I’ve been doing tempura, day in, day out, for about ten years, from five to twenty times a night, and they’re all different. It is a simple dish with few ingredients and no technique required. There are some crucial conditions, but the most important is the cook’s understanding of what he or she is aiming for, and the ability to make small adjustments to get it. Practice is everything. A (near) perfect tempura will have a thin, almost transparent coating of lightly browned, crisp batter, perfectly balanced in flavour with the vegetable inside. A too-thin vegetable will be smothered by the batter, while a too-thick one may not cook through or simply not taste like it’s been tempura’d at all. A good tempura brings out the best in a vegetable. I’ve seen people rave about courgettes, for goodness sake, and a chef friend of mine once wondered what ‘that brilliant orange vegetable’ was - oh, a carrot! Cut the vegetables into shapes that flatter them but come naturally from themselves: carrots in long diagonals about 2-3mm thick, aubergine about the same thickness in rounds, long thin florets of broccoli and cauliflower (a broad floret head will hold water from the batter and taste raw or half-cooked), whole small shiitake mushrooms, rounds of green pepper, whole or half radishes with some stem still attached. Most vegetables tempura well, some partner each other better than others, but some that don’t work well are greens like spinach and cabbage, tomatoes and other vegetables with high water content. The batter is easy to make, but only practice will help you to see exactly how much water to use. A good batter has the consistency of light pouring cream and most of it runs off the vegetable as it is lifted out, leaving a thin film of batter attached. The oil needs to be at or close to 190°C/375°F for that perfect tempura, which gives a temperature-controlled deep fryer the nod over a wok or pan of oil, but it is also crucial that the oil is clean.
Play around with combinations of vegetables. At Paradiso we’ve always done an eight- or nine-vegetable plate, and occasionally offered well-matched singles, duos and trios: asparagus; oyster mushroom and sweet potato; sprouting broccoli and beetroot. If you’re cooking for a few people and need to do more than two batches (one might hold in an oven at a stretch), make a virtue of your predicament by serving communal batches rather than individual plates, maybe even one vegetable at a time, followed by a batch of the next vegetable and so on.
PUT THE FLOUR IN A BOWL, make a well in the centre and drop in the egg yolks, then whisk in most of the water. Add the rest if the batter isn’t thin enough. Heat the oil to about (or exactly) 190°C/375°F. Drop the vegetables into the batter in batches of eight to ten. Pull them out, one at a time, with tongs or your fingers, and lower them gently into the oil. Watch them as they cook, they may need to be separated from each other or turned over. In about two minutes, the batter should have crisped evenly and you can remove that batch to a paper towel to dry.
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