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Vegetable Tempura

Tempura is, at first glance, a simple dish consisting of batter-coated vegetables or fish which have been deep-fried. But properly prepared tempura is much, much more.

Imagine the freshest shrimp cooked to tender, sweet perfection, scantily dressed in only a thin, crunchy lace shell. Tempura is the gild on the culinary lily, adding a textural crown to the most perfect, freshest morsels.

Tempura incorporates the classic Japanese culinary traditions of using the freshest ingredients prepared simply, to maintain their natural flavor, and artfully presenting them. The Culinary Institute of America's vegetable tempura captures all those elements, yielding crisp, golden vegetables paired with a traditional Asian-style dipping sauce.

Traditional tempura is crisp, light and fresh-tasting. Remembering a few basic elements of good tempura cooking will help you achieve results that rival even the best Japanese restaurants.

"The most important element of good tempura is fresh ingredients. It is not a way to use up aging vegetables from the depths of your refrigerator. There is little coating to mask the vegetables' flavor," said Chef Shirley Cheng, instructor at The Culinary Institute of America.

"To prevent the shrimp from curling when frying, score the underside of the shrimp a few times with a small knife, then press the scored side onto a cutting board, massaging the shrimp straight from tail to head, breaking up the tissue that typically contracts when heated," said Cheng. If your guests are cooking their own tempura, use a long skewer run lengthwise to straighten shrimp.

Cold water is essential in tempura to keep gluten from forming in the batter (like using ice water in pie dough). Over-mixing the batter could develop gluten, so mix only until the lumps disappear. Refrigerating the batter while the oil is heating will also relax the gluten in the batter.

Use only fresh (not reused) vegetable oil for tempura. A combination of vegetable, canola or peanut oil can be used. Oil should be heated to and maintained at 350°F. A thick-walled pot will help maintain oil temperature, as will a good deep-frying thermometer.

Fry vegetables in batches until light golden brown, and then drain briefly on paper towels. To maintain its crisp, hot texture, arrange tempura on a warmed decorative platter in light, lofty piles, allowing steam to escape between the pieces. Serve immediately with a small bowl of dipping sauce and, if desired, a julienne of Nori seaweed. Commonly used to wrap sushi rolls, Nori seaweed comes in dried sheets and can be cut with scissors to create a beautiful, edible and nutritious garnish. Nori seaweed can be found at your local Asian market or in fine food markets.

This and other delicious recipes can be found in The Culinary Institute of America's Vegetables (Lebhar-Friedman, 2007).
CIA's Vegetable Tempura recipe

Ingredients

Dipping Sauce

  • 2 scallions, minced
  • 1/4 cup soy sauce, plus as needed
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 2 tbsp rice vinegar
  • 2 tbsp honey
  • 1 tbsp minced gingerroot
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tsp dry mustard
  • 1 tsp hot chili sauce, plus as needed

Batter

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups cold water
  • 4 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 cup dark sesame oil
  • 1/2 lb. large shrimp (26/30 count), peeled but tail shell intact, deveined, straightened
  • 1 cup red pepper strips
  • 1 cup yellow pepper strips
  • 1 cup broccoli florets
  • 1 cup quartered mushrooms
  • 1 small zucchini, cut on the diagonal, 1/8 inch thick
  • 1 small yellow squash, cut on the diagonal, 1/8 inch thick
  • Salt and pepper as needed
  • Vegetable oil for deep frying

Directions

Dipping Sauce

  1. Combine the scallions, soy sauce, water, vinegar, honey, ginger, garlic, mustard, and hot sauce in a bowl.
  2. Cover and refrigerate to let the flavors blend for at least 1 hour or up to 12 hours.
  3. Taste and adjust the seasoning with soy sauce and hot sauce before serving.

Batter

  1. Whisk together the flour and baking powder.
  2. Add the cold water and sesame oil all at once and whisk until about the thickness of pancake batter and very smooth.
  3. Refrigerate until ready to prepare the tempura.
  4. Leave the tail shell on the shrimp (to serve as a handle) and massage the underside of the shrimp to straighten.
  5. Blot the shrimp and vegetables dry, season with salt and pepper, and dip them in the batter to coat evenly.
  6. Pour the oil into a tall pot to a depth of 3 inches.
  7. Heat over medium heat until the oil registers 350°F on a deep-frying thermometer. Work in batches to avoid crowding
  8. Slip the batter-coated shrimp and vegetables into the hot oil. Deep fry until the batter is golden brown and puffy, 3 to 4 minutes.
  9. Turn the vegetables, if necessary, to brown and cook evenly.
  10. Remove from the pot with tongs and drain briefly on absorbent towels.
  11. Serve the vegetables at once with the dipping sauce.

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