Heuristics, Algorithms and Recipes, Oh My!!
Some people like recipes that are algorithmic – in fact, most recipes are algorithmic. So many tablespoons of this, a cup and an eighth of that, 14oz. of flour – cook for 25 minutes at 387 ° Fahrenheit – you know the drill.
The thing is – ovens vary – 375 in one oven is 352 in another, and one person’s fast simmer is another’s medium boil. A cup – sure, that’s a cup, but you know, the real way to measure is with weights, and my cup of flour might outweigh yours by 15-20%!!
In that spirit, I offer this yummy heuristic recipe for Pad See Ew. Fat rice noodles with meat and egg and gai lan (Chinese broccoli), dark soy, onions and a few other condiments, this is street-food comfort food at its best. OK, you can use broccolini. Or, if it’s around, you can even use broccoli – standard, beautiful broccoli – if you just cut the stems into long thin strips and split the florets into 3-4 pieces, depending on their size.
And see? We’re not talking “slice each floret into 3.14159 Pie shaped wedges”. We’re saying “cut it up a bit more because regular broccoli is a lot fatter than gai lan or broccolini.
This is what’s known as a heuristic. At least, that’s what I’m calling a heuristic. What’s a heuristic, you ask? And, for that matter, what’s an algorithm?
An algorithm is a step-by-step procedure for calculations. Does that sound familiar? Substitute “preparing a dish” for “calculations” and you’ve got a recipe, and most recipes are – voila! – algorithms. Step-by-step procedures for making a specific dish.
But, as mentioned, the steps themselves are imprecise. Me, I prefer the old style recipes, where “pinches” and “a fast oven” and “enough to make it taste just a little tiny bit sweet” are substituted for “1/4 teaspoon” and “385°” and “2-1/2 tsp. molasses”.
Heuristics are directions that take advantage of our human ability to get good results with inadequate data. In fact, in many cases, we arguably get better results with less information than with more.
So, with that in mind, here’s the Heuristic Recipe for Pad See Ew – sometimes known as Thai River Noodles. A street food of the first water, this gorgeous comfort-food dish ranks right up with Pad Thai as a classic Thai invention.
Pad See Ew – Thai River Noodles
- About 8 oz. wide rice noodles, soaked in very hot water for about a half hour, then drained
- 8 oz. to 1 lb. chicken, or pork or beef, thinly sliced, marinated in 2 T. light soy sauce (the “standard” soy sauce) and 1/2 tsp. baking soda. What!! You haven’t tried baking soda. It tenderizes the meat and somehow gives it just a bit more savor.
- 1/2 tsp. baking soda for marinade
- 2-3 T. light soy sauce for marinade
- 1 bunch Broccolini (or 1 large head broccoli or 1 bunch gai lan), sliced. Slice on a diagonal and separate the florets into 2-3 pieces from each large floret, 1-2 from smaller florets.
- 1/2 carrot, shredded. You can shred with a specialized tool or even buy shredded carrot. I’m in favor of the tool, then you can pick your own carrot and make it wonderful.
- 1 white onion, chopped. Me, I like to peel the onion, remove the stem part, slice it in half, put the flat of the sliced half against the board, cut it horizontally in twain, then chop across the horizontal cut. It’s fast, easy and you get good sized slices that work perfectly in a quick stir fry.
- Several cloves of garlic, minced.
- 3 T. nam pla (fish sauce, optional but very very good in this recipe)
- 1/2 hot chili (Serrano, Thai “bird” chili) minced fine or to taste. 1/2 a Serrano gives enough heat that you can tell it’s a bit spicy but not so much that people will be dropping like flies at the table.
- Big splash dry sherry (don’t use “cooking sherry”, just get a cheap bottle of dry sherry and use it liberally)
- 1 T. white or apple cider vinegar. OK, if you want to get fancy, you can use black vinegar, it does add to the authenticity and taste
- Juice from a juicy lime
- 2 T. molasses
- 3 T. dark soy. This is a magic condiment. It’s sweet, it’s dark, and it imparts a characteristic flavor to the dish.
- 1 T. oyster sauce (while optional, this is very good, if you have some, use it, if you don’t, consider buying it!)
- 2 eggs, mixed briskly with 1 (additional) T. dry sherry and a pinch of salt
- Peanut oil for stir fry
- Cilantro sprigs and green onion slices for garnish
In a large bowl, pour boiling water over the rice sticks (most rice sticks come dried. If you’re fortunate enough to be able to get fresh rice sticks, then you can omit this step) and let them sit for about a half hour
While the rice sticks are softening, slice the meat into thin slices and pop in a bag with the light soy and baking soda. Moosh around ’til thoroughly mixed and set aside.
Shred the carrot, chop the onion, mince the garlic and chop the Broccolini as described above.
In a suitable container (I generally use a 2 cup pyrex measuring cup, it’s a great size and makes it easy to pour the marinade) mix the sauce ingredients (dark soy, oyster sauce, molasses, lime juice, vinegar, dry sherry, fish sauce). Stir thoroughly and set aside.
Set your wok or large sauté pan on top of the heat and turn the heat as high as it will go. High heat is essential to this dish. If you have a stove hood or vent, now would be a good time to turn it on! Heat the wok until it’s very very hot (you can really feel the heat if you hold your hand a few inches above the wok’s surface).
Drizzle a few T of peanut oil into the hot wok. Wait a couple of minutes. The surface of the oil should begin to shimmer and even smoke a little. Perfect!!
Add the onions and carrot and stir fry for a few minutes until the onion is softened and is just beginning to char a little. Add the garlic and stir fry for another minute or so until you can really smell it! Add the minced chili and stir fry for another minute or so.
If using a wok, push the onion mixture to the sides and upper edges, and add the meat. If a sauté pan, remove the onion mixture to a bowl and add the meat. Add a little more oil if the pan is too dry.
When the meat is cooked (and, ideally, just a tiny bit charred from the very hot wok), push it to the side (or remove it), and pour the egg mixture in. Cook the egg, scrambling it w/ your spatula, until it’s just set.
Push everything else out of the way and add the noodles to the wok. If you’re using a smaller wok or a sauté pan, remove everything and add the noodles. Cook those noodles, moving them very little until they just start to char a bit. If you’re thinking that the char is an integral part of this dish, you’re right!!
Mix the noodles and meat / veggie together with your spatula or whatever you’re using. Toss and stir fry them for a minute or so together, then add the sauce mixture. Mix well and continue to stir fry for another couple of minutes until the sauce has thickened a bit.
You’re done! Serve in a bowl, with chopped scallion, lime wedge and cilantro sprigs as garnish. I forgot to include the garnish in this photo. Bad food blogger!! Bad!!