Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Absolute Best Pad Thai Recipe in the World (IMHO)

I'm sorry Michelle... but I think I am going to win this battle. Haha. Let me first qualify the claim "Absolute Best Pad Thai Recipe in the World". I believe that the best Pad Thai recipes are simple and uncomplicated IF you happen to be a street vendor in Thailand or you have a commercial kitchen duplicating their methods. BUT, in a typical Western kitchen, it's not so easy or uncomplicated in achieving authentic Pad Thai. After almost 20 years (my first attempt was in 1991) this is the recipe I've stuck with and is closest to being an authentic way of cooking it. The secret to making the best Pad Thai in the world, as with many things in life is patience as well as experience. I can almost guarantee that someone will comment eventually telling me that it didn't work. Trust me, after many attempts and doing this for awhile, it works and tastes amazing!
The following is my way and as many people know, there are a thousand ways to make Pad Thai. So... before I even start with the recipe, there are a few things you must know before you begin. These are REALLY important... so don't skip over these things!
The first is to ONLY cook one serving at a time. Period. The second is, have an organized and clear work area. You can't blow either of these things off (like I did for way too long). And thirdly, cook the noodles ahead of time and refrigerate. Trust me, this isn't just about convenience... it is an important step. You'll need a few things to start besides the ingredients below. Either a well seasoned or a non-stick wok. A gas range is best to use but electric is fine. You'll also need something to stir the noodles in the wok that has wide tines. A wooden fork or pasta server will work.

One more piece of advice. The following ingredients might be found at grocery stores with Asian food sections, but they are much more expensive there. Look for an Asian food store where you live or buy online - much less expensive. The following recipe will make about 4 medium sized servings. Pad Thai keeps so well that I recommend that you double the recipe.

2 Tbs. Minced garlic
Oil (do not use oil with a low smoking point like sesame. Regular canola or vegetable oil works great.)
1/2 cup Chopped Peanuts
2 Bunches Green Onions (chopped into 2" lengths)
2 cups Beans Sprouts
1 14oz. bag of rice stick (the thin kind... width should be like linguine and NOT fettucini)
2 Whole limes
1 lb. boneless skinless chicken breast
1/2 cup Shredded carrots
1/2 cup shredded red cabbage
(carrots and cabbage are not necessary and I often skip these, but they add nice color and the cool, crispness of these two along with the fresh bean sprouts adds a nice contrast to the hot, moist noodles)

For the sauce:
1 Cup Tamarind**
1 Cup Dissolved Palm Sugar (palm sugar comes in hardened 'cakes') you can substitute cane sugar... but not nearly as good.
3/4 Cup Fish Sauce
1 tsp. paprika
6 - 8 dried Thai chili peppers (pepper flakes can be substituted)

**Tamarind can be found as either a soup base (in which case you check to be sure that the only ingredients are tamarind and water) or a block of tamarind (it will look like a soft brick and be very dark brown). I highly recommend using the soup base that comes in a jar. It's much easier and less of a mess. If you want to go old school and get that smidgen of extra flavor, soak the block of tamarind in 4 cups of hot water and when soft, use your VERY clean hands to 'work' the tamarind into a ketchupy like consistency and then strain.

Noodle Prep
Soak noodles in hot (not boiling) water or just long enough to get noodles slightly 'al dente' . And I stress slightly! With your hands or a pasta fork, create a 'nest' so that no noodles are sticking together. From there you will be taking a large handful when you are ready and adding to you wok. The softer the noodles are before they go in the hot wok, the less time you will have in wokking with other ingredients... and THAT is the ruination of every cook's experience (you have no idea how many I've ruined!) making pad thai - overcooking the noodles! You may have someone complain a little that the noodles are not quite done, in which case it is easy to remedy by throwing back in the wok. But overcooked? The next stop for that pad thai is the garbage disposal. Once you've gotten the noodles only soft enough so that they are pliable, drain, make your noodle nest in a large bowl for easy access and set aside.

Make The Sauce
Combine palm sugar, tamarind and fish sauce with chilis and paprika. Cook on low until you have a warm , syrupy sauce. This is the place where so many pad thai recipes differ. These four main ingredients - Tamarind (sour) Palm Sugar (sweet) Fish Sauce (salty) Chiuli Peppers (hot) are the big four as far as taste goes. Some like a saltier sauce and even add some soy to make it saltier. Some like a more sour taste and add rice vinegar along with tamarind. Some prefer a sweeter sauce and add even more palm sugar. Find what you like best but whatever you do, don't make spicier than the person with the lowest tolerance for heat at your dinner. You can add dried chilis later to taste. Pour into bowl and set aside.

1st Cooking Stage
Chicken should be either half thawed (if frozen) or put in freezer for an hour (if thawed). Cut partially frozen chicken into 1" - 2" pieces. Add 1 Tbs. oil and cook in hot wok until chicken is browned and cooked through. Remove from wok and set aside. If you use prawns, divine, wash and quickly brown. This should take less than 10 seconds! Later when you are in the last stage of cooking and combining all ingredients, prawns (if used) should go in when you are a minute or two from serving. Prawns cook very quickly and even a minute overdone makes them tough. If using tofu, use the extra firm variety and cut into cubes. Tofu, as with chicken and prawns should be browned and set aside. Be careful with tofu though. Even the extra firm can fall apart and be a mess in your pad thai when it's time to combine with noodles and you are too aggressive in tossing ingredients. You will be cooking ALL the chicken, prawns or tofu you will need for all guests and setting aside in a separate bowl, adding portions as needed when making one serving at a time.

2nd Cooking Stage
Before you begin this stage! Be sure ALL ingredients are easy to reach while at your wok. One mistake you do not want to make is to go looking for an ingredient or needing to prep something you forgot or worse yet, finding a glass to put water in when your noodles are beginning to stick to the pan. Also... I make sure that I am the ONLY one in the kitchen. When you get to this stage, things move fast and you can't be looking for an ingredient or shooing a guest out of the kitchen. The hot oil and pan as well as the quick movements you often need to make can be hazardous to the meal as well as your guests. I'm weird anyway about being alone in the kitchen, but pad thai? I demand it.

Heat wok to medium hot and add 1 Tbs. oil and 1 Tbs. minced garlic. Add 1/4 cup green onions, 1/2 cup bean sprouts. (as in all wok cooking, stir rapidly to avoid burning). As veggies begin softening, add 1/4 cup sauce.
Add 1 to 1 1/2 cups of semi-softened noodles. Turn heat up to high. Continue stirring until noodles are coated*. (You may need to add more sauce to keep noodles fully covered, so keep sauce with ladle handy and within reach). When noodles have reached a point where they are soft but not done (pull a noodle or two out with a fork to test for doneness as you go... Do NOT overcook. In fact, the noodles need to be undercooked so you won't overcook in the final stage. ALWAYS keep everything moving in the wok as you stir and use a tool that helps keep noodles separated. At this point, noodles will be loose but tough when you chew.

*Note: Noodles tend to stick to the wok. Have some cold water ready to add and 'deglaze' the wok and keep noodles from sticking. Be sure to use only enough water to loosen noodles from the wok. Don't worry if they start to stick. Leaving them for a few seconds longer allows the noodles to toast a little and caramelize. This will take some practice as it only takes a few seconds too long to go from toasted to burnt. Unless you have the right tools (a very large wok, a large gas burner and large wooden spatula) and a lot of experience, keep the wok at medium hot. I have read so many recipes over the years suggesting to let the wok get 'smoking hot'. DO NOT do this. You can get a fantastic meal using medium high heat that isn't smoking hot and you won't ruin your pad thai.

Once you've finished a single serving, put in a bowl (only one serving per bowl... don't combine servings in a single bowl. The heat of the servings at the bottom will keep cooking and overcook the noodles. Refrigerate each serving as you make them. If you can find the Ziplock disposable quart size containers with lids, this works best. Be sure you have at least a cup of sauce left for the final cooking stage.

Final Cooking Stage
Take each serving from the refer and remove lids. You'll be cooking these one at a time just as you prepared them in the previous stages. Add a 1/4 cup of water to the wok, a tablespoon or two of sauce and get the water and sauce boiling. Put one of the servings in the wok (the noodles will be difficult to separate since the sauce has hardened around the noodles). As the wok heats the noodles with the water and sauce, stir the noodles by moving them apart as you do. The sauce will begin softening the noodles that have gotten stiff and stuck together from the cooled sauce. Keep the noodles moving until done. It's important at this stage to remove the wok from the burner every so often to try a few noodles for doneness. When you are really close, add the browned chicken to the noodles. I also recommend adding 1/2 Tbls. to your noodles as you cook and also letting the noodles sit occasionally to add some toasting. This gives the noodles a very authentic taste and texture. Doing this without burning may take practice, so be careful as you do. Plate each serving and serve with condiments - shredded carrots, fresh bean sprouts, purple cabbage, lime wedges, chopped peanuts and dried chili flakes.

The combination of heat, sweet, salty and sour is awesome! For drinks I suggest a white (reisling or pinot gris are both good) Beer is also great with pad thai. For a refreshing non-alcoholic drink, muddle a quarter of a lime and quarter lemon with full glass of ice and fill with tonic water.


1 comment:

  1. Hey Randy,

    You stole the picture of this Pad Thai from my blog. Would please delete it?