Renee bought me a big bag of tamarinds at the Red Barn last week. "Because I know you wouldn't by them for yourself," she said. Read: "I want pad thai." Well, thats ok, because I want pad thai too. Most of the time in fact.
I don't know why I don't make it more often. I guess it requires about an hour of prepping various things, such as:
Tamarinds: Most recipes I've seen assume that there's no way you'll be able to find fresh tamarind pods. Not so. When I started making pad thai, in Key West, I was lucky enough to have a tamarind tree in the yard. I made the dish a few times in the summer, as that's when they're ripe. Now, I get them from the flea market and they seem to be just as good, and its much easier than climbing that giant tree, only to find that most of the pods I've picked have already been inhabited by bugs. I think I only found one buggy pod in the dozen or so I picked over last night. For those not familiar, a tamarind pod is somewhat similar in shape to a very large bean pod, a fava maybe. The shell is mahogany or sometimes silvery brown, and very brittle. It's easily removed, revealing a dark, sticky interior with the consistincy of a ripe date. The taste is somewhat like a very tart apricot. The pods usually house three or four very pretty seeds, about the size and color of pennies. Once shelled, the pods go into a small pot of boiling water. I believe I boiled them for about 10 minutes. Once the flesh was starting to fall apart, I passed them through a seive, then boiled the flesh some more. I did this a few times until I'd loosed most of the meat from the seeds. This left me with a slightly pulpy 3/4 cup of tamarind liquid, which I should add, can also be turned into a beverage when sweetened when made in larger quantities. Hmm, thats something to try at home. To this liquid I added fish sauce (Three Crabs brand), chile flakes, rice vinegar, sugar and vegetable oil. This completes the sauce for the noodles.
Noodles: The rice sticks(I used a one pound package, doubling the recipe I was following) seem to behave best when they're soaked in hot water, rather than being boiled like traditional pasta. A 20-25 minute soak in hot tap water makes them pliable, but not gluey like boiling sometimes does.
Shrimp: About a pound of shrimp, 31-35s is what I had last night I believe, works for a pound of noodles, I find. Some folks are squeamish about the vein or "poop shoot," as it is called with much affection, but I usually don't bother de-veining them. The p&d shrimp at the supermarket were about the same price as what I was going to buy anyway, so I sprang for those. While most were shelled, they weren't actually de-veined. Rather, they just had little slits cut down their backs, making them look as if they'd been deveined. Oh well, joke's on the shoot-haters I guess.
Aromatics, vegetables and herbs: A couple shallots and garlic cloves, minced; a few scallions, chopped on a sharp bias; a good handful of cilantro, some mung bean sprouts.
Eggs: four eggs, beaten with a pinch of salt.
Once everything is prepped, the actual cooking time is rather short. Fry the shrimp in a few tablespoons of nearly smoking oil, set them aside, then saute the shallot and garlic, scrable the eggs with that, toss in the soaked and drained noodles, then the sauce, toss on high heat for a few minutes until the noodles are fully cooked, add the shrimp, sprouts, some unsalted peanuts, the cilantro and scallions. Serve with some lime wedges.
Now, I have a 12" nonstick pan, and it always proves impossible to keep everyting in there. I've come to accept the fact that there will be bits of scrambled egg on the stovetop, peanuts and sprouts on the floor, and at least one rogue shrimp. In fact, I've started to look for and expect that now. Most of it stays in the pan however, and it always comes out quite good.
I'm curious to hear about other people's pad thai recipes. The one I work with was published in Cook's Illustrated a few years ago. I've strayed a little bit by increasing the quantity of it, but I find that their recipe for the 'sauce' works very well. They too assume that tamarind pods are out of reach to the average shopper, and suggest tamarind paste or concentrate. I've made it with paste that someone brought back from Colombia for me. It worked very well, I think it was packed with some sugar though, so it was hard to mederate the sweetness. Also, I've seen recipes that leave the tamarind out all together and say to use ketchup. Strange as it sounds, I can see how that might work to some small degree--the fruit and the vinegar--to copy the taste of tamarind. I'm curious what most restaurants use. I know that after making pad thai at home, I'm not happy with what I'm served in most Thai places. It's either too greasy, too sweet, or the noodles are too gummy.
I still have plenty of tamarinds left, so I guess I'll just keep on making it at home.