Shrimp Pad Thai
One of my very favorite foods is Pad Thai. I buy a small container for lunch every time I go to Central Market in downtown Lancaster. It’s a wonderful comfort food for me, sweet, salty, a little bit spicy–it just makes me feel warm all over. So, I’ve been searching high and low for an easy, make-at-home Pad Thai, and I think I’ve found it, thanks to a couple of different versions featured at different times on the Food Network. What I’ve done here is synthesized three different versions into one that, when I made it the other night for dinner, elicited rave reviews from the harshest food critics I know–my children.
The key to whipping up marvelous Pad Thai–it takes only minutes to assemble, assuming you have the necessary ingredients laying around–is preparation and planning. If you have everything on hand, you could actually create a pretty good Pad Thai on the spur of the moment, but if you want it to be spectacular, plan ahead. Know on Sunday that you’d like to have it for dinner on Friday night, and do the advance work on a schedule. The advance work takes only minutes at a time, but the end result is well worth the effort, and your eaters will devour the end product.
Pad Thai is a dish you can make over and over again, and family will never tire of it (unless it becomes an every night thing; and that might be a problem of its own), but to do so means having a few key ingredients in the cupboard: rice noodles, rice vinegar, Chinese five-spice powder, fish sauce, and tamarind paste (all available at any Asian market); and extra-firm tofu (not the silken kind). These are things I like to have around anyway (except the tamarind paste, which I can pick up when I need it at a local market). And bean sprouts. Bean sprouts can be problematic if purchased in grocery stores, so by planning ahead, you can actually grow your own in a jar. That’s part of the magic of this dish. At the end of this post, I’ll add the instructions for growing your own sprouts. Again, worth the effort.
This is going to look like a lot of stuff and a lot of work, but it’s really not. The whole dish will come together in a few minutes once the ingredients are set up and ready.
Here’s the Pad Thai recipe:
4 oz. medium-thick rice noodles
2 Tbsp. plus 1 tsp. sugar (if you can find it, try palm sugar)
2 Tbsp. plus 1 tsp. fish sauce
1 oz. tamarind paste (optional, but it makes a wonderful difference in the flavor)
2 Tbsp. rice vinegar
2 Tbsp. peanut oil
2 large eggs, lightly beaten with a pinch of kosher salt
1 lb. peeled, deveined shrimp (I like 26-31 shrimp for this dish)
1/2 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
4 cloves garlic, chopped fine
2 shallots, sliced thin (optional, but a wonderful addition)
6 oz. marinated extra-firm tofu, cubed (recipe follows, along with the bean sprouts instructions)
4 scallions, including the white parts, chopped on a bias
3/4 cup mung bean sprouts
1 Tbsp sesame seed oil
1/3 cup chopped salted peanuts
chopped fresh cilantro
In the morning: Wrap the tofu in a tea towel and place in an 8-inch cake pan, cover with a plate, and place a 5-pound weight on top of the plate (a bag of sugar? A bag of flour? If you use one of these, seal it in a plastic bag first). Refrigerate until you are ready to start cooking.
1. Marinate the tofu (see instructions below).
2. Place the tamarind paste in a cup and cover with 3/4 cup boiling water, and set aside a while.
3. Combine the fish sauce, sugar, and vinegar in a bowl and whisk until the sugar dissolves.
4. Put the noodles in a bowl and cover with boiling water. Soak for 25-30 minutes. Drain and set aside.
5. Press the tamarind paste through a fine-mesh strainer, add to the sauce and blend well.
6. Heat a wok or large saute pan over high heat without oil
7. When the pan is hot, add 1 tbsp. peanut oil, immediately stir fry the shrimp until just pink. Remove and keep warm.
8. Add another Tbsp. oil, and 2/3 of the scallion, garlic, shallots, and pepper flakes, and stir rapidly for 30 seconds.
9. Add the eggs and scramble until they just begin to set.
10. Add the following ingredients, in order, and toss once or twice to mix: tofu, sauce, noodles, and then mix well.
11. Add the shrimp back in, and half the chopped peanuts.
12. Add the bean sprouts and sesame oil, stir once, and turn off the heat.
13. Pour into a serving dish or prepare to serve right in the cooking pan.
14. Sprinkle the top with the remaining scallion and peanuts, serve immediately with lime wedges and chopped cilantro. For an interesting variation, add 1/4 cup chopped fresh basil to the dish before serving, and skip the cilantro.
You can also use up stuff from the vegetable drawer. When I made it, I added bias-cut sugar-snap peas and some shredded carrot at the same time I put the shrimp back in the pan.
You can use tofu right out of the package, but drain it first. This way is better:
30 minutes before you need to use the tofu, place the pressed tofu in a 2-cup container. Combine 1 1/2 cups dark soy sauce and 1 tsp. five-spice powder, and pour over the tofu. Cover and place in the refrigerator for 30 minutes. Remove from the bowl and chop into cubes (or matchsticks).
MAKE YOUR OWN BEAN SPROUTS
This is so simple it hurts. It takes about 4 days, so if you plan to use sprouts in the Pad Thai, plan ahead, but use them fresh and use them all. Keep an empty, cleaned 1 qt. mayonnaise jar for sprouting, along with a 8×8 piece of cheesecloth or wash a piece of pantyhose.
Thoroughly wash 1/3 cup of mung beans (available at health-food stores and some Asian markets) in cold water until the water runs clear. Then place in the jar with 16 oz. of warm–but not hot–water. Soak overnight, for 8-12 hours, drain thoroughly. Cover the jar with 2 layers of cheesecloth or the piece of pantyhose and a rubber band. Set the jar on its side, shake a little bit to distribute the seeds evenly in the jar, and set aside out of the way, in reasonably low light but not in the dark. Every 12 hours or so, add 2 cups of cool water to the jar, slosh it around a little bit, and then drain the water out thoroughly. This little procedure will take about five minutes, but fresh bean sprouts are worth the effort. In somewhere between three and five days, your sprouts will be ready, depending on the temperature in your house and how big or small you like the sprouts. If you are planning the Pad Thai for Friday dinner, I suggest starting the sprouts on Sunday night. If they get to the size you want before you are ready to cook, remove them from the jar, drain thoroughly on paper towels, wrap them up in fresh paper towels, and store them in the vegetable drawer of your fridge until you are ready to use them.
Wash the jar well and keep it handy for the next time.