I’m sad to admit that I discovered pad thai much, MUCH too late in life. As a picky eater in childhood, as a teenager, and into young adulthood, I missed some of the finer things in food. In college I started being more open to the unfamiliar, mostly because a girl can only eat so much peanut butter and jelly. Thank goodness for my lack of attention span with meals, because now I want to take on the culinary world…or at least the vegetarian hemisphere of the culinary world.
Which brings me to thai food. In my pickier years I had a “gross, but what IS it” attitude towards the food genre. Now I care less, try not to think about it, and then when curiosity gets the best of me I know I can figure out what it is with a quick google search. Of course, with Pad Thai the search results came with a landslide of recipes with fish sauce. Recipes that insisted, “fish sauce is the key ingredient! You need the fish sauce! Leave out the fish sauce and it’s not pad thai!” Cool it, people, step aside, and put the fish sauce down, cause this vegetarian is hungry. Hungry for sweet-yet salty sauce mixed with light rice noodles, twisting around a mix of bean sprouts and sweet cooked pepper, then dusted with crushed peanuts and fresh lime…it’s just the best, right? Right. But this kind of love begs the question: is this perfection that can be recreated at home, and without fish sauce, no less?
Based on the Pad Thai recipe from The Vegetarian Meat & Potatoes Cookbook, by Robin Robertson.
- 8-ounces rice sticks (not the super skinny kind)
- 1/4 cup soy sauce or tamari
- 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
- 1 tablespoon tomato paste
- 2 teaspoons light brown sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
- 2 tablespoons peanut oil
- 4-ounces extra firm tofu, cut into cubes (try to make them all roughly the same size)
- 1 red bell pepper, cut into thin strips
- 3 scallions, chopped
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 tablespoons chopped, fresh cilantro
- 1 cup bean sprouts
- 1/4 chopped roasted peanuts
- Lime wedges for garnish
This recipe in this book started off with a simple instruction. A tip that I all-too-often overlook: prepare the ingredients before you start. What a novel idea! This author was saying that instead of starting a recipe, then running around, pulling at my hair, covering myself in condiments, and looking like I’ve been run over by a bus before I’ve even reached step two, I could actually prepare everything beforehand? Genius! My confidence in this author skyrocketed. This was going to be good, I just knew it.
Lucky for me, when the boy and I are cooking together he is kind enough to chop the vegetables. I say I want his help because he’s so good at it (which he is), but we both know the real reason: I hate it, really truly, and I don’t know why. Despite my general acceptance of all things putzy, there’s something about chopping vegetables that I think fundamentally sucks. He chooses to chop instead of watching me suffer silently (well, somewhat silently), because he’s nice to me. This night, however, he was busy staining, then restaining, then admiring a table he had built with his bare hands (Old Spice man, anyone?). Being the thoughtful girl I am, I dove right into chopping without a pout or a sigh or even a hopeful glance in his direction. Sometimes gender roles just work out better.
So anyway, chopping (see how I avoid it?). For normal people this should go quickly. Then, bring some water to a boil, add the rice sticks, pushing down gently so they are all fully submerged. Remove the pot from the heat source and set aside, letting the sticks soak for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes, strain and set aside.
While your noodles are getting loose, make that magical sauce. Combine the soy sauce, lime juice, tomato paste, brown sugar, and crushed red pepper, whisking with a fork (or an actual whisk I suppose), until fully combined.
Add one tablespoon of the peanut oil to a nonstick wok or fry pan and put it over medium-high heat. Add the tofu and let it brown on one side, giving the pan a shake every now and then to make sure you’re not getting into a sticky situation. Do this for each side until each cube is evenly browned. And stop looking at me like that, because you’re going to like it. Once your delicious tofu browned, use a fork or slotted spoon to remove them from the pan while retaining the remaining oil.
Add the other tablespoon of oil to the fry pan, along with the sliced pepper, scallions, and garlic. Cook for 2-3 minutes, until the pepper slices are softer and more limp.
Add the sauce mixture and bring to a simmer. Stir in the noodles, tofu, and cilantro, and stir fry until heated through and fully mixed, about 2 minutes.
Garnish each plate with a hefty sprinkle of crushed peanuts, a couple leaves of fresh cilantro, and a lime wedge. Bask in your glory as you eat, and eat like you’ve never had pad thai before!…and I hadn’t had pad thai before, at least not while in the comfort of my home, in my favorite sweats, while watching tv. Ah, bliss.
I don’t want to toot my own horn here (okay maybe I do a little), but oh my dear, sweet pad thai, this was unreal. I expected to enjoy it, but I had no intention of it being so similar to what I pay upwards of $15 for in a restaurant. The boy even said it was in his top three dishes we have ever made together. While this is a strong statement on its own, I must remind you that this dish included his FIRST TASTE OF TOFU. My carnivorous, bow hunting love dug right into the tofu, and even went up for a second bowl where he again polished off the every last bit. When I couldn’t take the anticipation anymore, I asked what he thought of his first run-in with a block of soy. He said, simply and without any hint of sarcasm, that he liked it in the dish. LIKED it. What is happening to the world?
We both ended the night with a sense of accomplishment. For me it wasn’t just the successful, absurdly wonderful pad thai, but also the whole new realm of possibilities that opened up with the boy’s tofu approval. I had always feared that when he finally ate tofu it would be like the brussels sprout incident: A bite, a push of a plate, and an apologetic yet decisive look. Maybe this compromise thing isn’t so hard, or maybe we’re playing tit-for-tat, and I’ll have some bites of meat coming my way shortly…As far as the boy’s sense of accomplishment, well let’s just say we all get our kicks from different things.