I grew up in a small town in New Jersey… and by small, I mean tiny; the borders of my town encompassed roughly 1 whole square mile and my graduating class had about 85 people in it. I guess you could say I was pretty lucky, because even though my town had more hair salons than people to occupy them, I still managed to find some of the silliest, craziest, most adventurous people I’ve ever had the pleasure to call my friends.
By the time my senior year of high school rolled around, we had formed a
clique cult 14+ members large. We even had a name for ourselves (the SMC), a mascot (a stuffed pink rat named Ratzo), pet names (Choch/Larks), a handshake. It was all very complex and mysterious…
…and by mysterious, I mean mildly embarrassing, because when I look back, it’s clear just how obnoxious we were…
Since our one-horse town had little to offer other than a Kosher Dunkin Donuts, we started inventing things to do…
Like having food fights at Applebees…
and going team bowling, dressed as ninjas versus pirates (and getting kicked out for bowling more than one ball at the same time)…
having wayyyyy too many dance parties….
…and craming 12 people into a 4 person tent, even though most of us had beds to sleep in less than a 5 minute walk away.
More than any of those silly things, I look back on that amazing year as a time where I got to live deeply with a group of friends, most of whom I had known since childhood, and who would become as close as family to me.
Fortunately, if my senior year of highschool was a hit sitcom, my life here in Boston would be the spinoff; two of my very bestest friends from that crazy group live here in Boston (one as my roommate!) and many more have come to visit us over the past couple of years. From trips to Cape Cod to Dorchester Saint Paddy’s Day shenanigans, we’ve managed to continue the adventures right here in our new home; a home that, this time, brought us together by choice instead of chance.
But that doesn’t mean that we don’t get nostalgic for our lil’ ol’ town in New Jersey sometimes. Usually my nostalgia takes the form of hunger, since the things I miss about New Jersey are bagels, fat sandwiches, pizza, and Thai food. Yep, I’ve never had better Thai food than I’ve had in my tiny little town in New Jersey, and the reasons for that can be summarized in 4 words — turnip cake pad thai.
Sound strange? Fear not, my friend. Turnip cakes are square little pillowy morsels of soft, fried, sweet goodness. There’s no real adequate way to describe them other than starchy, soft, and friggin’ amazing. They’re usually found on dim sum carts and appetizer menus of Chinese food places; the only place I’ve ever known to put them into Pad Thai is our little Thai restaurant in Nowhereville, New Jersey.
Whatever possessed me to order something as bizarre sounding as Turnip Cake Pad Thai, I’ll never know, but the dish has become practically legendary among my group of friends. It’s just that good.
Because it can be found nowhere else on the planet, it’s been one of my long-term cooking goals to recreate this dish in my own kitchen. This weekend I tried and (sort of) succeeded, so it’s going to have to be a goal I keep working at. For now, I’ve managed to make a passable version, and since I have two gigantic daikon radishes still sitting in my fridge, I’m going to have to make it again.
Pad Thai itself is a relatively easy dish, but turnip cake takes blood, sweat, tears, and miracles. Well, maybe just sweat and proper equipment. My turnip cake mostly likely failed because I was using this make-shift contraption to steam it:
In the end, I ended up forgoing the steaming in favor of this recipe’s favored approach of just straight up pan frying it. The results were okay, but not the same as the turnip cake I’m used to… big, juicy, soft rectangles *cue choir of angels*
I also didn’t stop to take great photos because I was freakin’ hungry after hours of slavin’ over my favorite dish in the kitchen. Hopefully when I get the recipe to a place I’m happy to, I’ll take some nicer photos to show off the goods. For now, enjoy this recipe for Pad Thai, which is freakin’ a-mazing (turnip cake recipe to come!).
Pad Thai (adapted from Cook’s Illustrated)
NOTE: For a thicker sauce, double the first 6 ingredients
- 1 tablespoon tamarind concentrate, mixed in 2/3 cup hot water
- 3 tablespoons fish sauce
- 1 tablespoon rice vinegar
- 3 tablespoons granulated sugar (more to taste)
- 3/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- 4 tablespoons peanut oil or vegetable oil
- 8 ounces dried rice stick noodles , about 1/8 inch wide (the width of linguine)
- 2 large eggs
- 1/4 teaspoon table salt
- 3 cloves garlic , pressed through garlic press or minced (1 tablespoon)
- 1 medium shallot , minced (about 3 tablespoons)
- 2 tablespoons Thai salted preserved radish (optional)
- 6 tablespoons chopped unsalted roasted peanuts
- 3 cups bean sprouts (6 ounces) [omit if, like me, you friggin’ hate bean sprouts]
- 5 medium scallions , green parts only, sliced thin on sharp bias
- 1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves (optional)
- OPTIONAL ADDITIONS FOR CARNIVOROUS AND VEGETARIAN CHEFS ALIKE: 2 tablespoons dried shrimp, chopped fine + 12 ounces medium shrimp (31/35 count), peeled and deveined OR 12 ounces tofu OR 12 ounces turnip cake
- Lime wedges
- Mix the tamarind concentrate with 2/3 cup hot water, stir fish sauce, rice vinegar, sugar, cayenne, and 2 tablespoons oil into tamarind liquid and set aside.
- Cover rice sticks with hot tap water in large bowl; soak until softened, pliable, and limp but not fully tender, about 20 minutes. Drain noodles and set aside. Beat eggs and 1/8 teaspoon salt in small bowl; set aside.
- Heat 1 tablespoon oil in 12-inch skillet (preferably nonstick) over high heat until just beginning to smoke, about 2 minutes. Add shrimp or tofu if desired and sprinkle with remaining 1/8 teaspoon salt; cook, tossing occasionally, until shrimp or tofu are opaque and browned about the edges, about 3 minutes. Transfer shrimp/tofu to plate and set aside.
- Off heat, add remaining tablespoon oil to skillet and swirl to coat; add garlic and shallot, set skillet over medium heat and cook, stirring constantly, until light golden brown, about 1 1/2 minutes; add eggs to skillet and stir vigorously with wooden spoon until scrambled and barely moist, about 20 seconds. Add noodles, dried shrimp, and salted radish (if using) to eggs; toss with 2 wooden spoons to combine. Pour fish sauce mixture over noodles, increase heat to high, and cook, tossing constantly, until noodles are evenly coated. Scatter 1/4 cup peanuts, bean sprouts, all but 1/4 cup scallions, and cooked shrimp over noodles; continue to cook, tossing constantly, until noodles are tender, about 2 1/2 minutes (if not yet tender add 2 tablespoons water to skillet and continue to cook until tender).
- Transfer noodles to serving platter, sprinkle with remaining scallions, 2 tablespoons peanuts, and cilantro; serve immediately, passing lime wedges separately.