This recipe sent me on my first, but I'm sure not my last, Project Field Trip. My local Stop and Shop didn't have two of the key ingredients: tamarind and baked tofu. (Boo, Stop and Shop.) So, it was off to the chichi Whole Foods in the chichi town across the river. They had the baked tofu (sort of, but more on that later), but not the tamarind. Whole Foods does get points, however, for having employees who actually know what tamarind is (I didn't even bother asking at S&S), and they promised that they could get me some in a couple of days. But, like Veruka Salt, I wanted it now! So, it was off to the local Indo-Pak grocery.
Not only did they have tamarind, but they had three kinds of tamarind: Indian, Thai and concentrate. I opted for the Thai variety (seemed like the right choice since I was making Pad Thai, after all). Now, I've never used tamarind before, and I wasn't even sure exactly what it was. According to Wikipedia, tamarind gets its name from Arab traders who called it tamar hindi, or Indian date. The pulp of the legume-like fruit of the tamarind tree is a common seasoning in Asian and Latin American foods. The Thai variety I bought comes in a pliable 10 ounce block of the dried pulp. It kind of looks like a brick of mashed dried dates, and it has the same stickiness. Following The Book's instructions, I broke off a two-tablespoon-sized chunk, soaked it in boiling water and strained it. That was the base of the sauce. Tamarind has a sweet and tart flavor that is a key element in Pad Thai. The Wikipedia article notes that many recipes try to fake the flavor with lime juice and/or white vinegar. But, as The Book says, "there are no American shortcuts here."
I will admit, however, that I did use one tiny shortcut. I used frozen shrimp instead of fresh, which is probably no big deal, but the editors of Gourmet would no doubt frown on the fact that they were still frozen when I put them in the wok. They did give off a bit more liquid than I expected as they cooked, and it probably slowed down the cooking a little, but I don't think that it affected the final product at all.
The Book says that if you can't find plain baked tofu (I couldn't), you can use the flavored kind if you rinse and pat it dry. So, as I alluded to above, Whole Foods didn't have plain baked tofu, but they did have a plethora of flavored varieties. I chose Thai Sesame Peanut flavor since it seemed to be the mildest of all the choices, and even if I couldn't rinse off all of the flavor, it would at least compliment the Pad Thai flavors. It wasn't an issue, though, because the goopy peanut sesame sauce rinsed off nicely, and I don't think that its flavor carried over to the dish. If you've never had baked tofu, it has an odd firm yet spongy texture, and it has a squeaky feel when you bite it.
As I studied this recipe before I got started, I realized that a lot needed to happen in a short amount of time. (Cook this for 1 minute, add that and cook for 2-3 minutes, toss in these and cook for another 2 minutes, etc.) So, the majority of my prep time was spent getting my mise ready. As an aside, The Book claims that the "Active Time" for this recipe is 1 1/2 hours. It took me closer to two hours for this one, but I'm not complaining. The Book suggests making the noodles in advance and putting them in a bowl covered tightly with plastic wrap and keeping them at room temperature until they're needed. I did this (and I also added a ladle full of the cooking liquid to the bowl), and it worked like a charm. I'll try this trick in the future with other Asian noodle dishes, since coordinating noodle-cooking time with the rest of the recipe is usually a challenge.
Once I was ready to get cooking, it was over in a flash. I was glad that I took the extra time to get all of the ingredients ready and lined up in little bowls on the counter.
The finished dish was excellent. I've had a few other Pad Thai recipes at home, mostly from Cooking Light, and while good, none of these recipes resembled the Pad Thai you get in restaurants. (One of the recipes even had tomato paste(!) in it.) This Pad Thai came very close to the real thing. My wife thought that it had too much heat (the recipe calls for 1 1/2 teaspoons of red pepper flakes), but I thought that it was just right.
I'll definitely make this again, especially if I can't find anything else to do with the huge block of tamarind that's now sitting in my cupboard.
Date Cooked: June 29, 2008
Degree of Difficulty: Pretty Hard
2 years ago