You might say tempura is just a fancy word for “fried,” but here’s the truth: Onion rings are not tempura. Ditto anything that ends in “popper” or that’s served in a plastic basket with a side of ranch dressing. Vegetables—especially those from your CSA or farmer’s market—can always benefit from a dip in hot oil, but the difference is that the Japanese way is all about respect. In a tempura, vegetables get a light, gauzy coating of crunch that won’t hide the ingredients within.
Making tempura is easy, but it demands your senses: The batter should be thin, like heavy cream, and the lightly coated vegetables need only to fry long enough until the hissing and popping quiets down. And the recipe below contains a secret ingredient: Vodka. Why? Alcohol reduces gluten formation, which keeps the batter light and crispy (a trick that works in pie crusts, too).
A sprinkle of salt and squeeze of citrus is all you need for adornment, but if you must dip, make a bastardized version of chef Nobu Matsuhisa’s tempura sauce by seasoning ½ cup mayonnaise (preferably Japanese brand Kewpie) to taste with Sriracha and either rice vinegar or, if you can find it, yuzu juice.
Summer Vegetable Tempura
Makes 4 appetizer servings
About 1 pound summer vegetables (such as green beans, zucchini, squash blossoms, eggplant, sugar snap peas, etc.)
Vegetable oil, as needed for frying
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup rice flour
1 large egg, beaten
½ cup very cold vodka
1½ cups cold seltzer water
Lemon wedges, for serving
- Prepare the vegetables by peeling and cutting them into desired size and shape (vegetables shouldn’t be thicker than ¼-inch).
- Pour enough vegetable oil in a large saucepan to reach a depth of 3 inches, making sure there’s at least 3 inches of clearance above that in the pan, and heat the oil to 330° (use an instant-read thermometer).
- Place a mixing bowl inside a larger bowl filled with ice. Add both flours to the bowl and whisk to combine. In another mixing bowl, whisk the egg to combine, then mix in the vodka and seltzer water. Pour the liquid mixture into the flour and gently whisk until just combined (a few lumps are ok; don’t over stir, which can make the batter gummy).
- Working in small batches with one type of vegetable at a time, dip the vegetables into the batter to get a light coat of batter. Add to the oil, one piece at a time (to keep from sticking) and fry, stirring frequently, until golden, about 1½ minutes. Transfer with a slotted spoon to paper towels and sprinkle with salt. Repeat with the remaining vegetables and batter, serving each just-fried batch with lemon wedges on the side.