It's farmers market day in Santa Monica and I have tempura on my mind.
The Japanese farmer carries most of my staples — shishito peppers, burdock, kabocha squash and daikon radish, which I like to grate and put in the dipping sauce; it's like a sauce within the sauce that heats and aids digestion. Across the way, I see a mound of haricots verts. I buy a handful. Next to them are breathtakingly beautiful squash blossoms. I get a dozen. My tote bags fill up quickly. The baby carrots look irresistible too. I love to deep-fry them whole, including the young leaves.
When it comes to making tempura, the possibilities are many. I know I'm going overboard with my shopping, but I won't mind making tempura a few times during the week. I have plenty of oil and a will to deep-fry.
Tempura was also my mother's staple dish. It was what she served whenever we had special company. I remember the time Koin Takada, the head priest of the famous Yakushiji temple in Nara, came to our house in Pasadena for dinner. I can still see him sitting at the table, his head shaved and shiny, looking at the plate of shrimp tempura that my mother had just served.
By the time it dawned on my mother that he was a vegetarian, it was too late. He had already picked up the tail end of the shrimp with his chopsticks and bitten into it. We watched in awe as he chewed it — politely making clear his appreciation for my mother's efforts.
She apologized profusely, and rushed back into the kitchen to make some vegetable tempura. Within minutes, she came back with a plateful and we carried on with the feast. Still, I was glad it wasn't a roast she was serving that night.
Vegetables are an easy introduction for those who have never made tempura before.
It helps to know that different vegetables respond differently to hot oil. For example, shishito peppers are like balloons full of seeds. Slicing or making an incision in the pepper's skin and removing the seeds will prevent the pepper from popping in the hot oil and causing unpleasant oil splashes. Root vegetables are meaty and take longer to cook; they should be sliced into thinner pieces so they fry faster.
And, of course, you want to start with the freshest ingredients possible — a limp green bean will never turn into a crispy tempura.
Getting the oil right
Use vegetable oil for frying tempura — corn, canola, safflower or peanut, but not olive oil. Sesame oil is highly fragrant and adding a couple of tablespoons or more can add its perfume to your tempura. You can reuse the oil a couple of times. Just be sure to scoop out the bits of cooked batter that have fallen to the bottom. These are called tenkasu in Japanese, and they can be used as toppings for noodles.
The optimum temperature for deep-frying vegetables lies somewhere between 320 and 330 degrees. Seafood cooks at a higher temperature, 360 degrees, so don't mix them up when you are frying both.
With tempura, you don't want to over-fry. Listen to the food cooking. It's the moisture in the food that is steaming and pushing the vapor bubbles outward. That's the sizzling you hear. The food is fried and ready when the sizzling quiets down.
I start by heating the oil while I prepare the ingredients. I use a deep-frying digital thermometer to check the temperature between batches. If you don't have one, drop about a quarter-teaspoon of batter into the hot oil. If it falls to the bottom and then sizzles to the top right away, it is right for frying. If the drop stays on the surface, sizzling, the temperature is too high. And if it sinks to the bottom and stays, the oil is not yet hot enough.
To keep the temperature steady, be generous with the oil. I use enough to reach a depth of 2 to 3 inches. Don't put too much food in the oil at once, because that will lower the temperature. Work in small batches. My favorite tempura pan is a 5-quart, cast-iron Lodge Dutch oven.
Batter matters too
The secret of good tempura is the batter. You want it to be light and crisp. There are many batters to choose from. The classic is a mixture of flour, egg and water, to which you can add a little cornstarch for extra crispness. I use cake flour and find that chilling the water and keeping the batter cold produces a crisper batter. My mother would throw an ice cube into the batter. I keep the batter bowl afloat in a bigger bowl of water and ice cubes.
The most important thing to remember about the batter is not to over-mix. Sift the flour mixture into the liquid mixture and it's OK to leave lumps; it's better than overstirring, which can make the batter doughy and less crispy. Besides, it's those lumps that give tempura that blooming, fluffy coat. I use a pair of thick chopsticks to mix the flour. A whisk works too. And never make too much batter at once; it's better to make a second or third batch later if you run low.
The classic tempura batter works for all vegetables, but I love it especially with shiso leaves, eggplant, Spanish onions, peppers, sweet peas and sweet potato.
Besides the classic tempura batter, I make a fragrant batter using buckwheat flour. It's a tempura variation called kimpura. The name is derived from the earthy gold color of buckwheat. It is a gluten-free vegan batter that isn't as fluffy as the classic tempura batter but is light and nutty in flavor. (This would have been the perfect batter to serve the high priest).
The texture of the batter is smooth and slightly runny. It can be used like the classic tempura batter, and I think it works especially well for kabocha squash, carrots, haricots verts and zucchini blossoms.
Another way of deep-frying vegetables is a batter-less method called su-age. It works best with waxy skinned vegetables such as pumpkin, carrots, burdock and eggplant — vegetables that can hold their shape in hot oil and produce a crispy skin.
I like the way su-age intensifies the flavors of the vegetables and brings out their natural sweetness. You can cut the vegetables thin and make crispy chips, or cut them thick and make a batter-less tempura. I serve su-age vegetables as an appetizer and they disappear as quickly as I serve them.
Whenever you are making tempura, make sure you set the table before you begin frying. Have the plates, dipping sauce, seasonings and chopsticks ready to go. Serve the tempura close to the kitchen so everyone can eat it right away, piping hot. Don't wait for everyone to sit down at the table. And whatever you do, don't put the finished tempura in the hot oven and wait for the others to fry. That defeats the purpose.
And if you have a guest asking for shrimp when all you are serving is vegetable tempura, give him the baby carrot fried whole with its young leaves intact. If he is a nice person, he will bite into the crispy leaves and appreciate your efforts.