noodle wonder

I know I said I have the southern cooking bug, and I do. I even made a trip to Sixth Street Market this week (a gem of a butcher shop that northern Wisconsin is lucky to have) and got some gorgeous shrimp so I could try my hand at Shrimp and Grits. But then, I got seriously sidetracked. I shamelessly used my southern bound shrimp for a dish I can never resist – Pad Thai.

Often thought of as one of Thailand’s national meals, Pad Thai is a relatively simple noodle dish that has the perfect blend of sweet, sour, savory, slight saltiness, and varying degrees of spiciness. It’s my go to order when I find myself in an Thai restaurant. It can vary widely from chef to chef, and while I’ve had some that I like better than others, I’ve yet to dive into a bowl of Pad Thai that I haven’t thoroughly enjoyed. It’s hard to screw up stir fried noodles.

Many years ago, my dad gave me a slim little book called Seven Wonders: Everyday Things for a Healthier Planet. After an honest introduction that leaves you feeling pretty much disgusted to be a part of the over indulgent American society, author John Ryan goes on to list seven forward thinking tools to help us reduce our ecological wear and tear on the planet. Unlike most American consumption habits, Ryan’s theory is that these seven items can be used by everyone on Earth without overtaxing our planet’s resources. Ryan proposes that the world as whole should make better use of the following items: the bicycle, the clothesline, the condom, the ceiling fan, the public library, the ladybug, and – of all things – Pad Thai.

Ryan reasons that Pad Thai is a sustainable wonder because, like a lot of Asian food, it consists mainly of rice noodles and vegetables – which is friendlier on the planet and our bodies than the typical meat based American meal. In general he encourages us to eat more plant and grain based meals and less meat (particularly grain-fed meat). He cites plenty of other other ethnic cuisines that environmentally beat out the majority of American fare – Italian based pasta dishes, South America’s heavy use of corn, quinoa, and other grains, and Asian inspired rice meals. But I think his decision to highlight Pad Thai as a leading example of sustainability is a splendid one. It’s hard to find a more flavorful dish.

I’ve tried handfuls of Pad Thai recipes over the years – even one from my favorite, but now sadly defunct, Thai restaurant in Saint Paul (White Lily). But I keep coming back to a recipe that I clipped years ago from the back of a package of rice noodles as my home base. (In my book, packaging recipes are a valuable source that should never be overlooked!) As if saving the planet isn’t enough, the other  brilliant aspect of Pad Thai is that it’s quick. I can have it on the table, chopsticks at the ready in under a half hour. Whats more, I get to use my hand hammered wok – one of my favorite pieces of cookware.

What I put into my Pad Thai tends to vary depending on what I have on hand. Rice noodles, eggs, bean sprouts, and the sauce are pretty much the only constants. I almost always use tofu and in the summer I am prone to toss in a big handful of broccoli or cabbage. I rarely use other meat or shrimp, but once I got my grits designated shrimp home, I couldn’t resist making an extra special Pad Thai. Luckily, I can rest easy knowing that when I do get around to those Shrimp and Grits, I’ll be eating another earth-friendly, grain-based meal (shrimps aside of course).

Pad Thai
Honey-roasted chili peanuts
I generally start by throwing about 1/2 cup of raw peanuts into a hot, peanut-oiled wok with a little garlic, salt, and dried chili pepper tossed in. I stir fry these over medium-low heat until they are toasty and fragrant. Then I drizzle a little honey over them and remove them to a plate to get cool and crunchy. Raw or plain roasted peanuts will do in a pinch, but I think it’s worth the extra effort in the end.

Cook 8-10 ounces rice noodles according to the package directions, drain and rinse with cool water. Keep these handy next to your wok.

While the noodles cook, mix together the sauce in a small bowl or measuring cup.

1/4 cup rice vinegar
2 tablespoons Thai fish sauce
2 tablespoons hot chili sauce (I’m partial to sriracha)
2 tablespoons liquid honey
2 teaspoons tamarind paste (a nice addition, but not completely necessary)

Everything else (vary as desired)
I like to get everything chopped and at the ready before I heat up the wok.

2-3 tablespoons of minced garlic
3 scallions, sliced
12 medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
4 ounces of tofu* (or cooked chicken, pork, etc) diced or shredded
Handful of chopped broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage etc (optional)
2 eggs, lightly beaten in small dish
1 tablespoon pickled radish, thinly sliced (optional, but really tasty)
2 cups bean sprouts
1 lime, cut into wedges
Roasted peanuts
Red peper chili flakes

Heat wok (or large skillet) over medium heat and coat generously with 1 or 2 tablespoons of peanut oil. Add the minced garlic and saute briefly. After a few minutes, add in the egg and place the shrimps around them. Stir continuously until the eggs start to firm up. Add in the scallions and  (if using) the broccoli. Stir fry 3 to 4 more minutes until the shrimp are pink. Toss in the tofu and radishes and stir fry a few times to mix. Add in the rinsed noodles and pour the sauce over the noodles. Stir fry and mix until most of the sauce is absorbed, about 3 – 5 minutes. Remove from heat and toss in the bean sprouts and most of the roasted peanuts. Garnish with lime wedges, red pepper flakes, and remaining peanuts.

* A note on the tofu: I usually cube it and toss it in a baking dish with a little soy sauce, garlic, olive oil and fresh ginger. Then I let it marinate for a while, or ideally bake it in a 300º F oven for a bit to let the goodness soak in. If nothing else, splash a little soy sauce on your tofu before you add it to the wok.

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