I've never met a noodle I didn't like, but the rice noodles in pad thai I love the most.
First, there's that texture: Springy but pliable, and soft but not mushy. Then, the sauce that coats them: Salty, sour and sweet. The combination is hard to top.
For those reasons and more, pad thai is a popular takeout staple. In our house, especially when we're eating with a group, it's part of every order from our favorite local spot. But having made this recipe several times, I can tell you that - surprise! - there is no magical power imparted by the plastic carryout container. You, yes YOU, can make pad thai that tastes exactly like what you'd get from a restaurant. (Pad thai only came into being as a Thai national dish in the 1930s, even though it shares a lot in common with Chinese cuisine. It remains more of a street food than a home-cooked staple there.)
Given how popular her Spicy Lemongrass Soup (Tom Yum Gai) was with readers, I naturally turned to chef-owner Nongkran Daks of Thai Basil in Chantilly, Virginia. Daks rode her pad thai recipe to fame in 2009, when she beat chef and TV host Bobby Flay in a battle on his good-natured "Throwdown" series. Flay didn't do himself any favors by using (gasp) mint and soy sauce in his version, though you'd still be hard-pressed to find a better rendition than Daks's.
Daks, a Thai native, has stayed true to the spirit of the original, using such ingredients as dried shrimp, preserved radish and palm sugar. We also added tiny matchsticks of bright red pressed tofu, which is also typical. All those will probably require a trip to an Asian market or an online purchase. If the specialty Asian ingredients are hard to come by, fear not. We tested the recipe without them, substituting brown sugar for the palm sugar, too. While the flavor wasn't quite as well-rounded in savory depth, it was still good, and probably loads better than a lot of what you find in to-go boxes. I do, however, suggest you spring for tamarind concentrate, or 3 tablespoons of tamarind pulp soaked in warm water for 20 minutes and then strained. (Tamarind is available at Indian markets, if that's more convenient.) The tamarind not only lends the dish its appealing color, but its unmistakable tart and sweet base.
Shrimp, eggs, bean sprouts and roasted peanuts are all classic ingredients that fill out the dish in flavor and heft. If your friends and family are anything like my co-workers, you'll be fighting them off for every last bite. We liked serving the pad thai on a giant platter for maximum visual impact, but if you feel like something is still missing compared to your standard restaurant order, I'm sure you've got a few carryout containers hanging around.
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PAD THAI WITH SHRIMP
Active: 45 minutes | Total: 1 hour 45 minutes
This easier-than-you-think recipe is a ringer for the Thai takeout staple. With chewy rice noodles folded into a sweet-tart sauce, it's an irresistible dish that also happens to be easy to adapt to your taste. The recipe comes from chef-restaurateur Nongkran Daks, who famously beat the marquee chef of "Throwdown With Bobby Flay" in a 2009 pad thai battle.
You may find that this recipe is spicier than your typical pad thai. Feel free to reduce or omit the amount of crushed red pepper flakes.
Make Ahead: You will have leftover pad thai sauce, which Daks recommends making a day in advance. It can be refrigerated or frozen for up to several months. The rice noodles need to soak in cold water at room temperature for an hour.
Where to Buy: Preserved radish, dried shrimp and pressed tofu are available at Asian markets. So is tamarind concentrate, although some well-stocked grocery stores (and Indian markets) carry it, too. If you don't find the ready-made tamarind concentrate, you can make your own tamarind juice by soaking 3 tablespoons of compressed tamarind pulp in 1 cup of warm water for 20 minutes and then straining.
For the sauce
1 cup tamarind concentrate (may substitute juice made from tamarind pulp)
1 cup palm sugar (may substitute light brown sugar)
1 cup water
1/2 cup fish sauce
2 teaspoons fine sea salt
For the dish
4 ounces medium-width dried rice noodles (about 1/8 inch)
4 to 5 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon minced garlic
8 fresh or frozen/defrosted shrimp (21- to 25-count), deveined; peeled, if desired
1 tablespoon dried shrimp, finely chopped (optional)
1 tablespoon sweet preserved radish
3 1/2 ounces pressed tofu, sliced thin into 1/2-inch-long pieces (optional)
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons finely chopped roasted unsalted peanuts (about 1/2 ounce)
1/2 cup thinly sliced scallions or garlic chives
2 cups fresh bean sprouts, rinsed and drained
Lime wedges, for serving
For the sauce: Combine the tamarind concentrate, palm sugar, water, fish sauce and salt in a small saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 1 hour, until the mixture is syrupy and darker in color. As it reduces, you may need to further reduce the heat to low to prevent it from scorching.
Meanwhile, start the noodles for the dish: Place them in a bowl and cover with cold water; soak for 1 hour (at room temperature).
Heat 4 tablespoons of the oil in a 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and stir-fry just until golden brown. Add the fresh/defrosted shrimp, stirring constantly until they are opaque and just cooked through, for 1 to 2 minutes. Transfer to a plate (the garlic stays in the pan).
Drain the noodles well, then add them to the same skillet you used to cook the shrimp. They will try to stick together, so separate them as you stir, adding a splash or two of water. Then add 5 tablespoons of the pad thai sauce, stirring until everything is thoroughly incorporated. The noodles should be soft and moist. Add the dried shrimp, if using, the preserved radish and the pressed tofu, if using. Return the cooked shrimp to the skillet and toss to incorporate.
Use a spatula to clear a space at the center of the pan for frying the eggs. If the pan seems dry, add the remaining tablespoon of oil. Pour in the eggs, then use the spatula to cover them with the noodles in the pan. Once the eggs are set, stir the noodles until everything is well mixed. This should result in cooked bits of eggs, both whites and yolk, throughout the noodle mixture.
Add the crushed red pepper flakes (to taste), peanuts, scallions or garlic chives and half the bean sprouts. Toss to incorporate and just heat through, then transfer to a platter. Serve right away, with the remaining bean sprouts and the lime wedges.
VARIATIONS: If you prefer pork, substitute 1 cup of thinly sliced lean meat for the shrimp. For a vegetarian version, substitute soy sauce for the fish sauce, and use 1/2 cup diced tofu instead of the shrimp.
Nutrition (based on 3 servings) | Calories: 530; Total Fat: 26 g; Cholesterol: 220 mg; Sodium: 1610 mg; Carbohydrates: 20 g; Dietary Fiber: 3 g; Sugars: 16 g; Protein: 17 g.
(Adapted from Nongkran Daks, chef-owner of Thai Basil in Chantilly, Virginia.)