Monday, October 25, 2010

mailbag: in search of kick ass pad thai

Dear Lisa,

I made Mark Bittman's pad Thai recipe a while ago and it sucked. I mean, really sucked. Too much fish sauce or was inedible. Anyway, we have no good Thai restaurants where we live and I would love some shrimp pad Thai. I have all the ingredients, but am nervous to give it another go.  Any chance you want to take on my challenge to make a kick-ass pad Thai at home?

Pad Thai-Less in Vermont

First off, not to knock Mark Bittman, but I have had the same experience with some of his recipes. And so have other people I know. My mother-in-law, a fantastic cook and baker, screwed up a simple recipe for popovers because he didn't give correct baking instructions. (You put the popovers in a cold oven, then turn on the heat, Mr. B.) So don't feel bad, PTLIV, A.K.A., my friend Mindi.

Before attempting this dish, I had never made pad Thai from scratch at home. I've eaten it plenty of times in restaurants, tasty and gloppy versions alike. In my experience, pad Thai is not a uniform dish and it varies widely depending on the chef. Ideally, I wanted my homemade version to not be overly cloying or sticky, and to have some freshness from herbs and texture from eggs, peanuts, and the other typical add-ins.

While doing some research I came across Pim Techamuanvivit's (A.K.A. Chez Pim) recipe for "pad Thai for beginners." She says that there are four essential ingredients in pad Thai sauce: "tamarind pulp (for the sour flavor), fish sauce (for the salty part), palm sugar (for a slight sweetness), and paprika or Thai chili powder (for the spice)." She recommends making a big batch of sauce, then making each portion of pad thai to order, combining the noodles, sauce, and other ingredients in a wok. This method makes a lot of sense if you're feeding a crowd.

The second place I looked was an old favorite cookbook of mine, Vegetarian Planet by Didi Emmons. Her recipe, "Your Pad Thai or Mine" replaced the tamarind paste and palm sugar with lime juice and brown sugar. While her version didn't seem as authentic, I had all of the ingredients on hand, so I decided to give it a try on a Monday night after work.

Maybe if I had made this dish on a Saturday or Sunday night things would have gone a little differently. I quickly scanned the ingredients list and got to chopping. There's a lot of prep involved: cooking rice noodles, toasting and chopping peanuts, scrambling two eggs, mincing garlic, chopping scallions and cilantro. Then you whisk lime juice, brown sugar, fish sauce, and chile paste into a pungent sauce.

The kitchen counter was a mess (yes, that is my ENTIRE kitchen counter), but everything seemed to be coming together nicely. I sipped a glass of wine, thought about the annoying thing that happened that day at work, talked to Dan about the Mad Men finale, scrambled my eggs, re-checked the recipe, and then...wait? What? I need to mince some ginger? Okay, no big deal. A minute later, I distractedly dropped a carton of bean sprouts on the floor, then realized I forgot to julienne a carrot. Whew! 
Once all of the prep was done, I sauteed the ginger and garlic with the carrots, scallions, and shrimp, then added the sauce, eggs, and noodles. In the end, the pad Thai was not the end of me and I served it forth. Maybe a bit later than we typically eat dinner, but whatever.

The verdict? Interesting. It was much lighter than any pad Thai I've ever tasted. The sauce was subtle, and not as thick as usual. Because the sauce wasn't the main focus, each ingredient came through. I could taste the sweetness of the shrimp and eggs, the bright greenness of the cilantro and scallions, the acid from the lime juice. Perhaps a spoonful of tamarind paste would give this dish more complexity, but Dan and I liked my lightened up version very much.

One rule of advice: make your mise en place beforehand and double-check that you didn't miss anything. This recipe is all in the prep. Once you've gotten everything ready, the dish takes five minutes to assemble and serve. But if you forget to mince the ginger or julienne a carrot, you'll feel like you're stuck in an ingredient pile-up on the pad Thai highway.

Got a dinner party connundrum? Email me at lisadinnerparty(AT)gmail(DOT)com.

 Pad Thai
Adapted from Didi Emmons' "Your Pad Thai or Mine" in Vegetarian Planet. Emmons says: "Do not try to reheat this dish in the microwave. A friend of mine did, and it became a large and scary gelatinous glob of noodles that was absolutely inedible." So, you've been warned.
(Serves 4 people)

3/4 lb. dried rice noodles (the width of fettuccine or linguine)
¼ cup lime juice, or more, to taste (from about 3 limes)
3 Tbsp. fish sauce
2 1/2 Tbsp. brown sugar
1 to 2 tsps. hot chile sauce (I used a Thai chile paste, but I'm sure Sriracha would work too)
3 Tbsp. canola or corn oil
2 eggs, beaten
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp. minced fresh ginger
1 carrot, peeled and cut into thin julienne strips
5 scallions, halved lengthwise, then cut into 2-inch lengths
1 cup mung bean sprouts
¼ cup dry-roasted, unsalted peanuts, toasted until golden, then chopped
¼ cup chopped cilantro
1 lime, sliced into quarters
1 lb. shrimp, cleaned, de-shelled, and de-veined

Cook the noodles in hot water according to the package directions, then drain them. (At this point you can store them, covered, for up to 24 hours in the refrigerator.) In a small bowl, combine the lime juice, fish sauce or salt, sugar, chile sauce, and 1 tablespoon water.

Pour 1 tablespoon of the oil into a large non-stick skillet, and cook the eggs over low heat, stirring with a wooden spoon. Once the eggs are barely cooked, transfer them to a plate.

In the same skillet (rinsed if necessary), add the remaining 2 tablespoons oil. Over medium heat, add the garlic and ginger. Sauté for about 30 seconds, then add the carrots, scallions, and shrimp. Sauté until the shrimp are pink, stirring frequently. Add the lime juice mixture, then the drained noodles. Cook the noodles, stirring constantly, until they are tender but still chewy, about 1 minute. Add a bit more lime juice, if desired, and the sprouts and the scrambled eggs, stirring well. 

Quickly divide the mixture among plates, sprinkle with the peanuts and cilantro, garnish with the lime slices, and serve.


Mindi said...

Thank you for tackling Pad Thai for me! I look forward to trying your recipe asap!

Julie said...

I also hated Bittman's pad thai recipe!!! Too...icky. I'll have to give this one a go!

Daniel said...

Not to pile on Bittman, but I find that his recipes often don't work or lack flavor or something. Too minimalist for me.

This pad thai was very healthy- and fresh-tasting, but it didn't really taste like the kind that comes from a restaurant. That may be a good thing, at least sometimes.

Lisa said...

Mindi: I look forward to hearing what you think!

Julie: Ha, funny that you had a similar experience. Must be the recipe!

Daniel: Yeah, I agree. I find that I like his ideas better than the recipes themselves.

Judy said...

Yes, I was really looking forward to those popovers. I haven't had one since I was 8 years old. I'll try again someday.

Casey@Good. Food. Stories. said...

Frankly, I'm NEVER happy with pad thai when I make it at home, even with all the tamarind and fish sauce in the world at my disposal. What are we all missing?

Lisa said...

Judy: Try again! They are so easy--that recipe was just messed up.

Casey: I know, right? Some kind of magic MSG dust must be going into those restaurant pad Thais...

Koh samui villa said...

Pad Thai is sometimes really hard to do the best secret I can give is that you use fresh ingredients for your dish.


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