I broke a couple of my little rules on Sunday Night.
First Broken Rule?, I had guests over. I almost NEVER do this. While Friday night and Saturday find me eager to be social, Sunday is about ME. It’s about finding the perfect balance of solitude, sloth, and the gentle sort of productivity that demands little effort but scrubs the soul - It’s about making sure I have enough clean socks for the week, a perfectly soft loaf of honey-tinged bread to gnaw on, and the other emotional mise-en-place that I’ll require by whatever time on Monday morning I realize the snooze button is no longer a viable option.
Second Broken Rule? Dinner consisted of something I had never made before… Candidly, the main course I had never even TRIED before, leaving me without an expected rhythm to its preparation (as if I am the model of grace under other circumstances) but more importantly, without a frame of reference when assessing its taste or texture. Which, for something with sharper flavors, does make a few demands.
Anyway, I learned a few things.
So. Confession. I’ve never had Pad Thai. While there is plenty of great Thai food in Cincinnati, so I hear, whenever I eat at a Thai place I tend to steer towards dishes with training wheels. There is a place down the street for example, I don’t think I’ve ever ordered anything more challenging than garlic chicken.
And, I know, I’m missing out. I’m missing the dizzying flavor combinations or the nuanced heat that typifies Thai cuisine. I realize that “I seldom go out to eat” is a poor excuse, but, well, there are six Indian places within walking distance. I’ll leave it at that.
Reading various recipes for it didn’t help. I’m skeptical enough about bean sprouts and cabbage, but palm sugar? real tamarind? Fermented mini-shrimp? Maybe next time.
But after seeing Mark Bittman’s streamlined version in the New York Times last week, I was determined to try it. Like many of his Minimalist dishes, he is able to demonstrate simple (but not simplistic) treatments of dishes you would think require a lot more fuss. After a few views, I was hooked.
Shopping is the most difficult part of the preparation. I’m lucky to have a great Indian grocery store just down the street, and they had tamarind paste. I still have the fish sauce I bought at Jungle Jims two years ago, along with the wide, flat rice noodles called for. Otherwise, my pantry usually holds up.
By the way. Fish sauce is amazing, powerful stuff. Its smell in the bottle is borderline objectionable, it’s basically the water squeezed out of fermented anchovies, but it adds such a deep, almost brooding, exotic richness when seared in a pan, I always make it a point to use it when I stir fry. Consider keeping a bottle in your pantry.
I won’t bore you with re-reciting the entire recipe, (which is here) but the significance is what happened as a result of playing around with the ingredients. Specifically, the noodles.
Rice noodles are, without belaboring the point, made of rice. As such, they have no gluten. This means they are very tender and very easy to cook – you just cover them with boiling water for a few minutes, but, as a result… they are very delicate, even if re-hydrated to a quasi al-dente stage where they still offer some token resistance if bent.
Which means that you have to be EXTREMELY careful when the recipe calls for these noodles to be worked back into the stir-fry. Many of the noodles wound up being shredded by the jostling around within my undersized wok. Mental note for next time: drain them early. Add a dash of peanut oil to keep them from sticking. Fold in carefully.
I LOVE these moments. Those points in the kitchen where a light goes on and you realize something not quite articulated in a recipe, and find yourself eager to try the dish again. You become comfortable taking more chances when you realize that a current shortcoming is nothing more than a moment to be filed away and used next time… in this case it wound up making me happy to think about making this again soon.
You know, most nights I just want build a fort out of my couch cushions, cover it with my penguin-decorated throw blanket, huddle inside and gnaw on roasted potatoes – unwinding from my day takes a lot out of me. But sometimes, when I have the time and energy, it’s great to explore. Push your boundaries, and share.
Especially when your friends nearly go monosyllabic over the chcocopots.