Perfecting My Pad Thai Recipe
Perfecting the Recipe: Pad Thai - Shrimp and Noodle Stir-fry.
The first time you make a dish in a new style, one that you haven’t practiced before, the learning experience is in reality a scientific experiment. As we can imagine, all experiments do not have the expected or desired results. So it was with my first few tries at the quintessential Siamese dish, Pad Thai. Beginning the quest to master Pad Thai I reasoned it would be a simple matter as it is basically a shrimp and noodle stir-fry, the technique not much different from other Asian cooking. That assumption proved to be a bit premature.
My first contact with Pad Thai was many, many years ago in Southern California not too long after a tour of duty in Southeast Asia. It was long enough ago that I can really remember the taste, the flavor of the dish but I can recall some of the impressions at the time. It was a flavor combination unfamiliar but not really compelling. When I later learned that fish sauce was a principle spice I was further put off. Having had some unpleasant experiences with nuoc mam, I was quite ready to shun fish sauce, even the more refined nam pla of Thai cooking. Notwithstanding, the sharp, woody citrus flavor from kafir leaves was also something I would rather avoid. So, my first encounter with Pad Thai left me with a “been there, done that, now forget about it” attitude.
In the years since there has been a proliferation of many Asian-style restaurants including Thai. I have heard many extol the virtues of Thai foods and a significant portion of that about the spicy, chili heat of some dishes. Even though Pad Thai was not one of the spicy, hot dishes, it was also a hot topic when Thai food was discussed. All I could do was listen because I had such a limited experience that was so long ago. I decided it was time to venture out and try again and reset the taste impressions of Pad Thai. Over several years I tried Pad Thai in different parts of the country even trying a cook-at-home version (you know, the “add your own shrimp, chicken or…” kind) from the grocer’s freezer. All promised authentic Thai flavor. All were different. I must admit that none of them were exceptional enough to be compelling. The basic ingredients were the same but they all varied greatly in the amount of the condiments used or even possibly omitted perhaps to make the flavor more attuned to the Western palate. Unfortunately my sense of taste wasn’t familiar enough with the Thai ingredients to sort it out. The last tasting was more than a year ago and back then I decided to do a “from scratch” version at home to sort out the combinations and see if a favorite version was possible.
It wasn’t until about a month ago that I actually got started on the project. In a faraway place like Anchorage, Alaska it is sometimes difficult to fine things exotic. Over a period of time I was able to accumulate some of the ingredients, some from here and some from there. Rice noodles were a quick find in the local supermarket. The fish sauce, nam pla, was another quick find. I couldn’t find tamarind paste anywhere. I did come across a small jar labeled “Pad Thai spice.” It promised all of the spice to make Pad Thai. So I amassed the other ingredients, the noodles, the bean sprouts, the shrimp, the onions and the peanuts. I made my first batch of Pad Thai.
It was not, as you might expect, a satisfactory experiment. The all-in-one spice and flavoring mix was not up to the task of making something similar to the restaurant varieties I have tasted before. I kept looking for the list of “authentic” ingredients every time I went out grocery shopping even visiting a few fusion and oriental markets along the way. I at last had everything except the kafir leaves and I wasn’t going to use them anyway. My neighbor, Margie, who was a tasting judge on my first attempt, was brave enough and agreed to come back for a second round. I assured her that I would also make some fried rice so there would be sufficient food if the main course was not up to par. She also said she would make some fried won tons to compliment the Asian fusion meal.
Margie arrived on time on the appointed day. She brought a plate of scrumptious won tons. She had made the filling from a mixture of cabbage, chicken and spices and they were delicious. I provided a bit of sweet chili sauce for the dip and it proved to be an excellent combination. I had already made the fried rice and all of the ingredients for the Pad Thai were laid out. Margie helped with the stir fry while I added ingredients and took a few pictures of the process. The cooking completed, we plated the Pad Thai and set it on the table.
The meal was excellent: the fried rice tasty and rich with the essence of chicken; the won tons were flavorful and so succulent when paired with the sweet chili sauce. The Pad Thai was very good, very tasty. It compared well with any other restaurant sample I have ever tried but it was not any better. Pretty much I have concluded that Pad Thai is really a learn-to-like dish. Although it is quite palatable, it isn’t compelling enough to make me want to order it ahead of some other selections. I have learned to make a Pad Thai that is as good as restaurant offerings and have now had some experience in some of the Thai spice combinations. To that extent I would call the experiment a success. I have learned much along the way that I will put to use in further cooking “experiments.” Unfortunately, however good that it was, Pad Thai is not going to be one of my favorite dishes. However, the procedure is fairly straight forward and perhaps it would become one of your favorites should you care to try.
You can compare a local restaurant’s takeout version in the take-home box and as plated to my version above. Please note their use of cilantro and the bean sprouts served cold on the side.
Labels: Asia, nam pla, pad thai, rice noodles, shrimp, tamarind
The Double Musky September, 2012
Double Musky Revisited – 2012
Mile .3 Crow Creek Rd Girdwood, Alaska
Phone: (907) 783-2822 http://www.doublemuskyinn.com/
So, when it is close to a couple of guys’ birthdays, what do they do? How about going out and celebrating? It has almost become a tradition that when I am in Alaska I go out to celebrate with good buddy Larry Tower whose birthday is close to mine. Two birthday celebrations for the cost of one! And that tradition has come to include a visit to the Double Musky Restaurant in Girdwood, Alaska.
Girdwood, an hour’s drive east along the Turnagain Arm from Anchorage, is a sleepy little village in the summer most of the summer with the possible exception 0f a folk festival. But in the winter the world-class Alyeska Ski Resort becomes active hosting skiers from around the world and the village of Girdwood becomes a bustling beehive of activity. The original Double Musky was an après ski hangout and I am told that patrons could purchase cuts of meat from the counter and then grill their own steaks in the large fireplace pit. The restaurant has gone through several hands over the years and the present owners have operated it for many years. They have brought their own traditions and the menu would be at home in a Louisiana bayou with its strong Cajun influence.
If you are ever in Alaska, winter or summer, and you want a special meal, give the Musky a try. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. It has been featured by several television food pendants and given rave revues. The Anchorage Daily News has labeled it “Alaska’s favorite restaurant.” Before you make trip to Girdwood, call or check their website. They close up shop for vacation, are closed one day a week, and they occasionally close to the public for special events or functions. They open at 4:30PM but do not accept reservations. It is first come, first serve. Larry and I usually plan on arriving a bit before they open and when the line starts to form at the door we join in so we can have a choice of seating. Our preference is a table by the window where we could watch the pretty flowers in the garden and judge our stay by the lengthening shadows of evening darkening the forest glade across the street. As chance would have it, we had the same table as we did on our last visit way back in 2009. The furnishings are the same as is their unique decorating kitsch; serving trays cover the ceiling and advertizing mirrors, coasters and posters seem to cover every available wall space.
Our server recited off the list of specials of the day. We perused the menu wondering about all the good things offered. That was all an exercise of going through the motions because we really knew, deep down, that we had come for the 16-ounce pepper steak that has made The Double Musky famous. It is a big steak, very filling, so we passed on the offer of appetizers and ordered our entrees. We both ordered them cooked medium, a hot pink center, with the burgundy sauce on the side. Our salads, a plate of crispy mixed greens with some shreds of carrot and some crunchy croutons, helped to fill the time while our steaks were on the grill. Larry ordered his with vinaigrette and I ordered Thousand Island. The salad was excellent, the lettuce fresh and the freshly baked rolls made for a pleasant interlude while waiting. We talked about the weather and the other vagaries of living in The Last Frontier.
At long last our steaks arrived. As ordered, they were cooked medium, the sauce on the side. As a side Larry ordered a baked potato, loaded, with butter, sour cream and chives (they were really sliced scallions). I love baked potatoes loaded like that but on this occasion I ordered the steamed vegetables. The steak was delicious. It was not as tender as I remember the last one. That is not to say it was bad. It would have been primo anywhere else, just not quite as good as my previous tasting. On the other hand, the burgundy sauce was much better than I remember (that’s why I order it on the side); a satisfactory trade off. The steamed vegetable medley was a mixture of broccoli, cauliflower and carrots. It was bright, appetizing and cooked just right; a bit of crunch but certainly not mushy or overcooked. I had just a little of my steak left and asked the server for a take-home container. I had visions of a wonderful breakfast the next day; pepper steak hash and eggs. Larry, who usually doesn’t quite finish his steak, had no trouble finishing off his steak and baked potato in a handy manner. I guess he’ll just have to settle for some breakfast cereal tomorrow.
Sated, replete, lazily we were deciding if we were going to have a cup of coffee before the long drive back to town. That’s when our server arrived with the dessert tray. My thoughts were, “Oh, I’m so full but that looks so good!” We both hemmed and hawed for a few seconds before the mantra of “nothing succeeds like excess” came to mind. Feeling really stuffed, I chose a lighter dessert, a crème Brule. An interesting note: the server carried a tray with all the desserts. When we chose, she gave us that exact, picture perfect dish; not to take the order and return later with a hopefully similar dessert. I already had eaten two bites before I remembered to take my picture. Larry’s order was am high-calorie pastry he will be working off for a week at least. It was a layered cake of spice cake, cream filling and chocolate cake. The pieces were frosted after being cut so the frosting oozed over the sides and it was topped with a very ample serving of chopped nuts. Did he enjoy it? Let us just say that he cleaned his plate down to the last crumb.
As usual, The Double Musky provided us with an excellent meal, one that bade us to return and again savor
the delights of the pepper steak. I suppose that the best accolade one can give a restaurant is, “I shall return.” But more than that, this outing was with a dear friend of many years whom circumstance has separated from us by many thousands of miles and of late allowed only a visit every other year or so. It was an excellent opportunity to chat, renew the bonds of friendship and to celebrate one of the
keynote events of the year, our birthdays. I have my wife, Janis, to thank for this wonderful day out. She arranged the affair from afar away; on this journey to Alaska she had to remain in Florida. It was a sip of coffee in silent toast of thanks to a loved far away who had provided the other Larry and I with a most wonderful and enjoyable day.
Pretty flowers outside our window seat at the Double Musky.
Margie's Alaska Grown Potatoes
Margie’s Potatoes If you have the space and the inclination, you can make a productive garden. Besides the pleasure of flavorful vine ripened vegetables, more so than those supermarket specimens, you can save a lot of money on the family food bill. Depending on your location, some extra work may be required to make your garden bloom. On such place is Alaska. With a very short growing season and cool soil temperatures,
gardening in Alaska requires some
special techniques and a lot of work. One such garden belongs to my neighbor, Margie. Margie stopped by the other day to deliver some potatoes from her garden, a neighborly gesture. Some weeks earlier she had been of great assistance with a project I have going in my yard. I have wanted to do something to express my thanks. She had cast her potatoes on the water and I decided it would be a nice gesture to invite her to dinner and make a dish that featured her potatoes, to return her potatoes tenfold.
I decided to make a variation on scalloped potatoes. The day before dinner, I peeled the potatoes and sliced them with a mandolin into a bowl of cold water. I added a couple of russet potatoes to her Yukon gold and red potatoes she had given me. I swished the slices to remove any surface starch. I drained that water and covered them with fresh cold water. I used a technique I learned from my Aunt Margie. When she would prepare potatoes for Uncle Carroll to cook on the outdoor griddle, she would prepare them the night before soaking them in cold water seasoned with onion powder and white pepper. I added onion powder and white pepper to my bowl of potatoes as well as a couple of cubes of chicken bouillon. On preparation day I drained the potatoes in a colander. In swabbed the bottom of my glass casserole dish with a bit of olive oil. While the slices were draining I cut a thick slice of red onion and cut it into rough chunks.
I cut and removed the seeds and membrane from the jalapeno that had accompanied the potatoes from
Margie’s garden. I fine chopped the onion and jalapeno in the food processor. I made a layer of overlapping
potato slices in the bottom of the casserole. Then I made a layer of cheese slices covering the potatoes. On top of that I placed the onion and jalapeno. I layered the potatoes and cheese until I filled the casserole.
Season with salt and pepper. I added
milk to fill about half of the casserole. It was an eight minute spin in the microwave (pulled just before the milk was going to boil over) to bring everything up top temperature before covering with aluminum foil and baking in a 325 degree oven for 45 minutes. I then removed the foil and covered the surface with a layer of four-cheese blend. Back into the oven for five minutes to melt the cheese
and then garnished with sliced scallions. That was how I made the scalloped potatoes but dinner needed more… I chose to make grilled chicken prepared in a sort-of Polynesian-style. The night before,
two boneless, skinless chicken breasts by first butterfly cutting them and using the tenderizing mallet to even out the thickness. I then placed them in a brine made of salt,brown sugar and white pepper and let them
soak in the brine overnight in the refrigerator. The next day I grilled pineapple slices and prepared a garnish of red onion and red, green and yellow sweet pepper slices sautéed in butter and then mixed with just a bit of sweet and sour sauce. When it was time to cook the chicken I removed the breasts from the brine and patted them dry with a paper towel. I preheated the gas grill, then turned the gas down to medium. I grilled in minute and a half increments; one side, turn the chicken over, turn 90 degrees, then turn over again, for a total cooking time of 6 minutes. On the last two turns I brushed with a light coating of sweet and sour sauce.
For serving I placed a chicken breast on the plate, added two grilled pineapple slices and then garnished with the onion and sweet pepper sauté. To go with the bright and varied colors of the chicken, I made a vegetable medley of whole kernel corn, peas and carrots. Although there was nothing from my garden in this meal, it is satisfying to prepare a meal with food you have grown yourself. More often than not the taste and flavors will be superior to the supermarket varieties. It just feels good to make that connection with the land much as our forefathers did not all that long ago. It was also an opportunity to share a meal with a neighbor who is a good friend; a pleasant interlude to discuss the daily trials and tribulations of life in this rugged but compellingly beautiful land called Alaska. Oh, and by the way, Margie came bearing dessert. She made a lemon pudding and fresh raspberry pie. And wouldn’t you know it, the raspberries were from my garden.