My glut crop this week is broccoli. The first rounds of plants are still yielding side shoots and the last rounds are bearing central heads and though there’s cabbage moths around they aren’t getting into them yet. So we are eating broccoli every meal – in omelettes for breakfast, in stir fries for lunchboxes, as a side dish whatever is on for dinner.
But much as I like broccoli and appreciate its superfoodness, I’m not quite keeping up with it and this week there were a few blown heads – not quite flowering but loose and about to burst into yellow. Once the plant flowers, it gives up and I’m not ready for that yet. I don’t freeze vegetables. In my climate, there is something bearing year round and by the time the cabbage moths finally move in on the broccoli, there will be beans and zucchini and I’ll be happy to not see it again till next winter. So it’s broccoli tempura time.
There’s a little mind shift I’ve found helps in feeling at home cooking eastern Asian style. Most of the time with western dishes, I amble along, starting with what I have, multitasking, substituting, tasting and adjusting as I go, ducking out to the garden for some herbs or garnishes as I think of them, and getting plates out and ready while it cooks.
With eastern Asian recipes though, once you start cooking it happens so fast there’s no time to chop up anything else or find a different pot or make a sauce. Everything needs to be ready and within reach, and then, miraculously, two minutes later there is food on the table.
Tempura is my Auntie Naine’s signature dish, and for a long time I didn’t dare go there. Really simple and really unforgiving. Do it right and it is so easy and tastes so wonderful. Light and crisp and pure. Do it wrong and you end up with gluggy battered vegetables.
And like so many Asian dishes, the trick to doing it right is having everything prepared, laid out and organised, before you start cooking.
Part One: The Dipping Sauce
There are lots of options for dipping sauce. A classic one is just stock with a bit of honey, soy, sake, and grated ginger added to it.
I like a blender mix of lime juice, coriander, soy sauce, pickled chili, with a spoonful of sugar and a teaspoon of roasted sesame oil.
Part Two: The Vegetables
You can tempura practically any vegetables. Kale makes great tempura, just torn into 6 cm or so pieces. Capsicum, cauliflower, carrot sticks, sweet potato, green beans, pumpkin….. But it’s a perfect way to deal with broccoli that you’ve harvested just a few days late, when the head has started to loosen up but hasn’t flowered yet.
You want it cut to just the right size. Too small and there’s too much batter to broccoli ratio, too thick and the broccoli doesn’t get tender all the way through. About 3 cm thick at the head and 1.5 cm thick stems is the kind of size. Two or three bite size.
You also want it quite dry, so don’t wash your broccoli first, or if you do, allow it to completely dry before cooking.
One batch of batter will batter a large head of broccoli, a good platter for nibbles for a few people or a meal for two on its own. (Yes, we very happily have just broccoli for dinner like this!)
Part Three: The Batter:
You want one cup of dry ingredients to one cup of wet ingredients.
The cup of dry ingredients is made up of mostly plain unbleached flour, ordinary low gluten cake flour rather than high gluten bread flour. To this, add a tablespoon of cornflour (cornstarch) or arrowroot flour, a teaspoon of bicarb, and a good pinch of salt to make up a cupful. Mix this lot well as a dry mix, because you won’t be able to mix much once you add the liquid ingredients.
The cup of liquid ingredients is made up of a small egg beaten with ice cold, even icy water. I put the water in the freezer for an hour or so so it is just getting a thin ice sheet on top. Or add some ice cubes.
When everything is ready to go, mix the dry and wet ingredients together just enough to get a lumpy batter. Don’t overmix it, don’t try to get it smooth, and don’t let it stand – you are trying to avoid developing the gluten.
Part Four: The Frying:
You can’t cook in advance. Ideally tempura are eaten as they come out of the pan, one batch at a time onto a paper covered plate and straight to the table, to be dipped and eaten in the three or four minutes while the next batch cooks. So step one is assemble your eaters.
You can’t leave the pan to get a serving plate, and you need a couple of serving plates so they can rotate, so have them ready too, with some brown paper or kitchen paper on them.
Heat an inch (2.5 cm) or so of oil in a pan or wok till it is hot but not smoking. I usually use light olive oil for frying like this because it has mostly monounsaturated fats, it has a high smoke point and it’s fairly neutral flavoured. Peanut oil is also good. Getting the temperature just right is one of the tricks. You want it hot enough so that the tempura cooks to a light golden crispness in about a minute each side. A drop of batter in the oil should sink, sizzle, and immediately float.
I have one hand for dipping and one hand for tongs, because the dipping hand gets covered in batter. Dip broccoli in batter to coat, then into the pan, cook for a minute, turn with tongs, cook the other side to light golden crispness, and out onto the plate. Tempura don’t brown like chips. They just need a touch of gold. Don’t overcrowd the pan or the oil temperature will drop, but keep adding broccoli or the oil will get too hot.
If you have a barbeque with a wok burner on it, once you get into a rhythm you can chat and cook at the same time, which makes tempura a good party dish. People eat an astonishing quantity of vegetables like this, and the batter crispens up so quickly that it doesn’t absorb much oil which makes it relatively healthy as party food goes. Think of another way to get several heads of broccoli on a party menu!