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Thursday, May 23, 2013

Tempura Veggies

So, I always thought that tempura was Japanese.  According to Wikipedia, however, it is actually Portuguese.  It makes sense when you think about the root of tempura being Latin.

Tempora - having to do with time.  In fact, the french word for 'time' is temps; although we needn't even look to other languages --> think of temporal, or temporary... All dealing with time.

Anyway, apparently tempura was called thusly by Portuguese (Catholic) missionaries, who at various holy times (quattuor tempora) abstained from eating red meat and consumed instead fish and vegetables.

An interesting, if roundabout, etymology.   

And, while it may have been Western Catholics who first introduced it to Japan, I think no one argues it was popularized by Japan.

So, that's a rather long-winded, unapologetic, way of saying that I'm still just going to attribute tempura to Japanese cuisine.


I had never had tempura before about 10 years ago.  Possibly because of my sheltered suburban upbringing, or possibly because of my family's health concerns (let's face it, it's not super healthy).

In any case, however, I distinctly remember the first time I had some tempura.  It was at an Asian Fusion restaurant in Edmonton.  Gotta love those fusion places, eh?  Not really unique, certainly not specialized, yet wholly and unabashedly accessible.  ;)  

I'm not mocking fusion places—quite the contrary—I think they can be great for large populations of diverse ethnicities and cuisines. And let's be honest, in my case (as I've just revealed) good for introducing sheltered suburban WASPs to other cultures' food.  :)

Anyway, I've since had tempura battered fish and vegetables at various places since then, and it is usually very similar.  Usually coated with panko, (which, interestingly... to me anyway... is a word that is also derived from Portuguese) lightly fried, and then served up with some sort of dark-brewed dipping sauce.

Anyway, that's enough preamble.  Let's talk about my why and wherefore.

The bottom line is that we had a lot of green vegetables in the crisper.  Like a lot.  So — as I am often wont to do — I decided that rather than have them go bad, I'd concoct some sort of delicious, often elaborate, means for consuming a large amount of them.

So, let's start with those.

I've chosen to do both asparagus and green beans here, but normally I would just stick with one type of vegetable; like I said, this was as much to use them up as anything else.

No wait... let's actually start with breadcrumbs.


The wife once bought a little pail of breadcrumbs from the grocer a few years ago.  I can't even remember why, but I had never even known you could buy 'ready-made' breadcrumbs.  

I've always just made my own.

If you haven't gleaned by now, I'm a pretty big fan of efficiency, and will never throw something away if I can use it for something... and such can certainly be said of bread heels.  Whether for crumbs, or croutons, or something else, I love utilizing every last scrap of a loaf of bread.  In fact (and much to the wife's chagrin) I'll sometimes have as many as 4 or 6 bread heels drying in the fridge.  ;)  I'm not ashamed of it.

Well, for tempura breading, I ended up using I think 4 heels.  They weren't all quite as dry as I needed them, however, so I had to accelerate the process.  So, chopped into cubes, and neatly spaced on a baking sheet, they got put in the oven on low heat for about 20 to 30 minutes.

That's a lot of bread.  But, as you'll see, I needed a lot of breadcrumbs.

While that was baking I rinsed (soaked) my veggies (as you saw above), and started on some extra delicate touches.

Some fresh basil leaves, chopped super finely, and some freshly grated lemon zest, I set aside for two things:  the breadcrumb mixture itself and a dip I planned to make (more on that deliciousness later).

So, I put half of that aside for my delicious dip, and the other half in a large mixing bowl which would eventually be my large breadcrumb coating bowl.

All it needs is the breadcrumbs.  Which, once dry (but not baked, remember low heat), I blended finely in my blender.

And then mixed thoroughly in said large mixing bowl.

Mmmmmm... bready.

So, all told, this consists of: a ton of bread crumbs, a small amount of chopped basil, a sprinkling of lemon zest, and a tiny pinch of salt and pepper.

Now that that's done, lets get the delicious dip done.  :)

I sautéed a small amount of garlic and green onion in a bit of olive oil, just to soften them and make them juicy.

After only a couple of minutes in the pan, I poured that whole amount into a small mixing cup (I don't know what else to call the incredibly useful vessel that came with my immersion blender).

Then I added the chopped basil and fresh lemon zest I had set aside for the dip.

I also added (as you can see) some more garlic, but raw.  I find garlic is so much more flavourful when raw.

So, that gets puréed... very finely.  Again, what would I do without my immersion blender?  Be lame, that's what.

Incidentally, I do use other vessels with my immersion blender... that's kind of its awesomeness (the fact that you can stick it in pretty much anything, anywhere, and go to town), but this measuring cup is very handy, and sized very nicely for perfect puréeing.

Then, I added a lot of yogurt.  Normally we buy plain (unflavoured) 0% Greek yogurt and keep it on hand for various things (a surprising amount really).  However, for some reason (I think it was to go with those delicious Carne Abodo burritos from the other week) the wife picked up some 2% stuff.

Oh the decadence!


So I gradually whisked all that together, and surprised even myself with how delicious and complexly flavourful it was.

This stuff was awesome.  Kinda hot from the raw garlic, but super cool with the basil and yogurt.  Balanced, and quite tasty.  I'll make this again sometime.

Anyway, that was my dip.

Now that all the 'prep' is done, we can get started on actually cooking.  :)

So, my washed, trimmed, and dried veggies are all ready to go... except for one thing... because I wanted this to be perfect (I was making a lot of these, after all), I wanted to make sure I didn't have to leave the vegetables 'frying' for overly long.  This might cause the breading to burn before the insides get fully cooked... something of which I admit I was a little worried.

So I decided to give them a quick blanching before coating them with batter.  This didn't FULLY cook them, but gave them a bit of a head start, which is what I wanted.

Just a few minutes in hot water.

You can see they've picked up a nice rich green hue, but are still nice and puffy and moist.  Not cooked, but not raw either.

And, because I don't like to waste anything that might have value, I couldn't in good conscience throw away the water I used to blanch these vegetables.  I normally steam or bake vegetables (when I feel the need to cook them at all), because I find boiling or even blanching rather inefficient.

Call me crazy, but I'm a nutrient miser.  Just think of all the good stuff that was leached out of the vegetables during cooking.  Because they were thoroughly washed and soaked, and the only think I put in that pan was clean water, that means the dark colour of this water is JUST from vegetable juice.  I couldn't throw that away. 

So, it became my liquid for the batter.


So I whisked in some flour and got it to a nice consistency (runny, but sticky), and then was finally ready to start frying.

People often get scared off of fried foods, myself among them, for health concerns.  But I feel I should say something about that.  I think there should be a distinction between deep-fried and 'pan-fried'.  Certainly between fast food frying - say fried chicken, or french fries, or other absolutely-delicious-but-terribly-bad-for-you types of fried food.  
Incidentally, as an interesting aside here, I heard gourmet fried chicken is on the rise on foodie radar.  Not the commercial mass-produced fast-food fried chicken stuff, but like good old-fashioned, home-made gourmet fried chicken from your local mom & pop hole-in-the-wall.  Something to look out for.  Like the resultant heart disease.
Anyway, I consider 'deep-fried' to be significantly worse than just lightly frying or pan-frying something at home.  I mean, for this entire batch of vegetables, I only used about a third, to a half a cup of oil, and it was good, low-fat, trans-fat-free, canola oil.

So, not terrible.  
Not awesome... but not terrible.

If you're awesome and just a super human being and never fried anything at home before, here's how you do it.  You need to put enough oil in your pan to get a good centimetre or two of thickness (more if you don't care to flip your battered food half-way through), but (if you're like me and hate inefficiency) not enough that you'd waste much (if any) after all is said and done.  So, it's not a big deal in my opinion to just have a thin(ish) layer of oil and give your tempura a flip once.

Anyway, bring that up to a dangerous level of heat (frying can be scary... make sure you know how to deal with grease fires and such... maybe make sure to keep a couple of really thick tea towels nearby or something...), I'd say medium-high on the stove.

Once the oil is hot, you can start going to town.  Frying the battered veggies in small batches.

So, an assembly line of sorts is commenced.

Starting with the flour and water glue.

Then the coating in the breadcrumbs.

 And finally, the pan-frying.

And painstaking flipping of each veggie after about 30 seconds.  

If your pan gets gross and/or your breadcrumb sediment deposits are starting to burn, feel free to use a slotted spoon to strain the crumbs.  If they burn or blacken, they can impart a nasty flavour.

It doesn't take long for them to be done, less than a minute all told.  So you can see why I wanted to give the veggies a bit of a cook before this.  Otherwise that minute would not be enough to cook them through.  Maybe close, but not enough.

Anyway, this frying assembly line process took me a while, and made a huge mess, but I managed not to burn down the kitchen and only got a few droplet burns.  When frying something with a lot of water content, that water oft times spills out into the oil... doing... guess what?  :)  
Seriously though, if you're going to fry something with a high water content that also has a thick skin, it can be really dangerous.  So if you're going to do this with something like zucchini or eggplant, you should either score the skin with cuts, or poke lots of little holes in it.  An exploding vegetable is bad enough when it is not displacing a large swath of hot, burning, oil.  So... yah... frying can be scary.
Anyway, keeping my finished vegetables warm on a plate in the oven, I eventually finished and we were ready to chow down.

Like I said, normally this sort of thing would be served with a more traditionally-Asian sauce... I flirted briefly with throwing together something out of soya or teriyaki and some fresh ginger and scallions... or something like that...  But, I went with my garlic-basil yogurt.  And it was a great choice.

These were surprisingly filling, however, and we couldn't even finish them all.

And very rich... but not as dense or heavy as you'd think.  I didn't feel gross or greasy after eating a whole plate of them.  Which is good.

Anyway, like I said, a special treat made all the more special when only brought out once in a long while, but a good idea when you've got a crisper FULL of asparagus and green beans that need eating soon.