February 26, 2010

Pad Thai-athlon

I’ve discovered that stir frying is just as much an athletic endeavor as it is a culinary one.  Please forgive the ridiculously frivolous pun, but I just couldn’t help myself.  A little too much Alton Brown lately, I guess…if there is such a thing as too much Alton Brown.  Thanks to his inspiration, as of last Saturday afternoon Brian and I are the proud owners of a  no-longer-shiny new wok. 
It all happened purely by chance, really.  We’ve been watching Good Eats fairly regularly the past several months.  It’s one of the few cooking shows we can both really get behind.  We love the historical and anecdotal nature of Alton’s lessons as well as the scientific insight he offers.  And his quirky, playful sense of humor is just an added bonus. 
We recently watched an episode entitled “Your Pad or Mine (Thai).” (See where I get it?)  We were really excited about it because Pad Thai is our favorite takeout food.  At $30 a pop for takeout, being able to make it at home sounded like a great alternative.  Aside from a few watered-down, Americanized attempts at “stir fry” and one very decent Cook’s Illustrated recipe (pictured below), I had never really attempted Asian cuisine. (I have always wanted to, but never took the time to seek out the proper ingredients and equipment.)  After watching the show, Brian and I talked about how great it would be to make Pad Thai, and then we promptly forgot about it and went on with our lives as usual.
Last Saturday, Brian’s latest search for musical accessories brought us to Guitar Center in Falls Church.  When what to our wondering eyes should appear, but a beautiful Vietnamese gateway, like a bright, shining Emerald City at the end of a long yellow brick road. (Yes, driving out to Seven Corners really is that much of an ordeal, and this place really is like a small city).
It was the Eden Center, which bills itself as “Northern Virginia's premier Asian center” and boasts approximately 120 stores. To the seasoned Asian-market veteran, this place may have many faults, but I thought it was amazing.   Our visit to Cho Saigon was my first time in a Vietnamese market (or any Asian market for that matter, unless street vendors in NYC Chinatown count, and I don’t think they do if all you’re buying is knockoff purses and cheap scarves).  I was like a little kid in a candy store and couldn’t take it all in fast enough.  There were all kinds of grocery items that I had never encountered before. (And an entire pig hanging behind the meat counter.)  I couldn’t read most of the packaging, and our ingredients list was somewhat formidable for a couple of first-timers at the end of a long day of errand-running,  but the sales people were able to point us in the right direction(s). 
On a side note, I am really appreciating my new phone’s ability to pull up recipes when I am at the grocery store and decide to make something on a whim.  I never could have recalled mung bean sprouts, preserved cabbage, tamarind paste, and palm sugar (among other ingredients) without it!  
While we were there we picked up an inexpensive wok and chopsticks (not Thai, I realize, but this wasn’t a Thai market either).  We finally got home after a couple more grocery-store stops.  (Is it ridiculous that it takes 2 or 3 different stores to find all of our groceries, even when we’re not making Pad Thai?)  I was still on a bit of a high from the market experience and, of course, couldn’t wait to start cooking! 
With Alton’s recipe to guide me, I went straight to work:
A few of the key ingredients.
Getting ready…
Getting set….
And go!
First the tofu is quickly fried, then removed, and set aside (1 – 2 minutes).
Then spring onions and garlic are cooked for about 30 seconds.
Then the eggs for about 30 seconds.
Then noodles, sauce, cabbage, shrimp, bean sprouts, and peanuts, with a quick toss between each addition.
The tofu is tossed back in for about a minute.
Then it’s plated and garnished with spring onions, bean sprouts, peanuts, and freshly ground dried red chili pepper.
It was really quite delicious, and I was pleased to note all the things I had done for the first time that day:  first Asian grocery store, first attempt at authentic Thai cuisine, first time cooking with a wok,  and first time cooking with tofu! 
Our second attempt a couple of nights later definitely went more smoothly, since I had a little experience.  We added chicken and halved the amount of tofu, dicing it the way they do at our favorite Thai takeout places.  If you try this version, be sure to cook the chicken first and remove it from the pan before frying the tofu.  I tried to add the tofu when the chicken had about a minute left to cook.   The tofu was just getting warmed through and wasn’t getting that nice sear on the edges.  I ended up taking them both out of the pan, separating them, and frying the tofu by itself.
Although it was wonderful the first time, we liked second batch of  Pad Thai even better.  The added chicken and diced tofu gave the texture and flavor a bit of a boost.  I also used a hand chopper to get the peanuts and shrimp a little more finely minced, which did wonders for the overall texture of the dish, making the sauce feel thicker and helping to bind everything together.
The wok, we have since decided, is coated with Teflon or some other nonstick coating.  The first clue that we we had something other than a high quality piece of equipment was when the outside coating started peeling off and caught on fire while I was preheating the wok for the second batch.  I spent the entire evening wondering if we were going to die.  Brian assured me that we weren’t going to die from two meals cooked on Teflon over high heat.  We are, however, retiring the wok and have plans to scour our local restaurant kitchen supply stores for one made of carbon steel. 


Anonymous said...

Ack! I'm so happy you went Thai! Isn't Falls Church wonderful?! Ryan and I randomly discovered the area when he picked me up from Dulles our first year. You know how I love my Vietnamese food so it was a little bit like finding a slice of home. I didn't even think about the markets, of course there would be markets! And seriously, next time, my number is... well you know it so don't you hesitate to you use it. Eli

Leslie said...

The pictures definitely make it look athletic. So many prep bowls/stations! Would like to hear your advice re: tofu-frying - lately mine doesn't hold up in the pan, even when I've cut it into small cubes or even strips.
Good luck wok-shopping!

efm said...

Leslie, sorry I am just know responding! I used firm tofu (not silken) and pressed the moisture out before frying. The method went as follows:
- wrap tofu in a clean tea towel or flour sack cloth
- place tofu in a loaf pan and set another loaf pan on top
- place a brick, 5lb weight, or a couple of cans of food in the top loaf pan
- leave in refrigerator overnight
(Alton recommends pressing the water out overnight. I wasn't aware of this and only pressed the first batch for a couple of hours. The second batch I made, in which the tofu was pressed overnight, fried up nicely and had a much better texture.)

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