One Sunday afternoon in February I was strolling about town and wound up at Barnes & Noble. Somehow I found myself browing through what is probably the most-used cookbook I own, Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything. I know, this makes no sense. Among a bajillion new books I gravitated to the one I knew best. Anyhow, there I was, idly flipping the pages, and landed on a recipe for Pad Thai. Now there's something I'd never made. I'd always been a little afraid of attempting to cook the famous noodle dish, figuring that as a New Jersey-raised Italian-American I probably would not be a natural (also, Alton Brown's recipe looked really scary--the prep time is 12 hours and 40 minutes --as if!). But if any book could demystify Pad Thai for me, it might be HTCE. So I scribbled down the ingredients on an author event flier and headed to the store.
The result of this random experiment was not fabulous, but promising. I made the dish in a wok, using rice noodles, grapeseed oil, garlic, shrimp, eggs, fish sauce, sugar, bean sprouts, red pepper, peanuts, cilantro and lime juice. Things moved quickly ("add garlic and cook, stirring, for 30 seconds. Add the shrimp and cook, stirring, for another 30 seconds. Add the eggs and let sit for 15 seconds"). Although I'd arranged all my ingredients beforehand, I hadn't actually measured out a tablespoon of sugar, 2 tablespoons of fish sauce, etc. Rushing to pour things into spoons, I think I burned the eggs and who knows what else. But the result was tasty enough to set me off on doing some Pad Thai research.
By far the best article I found was on Chez Pim. While Pim probably wouldn't approve of HTCE's 4-servings-in-one-wok approach (nor its omission of tamarind sauce), I gleaned some very useful tips from her, the most important being the importance of mise en place . Like I said, things move quickly when you're cooking Pad Thai. You MUST have everything washed, measured and chopped prior to firing up your wok. I also learned that the success of your Pad Thai depends on your use of a well-seasoned wok:
A wok is not built for heat retention or long and even cooking, unlike Western style pots and pans. A Le Creuset pot, for example, is built like a marathon runner, slow to warm up but has long staying power. A wok, on the other hand, is more like a sprinter. It heats up really fast, and loses it just as quickly. The thin iron steel material in a good wok transfers more or less all the heat from the flame directly to the content inside. This is great for the ability to control heat, you can turn the fire up and down and the heat in the pan will rise and fall just as quickly. This also means that a wok can sear and cook a small amount of food lightening fast. Adding too much all at once and letting the heat escape would turn a wok into a useless piece of tin in a blink of an eye. And since the caramelization and charring from a hot wok is where the wok-flavor, or wok-breath as some call it, comes from, your utmost goal in wok-cooking is to start out hot and keep it hot! Make sure that all your ingredients are at room temperature, and that you add them in sequence and let the wok reheat back up before each addition. At no time should you add a huge amount of ingredients all at once, unless you want a Pad Thai stew.
I have since made Pad Thai twice. Both times I successfully avoided Pad Thai stew and burnt eggs. This week's version was sweet, sour, spicy and sensational.--S
12 ounces rice noodles, preferably vermicelli
3 tablespoons peanut (preferred) or other oil
2 tablespoons minced garlic
1 cup peeled shrimp, roughly chopped (or use small shrimp and leave whole)
2 eggs, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon sugar
Salt, if needed
1 1/2 cups mung bean sprouts
1/4 cup roasted salted peanuts, chopped
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, or to taste
Minced cilantro leaves
2 limes or lemons, quartered
1. Soak the noodles in warm water to cover until soft; this will take from 15 to 30 minutes. You can change the water once or twice to hasten the process slightly. Drain thoroughly, then toss with half the oil.
2. Heat the remaining oil over medium-high heat in a wok for a minute or so, until the first wisp of smoke appears. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, for 30 seconds. Add the shrimp and cook, stirring, for another 30 seconds; don't worry about fully cooking the shrimp.
3. Add the eggs and let sit for 15 seconds or so, until they begin to set. Then scramble with the shrimp and garlic, breaking up any large clumps. Add the fish sauce and sugar and cook, stirring, for 15 seconds. Add the noodles and toss and cook until heated through. Taste and add salt as needed. Add 1 cup of bean sprouts and toss to distribute through the noodles.
4. Tun the noodles out onto a platter and garnish with the remaining bean sprouts, the peanuts, a sprinkling of crushed red pepper flakes, and some cilantro. Squeeze some lemon or lime juice over all and serve, passing more lemon or lime separately.
Recipe courtesy of How to Cook Everything