Saturday, September 8, 2012

Pad Thai: The Results and Modified Recipe


The Process:
Well, it looks like the children got the better of me. I worked late on my first day of school and wasn't able to make it to the specialty food store or to buy a wok, so this week's Pad Thai came with a few major alterations. I have kept the "real" recipe in order as much as possible, mainly for the sake of trying it again someday, but in the Tips section below the recipe you get all the details about the substitutions I made and all the others you can make if necessary. Cruising around Whole Foods, I had found everything I needed, all the way down to the palm sugar ($8.99, but worth it for its gorgeous subtle caramelized flavor). Everything, that is, but the tamarind. Whole Foods had two different kinds of tamarind (paste in a tube and pulp in a condensed package) and were sold out of both (according to all six of the employees that I annoyingly checked with). Having had tamarind candies, preserves, and leather a few times in my life, I was able to reach way back into my memory and think of its identifying traits: sweet, a little tart, and a tiny bit bitter, all with a slightly gritty and chewy texture. 

Toting my computer and two heavy Whole Foods bags in my hand, I walked down Broadway, furrowing my brow and chewing on the inside of my cheek (bad habit), worrying about what to do. Guests were coming in 2 hours, I had to make the sauce early, and tamarind just does not have a simple substitute. On top of all that, the only place to buy food that was left on my walk home was the sidewalk fruit stand. It was fruit stand or nada. By the time I walked away from the stand, I had just added cherries, dates, a random pear (to make the total a whole number), and a small glimmer of hope to my shopping bags.

The Verdict:
I tend to start my Walking Cookbook dinners with, "I'm not sure how this is going to turn out," and this time it was actually the truth. It was all hands on deck in the kitchen, and thanks to my two roommates who were home I was able to complete the meal without going crazy. Despite the lack of tamarind, the sweet-sour flavor was still very present in my sauce. Using a normal stainless steel pan also turned out fine, though I would absolutely want to try a wok someday when I didn't just start work. I made the Pad Thai with a side dish of avocados and asian slaw. I made about 14 enormous portions, which were gone within 36 hours, so I consider that a sign of success.

The beautiful finished product

Avocado Conference shot courtesy of Becky, the evening's photographer

The Modified Recipe: Pad Thai for Beginners, adapted from Chez Pim
Yield: 6 servings
Sauce Ingredients:
  • 1/2 cup tamarind pulp (no sugar added)*
  • 1/2 cup fish sauce
  • 1/2 cup palm sugar (about the color of cookie dough)*
  • 2-4 tsp Thai chili powder or paprika
Pad Thai Ingredients:
  • 16 oz. thin rice noodles (aka: Rice Sticks, Banh Pho, or Chantaboon)
  • 42 medium shrimp, peeled, deveined, and tails removed
  • 2 packs firm or extra-firm tofu, drained and cut into bite-sized pieces (picture the size of a Starburst candy)
  • 6 eggs
  • 3/4 cup roasted unsalted peanuts, finely chopped
  • 12 garlic chives (or the green part of a green onion), cut into 2" pieces
  • 3 cups bean sprouts
  • 1 lime
  • 2 cups safflower oil

Sauce Preparation:
  • In a small saucepan, melt the tamarind pulp, fish sauce, and palm sugar together over a low flame.
  • Add the chili powder or paprika teaspoon by teaspoon until reaching the desired level of spice.
  • Bring to a simmer and continue to season until you like the flavor. Remove from the heat.

Pad Thai Preparation: Make 2 portions at a time
  • Soak the rice noodles in water until they are very al dente. Drain and break apart.
  • Prepare all other ingredients as described in the ingredients list and set in containers near the stove.*
  • Heat a large wok* over high heat until very hot, to the point of smoky.
  • Add a splash of oil, about 3-4 tablespoons.*
  • Add 1/3 of the tofu to the pan (avoid including its liquids) and cook for one minute until the tofu is crisp and slightly brown at the edges.
    Caution: It will smoke and spit at you. Step back to be safe.
  • Add about 4 loosely packed cups of noodles and ladle about 1/2 cup of warm sauce. Stir vigorously, keep everything moving in the wok, and cook the noodles until soft. If the sauce evaporates too quickly and your noodles aren't quite ready, sprinkle a bit of water and keep stirring. Add a bit of oil if the noodles stick together. 
  • Keep the egg carton handy to replace the shells
    after cracking the eggs-- it makes the job much cleaner
  • When the noodles are ready (taste to be sure), push them up to one side of the wok and crack 2 eggs into the middle. Let set for 10-15 seconds and toss everything together.
  • Add 1/3 of the shrimp, ground peanuts, and bean sprouts and cook for 1-2 minutes, until shrimp turn pink and are cooked through. Keep things moving. Add more sauce if it looks a little pale.
  • Add a handful of garlic chives or green onions. 
  • Turn the heat off, and quickly give the wok a good stirring to mix everything together.
  • Add the finished Pad Thai to a plate. 
  • Give the used wok a quick rinse with warm water, wipe off any excess bits of food with a warm towel, then put the wok back on to the fire.
  • As soon as the wok heats back up to a smoking point, you’re ready to do another portion. Repeat this process until all your dinner guests are fed.*
*Tips:

  • Tamarind Pulp: If you cannot find tamarind pulp, I will suggest my own version. I used 3/4 cup pitted dark cherries and the insides of 1 date. Crush the cherries to a pulp the best you can. Split the date in half, place on a flat surface, and scrape the inside out with a spoon. When your sauce is cooked, put it through a strainer to get all the bits of fruit out before using in your Pad Thai. I also ended up adding about 1/2 cup water to the sauce as well.
With the sweet, tart, and salty, all that was left to add
 was the spicy element. Paprika or Thai chili powder work great.
  • Palm Sugar: If you cannot find palm sugar, use 1/3 cup of light brown sugar instead.
  • Preparing to cook the Pad Thai: This is the part of the blog where I get to be fancy and say "mise en place." Mise en place basically means setting up all of your prepared ingredients close to your cooking surface so all you have to do is grab and toss. You will feel like a real TV chef (only your assistants will be your roommates).
"Everything in place" sounds so much better in French,
but it is useful no matter what language you're speaking.
  • What to do without a wok: I used my stainless steel pan with high sides. It is likely to get a little more gunk on the bottom as it cooks, so don't be shy with the oil, and give it a bit of a scrape between batches. And don't forget to keep things moving!
  • Approximate oil measurements: I tend to count my pours when I just need to be approximate. Four quick seconds is about 4 tablespoons. You may be thinking, "But all seconds are the same length!" You are right. Count to four as if you were about to declare a thumb war (rapid but deliberate enough that all of your numbers are well articulated), and that is equivalent to four "quick seconds."
"1-2-3-4, I declare a thumb war!"
  • Feeding large groups: I like when everyone gets to eat at the same time, so I heated my oven to 200°F and let it warm for about 5 minutes. I then turned off the oven and put my plated portions of Pad Thai in the oven to stay warm until we were ready to sit down. This probably wouldn't work with a huge group, but it made 5 portions work well without getting cold or dry.
A lovely end to a lovely day

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