Saturday, January 24, 2009

Pad, Thai and Tempting

It took me a while to get my pad thai recipe down, largely because there is no such thing as a pad thai recipe. The reason why is a bit complicated, and it has to do with how the thai got into the pad.

Back in the beginning, the way I heard it, ethnic Thais did not even have noodles (aka pad), and continued to generally not have them until the late nineteenth century. That's about when a wave of ethnic Han refugees came flooding in from China, fleeing from something called the Taiping Rebellion, the biggest war you've never heard of. It's sort of off topic, but let's just say China had seventy million less mouths to feed at the end of it, some of whom were doubtless refugees bringing noodles to Thailand.

The Han Chinese have this gift of going to random foreign countries and managing to cook for local tastes while still using traditional Han ingredients. Witness General Tso's Chicken. The same thing happened in Thailand. Here's this poor Han refugee with his fistful of rice noodles, and before he opens up his first food stand – here's the part I really admire about the Han- he looks methodically around him at what all the weird jungle people around him are eating.

As far as he can tell it's mostly chili, limes, fermented fish, and whatever crustacean is clinging to the nets but is too small to sell. And some weird jungle fruit thing, and probably more chili because that seems to be the way these Thai people roll. Ingeniously and undoubtedly quite a bit imperfectly at first, our Han refugee seasons his noodles to match the local palate. It's a trial and error thing, but it's also a negotiation. The Chinese guy figures out how to deliver the classic Thai flavors, but the Thai people also get accustomed to things like rice noodles and cabbage pickle. Accustomed is the key word here. Pad Thai was not really a big thing, at least not until The Big Thing, that is, World War II.

Outside of the monasteries and hill country (where Chinese/Buddhist cultural influence predominated), noodle dishes do not get widespread reception until rice rationing in the lead up to the Japanese takeover. That preventative rationing was a pretty amazing thing in itself; the Thai have been gifted with some very cunning and slightly clairvoyant heads of state. Seeing that 1) Japan would soon be commandeering the economy, 2) rice noodles dramatically stretched out the rice needed per person per day compared to the natural product, and 3) starving your people is bad- which is not a foregone conclusion when talking about leadership during WW2- PM Phibunsongkhram pursued an aggressive and if possible pronounceable Pad Thai program. The government distributed leaflets and noodle cart starter kits, recipe books, print shops for the recipe books, workshops for grannies to make rice noodles, even subsidizing entrepreneurs willing to bring this bastard culinary child to the masses, and bring it they did. It's eaten in Thailand the same way Americans wolf down hamburgers today, and for perhaps the same reason is a hard culinary rabbit to catch. It's just not restaurant food. Still not following? Imagine a Japanese businessman walking up to you and asking for "the definitive hamburger recipe", and you've got an idea.

The version posted here is more Thai style than what I usually get in the restaurants here, much drier and fluffier, less heavy. I'm not bragging on this, because it's not always a good thing. Dinner guests expect pad thai to be a loot gooier, a lot more red, sweeter perhaps, and I'm not sure how to do that without unbalancing the flavors and breaking the dish. Since I just figured out how to make the damn thing I'm loathe to break it.

The only trick I'm still working on is getting the noodles done just right. Timing the rehydration of rice noodles is tricky, like when I was first learning how to work with phyllo. Yeah. That. Tricky. Bitch.

All things considered, Pad Thai is probably one of my favorite foods: sour, salty, spicy, fishy, with just enough sweet to not suffer third degree chili burn. This recipe makes two portions. It's important to cook only one or two portions at a time- otherwise the noodles don't get stir fried evenly and it turns to pad thai gloop. If you're feeding more people, cook no more than two portions at a time, which is not-so-coincidentally what the below recipe makes up.

¼ cup sugar

¼ cup Nam Pla (AKA Fish Sauce, which unfortunately is not vegetarian, but you can substitute light soy sauce. It changes the flavor pretty substantially, though. Be prepared for "sort of Pad Thai" on the palate. Of course, it's sort of going to taste that way anyway, because it's your pad thai and not your local thai restaurant's. So whatever.)

¼ cup Tamarind concentrate (Available from Oriental food stores, this stuff is basically ready to roll. Otherwise you have to do all kind of stuff with the blocks of tamarind stuff: soaking, straining, boiling, human sacrifice, etc.)

2 garlic cloves, chopped

1-3 tablespoons red chili flakes

8 oz rice noodles (available from your friendly neighborhood oriental market, or, hell, Wal-Mart has them now.)

8 oz tofu, cut into 1/2 " chunks

2 eggs, scrambled

2 cups bean sprouts or brocco-slaw(I like this one) or thinly sliced cabbage (I like a lot of crunch in the pad thai, and the more vegetables, the less carb-guilt)

4 green onions, chopped

6 tablespoons chopped peanuts

1 lime, cut up

Peanut oil

Mix up the first five ingredients. This is your basic pad thai sauce. Adjust flavors to your taste: fish sauce for salt, tamarind for sour/bitter, sugar for sweet, chili for fire. Keep in mind that sweet is hard to correct for later- you can always add sweet later, tableside even. Thai street vendors often have a big sugar shaker right there for you to sweeten your noodles.

Put rice stick noodles into hot tap water. Let them sit for ten minutes or until they have just become pliable. Don't let them sit until al dente or you will end up with pad thai stew. It's better for them to be too hard than for them to be too soft, because if they're too hard now you can let them sit in the wok longer later on. Once they're at the right consistency, drain and toss with oil.

Make sure everything is chopped, scrambled, sliced, soaked, and/or otherwise ready to rock. Pad thai happens fast once the food hits the wok because the wok is so damn hot. You'll be busy stirring once the food hits the pan, believe me.

Heat some oil in the wok until it's rocket hot. Put in the tofu, stir fry until it gets brown around the edges. Push the tofu up the sides of the wok, out of the way.

Add the egg in the center area you've just cleared of tofu, stir fry until the egg is good and scrambled.

Dump the noodles in the wok, followed by the sauce. Be quick with this because those eggs are going to scorch. In fact, depend on some scorching- from what I've heard, the scorch is actually an essential part of wok cooking. But not too much. Just enough. It's very Eastern. Dude.

Add more oil if you need to. Stir to mix everything up. Add bean sprouts/cabbage/vegetable crunchies. All this mass will drop the heat in the wok a bit so the noodles can soften without burning, if you took them out of the water too crunchy. Stir. If the noodles are still not quite done add some fluid or more sauce if you have it, keep stirring until the noodles get soft enough for you.

 Throw in the peanuts and green onions, stir until mixed. Plate it up and serve with lime wedges. Eat.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Chupacabra Chipotle!

Chupacabra Chipotle

Chipotle Chicken Rollups

These crisp little numbers are spicy, smoky, beany and just about everything else that you could want in a quick Mexican fix. They are also rumored to cure hangovers. If they do not, they will make you happy to call in sick and lay in front of the TV watching Venture Brothers.

2 chicken breasts
2 onions
4 cloves garlic
4 Chipotle chilis
1 can black beans
1 can diced tomatoes
1 tablespoon chicken bullion
Handful cilantro
4 big flour tortillas
8 oz cheddar cheese
A fair amount of olive oil
Sour cream

If you're like me and never plan anything, you probably only have frozen chicken breasts to work with. That's OK. Heat some oil in a giant skillet on medium heat and throw the frozen breasts in there. This way they can thaw enough for you to slice them, and you won't lose any chickeny flavors in the sink or in the microwave.
While the chicken negotiates with that heat, it's a good time to mince your onions and garlic.
As soon as the chicken's thawed enough to slice without a table saw, take your somewhat-thawed chicken breasts and cube them, slicing lengthwise, then crosswise, until you have approximately .75" cubes. Sprinkle them with salt. Splash a little more oil into the pan if necessary, then put the cubed chicken in the pan, toss with the oil, cooking until lightly browned.
While the chicken cubes are a-brownin', it's a good time to seed the chipotles: slice those buggers lengthwise and scrape the seeds from their soft little insides with the back side of your knife. Once seeded, chop them fine and keep them handy. They're going in that pan soon enough. Cans of "chipotles con adobo" can be found in the Mexican section of your local megamart. You'll likely have some left over from this recipe, but that's OK because they keep pretty much forever once tupperwared and refridgerated. No microorganism is quite brave enough to set foot in there; any foolishly transgressing bacterium would be found beaten and drugged in the bed of a Tijuana prostitute with its kidneys missing.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
Remove the browned chicken from the pan and reserve; we'll be seeing it again in a moment. Put the pan back on the fire, hit it with oil as needed, then put in the onions and garlic, frying until translucent. A little brown on the garlic is OK, it's hard to cook onion and garlic together without the garlic taking on a bit more color than the onion.
Open up your can o' black beans and your can o' tomatoes, dump in the pan with the seeded chopped chipotles and the chicken bullion. No need to drain anything, the liquids from the canned beans and the 'maters will add a lot of flavor. If you like it hot, add some of the adobo sauce the chilis came canned in. Be careful. That stuff is pretty fiery but is full of chipotle smoky goodness.
All that liquid will loosen some of the caramellization you've got going on the bottom of the pan. Stir to dissolve this yummy stuff- fancy folks call it the "fond"- into the sauce. Cook this mess on medium until the fluid is cooked down and it has the consistency of, oh, baked beans or similar. Remove from heat.
Get your big ol' food processor ready. Dump in the bean/tomato/chipotle mixture, then add your handful of cilantro, then whir until the mixture is rendered into a creamy paste. Slice up the cheese into 1/4" slices.
To assemble: get two cookie sheets. Line them with foil, because who likes cleaning things? Splash both pans with oil. Slap- not too enthusiastically, unless you want to cover yourself in oil- a tortilla in the pan, and move it around so the bottom of the tortilla is coated in oil. Lay down 1/4 of the bean mixture across the middle of the tortilla, then a 1/4 of the chicken, a 1/4 of the cheese slices, and roll up as tight as you can without tearing the tortilla shell. Put it in the second pan. Repeat until you have four roll ups ready to bake. Wash your oily tortilla hands.
Put the roll ups in the oven for, oh, something like ten minutes, depending on your oven, where the rack is, what type of oil you're using, phase of the moon, etc. It's done when the roll-ups have spots of brown on top. This indicates that the top has crisped and the bottom is at a very hearty state of crunch. The cheesy bean stuff will have melted out of the fore and aft of each burrito, but with a little deft spatula work you can scrape up the spill and smear it over the top of the burrito before plating it up. Serve with a tub of sour cream. Eat. Fall asleep.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Now I sing a song of pressure

So, pressure cookers. I haven't been this excited about a kitchen gadget since I discovered the food processor. Wonderful but hellishly tedious dishes, bon femme, are now minutes rather than hours away: feijoada, ropa vieja, cassoulet, pot au feu, braised shanks, coq au vin. Food that is maybe a little longish to cook becomes lightning quick, like jambalaya, lentils, and split peas. Here's the latest from the magical land of pressure:

Chicken Jambalaya

I make chicken jambalaya because shrimp makes my feet hurt from the gout. You can add shrimp to the pot for maybe a minute before serving and you'll have shrimp jambalaya, although I am now a marked man in bayou country just for saying that, hunted down by five thousand genetically perfected clones of Justin Wilson. "YOU'LL BURN IN HELL FOR MESSIN UP MY JAMBALAYA, BOY, I GAY-RUN-TEE"

Slice up a rib of celery, a bell pepper, an onion, a carrot, and four roma tomatoes. Fry 2-4 slices of bacon and 1/2 cup good pork breakfast sausage in the pressure cooker on its "brown" setting. Remove the bacon and sausage when it starts to get some color and/or when there's enough fat rendered out to cook with. Brown a chicken thigh in the pork fat on all sides, remove to a patter, then brown another chicken thigh in the pork fat, remove to a platter. Fry the celery, pepper, onion, and carrot in the pork/chicken grease until the onion is translucent and the carrot is just beginning to get tender. Add the tomatoes, Add a teaspoon of salt. Chop up 4 cloves garlic, add to the mess frying in the cooker. Season the frying mess with 1/2 teaspoon cayenne (to taste), a teaspoon of paprika, a teaspoon of thyme, a teaspoon of oregano. Add in 1 cup white rice, 1 cup chicken stock or bouillon, stir until boiling. Place reserved chicken on top, put the lid on the pressure cooker and cook on high pressure for 8 minutes. Remove pressure and eat.

Hoppin John

I wasn't going to post this but I've just had a bowl of it and it's so dicking good, which is a complete and utter surprise since I originally set out to make this as a way of humoring my mother.

The story was that Mom wanted her new years meal of "hoppin john"- i.e., black eye peas and hog jowls-, and I didn't want her to set her kitchen on fire. So I brought my pressure cooker and went to work, this time without a recipe, which always makes me a little nervous, especially with a new piece of cookware that may explode at any time. But lo and behold this stuff was mighty tasty.

Brown two slices bacon and 1/4 cup breakfast sausage in the pressure cooker on its "brown" setting. Slice up two carrots, an onion, a bell pepper, four roma tomatoes (sound familiar yet?), and four cloves garlic. Remove the pork meats, fry four chorizos in the pork grease. If they're good chorizos, make sure you puncture them before browning unless you want expoding sausages injecting hot grease and cayenne into your eyeballs. Once they're brown, reserve the chorizos with the other meats, then fry the carrots, onion, and bell pepper in the grease. As they get soft, add the tomatoes. Dump in 1 lb black eye peas, 6 cups water, the bacon and sausage, and stir. Make a well in this mess and insert the hog jowl. Cover and cook on high pressure 45 minutes. Dump the pressure and eat. I suppose it should be served with cornbread but I say: screw that.

Mighty tasty, of course, maybe it's just that anything involving legumes, pork grease, and cayenne is mighty tasty. Oh yes. Oh my poor arteries.