Friday, September 10, 2010

Lord of the Fries

You have no idea how excited I am by this corny title.

Anyway. Last night, for the first time ever, and maybe for the first time in the history of my family (I might be exaggerating, but it's feasible), I deep-fried something.

Does that seem odd? Remember, I grew up in puritan-land Connecticut, where everything is boiled or roasted. We go for pure, unadulturated flavors of the food, which, in the case of a clam bake, is phenomenal, but in the case of chicken... is a little dull. I've heard stories about how my mid-western dad's family was shocked and horrified at learning that my mom, his new wife, had no idea how to fry chicken. How can you be a good wife if you can't make your hard-working husband some fried chicken? I know how- by not clogging his arteries! (honestly, I don't really even like fried chicken).

So what happened to make me deep fry something?

It all started with an eggplant.

We got this cute, little (medium sized?) 3/4lb eggplant from the CSA last week. It was a lovely little eggplant. However, I'm not such the eggplant fan, and I'd never actually cooked one before. As I tried to decide how to prepare it, somehow the idea of tempura popped in my head (mostly because I saw a recipe for eggplant fritters that didn't excite, but frying an eggplant was intriguing), and after spending literally 2 minutes looking for a tempura recipe, it was obvious that tempura eggplant was going to happen.

Veggie Tempura
not really a recipe, just a cooking method

Tempura batter:
1.5 cups seltzer or club soda (I actually used lemon seltzer, I thought it was all I had, but the lemon flavor is so faint that it was fine)
1 cup flour

1 medium-ish eggplant (just under 1lb), cut into 1/4-1/2 inch thick rounds and half-rounds, depending on how wide the eggplant is
1 medium-large sweet potato, cut into thin rounds
1/2 vidalia onion, cut into wedges and pulled apart so all pieces are 1-2 layers of onion (although perhaps next time I will just cut into thick rings)
Oil, for frying (I used about 3-4 cups of canola oil- enough to get about 2-3 inches of oil in my pot)
Dipping sauce, recipe follows

Combine the seltzer and flour, whisk a bit but not much (lumps are fine), and chill for 30 minutes (I left it uncovered). Stir again after chilling.

Cut the veggies, have them ready to go.

Pour the oil in a large pot/dutch oven, add your candy/frying thermometer, and turn the heat to high. You'll want to try to maintain about 350F while frying, which for me, required a fair amount of adjustment (lowering the heat). Just keep an eye on the thermometer as you go, you don't have to be super precise.

Set up your work station.
From left to right: I arranged my cut veggies and set them next to the bowl of tempura batter. Next to that is a cookie sheet lined with paper towels (4 sheets thick). Not pictured on the island is a second paper towel-lined cookie sheet. I had my tongs and spider (never before used to its intended purpose!) ready to use, and my 6 3/4 qt dutch oven with oil and a candy/frying thermometer over high heat. I had everything all set to go before I started frying (I started heating the oil, and then assembled the rest of the work station).

Hot oil terrifies me, but aside from the crazy bubbling as soon as I put the battered veggies in, it was perfectly fine. I wore my apron and tied my hair back, but I didn't feel the need for safety goggles (I work in a lab, you know I have extra pairs lying around). The oil does make some cool swirly patterns as it heats.

Ok, the veggies are cut, the batter is ready. The oil is just about at 350F. My method:
I fried about 6 pieces at a time- you don't want to crowd the pot, that will interfere with frying by lowering the temperature too much (cold batter/veggies + hot oil= not quite as hot oil). Note: I did find that adding the veggies made the temp shoot up, which we attribute to the veggies causing the oil to move around more and disrupt the likely hot/cold pockets that were in there earlier. I should have stirred the oil a bit during heating. I dunked the veggies in the tempura batter (dunk one, coat, dunk the next, coat, etc, so that all in the batch are in there together), then transferred them one by one with the tongs into the hot oil. I fried about 2-3 minutes per side, flipping with the spider. Once they were done, I scooped them out with the spider, allowed them to drain over the pot for a few seconds, then set them on the paper towel-lined cookie sheet.

While each batch was frying, I put the next batch of veggies in the tempura, so that when the pot was empty, I just had to take them out of the batter bowl and place them in the oil, and saved time by not having to dunk them in the batter.

Once the fried veggies had been on the paper towel for about 4 additional batches (and were cool enough to touch/eat), I transferred them to the second paper towel-lined cookie sheet. I mostly did this to try to drain off more oil.

The whole process, for all the veggies mentioned above, took about an hour, from making the tempura batter, chilling it, cutting veggies and frying. The frying itself took about 25-30 minutes. The amount of tempura batter I made was perfect for the amount of veggies.

Now, on to the taste. Recall, I've never fried anything before. And who really knows how fresh something is at a restaurant? Well, I ate as I fried, so my tempura eggplants were as fresh as can be without burning yourself. They were good. They were crispy on the outside, soft and warm on the inside, and with the dipping sauce, had a really great flavor. They totally rivaled the tempura at any of my various favorite Japanese restaurants. I am absolutely frying eggplants again.

This made far more tempura than I could eat in one evening, even as my meal. Fortunately, tempura reheats pretty well in the oven. Simply preheat to 350F or whatever temp your oven's already at, line a cookie sheet with either paper towel or if that seems like a bad idea, parchment paper, and spread the tempura over the sheet. Bake about 15 minutes or until they're nice and hot and crispy. Don't microwave tempura. It's a very foolish thing to do.

ps. I also got a little crazy and tempura-ed some leftover beef kebabs that had been marinaded in a sweet chili sauce and grilled so they had kind of a smokey, charcoal-y flavor, on top of the sweet chili marinade. I fried those for about 2 minutes total, and they were pretty good!

Frying oil can be reused, most people say 3-5 times. I asked around, and have been advised to the following:
1. filter/strain the oil and store in an air-tight container. I'll keep it in the fridge, but the general foodie public seems to be split on cabinet vs fridge.
2. the oil will take on the flavor of what's in it. i.e., frying green tomatoes will give the oil a tomato flavor, which could be transferred to, say, potatoes. Just keep that in mind.
3. Don't reuse oil used to fry meat. It might be ok, but it's probably not worth risking. My plan is to fry veggies 3-4 times, and on the last use of the oil, fry meat, then discard.
4. Buy your oil at BJ's, Cosco, etc. It's much cheaper.
5. To discard your oil: do not pour it down the kitchen sink drain. Transfer it to an old bottle, cap, and throw in your trash. It can gunk up your plumbing. Or better yet, convert your car to use biodiesel and use the oil to drive to the store for more eggplant.

Easy Tempura Dipping Sauce
from Ming Tsai

1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup + 1T white vinegar (I'd rather have used rice vinegar)
1/4 cup + 1T honey
1t wasabi powder
1t sesame oil (which I'd leave out next time, the tempura was oily enough without oil in the dipping sauce)

Mix all together, serve with tempura.


Anonymous said...

"...convert the car to biodiesel and drive to the store for more eggplant..." LOLOLOL!

Oh, if you're feeling super adventurous the next time you have an eggplant on hand, make tempura batter with beer instead of water and fry your veggies. Oh! Makes my mouth water just thinking about it!

Catherine said...

Angela, you have no idea how much I squealed with glee when I read your comment. We'll be beer-tempuraing this weekend. :)