Most food writers, cooks and chefs worth their generous seasoning will tell you that their vocation stems from a desire to feed people. It’s hard to argue with that comforting, coddling domestic image of the buoyant, buxom feeder, apron stretched over a reassuring bulk (never trust a skinny chef), oven gloves at the ready as they dish out tray after tray of mouthwatering treats to a table full of rapt admirers armed eagerly with forks and the appetites of adolescents, guests who nurse that most fundamental and primal of human instincts: the desire to be fed. That’s why we cook, we’d have you believe: our life’s purpose is to be the smiling matron bestowing hearty, homely manna upon our loved ones, like a plump bird in a nest surrounded by plaintive little open mouths.
I’m no exception, most of the time. Summer is my favourite season because it gives me the opportunity to dust off (read: intensively scrub with steel wool and hardcore grease remover, cursing myself for having left the damn thing to languish and fester in the shed all winter without cleaning it first) the barbecue, invite friends and their alcoholic contributions over, slap a huge hunk of protein on the glowing coals and produce a vibrant array of glorious side salads on platters from my kitchen for everyone to coo appreciatively at before demolishing the lot in approximately five percent of the time it took me to produce them. I love getting people to try new, exciting recipes and ensuring that no one goes home hungry. It’s probably no coincidence that all my boyfriends end up putting on weight.
Can I let you in on a secret? Sometimes, what I want to do most in the world is come home, sequester myself in the kitchen alone, cook a big meal for one and devour it in front of Masterchef on my iPad. This isn’t just because I want to sing along to the Frozen soundtrack at the top of my lungs while I peel onions. It’s because I am overwhelmingly an introvert, and sometimes there is nothing more satisfying or desirable than cooking something delicious for myself and enjoying it alone, with no distractions (apart from the aforementioned food television), in total peace and quiet (again, except for the alarming boom of Gregg Wallace's chuckle as he shovels artfully-plated desserts into his mouth). This is one of the reasons I love breakfast so much: the sunny, treasured half hour of peace before the day sets in and I’m obliged to talk to people.
Yes, sometimes I want to play the matriarch and dole out platters heaped with hedonistic delights for my friends and family. But my love of cooking isn’t just about feeding other people; it’s about self-nourishment, too, both in the physical sense and in the metaphorical. I find cooking balancing and restorative; it helps me collect my thoughts and put things in order after a long day through the understated routine of preparing a meal. It’s one of the reasons I’d find eating ready-meals deeply traumatic: I need that half hour of preparation, of chopping and stirring and mixing, to reset my mental clock and unwind whatever it is in me that has a tendency to coil up so tightly and potently, like a cat poised to spring at an unsuspecting mouse, during a day of rushing around. If you suggested I eat a microwaveable lasagne instead, I might just cry.
Pad Thai (aha, you’re thinking, here’s the bit where she actually starts talking about the recipe – at last) is my favourite thing to make for myself when I’m alone and don’t want to spend time faffing around or experimenting with new recipes. It’s very quick, requires very little preparation, and is bloody delicious as well as tasting nourishing and fresh: it somehow straddles that boundary between healthy and hedonistic, as Thai food does so well. The best part is you can make it with whatever vegetables you have in the fridge (or whatever you can pick up at the shop on the way home). Pad Thai, traditionally, often contains meat, prawns or tofu, as well as egg, but I find it’s an absolutely gorgeous dinner without the need for any of these things, which means it’s cheaper, easier to buy ingredients for, and means you can pack it full of nutritious vegetables. I use small dried shrimp, as is traditional, which gives lots of tasty salty flavour without the need for other meat or seafood. You can buy these in bags in Asian supermarkets, and they’ll last for ages: if you keep all the sauce ingredients to hand (again, also readily available at Asian supermarkets), you can whip up Pad Thai in an instant with whatever vegetables you have lying around.
I’ve tried several terrible recipes for Pad Thai in the past, ending up with bland, slippery messes, but learned the life-changing secret when I attended a cooking course in Thailand: you cook the noodles in the sauce, rather than pre-cooking them. This means they absorb all of that addictive sweet-sour-salty liquid and have the requisite sticky texture as the sauce reduces. It also means you can make everything in one pan (apart from toasting the peanuts) – I use a wok because the noodles sit nicely in the pool of sauce at the bottom as it bubbles and reduces, but you can use a frying pan too. I’ve tweaked my version until – I think – it rivals any I ate in Thailand. It may not be entirely authentic in its ingredients or execution, but it comes pretty damn close to the steaming platefuls I enjoyed in Chiang Mai. If you’ve been disappointed with Pad Thai recipes in the past, try this.
The recipe below is just a blueprint, so adapt to suit whatever you like or have around: the basic idea is to stir-fry the garlic with the ‘hard’ vegetables first (i.e. those things that aren’t soft leafy greens or spring onions). You could also use baby corn, green beans or mange tout, broccoli, etc. Then you add the noodles and sauce, and once everything is sticky and almost ready you add your spring onions and any greens – e.g. spinach, kale, cabbage - you’d like (you can also add beansprouts at this stage) and cook for another minute or so. You can also omit the fresh chilli, but I like mine a little spicy to counteract the sweet/sour flavour. The one necessity is to serve with lots of lime and the toasted peanuts – they really do complete the dish.
I think this is best savoured with chopsticks (not traditionally Thai, I know, but they make me eat more slowly and enjoy my food), on your own, but you could always double the recipe and share it, if you’re in a feeding-people mood.
Pad Thai (serves 1):
- 2 tbsp peanuts
- 1 tbsp flavourless oil
- 1 clove garlic, finely chopped
- 1 red/yellow pepper, deseeded and thinly sliced
- 1 carrot, cut into matchsticks
- 5 medium mushrooms, sliced
- 1 red chilli, finely chopped
- 70g medium thickness rice noodles (the 5mm thick ones are best)
- 3 spring onions, cut into 1-inch lengths
- 2 tbsp finely chopped coriander, to garnish
- Lime wedges, to serve
For the sauce:
- 230ml water
- ½ tsp chilli powder
- 1 tbsp fish sauce
- 2 tbsp oyster sauce
- 1 tbsp lime juice or tamarind paste
- 1 tsp brown sugar
- 1 tsp kecap manis (Indonesian sweet soy sauce)
- 1 heaped tbsp dried shrimp (find these in Asian supermarkets)
Stir all the ingredients for the sauce together in a jug. Set aside. Toast the peanuts in a dry frying pan over a medium heat and set aside to cool. When cool, grind to a rough powder in a pestle and mortar or mini chopper.
Heat the oil in a medium frying pan or wok on a high heat. Add the garlic, pepper, carrot, mushrooms and chilli and stir-fry for a few minutes, until starting to soften. Add the noodles and pour in the sauce. Stir-fry over a high heat, stirring frequently, until the noodles have absorbed all of the sauce. Taste one to check – if they are still too firm, add a splash more water and stir-fry until absorbed. The mixture should be sticky but not completely congealed. Add the spring onions and stir-fry for another minute. Serve sprinkled with the coriander and peanuts, with lime to squeeze over.