№ 97 - Summer Tempura
Everybody has their summer tempura favorites at the Sykes house. As I serve each batch on the kitchen table, a complicated haggling ensues: Kim hunts down the green beans, maitake mushrooms and broccoli, little Lina insists on more squid and potatoes and I'm obsessed with tomato tempura (how can something so juicy still become crunchy?!). We all love corn tempura equally and this is when it gets prickly. As pearls of sweat form on our foreheads, we're not sure whether to blame the high stakes or the struggling A/C, which is no match for my frantic efforts to keep the peace with new batches.
Making tempura seems daunting but it's doable at home without a bunch of special equipment. Probably the worst thing about it is cleaning up the oil splatters around the cooktop afterwards. I usually serve a green salad with a Japanese dressing on the side to round out the meal.
For the general tempura methodology as well as the dough recipe I’m indebted to the talented Shigeru Sugano, Executive Kitchen Chef at 15 East.
Serves 4 as a main course
A variety of summer vegetables and mushrooms, cut into around 60 large bite-sized pieces. Some of my favorites include:
1 lb of seafood. A variety is best. Pick what’s local (if possible) and in season. In the Northeast, my favorites include:
Flounder or sole
Squid (a mix of heads and tails)
For the batter:
4 oz all purpose flour (110g) plus more for dipping tomatoes
7 oz ice cold water (200ml)
¼ tsp fine sea salt
64 oz of mildly flavored cooking oil (half a gallon). I use rice bran oil because it has good flavor and a high smoke point, which makes it last longer. Canola oil is perfectly fine too. You will only use up a small fraction of this quantity and it can be reused.
Fine sea salt or another high quality ground salt.
2 pairs of bamboo chop sticks (such as from Chinese takeout. No fancy, lacquered chopsticks)
Two candy/deep-fry thermometers (one in each pot). If you don't have them, you can get by without.
Prep the vegetables and mushrooms: Wash and trim the vegetables and clean the mushrooms (if necessary, ideally without water). Cut everything into large, bite-sized chunks. All but the tiniest tomatoes should be cut in half from top to bottom. Cut the largest okra in half lengthwise, otherwise leave them whole. Squash blossoms should be left whole too. Broccoli, broccoli rabe, cauliflower and hen-of-the-woods mushrooms should be divided into bite-sized florets. Prepare baby artichokes as described in this recipe (trim, halve, keep in lemon water). Slice potatoes around ⅓-inch thick. Prepare the corn tempura batter as per the separate recipe.
Rinse the seafood, remove any remaining bones from the calamari and fish and slice everything into large bite-sized chunks (except for the small blowfish, which can be left whole and eaten around the bone).
The best way to eat tempura is in the kitchen right after each round is fried, but if you’d prefer to have a more civilized experience with you sitting down for the duration of the meal, you can keep the fried tempura in the oven until serving. If that’s your route, pre-heat the oven to the lowest setting possible or use a warming drawer. Line 2 baking sheets with kitchen paper towels and keep them warm in the oven.
Pour the oil into two pots, one for frying seafood, one for the vegetables and mushrooms. Ideally the oil is at least 2 inches deep and doesn’t come within an inch of the rim. Heat over medium heat to 360F (180C). (If you don’t have thermometers, you could get a rough sense of the temperature of the oil by doing the following: hold one of the chopsticks into the oil. If you see a stream of tiny bubbles emerging from the wood, drip a drop of batter into the oil. The batter should bubble up to the surface immediately but it shouldn’t brown after just a few seconds.)
While the oil heats, put all the batter ingredients into a mixing bowl. Whisk for a minute or so until smooth. Place some ice cubes into a second, larger bowl and place the first bowl on top of the ice.
When the oil is hot, put on an apron and use one pair of chopsticks to dip the pieces into the batter and then carefully place them in the frying oil. Dip the tomatoes' cut sides into a small bowl of flour before dipping them in the batter. Working in rounds of about 6 pieces per pot (or three large spoons of corn tempura), fry for about 3 minutes until the pieces are light golden brown. Remove the pieces with the other clean pair of chopsticks and place them on some kitchen paper towels on a plate (or on the baking sheets in the oven). Serve immediately with your best fine sea salt for dipping. Strain out any stray batter with the mesh skimmer before frying each new round.
The oil can be reused for your next tempura dinner. Run it through a fine sieve once cooled and label it seafood or vegetable. It can be stored at room temperature for months.