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Whisk equal parts all-purpose flour and seltzer to combine (batter should be the consistency of heavy cream); season with salt. Dip raw asparagus spears in batter and deep-fry until golden; serve with ponzu sauce for dipping.
Recipe by Sue Li
Photos by Zach DeSart
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Another Year in Recipes
Late May is high season for local asparagus in New York City. I usually buy a bunch almost every time I visit my Greenmarket. We can be very happy with asparagus simply boiled, served hot or cold, with or without sauce (butter, mayonnaise, mustard, vinaigrette), possibly topped with an egg (fried, poached, hardboiled and sieved). Roasted or sauteed is good too.
This season I’ve added another asparagus preparation: batter-frying. I treated myself to a copy of Eric Ripert’s new cookbook, Vegetable Simple.
It’s a large-format volume, and the photography is so gorgeous, it’s practically a coffee table book. Every recipe is faced by a full-page color portrait of the featured vegetable.
Ripert says simplicity is key to his goal of showcasing vegetables’ natural flavors and qualities. That’s admirable, but what a Michelin three-star restaurant chef regards as simple isn’t always what we lesser mortals do. Thus, for his asparagus tempura recipe, he:
- makes the batter with sparkling water and Japanese flour (though he permits all-purpose with the addition of a bit of baking soda)
- for the frying, adds sesame oil to his preferred rice-bran oil (though again, other vegetable oils are allowed) and
- serves the dish with a dipping sauce made with soy sauce, mirin, and lime juice.
That’s pretty complex simplicity. My pantry doesn’t run to all those specialties, but I hoped I could achieve a reasonable approximation of the dish. Here’s what it looks like in the book:
Interesting enough to attempt, at any rate.
With half a pound of my current bunch of asparagus, I immediately diverged from the recipe. Rather than peeling the spears, I just snapped off the tough ends. I sometimes peel really fat asparagus, but these were fairly slender.
I made the batter with (sorry!) all-purpose flour, baking soda, beaten egg, and (at least) ice-cold San Pellegrino sparkling water – leaving it lumpy, as Ripert directs.
Before embarking on the frying, I made the dipping sauce. That was a big compromise. I had soy sauce, but I’ve never used mirin. This sweet rice wine is sold only in fairly large bottles, and I was going to need only half a tablespoon of it. Online research into substitutes produced the suggestion of sherry, with the addition of some sugar. I did have a bottle of sherry open, so that was what I used. But then I realized that I’d forgotten to buy the necessary lime. Aargh! It was too late to go out for one now, so I settled for lemon juice, also with some sugar.
I doubt if Ripert would have approved of these makeshifts, but I didn’t know how the sauce was supposed to taste anyway, so it would have to do.
And then, on to the frying – which I did in corn oil (my regular choice when olive oil would be too strong), adding the required two tablespoons of sesame oil. The instructions were to “cook until the asparagus spears have floated to the surface and are no longer bubbling, about 2 minutes. They should be pale in color and very crisp.”
Mine didn’t quite behave that way. They floated immediately, bubbled constantly, and began browning in less than one minute.
What to do? Preserve the pale crust and possibly undercook the asparagus? Get the asparagus tender and spoil the delicate crust? I needed to decide quickly, so I more or less split the difference. My asparagus spears didn’t come out looking anything like Ripert’s, but they seemed OK.
And so they were. They were pleasantly al dente, the coating lightly crunchy. The dipping sauce was all right too, though it tasted pretty much like plain soy sauce. We couldn’t pick up any hint of that tiny bit of sesame oil.
But all in all, it was an interesting experiment, and one that I may well try again. It’s hard to resist fresh local asparagus in its brief season.
I must be running with the wrong crowd. Every cocktail party I go to seems to involve hors d’oeuvres that require three hands: one to hold a drink, and two to wrestle the food off a tiny plate and onto a fork.
At a book party recently, waiters were doling out braised pork belly and steamed mushroom dumplings. At a restaurant party, it was seared sliced steak and shrimp over grits. At a chef’s house, it was butterfish on a knot of spicy noodles.
On the plus side, all this fork-dependent food could be a leading esoteric indicator that party fare is getting more ambitious, more amuse bouche than chip and dip. On the downside, it just makes drinking more dangerous. Who has a fourth hand to wield a napkin when the sauce goes dribbling?
As much as I appreciate great advances in appetizers, with caviar served on Chinese soup spoons and foie gras on skewers, I will always believe in the great tradition of comfort over fashion. The very best party food should need no utensil, not even a toothpick. Especially in summertime, the eating should be easy.
Largely because I hate to wash silverware and have no dishwasher (by choice), I have been erring on the side of dainty for many years. I also like nothing better than making a whole meal out of finger food with a little (or a lot) of wine. But I’ve learned the hard way that hors d’oeuvres have to be eminently edible or guests will take the easy way out and skip the food, then blame you for hangovers on under-filled stomachs.
Even with forks out of the picture, though, I want the same payback professionals do from hors d’oeuvres: a lot of flavor in a bite or two. I’ve built up a whole range of reliables over the years, whether gougeres enriched with wild mushrooms, miniature corn pancakes topped with smoked fish, one-bite crab cakes, filo triangles, Lilliputian frittatas, or no end of crostini. But I keep adding new ones, knowing just about any dish can be downsized.
Meatballs are undervalued on the social circuit, mostly because they are usually dull and swim in a messy sauce. At a friend’s restaurant specializing in small plates, though, I tasted some that were so assertively flavored they needed no sauce and fried so crisp they could be picked up without even a toothpick. I tried them at home with beef blended with chipotle chile for heat, scallions for color and Cheddar cheese for ooziness, all in a panko coating. The flavors were great, even at room temperature. But the secret was cooking them not in a deep fryer but in a very hot oven, so they were both crusty and juicy.
I swiped another idea from a relatively old restaurant whose chef had foisted fork food on me at his new place. One of his signature dishes is a blue corn pancake filled with hot braised duck and finger-painted with three spicy sauces, and I realized that the crepe-like tortillas could work with something cold too. Crab meat with mango, jalapenos, cilantro and lime juice tucked inside makes a two-bite sensation.
The same little crepes could enfold any number of other fillings: guacamole, black bean salad, shredded duck confit you could even saute the meatball mixture and tuck it into the pancakes. Always, the filling should be drained well so that no napkins take the annoying place of the missing forks. And the same filling could also be mounded on tortilla chips.
Summer rolls are even easier to turn into pass-around food, especially when you start with duck confit in the filling. You just have to heat it long enough to bring it back to life, shred it, then layer it with herbs (in this case mint, but you could also use basil) and vegetables (pea shoots and julienned cucumber, but arugula or carrot would also work well) and fold it up like a little burrito. Just before serving you can slice one roll into four bites. It may be heresy, but I put chutney into the mix as well, and serve the rolls with an optional dip of rice wine vinegar seasoned with garlic and sugar, Chiu Chow style.
The stretchy rice paper used as wrappers for the rolls is as forgiving as filo, but instead of patching it with butter you just lay it out and roll it up even the torn parts will cling together because it’s so pliable after it’s soaked. You can buy it at any Asian market (or many specialty shops).
Tempura is another eminently adaptable idea for a party. A light batter of egg, flour and salt can coat any vegetable, but especially asparagus, before it goes into the deep-fryer. Usually cold water is part of the batter, but club soda adds an effervescence. The combination of crust, oil and vegetable is terrific on its own, but you can ramp it up with dry mustard or sesame seeds or curry powder in the batter. Again, these can be dipped, in tamari or ponzu sauce, but are best appreciated solo.
Finally, brandade has been one of my party staples since I discovered the best way to make it, in a cookbook by the late chef Felipe Rojas-Lombardi. He had the cooking time down so that the salt cod does not turn fibrous, and the seasoning is balanced with cream steeped with a fascinating blend of spices -- bay leaves, juniper berries, allspice -- along with lots of the essential garlic.
In the past I’ve always just made a bowlful and set it out with toasted slices of baguette, but I knew there had to be a one-handed way to make it better. And so I baked it onto shiitake mushroom caps.
As with all the best fork-free food, these hors d’oeuvres take a little more work upfront. But the cleanup is a snap: Everyone eats the evidence and keeps on drinking.
2. How thick should the tempura batter be?
I want to constitute a batter that accentuates the ingredient&rsquos taste with just a little crunch, yet the ingredients are still moist and juicy.
With that in mind, I have tried a few different ratios of flour, water, and egg. Finally, I have found an optimal ratio of these ingredients.
My magical ratio is 100g flour, 180ml ice water, and 45g egg. If I use less water, large pieces of crumbs are formed as it is too thick. If there is too much water, the crumbs will not adhere to the ingredients&rsquo surface during deep-frying.
I measure each ingredient with a digital weighing scale to get the precise measurement. I hope this is a valuable reference if you are struggling to get the batter&rsquos right consistency. Your tempura batter&rsquos thickness may be slightly different, but I am sure it will be very close to this ratio.
Episode 104: Veg-In!
/>Jacques loves vegetables and jokes that everything should be considered a vegetable, even chocolate cake!
Joking aside, we all know that we don’t eat enough veggies and Jacques creates simple recipes to tempt even the most reluctant. He begins by sharing Ragout of Asparagus with his friend and back-kitchen chef, David Shalleck, and explains the recipe in a step-by-step process. He goes on to feature two gratins, a colorful Zucchini and Tomato Gratin and a creamy Cauliflower Gratin. A very special presentation features a staring lobster nestled in artichokes in Artichoke Hearts Helen and finally, a simple Corn Tempura that can be served alone or topped with smoked salmon (or even caviar.)
(Only the linked recipes are available online. Other episode recipes are available by purchasing Jacques’ book, Essential Pepin.)
Recipe: Asparagus & Lemon Tempura
Here&rsquos the thing: No matter how sick you and yours are of asparagus, if you dip them in batter and then cook them in hot oil, they will be gobbled right up. Yuzu ponzu is available at Asian grocers or in the Asian foods section of well-stocked supermarkets. Yamato and Marukan are common brands.
1 bunch asparagus (about 1 pound)
1 egg yolk
½ cup ice-cold water
½ cup flour
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
Yuzu ponzu or other citrus-flavored ponzu, for dipping
Instructions: Heat about 1 inch of vegetable oil in a deep, wide, heavy-bottom skillet.
While the oil heats, trim the asparagus by bending each spear until it breaks. Cut the trimmed spears into bite-size pieces, if you like, although I prefer to leave them long.
Scrub the lemon clean and cut into very thin slices. Remove any seeds.
In a large bowl, whisk together the egg yolk and ice water, then whisk in the flour and salt just to combine &mdash it&rsquos OK if the batter is a bit lumpy.
When the oil is 350-375 degrees (use a candy thermometer or guesstimate by putting the handle of a wooden spoon in the oil &mdash the oil should bubble up around the handle immediately but not violently), put the asparagus and lemon slices in the batter and toss until they&rsquore all coated.
Working in batches, transfer enough asparagus and lemon as fit in the skillet in a single layer, without crowding. Fry until the batter is golden and the asparagus is tender, about 3 minutes. Lift the tempura-d asparagus and lemons out of the oil with tongs or a slotted spoon, and drain on several layers of paper towels. Repeat with the remaining asparagus and lemon.
Serve immediately with yuzu ponzu for dipping.
Per serving: 128 calories, 3 g protein, 12 g carbohydrates, 8 g fat (1 g saturated), 35 mg cholesterol, 3 mg sodium, 2 g fiber.
Baked Asparagus Fries
I was lying in bed one night, tossing and turning, when I had this sudden craving for french fries. It didn’t matter where it was from – McDonald’s, Jack in the Box, Carl’s Jr – you name it. All I could think about was shoving those crisp fries right into my face. But since our Cabo trip is 2 1/2 weeks away, I opted out for something a little lighter and healthier with these asparagus fries.
Now I’ve quickly learned that these really are the best kind of “fries” ever. They’re so nutritious and healthy, and they won’t add on those extra carb weights. Plus, I skipped the deep fry and threw these bad boys right into the oven, keeping them nice and light, and baked them to absolute crisp perfection.
So the next time you have that sudden urge for those greasy fast food french fries, these asparagus fries are sure to fulfill those cravings. But be sure to have some self control when you make this because you’ll definitely want seconds and thirds!
For the ponzu dressing, pour the mirin, soy sauce, vinegar and kombu into a small saucepan and bring to a simmer. Cook for three minutes, or until reduced by almost half, stirring occasionally.
Remove the pan from the heat and leave to cool. When the liquid has cooled, remove the kombu and stir in the ponzu or lemon juice. (Add a little extra lemon juice if necessary just before serving – you want the dressing to taste very zingy.) Pour into individual dipping bowls and place on serving plates with slender lemon wedges. (Alternatively, put in a small bowl and place on a serving platter.) Add the spring onion and dried flaked chilli (if you like – not strictly authentic but a nice touch).
Fill a large saucepan with enough water to go a third of the way up the sides. Bring to the boil over a high heat. Add the asparagus spears, cutting any particularly long or thick spears diagonally in half first. Return to the boil and cook for 1½ minutes, or until just tender. Drain in a colander under running water until cold. Pat dry with kitchen paper and set aside.
Pat the scallops dry on kitchen paper. Pour 4cm/1½in of oil into a large, wide-based saucepan. Place over a medium heat and heat to 180C/350F using a cooking thermometer to check the temperature at all times. Alternatively, use an electric deep-fat fryer (CAUTION: Do not allow oil to overheat. Do not leave hot oil unattended.)
To make the batter, put the cornflour, self-raising flour and sesame seeds into a large bowl and mix until thoroughly combined. Make a well in the centre. Whisk the egg yolk with half of the water in a separate bowl and gradually add to the flour mixture, using a whisk to draw the dry ingredients into the liquid. When the batter is thick, slowly whisk in the remaining liquid until the batter is just mixed. Don’t over-whisk or make the batter too smooth.
If using medium or king scallops, cut in half horizontally through the middle. Leave small queen scallops whole. Drop 10-12 of the scallops or scallop pieces into the batter and turn until lightly coated.
Working quickly, take one at a time with tongs or a couple of forks and drop gently into the hot oil. Keep the bowl close to your saucepan or fryer as the batter is thin and will drip off quite quickly. Drop the scallops into different areas of the pan so that they don’t get a chance to stick together.
Once all the battered scallop pieces are in the oil, fry for 2–2 ½ minutes, or until pale golden-brown and very crisp. Keep an eye on the temperature of the oil so that it doesn’t overheat or cool too far. Use a heatproof slotted spoon to scoop up any bits of the batter that separate from the scallops and to nudge any scallops that stick to the bottom of the pan. They should all float as they fry.
Remove the tempura scallops with the slotted spoon and drain on kitchen paper. Continue frying the remaining scallops in batches as above until they are all cooked. Add the asparagus to the batter, in batches if necessary, and cook as above for 1½-2 minutes, or until crisp. Drain on kitchen paper.
Arrange the scallops and asparagus on the serving plates with the ponzu dressing and lemon wedges for garnish. Serve immediately.
If the tempura scallops cool a little before you have a chance to serve them, you can always put them on a baking tray and whack into a hot oven for 4-5 minutes, or until hot.
Tempura Recipes to Try
1. Salmon Tempura
To me, salmon is the most delicate seafood. It’s super tender compared to other types of sushi fish, and salmon tempura is much better than shrimp tempura, even.
2. Chicken Tempura
Chicken tempura is a less popular version of “karaage”, a type of deep-fried chicken. However, chicken tempura has a lighter coating, which makes it more unique and unquestionably suitable to serve over cooked rice.
3. Vegetable Tempura
While other meaty tempura makes for a good meal served with warm rice, vegetable tempura can also be a tasty finger food. Who said vegans can’t get to enjoy tasty foods?