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Veggie Tempura

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Chef Casey


Whether it’s fish-and-chips with mushy peas, chicken nuggets from your favorite fast-food chain, or a late-night drunken decimation of sweet-and-sour pork, fries and fried foods are among the best comfort foods.  It’s hard to find fault in a Midwest-style fish fry, and if you make sure to balance out that greasy crispy goodness with a fresh slaw, plenty of pickles, or the Korean favorite of steamed rice and lettuce, you can’t feel too guilty about taking down a platter fresh from the fryer.

Chances are you’ve got a favorite recipe for fried chicken, a perfect beer battered fish, or are one of those folks that prefers their tater tots from the frozen section of a supermarket.  That’s all well and good, and chances are you might already have a tempura recipe, but here’s my version--a great way to highlight all of the summer vegetables rolling on in!

You’re going to need a high-temperature cooking fat, and a lot of it.  I prefer rice bran oil, but feel free to use grapeseed, shortening, lard, canola--even the mysterious “vegetable” blend.  Don’t use flavoring or low-temp oils like olive--it’ll burn before you get a reasonable fry.  You’re also going to need a pot--heavy-bottom, like a Dutch oven or a stockpot.  If you’re cooking on electric, do yourself a favor and keep a thermometer handy--it’s far harder to maintain consistent heat without one.

Before you get any oil near the pot, you should get your vegetables ready.  We’re going to be making several components out of kohlrabi.  We’ve also got some mushrooms, zucchini, chard, Walla Walla onions, and eggplant today, but you can do similarly with sweet potatoes and so forth.

Peel your kohlrabi and save the greens.  Cut some of the cleaned bulbs into half-inch slices, saving at least one to cut into matchsticks.  Slice your mushrooms in half.  Zucchini can be trimmed, halved lengthwise, then cut into irregular chunks.  Slice your onions into half-inch rings and roughly chop the cores.  Eggplant can be sliced into chunks or half-inch slices.  Cut the stem from the chard and then into matchsticks.  Roughly chop the leaves with those of the kohlrabi.  Take some carrots and cut them into matchsticks as well, you can also slice them on the bias if you want more vegetables to fry.

Mix your reserved kohlrabi, chard stems, carrot, and chopped onion in a deep container.  Cover the top with sugar, add a heavy pinch of salt, and wash it through with apple cider vinegar.  Taste the liquid--add more sugar or salt if necessary.  You can dress this up with herbs later.  Push the vegetables under the surface of the liquid and let it sit in the refrigerator.

Get your oil into a pot to a quantity not more than one third of its total volume, then get it heating up.  You’re going to want it to reach 350 degrees, or the point at which a wooden chopstick bubbles when immersed.  In the meantime, mix up your batter.  Get two bowls, within one mix flour (rice flour if you’re avoiding gluten) and some seasoning--Old Bay, Togarashi, salt and pepper, whatever you like.  In the other bowl, mix two parts flour or rice flour with one part cornstarch.  To that mixture, whisk in an equivalent amount of cold soda water and one egg per cup of dry mix.  (If you’re vegan, add one half tablespoon of baking powder.)

Your vegetables should be damp enough for the flour dredge to stick lightly, particularly if you wash your produce.  (You do, don’t you?)  In the even that they’ll need a bit of help, moisten them and give a shake before dredging.  Your oil should be at temperature, and ideally you’ve enough so it can stay that way.  From the flour, dunk within the batter and go directly into the fryer.  Fry in small batches, and if you wait for 30 seconds after dropping your fries (if that’s what you can call them) before gently separating them from one another.  I am of the opinion that all you need for frying is a pair of wooden chopsticks, but a slotted spoon works well too.  Each type of vegetable will have a different cooking time, but you’re waiting until you can hear renewed sizzling, until the crust is light golden, or the food floats.

Once the tempura is out of the pot immediately rest it to drain on paper towels, coffee filters, or a wire rack.  Liberally season it--I like using a flake salt--while it’s hot.  Repeat until all involved are fed--there’s not much sitting time between served and soggy.  Grab your kohlrabi and chard leaves, give them a quick pat-dry, and chuck them directly into the oil.  Do not panic.  Once the noise ends, remove the leaf-chips to drain, seasoning well.  If you’ve got a lot of leaves, you can also dunk them quickly into the oil for about 30 seconds, then drain before mixing in with your pickles.  You can also serve them (with plenty of pickle brine and fresh herbs) on the side, garnished with those little batter bits, if you’d like.  Finally (for the greens) you can run them through your batter, then fry.

No tempura is complete without a bowl of plain rice, in my opinion.  Salad or lettuce is another must.  You’ll need something to balance out all the crispy goodness, after all.  Kimchi is rather important to me, baek kimchi (the non-spiced one) being the traditional accompaniment to fried chicken.  Your pickles are ready, so drain some of its liquid, put aside your rice or tempura, and garnish with some cilantro.  If you’re looking for a couple of sauces to really tie everything together, take some garlic and ginger, chuck it in a pan with a splash of your fry oil, wait till you can smell it cooking, then add a hefty glug of soy sauce.  Bring that to a boil, remove from the heat, and add a generous few spoonfuls of sugar.

Another good sauce starts similarly, with fry oil and aromatics, but this time add just a splash of soy sauce, let it foam up, then add a large amount of Sambal, a splash of vinegar, and some sugar.  Both sauces work well with plenty of fresh green onion and cilantro.

Here’s hoping all goes well and you fry safely.  If you end up with a lot of used oil, strain it and you can use it for about a week before disposing of it properly.  From French Fries and chicken fingers to a newspaper cone of cheese curds and a funnel cake, don’t forget that the fryer is filled with the essence of summertime.  And don’t drop an egg into one.

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