Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Day 8 - Dashi, Miso Soup, Tempura Vegetables, and Tempura Dipping Sauce

Tempura vegetables... doesn't that sound kicky and fun? Well, I thought so. Until last night, that is, when I actually made them. Exhausting!! So exhausting, in fact, that I couldn't muster the energy to write about it until today.

So, I've been friends with Ryan and Judith since forever. Forever Plaid, that is. (I'm so corny!) We met working on the Off-Broadway production of that show at the end of 1991.. Ryan and I were acting in it, and Judith was the company manager. The show is incredibly fun to do - it positively breeds warmth and fun and collaboration, some of my favorite things about musical theatre. So it's not surprising that I came away from that experience with several lifelong friends.

My friendship with Judith and Ryan has centered all these years around a ritual event which has come to be referred to as "H.O.V." It goes like this: we meet up at Judith's Soho loft, hang out for a minute or five, then start the 20 minute walk down to Chinatown, where we dine at either House of Vegetarian (HOV) or Buddha Bodai, two vegetarian Chinese restaurants on Mott Street. (Judith is still a vegetarian, I used to be one, Ryan is just easygoing.) Then, after dinner, we walk Judith back home, making a pit stop for Italian cookies at La Bella Ferrara on Mulberry Street in Little Italy.

In the past 18 years, we've made this journey probably close to 100 times. Ritual is nice, right? Well, last night I thought I'd mix things up by inviting them to my new pad and, what else? Cooking! And it only seemed right to keep things vegetarian and Asian. Hence, the following menu.

Dashi (p. 60)

Dashi is the stock which serves as the base for Miso Soup and Tempura Dipping Sauce. The ingredients are water, kombu (kelp), and bonito flakes (shaved, dried tuna). Good thing I live near Koreatown, where all things Asian are abundantly available.

Dashi is easy to make, although I wouldn't want to drink it straight.

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Miso Soup (p. 61)

For me, miso soup is one of those things that you take for granted, assuming that there's nothing to it, but it's actually somewhat complex. There's the whole dashi base thing. Also, once the miso goes in (after having been diluted in a small amount of dashi), you can't boil it, for risk of dimming the flavor of the miso. And then, there are the subtle finishing touches like tofu, wakame, and scallions. I've actually tried to whip up miso soup before, and I failed miserably.

This recipe, made exactly to Martha's specifications, tasted completely authentic. And when that happens, as Martha says, "it's a good thing." Actually, it's really exciting. One of the most empowering things about my cooking journey has been achieving a flavor profile that I've experienced and appreciated in the world but could never have imagined creating myself. And that's what happened with this miso soup (and, similarly, last week's Indian-Spiced Split Pea Soup). Cool!!

Jeff: A
Martha: A

Tempura Vegetables (p. 335)

A few hours before Ryan and Judith arrived, I reread the recipe for Tempura Vegetables, and noticed the very specific instruction: "Heat two inches of oil in a heavy pot over medium heat to 375°F." Hmmm. How was I going to know when the oil was exactly that hot? So I ran out to KMart and bought myself a Martha Stewart Candy Thermometer, and I'm so glad I did. I never would've waited as long as it ultimately took for the oil to get up there.

I sliced a ton of vegetables: zucchini, yellow squash, eggplant (couldn't find Japanese so I bought Italian), broccoli, and sweet potato, as Martha suggested, and I also threw in onion and green beans. I had the batter ingredients out and ready to go. Then I went to start heating the oil. I measured where two inches was in my Martha Stewart Dutch Oven and poured in the oil. Which barely made a dent in the pot! Now, I'm not a stupid guy, but I missed this completely. It never occurred to me that I would need more than one bottle of oil... Doh!

So, recalling our ritual walk to Chinatown, we put on our coats and trekked down to Whole Foods, where I bought several gallons of safflower oil.

The batter came together no problem, and the vegetables fried up beautifully. Once I figured out the best utensils to use, this went pretty easily. (Tongs to dip vegetables into the batter and drop into the oil, slotted spoon to flip veggies and remove them from the pot.) The only problem with making Tempura Vegetables is: you never stop working. You can only fry six or so pieces at a time. (I think this has to do with not wanting to lower the temperature of the oil too much.) So you're dipping, you're frying, you're flipping, you're draining, you're salting, you're serving, you're dipping, you're frying, you're flipping, ad nauseaum. And all this, over a pot of hot oil. Ugh.

That said, the results were quite good! The vegetables cooked up well and quickly (only the sweet potato needed some extra time), the batter was light and tempura-y, and it really wasn't that oily. I've become very sensitive to fried food in my old age (43), but this didn't upset my stomach at all. My personal favorites were the broccoli and the "onion rings." The green beans were also popular, but everything was delicious and authentic-tasting.

My only regret is that, at the time, I didn't think to use the extra batter and pot of oil to experiment with tempura-frying some kooky things. Like Oreos, cheese, sausage, grapes, popcorn, anything. I mean, how often in this lifetime am I going to have a bowl of tempura batter and a pot of 375° cooking oil ready to go? (I daresay, never again.) Ah, well....

Jeff: A-
(half a grade off for misgauging the oil situation and making my guests walk to Whole Foods)
Martha: A

Tempura Dipping Sauce (p. 336)

Unlike the recipes for Miso Soup and Tempura Vegetables, which I think are as good as authentic versions of same, this recipe I found to be an improvement. It had a little more presence and punch than your standard restaurant tempura dipping sauce, yet it didn't overwhelm the vegetables. Go, Martha!

Jeff: A
Martha: A+

I'm seeing my cousin, Harriet, tonight. I was going to cook for her, but that tempura meal wiped me out, and I've decided to take today off.

Although I'm leaving a small window open for some cookie-making. :-)

Until we eat again...

This is Judith eating what looks like sweet potato. (Can you see my paper-covered floor in the background? Apartment still under siege...)

This is Ryan with an "onion ring."

Look, FNBF swung by later as we were finishing up the tempura! Isn't he cuuuuute?

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