Pad Thai For Dummies

If you’re anything like me, Thai food is a friendly constant in your takeout rotation. While I am a sucker for anything curry, or chicken with cashews, or tom kha gai soup (but that’s another blog post), I invariably end up coming back to pad thai. When you crave it, nothing else will do, perhaps due to its tangy umami blast of flavor and the supreme satisfaction that comes with eating a bowl full of noodles; maybe you added the bean sprouts and maybe, this is the moment where you gloriously abandon vegetation of any kind and head straight for the scrumptious rice noodles and protein.

This pad thai recipe attempts to come as close to the “authentic” flavor one might find at a Thai restaurant as possible.

The only ingredient I had to go out of my way to purchase was tamarind purée, which one can certainly find at a local Asian Market.

Ways to Spruce Up Your Pad Thai

  • tofu, shrimp, chicken, beef, or other protein
  • bean sprouts
  • cilantro, garlic scapes, scallions, or other pungent, herby greens
  • chopped peanuts or cashews
  • chili oil, chili crunch, chili flakes

By and large, this is at its core a simple dish–remember, in Thailand this is often served as street food–so keeping it simple is a great way to honor pad thai’s distinct flavor.

Tamarind Paste–Do I Really Need It?

While a quick google search has proved that there are a plethora of pad thai recipes on the internet which skip this ingredient in favor of more…shall we say, “western”?…ingredients, I find that the tamarind paste not only is a key player in pad thai’s trademark tangy flavor, but it also contributes to the overall color of the dish as well. I have made this dish with and without tamarind paste and, I have to say, that certain je ne sais quoi is really present WITH the paste. Fortunately, you can find tamarind purée for as little as $4 and use it in both sweet and savory dishes…plus, who doesn’t love expanding their flavor dictionary?

What Is Tamarind?

Also called tamarindo or Indian date, tamarind is a fruit in the legume family which grows in tropical places. The brown, sticky pulp is harvested from around the seeds growing in crescent-shaped pods hanging from the tamarind tree, then is pulverized and sold as a paste. Tamarind’s distinctive flavor comes from its high tartaric acid content, which is most commonly connoted with grapes. (Cream of tartar is the powdered form of this acid, and is the ingredient which gives snickerdoodle cookies their familiar tang.)

Other Uses for Tamarind Purée

  • Meat tenderizer–tamarind and beef are a classic combination, as tamarind is one of the primary ingredients in Worcestershire sauce
  • Blended with spices and coconut milk (think: garam masala, curry, turmeric, ginger…)
  • Tempered with sugar in sweets or baked goods anywhere you might use lemon juice
  • Blended into shrubs or cocktails
  • Check out this recipe for agua fresca, a sort of tropical “lemonade” !

But back to pad thai…

First, gather your ingredients.

Here I’ve featured a block of extra firm tofu as my main source of protein, accompanied by two eggs; of course, choose whatever protein is going to make your pad thai dreams come true. Shrimp or prawns are an excellent choice.

Dredge the tofu in cornstarch and fry, rotating until golden; scramble the eggs; make the sauce; grate the ginger, garlic, and onion; cook the noodles…then assemble in a hot pan or wok!

Finish with herbs, any chili products, bean sprouts, and chopped nuts. Enjoy immediately, and restart the clock for “when it’s time to eat pad thai again”…but don’t wait too long! 😉

Pad Thai

Sauce-drenched noodles mix with roasted nuts, herbs, scrambled eggs, and protein come together on one happy plate. As close to "authentic" pad thai as can be!
Prep Time 30 mins
Cook Time 5 mins
Total Time 35 mins
Course dinner, Main Course
Cuisine Thai
Servings 2 people

Equipment

  • wok (optional)

Ingredients
  

  • 4 oz dry rice noodles
  • boiling water (enough to cover noodles)
  • 2 eggs, lightly scrambled
  • 1/2 medium onion, grated finely into a pulp
  • 3 garlic cloves, medium
  • 1 inch fresh ginger, peeled
  • 8 oz extra firm tofu, drained, patted dry with paper towels, and cut into 1" cubes
  • 1/4 cup cornstarch
  • 3 Tbs coconut oil
  • salt, to taste
  • 2 Tbs peanut oil
  • 3 Tbs fish sauce
  • 3 Tbs brown sugar or coconut sugar
  • 3 Tbs tamarind water, (Note: If your tamarind comes in a thick paste, dilute with water until it is the consistency of orange juice.)
  • 1 tsp soy sauce
  • 1 lime, cut into wedges
  • fresh bean sprouts, chili flakes or paste, chopped scallions or cilantro, roasted peanuts and/or cashews, optional

Instructions
 

  • Prepare any toppings you might like to add to your pad thai like herbs or scallions, roasted nuts, lime, or chili products and set aside.
  • Scramble the two eggs in a small bowl with a splash of room temperature water and set aside.
  • Grate onion, garlic, and ginger on the second-finest side of a box grater and set aside.
  • Whisk fish sauce, tamarind, brown sugar, and soy sauce in a small bowl or liquid measuring cup and set aside.
  • Cook your protein. If using tofu like featured above, drain and dry the tofu and cut it into one inch cubes. Dredge in cornstarch and salt. Heat coconut oil in a skillet over medium heat and sautee the tofu cubes until golden brown on all sides, rotating as necessary, about 15 minutes. Drain over paper towels.
  • Meanwhile, place your rice noodles in a wide, shallow bowl. Boil enough water to completely cover the noodles, and let them soak undisturbed for 7 minutes.
  • While the noodles are soaking, heat the peanut oil over medium-high heat in a large skillet or wok, if using. Add the ginger, garlic, and onion "paste" and sautee until the onion becomes aromatic, about 3 minutes. Add the beaten eggs to the pan and mix with a spatula until incorporated and cook for 1 minute. Turn the heat down to medium and add the drained, slightly stiff noodles to the pan and stir. Cook, stirring constantly for another 3 minutes.
  • Add pad thai sauce (fish sauce mixture) and cook for another minute.
  • If using, toss in any bean sprouts and turn off the heat. Finish with a generous squeeze of lime and the sauteed tofu and stir.
  • Top with herbs, nuts, or chili flakes and serve immediately with lime wedges on the side.
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Coriander-Crusted Tuna Steak With Coconut Rice and Quick Pickles

One thing I have truly loved about exploring the South is venturing into local butcher shops. One can find anything from alligator and frog legs to bacon, boxes of cow, and lamb. It was with great self-restraint that I passed up the pricey swordfish in favor of the slightly-more-economical tuna steaks.

If you’ve never had freshly ground coriander, pairing it with tuna is an excellent introduction. Its subtly bitter, floral quality is a delight to the senses and sidles up to tuna’s meaty character with a surprising amount of acidity. If you’re not sure what else do to with whole coriander, consider using it as a chicken rub or brewing it as tea with a little fennel and cardamom.

This truly is a “treat yo’self” dinner; your plate will be full of fresh herbs and healing whole spices, healthy fats from the coconut milk, and protein from the tuna. Great for a date night or weekend dinner, or post-workout protein binge.

Why Tuna?

Tuna is very low in fat and calories, and contains no carbohydrates. This means it is nearly pure protein. In a 3.5 ounce serving, tuna contains 20 grams of protein. This is good for folks who are trying to watch their weight or cholesterol intake. Tuna also contains antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids as well as several minerals, including magnesium, phosphorous, potassium, and selenium, which helps to counter the deleterious effects of any trace amounts of mercury which may be present. Google recommends eating tuna no more than three times a month, for those of you who might be concerned about mercury. The average tuna can is about five ounces, whereas most steaks are around eight.

After my ingredients were prepped, it was just a matter of cooking the rice, soaking the quick pickles in an air-tight bag with their sugar-vinegar solution, and searing the steak.

Chopped cilantro, scallions, lemongrass, fish sauce, and lime juice percolate in a bowl while the cucumbers pickle and rice and tuna cook. Slice up your steak, spoon up some of the herb mixture, and enjoy!

This will definitely be in my rotation for favorite dinners…

Coriander-Crusted Tuna Steak With Coconut Rice and Quick Pickles

Low-carb, high protein dinner.
Prep Time 20 mins
Cook Time 30 mins
Total Time 50 mins
Course dinner, healthy, Main Course
Cuisine Healthy, Intuitive
Servings 2 people

Equipment

  • rice cooker (optional)

Ingredients
  

  • 1 cup white rice, ideally jasmine or sushi rice
  • 1 cup chicken or veggie stock
  • 1 cup full-fat coconut milk
  • 2 6 oz tuna steaks, about 1 inch thick
  • 2 Tbs untoasted sesame oil, plus more for brushing
  • salt, to taste
  • 4 Tsp whole coriander seeds, ground in spice mill or mortar and pestle
  • 4 Tsp freshly cracked black peppercorns
  • 3 Tbs sesame seeds, untoasted
  • 3 Tbs black sesame seeds (optional)
  • 1 large lime, juiced
  • 2 lemongrass stalks, with tops removed and tender bulb sliced into thin medallions
  • 2 Tbs fish sauce
  • 1/4 cup cilantro, coarsely chopped
  • 2 scallions, sliced halfway up the stalk
  • 1 medium-heat red pepper, such as an Aji or Cayenne, sliced into thin rounds (remove the seeds if you are sensitive to heat)
  • 1/4 cup rice wine vinegar, unseasoned
  • 2 Tbs white sugar
  • 1 Persian cucumber, sliced into thin rounds

Instructions
 

  • If using, add rice, chicken or veggie stock, and coconut milk to the rice cooker and turn on. Otherwise, combine the three ingredients in a medium sauce pot. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low and let simmer undisturbed until rice is tender, about 25 minutes.
  • Using a mandoline or sharp knife, thinly slice cucumbers and red pepper into rounds. Combine rice vinegar and sugar together and stir until completely dissolved. Pour vinegar into a quart sized zip-top bag with cucumber and pepper slices and seal, removing as much of the air as possible so veggies are coated in the solution. Set aside.
  • Meanwhile, pat tuna steaks dry with a paper towel. Brush with 2 Tbs sesame oil and lightly season with salt, bearing in mind you will be topping the steaks with fish sauce and lime juice which accentuate salty flavors. Generously pat ground pepper, coriander, and sesame seeds onto the steaks until the surface is completely covered. Set aside.
  • Combine chopped cilantro, lemongrass bulb medallions, scallions, fish sauce, and lime juice in a medium bowl and stir. Set aside.
  • Heat a cast iron skillet over high heat until smoking. Add roughly 3 Tbs of sesame oil to the pan, followed by your steaks. Steaks are cooked after 2 minutes per side, but I prefer my steaks closer to 4 minutes per side. Transfer to a cutting board and let cool. Cut into thin strips and place on a plate with coconut rice and drained quick pickles. Top steak strips with cilantro mixture. Serve immediately.
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