Kitchen Intuition: Pad thai

Authored By aliceodea

Now that you’ve enjoyed a Thanksgiving dinner and a couple of days’ worth of leftovers, I bet you’re in the mood for something that doesn’t involve turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes or cranberry sauce. Am I right? If so, here’s an idea that is about as far from all that as you can get: pad thai. And you don’t have to order takeout to enjoy this awesome dish. It’s surprisingly cheap, quick and easy to make it yourself!

The Guardian does a nice job of breaking down pad thai into its basic elements: noodles, protein, garnish and sauce. I did some looking around-at a lot of websites and in a number of cookbooks (consulting the “Thug,” Mark Bittman, “America’s Test Kitchen,” and Carla Snyder, among others)-to see how different cooks approach these basic elements. I found that there is a lot that they all agree on. And where they don’t concur is where you get to add your own signature flourishes to your pad thai. Make it extra-spicy, vegan, gluten-free, paleo or whatever’s your thing!

It is a virtually unanimous conviction that pad thai is properly made with rice noodles. Of course, that doesn’t mean that you have to use them, unless you’re trying to replicate what you’re used to getting when eating out. Try something different if you’re inclined. You could even use some zoodles for a no-noodle version.

In a typical pad thai, the protein is usually shrimp and/or tofu, and there is also commonly some egg mixed in. I also found recipes that use chicken and a few that didn’t bother with any protein beyond eggs and peanuts tossed on before serving.

A lot of pad thai preparations also include vegetables. Everyone adds aromatics like garlic and green onions, but beyond that, cilantro, bean sprouts, snow peas, broccoli, shallots, frozen peas and mushrooms are the ones I ran across most often. They are usually either chopped or sliced into strips that will easily mix with the noodles.

The sauce is probably the most controversial element in the prep. More authentic versions use tamarind paste, which is carried by some local Asian and Indian markets, and at Whole Foods. But don’t let a lack of it stop you; there are alternatives. The classic version includes tamarind paste, fish sauce, sugar or honey, and chili powder or red pepper flakes. But instead of the tamarind, you could substitute soy sauce, vinegar and/or lime juice. Some versions also include peanut butter, ginger, sesame oil, tomato paste, Sriracha or miso.

A few common ways to garnish your pad thai are with chopped roasted peanuts, sesame seeds, coriander leaves, bean sprouts, chilies, shredded cabbage or carrots, or a wedge of lime on the side.

As far as proportions are concerned, here is one possible preparation that would be plenty for two. You could scale up or down from here:

-4 ounces rice noodles: Cook to al dente according to the instructions on the packaging (this is likely to be simply soaking the noodles in hot water); drain and set aside.

-Sauce: In a bowl, stir together 1 tablespoon each of tamarind paste, fish sauce, honey, rice vinegar and sesame oil, and 1 teaspoon of red pepper flakes. Taste, adjust, and set aside.

-Vegetables: Mince two garlic cloves and slice your veggies, which might include a couple of green onions and an 8-ounce can of bean sprouts. In a wok or skillet, lightly sauté them in a little oil; set aside.

-Protein: Back in your pan, add some more oil (if needed) and brown a cubed block of extra-firm tofu, cook 4-6 ounces of shrimp or chicken, or reheat some leftovers. When done, add this to the veggies you have set aside.

-Egg: Put a little more oil in the pan to scramble a large egg. Once the egg is done, add the noodles, sauce, veggies and protein back to the pan and cook, stirring until everything is warmed through.

-Garnish: Sprinkle with chopped peanuts, add a wedge of lime on the side, and serve.

Alice O’Dea has lived in Chattanooga for over 20 years, but was raised among the mucks and dairy farms in rural western New York. She didn’t really learn to cook until midlife. When she’s not puttering around in the kitchen, she enjoys running, cycling, traveling, photography and trying to get food to grow in the backyard of her Highland Park home. You can email her with questions, suggestions or comments at [email protected]. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not or its employees.