Saturday, May 22, 2010

Pad Thai

Summer in Southwestern Ontario means festivals. And one of my favourite things about festivals is the food. Every single festival has a diverse and mouth-watering variety of meals and snacks to choose from. In the last few years the number of Thai food vendors has increased dramatically, giving me the opportunity to sample several distinct pad thai variations. Having done that, of course, I had to try and create my own. For those of you who have requested a vegetarian dish on this blog (and you know who you are) this one's for you.

I find the most essential tool for making pad thai (and many other eastern dishes) is a good wok. If you don't own one a frying pan will do in a pinch but every kitchen should have a wok. This Asian cooking utensil can be used to quickly stir fry some of the most versatile and healthy dishes imaginable. The standard wok is shaped like a large, smooth, often shallow metal bowl, the sloping sides allowing the cook two different areas to heat food. The bottom of the wok is hot and this is where all the main cooking takes place. The sides are less hot and work well to hold food, keeping it hot but not over-cooking it, while other ingredients are cooking in the center. A word of caution - to use a wok effectively you need to prepare all your ingredients first (chop, mince, wash, mix, etc.) because cooking in a wok can be fast and furious.

• 8 oz. flat, thin rice noodles
• 4 cloves garlic, minced
• 1 shallot, finely chopped
• 4 cups (or 'heads') baby bok choy, washed thoroughly and roughly chopped
• 3 tbsp vegetable stock (or chicken stock)
• ½ cup soft tofu OR 2 eggs
• 1 cup firm tofu (and/or chicken, and/or shrimp)
• chopped green onion or chives (optional)
• oil for stir-frying (peanut or canola oil)

Pad Thai sauce:
• ¾ tbsp tamarind paste (try your local Asian or East Indian food store)
• ¼ cup hot water
• 3+ tbsp soy sauce (or fish sauce)
• ½ to 2 tsp chili sauce*
• 3 tbsp brown sugar

• cilantro/coriander
• chopped peanuts, cashews or almonds
• 1 lime, quartered

* Chili sauces come in many varieties and a broad range of spiciness. For this dish you can use a sweet thai chili sauce or a hot chili sauce but be careful, some chili sauces can pack a great deal of heat in a very small serving. I like to control the heat so I use 1 ½ tsp sweet chili sauce and ½ tsp hot chili sauce. Then I make the hot sauce available at the table for those who like it spicy.

• blender, hand blender with chopping attachment or food processor
• large pot
• wok
• wok utensils (see Tips on choosing and using a wok, below)
• non-stick fry pan

Let's start with the pad thai sauce. In a blender or food processor combine the ¾ tbsp tamarind paste with the ¼ cup hot water. Puree until thoroughly mixed. Then add the soy sauce or fish sauce, the chili sauce and the brown sugar. Blend together. Set aside.

Separate and thoroughly wash the bok choy leaves. Coarsely chop with a knife and set aside. Mince the garlic and shallot (after removing the dry outer layer or 'skin') and set aside. Put the bean sprouts into a bowl (if using canned, drain first). If using eggs break them into a small bowl so that you can add them to the wok quickly.

It is essential to have all the ingredients ready to go before you start cooking with a wok. The cooking process with a wok is very quick. In fact this dish requires about 8 - 10 minutes cooking time once the oil hits the wok.

Put a pot of water on to boil. Once it reaches boiling remove from heat and add the rice noodles. Make sure that there is enough water to cover the noodles. Let sit for approx. 8 minutes (until the noodles are soft but firm in the middle, they will continue to cook in the wok). Strain and set aside.

While the noodles cook prepare the firm tofu (or chicken, or shrimp if you prefer). These should be cooked until they are almost ready to serve. The tofu should be cut into small sticks approx. ¼ inch square on the end and anywhere from ½ to 1 ½ inches long. Brown slightly in the non-stick frying pan with a teaspoon or so of oil. If using chicken be sure that it is cooked all the way through until the meat is opaque, even in the middle. If using shrimp I would recommend pre-cooked (pink) shrimp. Remove the tails and check to ensure they have been de-veined. If you want to use uncooked shrimp I am going to assume you know how to properly prepare it. Whichever of these ingredients you choose to add they will be going into the wok just before serving. Once prepared set them aside.

Put the wok on medium-high heat. Add a tablespoon or two of oil (when using a wok try to use an oil that won't smoke or burn too quickly such as peanut oil or canola oil). Pour the oil around the upper edge of the wok rather than just in the centre, then carefully tilt the wok allowing the oil to flow over as much of the surface as possible, at least half way up the sides. Add the garlic and shallots and fry for about 1 minute. Please note, if you are planning on adding beef, pork or some other meat to the dish this would be the time to add it, cooking it along with the garlic and shallot. DO NOT include the cooked chicken or shrimp at this point, they would become overcooked.

Now add the bok choy and stock. Cook for about 2 minutes until the leaves have turned a bright green and softened.

Push the garlic, shallot and bok choy up onto the sides of the wok and add a little oil to the bottom. Stir in the eggs (or soft tofu) and scramble them until they turn white (the eggs that is, the tofu is probably already white but it will start to break up).

Push the eggs/soft tofu to the side, with the garlic, shallot and bok choy, and again add a little oil to the bottom of the wok. Add the previously cooked rice noodles and one third of the pad thai sauce. Stir fry, gradually combining the other ingredients from the sides. Cook for about 1 minute. You may need to use two utensils at this point to keep the noodles and other ingredients moving around the wok. Be careful not to slide the wok off the stove while stirring with both hands.

Now add another third of the sauce and continue to stir fry for about a minute or until the noodles become soft and sticky. Be careful not to burn the noodles at this point, reducing the heat if necessary.

Once the noodles are sticky add the remaining sauce and the bean sprouts, continue to stir fry for another couple of minutes. Add the previously prepared tofu/chicken/shrimp and stir until well mixed into the dish. At this point taste the noodles and see if you need to add more soy sauce/fish sauce or a little more chili sauce (based on your personal preference).

Serve the pad thai immediately, preferably on a warmed plate. Be sure to include condiments at the table including chopped cilantro, chili sauce and crushed nuts such as peanut, cashew or almond. Each plate should also include a quarter wedge of lime. I swear that a sprinkle of lime juice completes the dish and without it pad thai can be a little on the flat side... at least to my tastebuds.

Tips on choosing and using a wok:
I was first inspired to try cooking with a wok after watching several episodes of "Wok with Yan" back in the 70s. I've been using the same steel, two handled wok for 15 years and never been disappointed. That doesn't mean I haven't tried (and even liked) others. Here are a few things I have learned.

1. Short handles get hot. If you can get a wok with a single long handle, that stays cool and balanced on the burner, you should. The single handle will give you much more control. A single, long handle makes it much easier to flip and shuffle food around inside the wok and you don't have to constantly be grabbing for a pot holder.

2. Non-stick coatings are great but NOT on a wok. One of the main benefits to cooking with a wok is that you can move ingredients up onto the side of the wok while continuing to cook in the middle. With non-stick sides the food won't stay in place and keeps sliding into the center.

3. Electric woks don't work well. Some electric woks simply don't heat up enough to properly stir fry with. If you have a gas stove get a traditional wok. Even if you only have an electric stove (admittedly woks do work best on open flame burners) you'll probably still prefer a traditional wok over one you plug in. It's much easier to clean, allows more control of the heat and much less likely to break down or require replacing.

4. Invest in proper utensils for your wok. These include a rice paddle (wide flat ended spoon... I use a large bamboo spoon), a brass deep-fry strainer (yes, the wok is great as a deep fryer and for making tempura), a shallow ladle and a wok turner (a metal spatula with a long wooden handle) for stir frying... although I often use the same bamboo spoon for this purpose. You might even try a bamboo steamer, great for steaming dumplings and vegetables. You might want to purchase a second wok for the steamer so that you will still have one free for stir frying. I would also recommend investing in a number of small 1 and 2 cup glass/ceramic bowls for holding prepared ingredients. These will come in handy even when not using the wok. (See ingredients photo for example of dishes). Small metal dishes are also fine but some foods react to metal so I prefer glass or ceramic dishes.

5. A flat bottom wok isn't for everyone. You can get flat bottom woks that will sit better on an electric stove but the flat bottom, in my experience, tends to get in the way of smooth stir frying. As long as you always use the metal ring that comes with most modern woks (sits around the coil, supporting the bottom of the wok) using the round bottomed style works great.

6. Properly maintain your wok. Most woks are made from steel (conducts the heat well) and will need to be properly handled and seasoned for long life. After washing and gently scouring your wok, towel dry and put it back on the stove to heat it up (this helps dry the surface of the wok completely). Then add a little oil and rub it onto the entire inside surface with a folded dry dish towel or paper towel (remember the wok is hot, be sure that you wad up enough paper towel to protect your fingers from the heat). Let the wok cool to room temperature. This will season the surface and help to prevent rust, which can pit the cooking surface and destroy your wok. In fact, you will need to season your new wok in this manner before you use it for the first time.

If you follow these tips you can "wok" tall in the kitchen knowing your wok is always ready to go. Sorry, just a little left over pun from watching "Wok with Yan" episodes.

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