9.13.11 Batter Up
More maitake madness! The second hen-of-the-woods mushroom I found was even fresher and more delicate than the first. Having already eaten them sauteed in butter and spooned over toast, and then over gnocchi, I decided to follow my Japanese friend Tomo's advice and try my hand at maitake tempura. It was kind of a bold move, since I've never made tempura before, but I've grown much more comfortable with frying these days. Aside from being a bit messy, it's just not such a big deal. And the rewards, well, I don't have to tell you how wonderful it is to eat something hot and crispy and virtually greaseless. It's a taste and texture revelation. It turns out that tempura is a fantastic way to eat hen-of-the-woods. The crackling exterior perfectly complements the firm, meaty mushroom, which remains sweet and juicy. The flavor is mellow but very savory. While I was at it, I also fried up some zucchini and shishito peppers from our garden, and a few pieces of sweet Vidalia onion.
The bar for tempura is set pretty high in our house. We spent hours one July under the sweltering Tokyo sun looking for a tempura restaurant that had been highly recommended, and it lived up to our expectations. You sat at a long bar in this sleek, modern space and basically had your own chef custom-frying little morsels for you as you ordered them. He would then pass them to you with a long pair of chopsticks. We felt like baby birds waiting for mama to place delicacies in our mouths. And each bite was perfection: light and airy, crunchy, tender, delicious.
The tempura batter is a very easy mix of rice flour, egg yolk and cold club soda (the effervescence lightens it). I sprinkled a little cornstarch on everything to absorb moisture and help the batter adhere a bit better.
A thermometer is essential when you're frying, even though I found it pretty much impossible to maintain the temperature at the requisite 375º. I don't have a digital thermometer but I wish I did; they are more efficient and easier to use. Don't let lack of a thermometer stop you from frying. Just use a wooden chopstick or the long handle of a wooden spoon to determine when your oil is ready. Insert into the oil and when a brisk, steady stream of bubbles emerges, you're good to go.
Practically everything tastes great fried in tempura batter: shrimp, squash, cauliflower, fish. But you know what was the real highlight of this dinner for me? The salt. I debated making a dipping sauce, but love sprinkling salt for the flavor intensity and the crunch. I happened to have a wild lime on hand, and I combined the zest with some Maldon sea salt. The citrus was wonderfully pungent, combined well with the salt and was the perfect accent for the fried vegetables. Addictive. If you don't have wild lime, any citrus zest will do.
Maitake Tempura with Citrus Salt
- — 2 tablespoons Maldon or other flaky sea salt
- — 4 cups peanut or other high-heat-tolerant oil
- — 1 teaspoon wild lime or other citrus zest
- — 1/4 cup cornstarch
- — 1 egg yolk
- — 1 cup club soda, well chilled
- — 1 cup rice flour
- — 1/2 pound maitake (hen-of-the-woods) mushrooms
Combine zest and salt in a small bowl and set aside.
Heat oil in a deep pot to 375º.
Wipe maitake clean with a damp towel. Trim roots and break into small chunks about 2” square. Lightly dust mushrooms with cornstarch, being sure to shake off any excess.
Whisk egg yolk, rice flour and club soda in large bowl until just blended.
Working in batches—doing only as many at one time as will fit into the pot without crowding—dip pieces in batter, letting excess run off. Fry until light gold in color, about 2 minutes. Using long chopsticks, tongs or a slotted spoon, transfer mushrooms to a paper towel-lined tray. Sprinkle with citrus salt and serve immediately.