Palm Sugar

In Making Food on April 25, 2010 at 8:58 pm

Week 9, part two
Palm Sugar

No felonies, miscreants or mayhem in Wrigleyville this week: the Cubs were out of town, the weather was cold and rainy, and our neighborhood was — for a blissfully brief time — peaceful.

But because I like a certain degree of excitement — however nerdy my definition of ‘excitement’ may be — I’m presenting the palm sugar in a non-traditional recipe for pad thai, one that I fully expect to generate outrage and controversy in the blogosphere. Most pad thai recipes call for stir-frying the whole shebang and serving the dish warm. I, however, was introduced to pad thai in college at a deli, where it was served cold. So that’s how I always want it; that’s how I always make it. It’s a refreshing warm-weather supper*, and frankly, I don’t want to dirty my wok because it’s a pain in the ass to clean.

So cold pad thai it is.

And boom goes the dynamite.

Pad thai’s a dish with a lot of little steps, but fortunately, those steps don’t demand a ton of effort, and the dish itself comes together pretty quickly. Having said that, probably best to read through the recipe first and make note of the advance prep items/time involved.

Wrap a block of extra-firm tofu in a cotton dish towel (preferably one that’s not terrycloth, unless you like picking lint out of your noodles), and place it on a plate. Put another plate over it, then weight the top plate with a bag of flour, some cans, or anything else heavy you’ve got lying around; leave the tofu alone for at least an hour and up to three hours (or longer, if you’d like — just shove the whole works in the fridge). This process’ll expel the excess water and make for a firmer, sturdier tofu.

While the tofu drains, bring 2 cups water to a boil and pour it over an 8-ounce block of tamarind paste. Let the paste soften as the water cools to room temperature, mashing the paste with the back of a spoon occasionally. Pour the tamarind goop into a fine-meshed strainer suspended over a bowl, letting the liquid drain into the bowl, and working the goopy/stringy/seedy tamarind mixture with a spoon to extract as much liquid as possible. Now you’ve got tamarind liquid! You can store it in the fridge for up to a month, or pour it into an ice cube tray, freeze it, then pop the cubes into a freezer bag to thaw and use as needed. (Discard the goop, by the way.)

Once the tofu’s drained, cut it into small cubes, and toss with 1/4 cup soy sauce and 2 teaspoons Chinese five-spice powder. Spray a parchment-lined baking sheet with nonstick cooking spray, tumble the tofu onto it, and bake at 350 until the tofu’s done the way you like it. I like it pretty firm/crispy, so I’ll leave it in for at least 45 minutes — sometimes even longer. But do as you like.

While the tofu bakes…

Bring a large pot of water to a boil, then toss in 4 ounces dried rice stick noodles. Cook until the noodles are just tender, anywhere from 3 to 7 minutes depending on the thickness of your noodles. Dump the noodles into a colander, and rinse with cold water to stop them from overcooking.

In a tablespoon or so of peanut oil, saute two finely minced garlic cloves until they just begin to brown, then throw in a handful of minced green onions and stir. Pour in the beaten egg and let sit for a moment, until the egg starts to firm up, then scramble the egg, breaking it into small clumps with your spoon or spatula. Remove from the heat and set aside.

In a small saucepan, combine equal parts fish sauce, tamarind liquid, rice vinegar and palm sugar — I started with 1/2 cup of each. Simmer gently until the sugar has dissolved, then toss in a finely minced red chile, and cook until the sauce has reduced a bit, about 10 minutes. (Oh, and if you don’t have palm sugar lying around, you could use honey, brown sugar or agave nectar; just make sure you’re adjusting for the varying sweetness levels.)

In a large bowl, toss together the rice noodles, the tofu, the garlic-onion-egg clumps, a handful or two of bean sprouts, some torn cilantro leaves, and a handful of chopped, roasted peanuts. Pour the sauce over and toss again until everything’s evenly coated. Garnish with more peanuts, some thinly sliced green onion, cilantro, and lime wedges.

The five-dollar question: did the palm sugar make a difference? Hard saying. If I’d been thinking ahead, I could’ve done two batches — one with honey, one with palm sugar — and tasted them against each other. But I wasn’t, and I didn’t. As it was, the Husband thought this pad thai was more polished, a little more refined, than previous incarnations. I couldn’t really tell, but the next-day’s-lunch leftovers were rad.

* Yeah, supper. I thought about changing it to dinner, because it sounds more official and grown-up, but I figured if supper’s what I typed, supper’s what I meant. Plus it reminded me of David Foster Wallace, when he wrote about referring “to the evening meal as ‘supper,’ a childhood habit I could not seem to be teased out of.” And I like being reminded of David Foster Wallace. And childhood habits. Oh, and supper.


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