Crispy vegetable tempura is my favorite way to satisfy a State Fair-induced craving for fried food at home. Tempura is a Japanese preparation in which vegetables and seafood are dipped in a light batter and deep-fried until perfectly crisp and golden. Unlike so many of the fried creations that we Midwesterns are so familiar with, tempura, when done well, is impossibly light and never greasy.
Late summer, with its abundance of vibrant produce, is an ideal time to enjoy tempura. Almost any vegetable can be used if it's sturdy enough to stand up to frying. Success hinges on a few key principles. Vegetables should be cut neatly and uniformly so that they cook evenly and quickly in the hot oil.
The batter should be prepared just before serving and made with very cold liquid, which helps inhibit gluten formation when it's whisked together. Just like pancake batter, lumps are okay in tempura batter, so take care not to overmix. Club soda or beer, while not technically traditional, helps to create a light and crispy texture. Finally, it's critical that the oil remains at the right temperature (375 degrees) when frying so that the finished tempura is not greasy. Make sure that your ingredients are at room temperature when you begin frying, and fry in batches, taking care not to overcrowd the pan.
Cold beer is the classic beverage pairing for tempura. A light, crisp Czech pilsner with its pale gold color, low but spicy hop profile and malty biscuit flavors, works especially well. Sierra Nevada Summerfest and Schlafly Pilsner are both tasty choices. Wine lovers should look for crisp white wines like vinho verde from Portugal or sparkling wines like Cava from Spain.
Summer Vegetable Tempura
Vegetables for frying, such as broccoli, kohlrabi, cauliflower, mushrooms, young green beans, zucchini, eggplant, sweet corn, sweet potatoes, squash
For the batter:
2 large egg yolks
½ teaspoon salt
1 ½ cups cold club soda or light pilsner-style beer
1 ¼ cups cake flour or rice flour (preferred), or all-purpose flour
Vegetable oil for frying
1 tablespoon sesame oil
Prepare the vegetables. Cut peppers into ½-inch slices or skewer two smaller shishito-type peppers together on a toothpick. Cut broccoli and cauliflower into 1-inch florets. Trim green beans to a uniform size. Slice zucchini, sweet potatoes and squash into ¼-inch slices. You may choose to peel the eggplant, depending on the toughness of its skin, before slicing into ½-inch slices. Small fairy-tale-type eggplants can be sliced lengthwise in half. Remove woody mushroom stems and cut large mushrooms in half. Use a sharp knife to cut the kernels off a cob of corn into a small mixing bowl. Arrange all the vegetables on a tray, cover with a kitchen towel and set aside for 30 minutes to allow the vegetables to come to room temperature. This minimizes the temperature drop in the oil when the vegetables are added.
To prepare the batter, place the egg yolk in a medium mixing bowl. Add ice to the club soda or beer in a glass then measure out 1 ½ cups of the cold soda/beer and add it to the egg, along with the salt, and mix well. Add the flour to the bowl and gently mix, using chopsticks or a fork. Be careful not to overmix – the mixture should be quite lumpy.
Heat 1 1/2 inches of oil to 375 degrees in a deep-sided skillet. Just before you begin to fry the vegetables, add 1 tablespoon of sesame oil to the fry oil.
It is important to work in batches, frying and eating as you go.
Dip the vegetables in the batter using wooden chopsticks, then place gently in the hot oil. Cook about 90 seconds, depending on the size of the vegetable pieces, then flip and cook an additional 90 seconds until crisp and lightly browned. For the sweet corn, add just enough of the tempura batter to the bowl with the corn kernels so that the mixture holds together. Using two spoons, slip tablespoon-sized dollops of the corn mixture into the hot oil and cook until lightly browned on both sides. Remove with chopsticks or a metal spider-type strainer. Let oil drip off for a few seconds then transfer to a paper towel-lined platter. Serve immediately with wedges of lemon and your choice of sauces.
Soy dipping sauce
1/2 -inch piece fresh ginger
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons mirin (sweet rice wine)
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon thinly sliced scallion or chives
1 teaspoon sesame oil
Combine all ingredients in a small bowl and mix well.
Creamy Spicy Sauce
Adapted from a recipe created by legendary chef and restaurateur Nobu Matsuhisa
2 egg yolks
½ teaspoon salt
Freshly grated white pepper
2 teaspoons rice vinegar
4 teaspoons chili garlic sauce or sriracha1 cup
neutral vegetable oil
Whisk together the egg yolks, salt, white pepper, rice vinegar and chili garlic sauce or sriracha in a medium mixing bowl. Slowly add the vegetable oil while continuing to whisk, drop by drop at first to create an emulsion. Taste for seasoning and refrigerate until ready to use.