I always enjoy trying new things and discovering little “hole in the wall” places. There is something magical about trying new things and enjoying new experiences. This weekend it was (again) pouring down rain, so I decided to go on the hunt for hidden treasure. Which brings me to a fun new idea . . . I’m going to start showcasing some local restaurants, farmer’s markets, flea markets, and other “hidden gems” in the area. We are going to call it “Off the Beaten Path,” and it will be my pleasure to give you a little tour and show you some of the awesome spots and hardworking people that we have around here. I’d love to hear about local gems you have, too! Contact me here to let me know your favorite spots! 🙂
Anyway, during today’s ramblings I found a teeny little Asian supermarket on a back road in Fredericksburg– the Five Mile International Supermarket. It really was a tiny back road (in fact, the first time I looked for it the GPS kept telling me that I had arrived, but I still couldn’t find it!), and when I stepped inside, it was like being in a whole new world (cue the Aladdin music: “A Whole New WORRRRRLLLLDDDDD!!!!”).
There were so many interesting and strange ingredients in there– duck eggs, octopus tentacles, and strange vegetables with their faces puckered like grouchy old men. But the store was interesting, too– and as I poked around the rows and rows of rice, rice paper, rice noodles . . . a tiny little Asian man appeared at my side. He had a mop of gray hair (how come Asians are lucky enough to never go bald and always look eternally youthful?) and a warm, mischievous smile. In broken English he asked what I was making, and I told him I was trying a less spicy take on Pad Thai, a classic Thai recipe. He made a “Tsk, tsk” sound and took away the noodles I had selected– a package that I had picked up with interest because they looked like birds’ nests and were emblazoned with the message, “Try once, long for it forever.” haha. Come on– you can’t leave behind noodles like that! 😉 The old man lovingly placed a package of the correct noodles into my hands, saying reverently, “These what you want.” He showed me the Pad Thai sauce, too, and when I asked if the sauce was too spicy, he smiled. “No– these not spicy. You not ready for that, yet. Next time.”
He led me around the store, as youthful as a teenager, running here and there and showing me so many strange ingredients that I lost count. But his enthusiasm was contagious. He kept running (yes– truly running) to the back of the store to show me special ingredients and get exactly what I needed. When I started to check out, I asked him about the delicious smell that was wafting seductively around the store. His eyes twinkled, and he said that his wife was making egg rolls. “You try egg roll before?” I told him that I’d tried egg rolls at Chinese restaurants. His face contorted in disgust– “Chinese too much cabbage! I give you real egg roll.”
He disappeared into the back and came back carrying the smallest egg roll I had ever seen wrapped carefully in a paper towel. He watched intently as I took a bite. And I kid you not . . . that tiny egg roll was seriously one of the best things I have ever put in my mouth. It was crunchy on the outside, but deliciously moist and oh-so-yummy inside. The filling was sausage with some kind of vegetable that was crisp, with a bit of crunch. I looked up to see him grinning with delight. His twinkling eyes and wizened face reminded me so much of some kind of magical elf. “Now you’ve had real egg roll, huh?” he grinned. And you know what? He was absolutely right.
I think that’s why I love food so much. I love preparing it– dipping my spoon into sauces and mixing just a little more of this or a little more of that to make it taste just right. I love setting the dishes up– with a sprinkle of cheese or a few fresh herbs, and then capturing their delicate beauty, forever, in pictures. I love learning, and tasting, and creating. And I love being able to taste a cuisine I have never tasted, in my whole life, and knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt . . . that I’m tasting comfort food. Because food is love. And love is something you can taste, no matter what language you speak 🙂
What are we waiting for? Let’s do this!
Easy Pad Thai
(My less spicy and less complicated version of a Thai classic)
3 tbsp. olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup diced onion
1 stalk lemongrass, washed and cut into thirds
1 Portabello mushroom cap (can substitute 1 cup diced mushrooms of your choice)
2 tbsp. Pad Thai sauce (more on this later)
1 tbsp. soy sauce
2 tbsp. coconut milk
1/2 to 1 cup water (enough to keep your noodles from sticking)
3 cups dry rice noodles
1 chicken breast
1 cup fully cooked and peeled shrimp (I buy these frozen)
Start by soaking your rice noodles in separate bowl of warm water. The noodles will soak until you’re ready to put them into the hot skillet. Meanwhile, place your olive oil, minced garlic, diced onion, and lemongrass stalk in a cast iron frying pan or wok set to medium heat. When the vegetables have softened slightly, add the Pad Thai and soy sauces, and then add the chicken breast, sliced thinly in half width-wise (you can salt and pepper the chicken if you want to) just until cooked, flipping once. Remove chicken from the pan and let it rest a few minutes before cutting it into thin slices. Add the diced mushroom and coconut milk, then the drained rice noodles (just lift them out of the water and let most of the water drip off– but they can still be wet). Stir well, coating the noodles with sauce. Cover the pan and let the noodles cook on medium low heat for 5 minutes. Add some of the water if the noodles start to stick– you may not need the full amount. Uncover the noodles and mix in the sliced chicken and frozen shrimp. When the mixture is heated through, serve immediately, topping with young onion greens if desired.
It sounds complicated, but it’s really not! You really can have a delicious dinner on the table in 20 minutes! Let’s go through the process in pictures.
To start with, let’s talk about some of the “weird” ingredients in the lineup, above. The Pad Thai sauce is kind of a spicy sweet and sour sauce– you can get it here. I got the mild kind, but you can definitely get the hotter one, or add some dried chilies if you’ve got the courage . . . you’re welcome to add anything hot you’d like to kick this recipe up to real spicy Thai level.
Well, except Ryan Reynolds. You may not add him to your recipe, even though he’s hot. I’m sorry. 😉
Let’s see . . . what other weird ingredients are up there? Oh, yes– Portabello mushroom caps. You can use 1 big meaty Portabello, or you can substitute 1 cup of diced mushrooms of another kind. Well . . . don’t substitute poisonous toadstools– unless you’re making supper for your enemy 😉
And what the heck is LEMONGRASS? Lemongrass is kind of a piece of green wood about as thick as a magic marker (you can see it on the little silver plate in the finished photos). It isn’t something you want to eat– too woody and tough– but it adds a beautiful lemon flavor to your sauce– just remove it before serving. If you can’t find lemongrass, you can substitute 2 tsp. of lemon juice into your sauce, instead.
As far as noodles go, I got medium fettucine rice noodles, but if you want to use a different kind, go on ahead. Just keep in mind that the old man picked these out, so I know they are the best. 😉 Using rice noodles is traditional, and it also makes this dish deliciously gluten free! 🙂 Rice noodles don’t “cook in water” like regular noodles do. They kind of soak, like a fancy woman in a bathtub, until you’re ready to cook them in the pan juices. It’s easiest to get the noodles soaking in a bowl of warm water before you start cooking everything else– that way, when you’re ready for the noodles, they will be ready for you. It’s a beautiful system. 🙂
This recipe is so easy that, honestly, there isn’t much to show. But I’ll walk through the steps with you, anyway. I like to use a cast iron skillet for this (my favorite here), but you can use a nice wok or your favorite deep skillet, if you want to. Fine. Be that way. 😉
OK! I think that covers everything. Let’s get to cookin’! 🙂
Put your olive oil, minced garlic, onion, and lemongrass stalks (or lemon juice) in the pan on medium heat. When the vegetables have softened a little bit, add in the Pad Thai and soy sauces. Stir the mixture around until the ingredients get nice and comfy, together, and then add your halved chicken breast. I sprinkled my chicken breast pieces with salt and pepper before cooking, just for a little extra “pizazz.” Let the chicken brown slightly on both sides, just until done. Remove the chicken from the pan when it’s finished cooking so that it doesn’t get overcooked and dry, and then continue making your DEEEEElicious sauce.
Throw in your mushrooms and coconut milk (you can find this in canned form in the Hispanic section of the grocery store, and then freeze leftovers in an ice cube tray for next time), and add the rice noodles. Just lift the rice noodles out of the water and let them shed most of the water– but they will still be nice and wet. Stir the noodles to cover them with sauce, and then cover the pan and let the noodles cook for about 5 minutes. At this point, you may have to add a little of the water called for in the recipe– it really just depends on how much water your noodles “drank up” while they were waiting. Basically, just add a little water if the noodles start to stick.
You’re almost there, now! 🙂 Slice the chicken thinly and add that and the shrimp (I used the de-veined, peeled, frozen shrimp because they’re super easy to throw in the pan) to the mixture. Get everything nice and coated with sauce (add a bit more of the water if the noodles start to stick to the pan) and heat just until warmed through.
Sigh. Gaze at that beauty you just created in 20 minutes flat. That, my friends, is living proof that miracles still exist. Seriously. Look at those colors! You did that! In TWENTY MINUTES with kids clinging to your legs (“Mommeeeee I’m hungryyyyyy”) and your husband rummaging around in the fridge for 20 minutes, thinking that the orange juice will magically give birth to ice cream if he checks back often enough.
Gather the family together, and dinner is served. Throw a few green onions on top for crunch and color, if you want to. Let the family have fun trying to eat using chopsticks. See who caves first and grabs a fork. Eat. Laugh. Have a fun dinner together, as a family.
Because you just threw this beautiful meal together in 20 minutes, flat, after a hard day at work and the million errands you had to run. Did you become the pope on your lunch hour, too? Solve world peace? It wouldn’t surprise me– you wonder woman, you!
You did it. And I’m just so proud of you.
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