I can become very focused when it comes to perfecting a recipe. The Better Half will attest that it’s often that I’ll make the same thing several times in one week to get it just right. And yes, dear reader, I do cook– and I enjoy it.
I’d been thinking about pad thai for a while. Dreaming, really. I love pad thai. I know, it’s not terribly good for you and is essentially the Big Mac of Thai food (it’s most commonly considered a “street food”, made to order on the streets of Bangkok) but darn if it isn’t tasty. So last week, I looked at a couple of recipes (notably Alton Brown’s and Epicurious’) and took some aspects of each of them. From Alton, I took the marinade for the tofu, and I did most of the rest from Epicurious, save the shallot oil. I made a few mistakes:
1. Mise en place, mise en place. When making pad thai, I can’t tell you how important the mise en place is. Everything cooks so quickly, if you don’t do one, you’re sunk, and probably cleaning eggs out of your saute pan for days. Trust me on this one. I could just hear Drew Vogel saying, “mise!” as I scrubbed the darn thing after soaking it. So whichever recipe you make, prep ahead and have everything ready.
2. I tried to make one big batch instead of individual portions. Big mistake. It will end up being hard to stir and cook without turning into a big ball of mush.
3. I used olive oil (I forgot to buy peanut). I should have used a neutral oil with a higher smoke point. That’s an easy fix.
So, I went about searching and ran across Chez Pim’s recipe for Pad Thai. Pim Techamuanvivit was born in Bangkok and is known in the food blogging world for her pad thai (among other things). She’s not someone I read regularly for a few reasons, but she’s known for her Pad Thai. Hers is more of a narrative style, but it tells you a lot about why you’re doing everything you’re doing. Very helpful. I highly suggest you read it, but then come back in a few minutes to read my changes. I’ll wait here.
Great! Did you read it? Are you wondering where the heck to get some of these things locally? That’s where I come in. First things first: there are three go-to places for Asian ingredients in Cincinnati. CAM Asian Supermarket on Reading Road. If they don’t have it there, you don’t need it. Jungle Jim’s, of course. And, most convenient to me, Saigon Market. For those of you in Mason, I discovered that MEI has, sadly, closed. If you can’t find these items there, just ask! So, the stuff you won’t normally find at the grocery store includes:
- Tamarind paste, also known as tamarind concentrate. This is in a block of sticky, sour pulp and sometimes seeds. You reconstitute it with hot water and a bunch of stirring. You can either, as Pim suggests, reconstitute the whole block at one time with four cups of water, or I’ve been doing an ounce (weighed) of tamarind pulp to about 1/2 cup of water. You want to reconstitute it until the whole mess is fairly thick, then strain it to remove the pulp.
- Fish sauce. There are many different brands. Try to pick one from an Asian brand, not something like La Choy (which will be flavorless). I hear good things about Squid brand, but I’ve been using Three Crabs. They generally come in 24 oz bottles, and one bottle will last you a long time.
- Palm Sugar. It’s okay if you can’t find this– you can substitute brown sugar.
This recipe makes about four servings.
I mostly used Chez Pim’s method for sauce, but I like mine sweeter, so, cook together until combined:
1/2 cup reconstituted tamarind paste, strained.
1/2 cup fish sauce
1/2 cup light brown sugar (subsituting for palm sugar)
Instead of thai chili or cayenne, I used sriracha– a couple of generous squirts.
Next, you’ll need some noodles. I bought my banh pho at Saigon Market for about $2. If you buy them at the grocery store– and you can– they’ll be much more expensive than this or any other Asian grocery. What I do to prepare them is take them out of the package and put them in a bowl, and boil hot water in my electric kettle. Pour the water on top to cover until they’re softened, then drain. It takes about ten to fifteen minutes, and you can do it while you’re preparing everything else.
You’ll also need:
oil (peanut, canola– something with a high smoke point)
tofu (optional, I didn’t use it because I didn’t have time to press it, so it isn’t included in this recipe. I did it the first time I made pad thai, following Alton Brown’s recipe. It worked well.)
Four eggs, which you’ll crack in the wok or saute pan as you make each portion
dried shrimp, found at Saigon Market/JJ’s/CAM
Green onions, chopped
Peanut halves (I am lazy and don’t want to grind peanuts on a Monday night and then clean the food processor)
bean sprouts (I don’t like bean sprouts, so I didn’t use them. If you like them, toss them in last.)
shrimp, uncooked (I got mine at Luken’s for 8.99 a pound. That’s enough for four servings)
The method is super simple. Once you get it down, you will amaze your friends and neighbors with how easy it is to make pad thai.
1. Heat oil in a wok or frying pan. A wok is $5 at Ikea and about $15 at CAM or Saigon Market. Splurge on the wok– it makes things so much easier.
2. Put a portion (about 1/4 of the package) of hydrated noodles into the hot oil with about 1/4 cup of sauce. Stir until the noodles have absorbed the sauce.
3. Move the noodles to the side with your spoon (just out of the way), crack an egg and scramble it next to the noodles. Once it’s cooked, mix it in with the noodles.
4. Toss in raw shrimp, dried shrimp, peanuts, and green onions. Stir-fry until the shrimp are cooked, which will take a minute or so. Add a little extra sauce if needed.
5. Toss in cilantro (and/or optional bean sprouts), give one more toss, and put into a bowl. Garnish with a lime wedge.
This takes, probably, less than five minutes. The Better Half went upstairs for just a minute or two to check on laundry, came down, and was shocked that I was standing there waiting for him with a bowl of fresh, hot pad thai. Repeat as necessary until everyone has a bowl, and multiply as necessary for a crowd. It’s that quick. It’s that easy. I will probably never buy pad thai at a restaurant again.
(By the way, when will I learn that I need to cook in broad daylight on a Saturday? These 10 PM dinner shots are just no good.)