Monday, March 20, 2017

Homemade Pad Thai from Cook's Illustrated Magazine and Memories of my Mother

Before I lunge into how to make a truly satisfying and remarkably authentic Pad Thai in whatever kitchen you call home, I must pause in memory of my mother.   Because ringing in my ears as I made this surprisingly easy version of the classic rice noodle, shrimp and scrambled egg dish, were my mother’s words: “What on earth would possess you to make Pad Thai when there’s a perfectly good Asian place a block and a half from your house.  And they deliver.”   My mother certainly would not have. But then again, my mother hated cooking.  I mean hated it.

Margaret Stewart ca. 1929
Apparently when you attended Trafalgar School for Girls which, we were happy to tell our mother, was Raglafart spelled backwards, the theory was that while you might plan healthy and nutritious meals, you would only step foot in the kitchen to tell someone else what to cook.   But two World Wars erased kitchen help from memory.  And what replaced them was a 50- year period stretching from 1920 to 1970 which food historian Paul Freedman described in his book “Ten Restaurants That Changed America” (Liveright/W.W. Norton 2016) as “The Dark Ages of American tastes, the unfortunate era of cottage cheese, canned fruit, Jell-O as a cooking ingredient and mayonnaise and marshmallows as salad decorations”.  My mother, however, was not about to waste time decorating anything she served.  Or for that matter, shopping for groceries.  She never set foot in a grocery store when I was growing up. All the food in our house was ordered over the telephone and delivered from a distant market called Peterson’s. 

What is amazing about her non-visits to any food store, is that she somehow managed to discover every possible frozen, pre-made, pre-cut, pre-packaged foodstuff.  Convenience foods were her métier.  To cut her some slack, Montreal, where we lived, was snowed in for a good 6 to 7 months a year and so frozen vegetables likely made a lot of sense.  However, the total abandon with which my mother greeted the invention of every new kitchen shortcut made her what we in the Ad business called “an early adapter.”  I shudder to think what dinner at our house would have been like if the household microwave oven had been in use before 1967.   Instead, my mother, who much preferred the Cocktail Hour to the Dinner Hour, was given the moniker “The Crisper” as a good deal of the timing of our meals depended on the length of time it took to drink a second Martini.         
Ruby Foo's Chinese food never found its way to our door.
As to Asian flavors (as in Pad Thai), they were completely absent from our home.  Even though Montreal boasted a well-regarded Chinese restaurant called Ruby Foo’s, its take-out containers never darkened our door.  The main reason for this was that my mother had a distinct distaste for rice.  I am guessing that this may have been due to her inability to cook rice properly since she was resolute about never timing anything she cooked.  But that’s just a guess.  It wasn’t till I left home that I even ate so much as chop suey.  Since then, I’ve developed a taste for virtually every Chinese style of cooking from Cantonese to Xian, my new cumin-scented favorite.  I’ve stir-fried my way around a wok, love Bibimbap in all its guises, cannot eat enough Korean Fried Chicken and cannot wait to go back to Asia just to eat. But till then, recipes like this one for Pad Thai will keep me satisfied.

Annie Petito with her Pad Thai from Cook's Illustrated
         Annie Petito of Cook’s Illustrated is responsible for this one.  Like all recipes in Cook’s Illustrated, Anne has done all the heavy lifting so we don’t have to.  She set out to create a Pad Thai that eliminated trips to an Asian market to be able to make the dish in the first place.  She points out that Rice Noodles and Fish Sauce are staples in most supermarkets.  But the one ingredient that she considers a must in making this dish is Tamarind Concentrate.  This tart fruit comes in many forms – as a fresh pod, a brick of pulp and a powder but the best of the bunch is Tamarind Juice Concentrate.

According to Ms. Petito, it is getting easier to find in both the Asian and Latin section of the supermarket.  Confession Time:  Mine does not stock it. But luck would have it that I was near Chinatown for lunch, and got both Tamarind and the all-essential beansprouts there.  You can opt to order it on-line, of course.  You can order it on Amazon for 8.49.  I’m not going to go into all the ins and outs of Ms. Petito recipe development.   
I am going straight to her recipe which even my mother might like.  

Recipe for Homemade Pad Thai from Ann Petito in Cook’s Illustrated Magazine.  Serves 4. Takes about 1 hour to make.

Since pad thai cooks very quickly, prepare everything before you begin to cook. Use the time during which the radishes and noodles soak to prepare the other ingredients. We recommend using a tamarind juice concentrate made in Thailand in this recipe. If you cannot find tamarind, substitute 1 1/2 tablespoons lime juice and 1 1/2 tablespoons water and omit the lime wedges.

For the Chile Vinegar:

cup distilled white vinegar

serrano chile, stemmed and sliced into thin rings

For the Stir-Fry:



radishes, trimmed and cut into 1 1/2-inch by 1/4-inch matchsticks

ounces (1/4-inch-wide) rice noodles

tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons vegetable oil

cup fish sauce

tablespoons tamarind juice concentrate

pound large shrimp (26 to 30 per pound), peeled and deveined

scallions, white and light green parts minced, dark green parts cut into 1-inch lengths

garlic clove, minced

large eggs, beaten

ounces (2 cups) bean sprouts

cup roasted unsalted peanuts, chopped coarse

Lime wedges

1. FOR THE CHILE VINEGAR: Combine vinegar and chile in bowl and let stand at room temperature for at least 15 minutes.

2. FOR THE STIR-FRY: Combine 1/4 cup water, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon sugar in small bowl. Microwave until steaming, about 30 seconds. Add radishes and let stand for 15 minutes. Drain and pat dry with paper towels.

3. Bring 6 cups water to boil. Place noodles in large bowl. Pour boiling water over noodles. Stir, then let soak until noodles are almost tender, about 8 minutes, stirring once halfway through soaking. Drain noodles and rinse with cold water. Drain noodles well, then toss with 2 teaspoons oil.

4. Combine fish sauce, tamarind concentrate, and 3 tablespoons sugar in bowl and whisk until sugar is dissolved. Set sauce aside.

5. Remove tails from 4 shrimp. Cut shrimp in half lengthwise, then cut each half into 1/2-inch pieces. Toss shrimp pieces with 1/8 teaspoon salt and 1/8 teaspoon sugar. Arrange pieces in single layer on large plate and microwave at 50 percent power until shrimp are dried and have reduced in size by half, 4 to 5 minutes. (Check halfway through microwaving and separate any pieces that may have stuck together.)

6. Heat 2 teaspoons oil in 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Add dried shrimp and cook, stirring frequently, until golden brown and crispy, 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer to large bowl.

7. Heat 1 teaspoon oil in now-empty skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Add minced scallions and garlic and cook, stirring constantly, until garlic is golden brown, about 1 minute. Transfer to bowl with dried shrimp.
8. Heat 2 teaspoons oil in now-empty skillet over high heat until just smoking. Add remaining whole shrimp and spread into even layer. Cook, without stirring, until shrimp turn opaque and brown around edges, 2 to 3 minutes, flipping halfway through cooking. Push shrimp to sides of skillet. 

9. Add 2 teaspoons oil to center, then add eggs to center. Using rubber spatula, stir eggs gently and cook until set but still wet. Stir eggs into shrimp and continue to cook, breaking up large pieces of egg, until eggs are fully cooked, 30 to 60 seconds longer. Transfer shrimp-egg mixture to bowl with scallion-garlic mixture and dried shrimp.

9. Heat remaining 2 teaspoons oil in now-empty skillet over high heat until just smoking. Add noodles and sauce and toss with tongs to coat. Cook, stirring and tossing often, until noodles are tender and have absorbed sauce, 2 to 4 minutes. Transfer noodles to bowl with shrimp mixture. Add 2 teaspoons chile vinegar, drained radishes, scallion greens, and bean sprouts and toss to combine.

10. Transfer to platter and sprinkle with peanuts. Serve immediately, passing lime wedges and remaining chile vinegar separately.

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