: Tonkatsu is just another name for pork cutlets. Sounds complicated, but the only ingredients you really need are eggs, flour, salt, pepper, panko bread crumbs, and pork cutlets. Here’s a recipe from Bon Appetit.]

I had a head of cabbage and carrots and I shredded it all up, and we just had a giant mound of Asian slaw and fried pork cutlets and rice. It was super comforting and everybody really enjoyed it. Like I say in my book, my comfort food is decidedly Japanese, not Western. So something like fried cutlets, I almost always fry three times the amount, so then there’s fried cutlets in the refrigerator for two or three days, and you have fried cutlet sandwiches, fried cutlets with eggs, or on rice. There’s a lot of different ways to eat it. And I think food like that is quite comforting.

How To Stay Healthy While Cooking At Home

Ivan: When people ask, “How do you eat healthy?” I tell them, “Don’t make one tiny portion of something. Make a big portion of something.”

If I make cauliflower, I roast two heads of it and I have a big bucket. And when I’m hungry I don’t eat candy or frozen food from a processed company. I eat my food. It’s easy for me to say, because I’m a cook, and it’s very comfortable for me. I can think that way. I understand that for a lot of people that’s just not the case – it’s hard.

I catch myself sometimes, I’ll start to make something… I’ll take a cabbage and cut a tiny sliver of it. I’ll say, “Dude, what are you doing, just make the whole cabbage!” Because then you’ll see the cabbage later, and it’ll be rotten because you forgot to cook it. Might as well just cook the whole head of cabbage. Sometimes, I just boil it – literally, I just cut up cabbage into wedges and boil it. And then I have boiled cabbage wedges in a Tupperware. Sprinkle it with a little salt and sesame oil, or you could add it to a stir fry, but you have to have the ingredients ready.

Otherwise it’s very hard to eat healthy. And the more healthy you eat, the better the chance you’re not gonna get the virus.

[Editor’s Note: I don’t know if cabbage really makes you immune to Covid-19. But I trust Ivan. After all, the man had enough foresight to pack 40 pounds of meat into his freezer.]

Reading List: 

*This article from L.A. Times Cooking Editor Genevieve Ko has great tips for keeping a clean kitchen, which is more important than ever. 

*This article from Vice, with “20 recipes for the pasta, rice, and beans you’ve hopefully stock piled by now,” has a bunch of good ideas for what you should cook. 

*This tweet from Alison Roman on what food you should have in your pantry is helpful; and her feed is filled with inspiring pictures of other people’s shopping lists. 

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Until next time...