With spring here it's not too early to start planning what to do with all those fresh vegetables. I was faced with this dilemma this past week, and I hit upon a very attractive idea that worked quite well. Chef Jerry Pellegrino, inspired me to whip up some tempura, that perfect blend of crunch and fresh flavor.
Of course, what we are talking about is the deep fry technique perfected by the Japanese hundreds of years ago. Ironically, those ancient cooks actually picked up the idea from Portuguese missionaries who loved whipping up a bunch of deep fried fritters.
In Japan the idea quickly evolved into something like the modern version: a simple runny batter made with flour, egg and cold water. Because of local ordinances banning indoor fires in Tokyo houses, tempura morphed into street food prepared in little carts. The idea of dipping your tempura morsel into a sauce quickly followed.
Tempura sounds simple, but it is difficult to truly master. Aspirants in Japan will spend several years apprenticeship learning this art.
The essence of tempura is the batter, and we are not talking something resembling pancake batter. What we want is a batter that does not develop gluten, but clumps into tiny lumps when cooked. All-purpose flour is fine to use, but rice or barley flour would be even better.
Ice cold water is also essential, since this too inhibits gluten. To get an even lighter batter, you can try bubbly ice cold soda water. The final ingredient is a single whole egg which is a good binder for the batter.
Recipes that call for 1 part flour to 1 part ice water are dead wrong. You do much better with a 2 parts water to 1 part flour ratio. This will give you a nice thin, runny batter, which is what you really want.
And don't you dare reach for a whisk to beat it all together. Not surprisingly, chopsticks are the perfect utensil for beating the batter. And there is no need to get it completely smooth; a few lumps are actually welcome.
For deep fat frying, you'll need an oil with a high smoke point, so sesame oil or canola oil would be perfect.
The key aspect to successful tempura is managing the oil's temperature. It should be between 325° and 350°. Going above or below this range will ruin the fry, so the key is to use a reliable candy thermometer that can be clipped to the side of your saucepan. It might be a good idea for beginners to practice regulating the oil's temp, running the heat up and down. Because each new batch of food will quickly lower the oil's temperature, you need to be able to adjust on the fly.
If you are using those fresh Spring vegetables you can either cook them raw, provided they are sliced up thinly, or blanch them in hot water until they become tender.
Seafood will always go in raw, since the hot oil will definitely cook it through and through.
To do the cooking, start by dredging the food in plain white flour. This will enable the batter to stick to it better. Dip it in the batter, shake off the excess, and drop it into the hot oil. Only do a few pieces at a time. And always keep an eye on the oil's temperature.
For best results cook your pieces until the batter begins to turn golden brown. If the batter stays white, it will be raw under the crispy outside. After each batch, scoop out the brown bits left behind.
Because shrimp tempura is so popular, I went looking for ideas.
On YouTube I found a video called "Shrimp Tempura Tokyo Style."
This is a great variation that gives you super crunchy shrimp with extra little tempura flakes. It starts by showing the proper way to prep the shrimp: after shelling, you make a series of small knife cuts down the length of the shrimp so you can stretch them into a straight line. The trick is to add about 1/3 cup of batter straight into the oil, swirl it around with a chopstick, and then gather the resulting beads of dough to one side. Dredge the shrimp in flour, then batter, and then drop them right into that mass of floating beads. The shrimp pulls the beads in like a magnet and they stick throughout cooking. Lift the finished shrimp out and you have a thickly encrusted piece of seafood that is deeply satisfying to eat.