Last week, when I was in Los Angeles for the IACP conference, I was reminded again how much I love cookbooks.
I mean, I rarely go a day without reading some portion of a cookbook: a recipe, a headnote, a page of acknowledgments. Danny and I both know where our favorite books are — mine are on top of the refrigerator, their pages dog-eared and stained; Danny’s are in our office, on a shelf full of cheffy books that inspire him with interesting techniques and flavors — and we go to them often. We read cookbooks in bed. We write cookbooks too, of course.
Last week, I hung out with hundreds of people who write cookbooks and love them devotedly. I’d like to share some of my favorites with you here, while you contemplate that photo of gluten-free tempura up there. (I’m getting to it. There’s a connection, I promise.)
Our dear friend Nancie McDermott written numbers of useful, beautiful cookbooks. Her latest, Southern Soups and Stews, has been on our kitchen counter a lot lately.
You’ll never meet anyone so kind as Sandra Gutierrez. And her Latino cookbooks with a Southern flair always produce great food. I’m going to figure out great gluten-free empanadas, thanks to her work.
To my great joy, I shared unexpected cocktails and food with my friend Kathy Gunst, whose no-nonsense adoration of good food inspires me, every time.
I loved hearing Jordanna Rothman’s humble acceptance speech when Tacos: Recipes and Provocations, her book with Alex Stupak, won an IACP award. This book arrived at our home the other day and Danny has been lost in it ever since. I have to find fresh masa somewhere nearby.
I am so damned happy that Abby Dodge’s incredible book, The Everyday Baker, won an IACP award too. This is a compendium, a bible, a carefully researched and joyfully executed book. If you love to bake, you must own it.
It has been nearly a year since I started cooking out of Kristen Miglore’s Genius Recipes and I love it twice as much now.
During the conference I was happily surprised to run into Khin Lam Kao, who had been the next-door neighbor to my friend Kim Foster in New York. We chatted for a bit, reminiscing. Later that night, he won the Julia Child First Cookbook award for Phoenix Claws and Jade Trees, a book illustrating the fundamentals of classic Chinese cooking. We’re getting this one soon too.
With summer coming up, I’m clearly going to need the charming cookbook, The Picnic: Recipes and Inspiration from Basket to Blanket.
And I was so happy to see J. Kenzi Lopez-Alt’s brilliant book, The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science, win Cookbook of the Year. I’ve been perusing this book for months, reading snippets of scientific information and playing with food in the kitchen. Kenji’s acceptance speech, thanking his wife for her hard work as one of the few women in Silicon Valley, moved me too. Kenji, you’re a good egg.
After I returned home, Danny and I finally started cooking from this book. Time to conquer gluten-free tempura.
Finally! you’re thinking. Teach us how to make this treat, please.
Okay. Let’s begin.
First of all, tempura done right is a bite so delicious and crispy that you’ll want to go to the work of making it right. It might seem daunting at first, but it’s not. As with all good cooking, it’s about paying attention.
As Kenji writes, “…good tempura should be pale blond with an extraordinarily lacy, light, and crisp coating.” Look at that kale tempura closeup. Lacy, light, and crisp. (And yes, I said kale tempura. We’ll get to that in a bit.)
What are the keys? First, you need the oil at the right heat. You want to heat the oil in a large pot, with plenty of room in it, to 375°. Don’t guess. Buy yourself a good fry thermometer. If you really want to get serious about frying, the ChefAlarm by Thermoworks is superb. The Polder is great too — they both have probes that go into the oil, with the screen reading the temperature as a separate unit. An old-fashioned candy thermometer works pretty well too.
Once you bring the oil to heat, you’ll turn it down a bit to make sure it doesn’t climb higher. Once you put in the battered vegetables or shrimp, you turn the heat up again to make sure the temperature of the oil is at least 350°, consistently, throughout the fry. This is probably the most important part.
The next is the batter. And here’s where it’s fun for those of us who are gluten-free.
Kenji explains that traditionally the batter is made with a mix of wheat flour and lower-protein rice flour, but he cuts his wheat flour with cornstarch instead. You know why? Traditionally, tempura masters are trying to thwart the formation of gluten strands. Guess what? There’s no gluten in gluten-free flour! There’s nothing about tempura that requires the elasticity or tensile strength of gluten the way traditional breads do. With our blend being a good part sweet rice flour, gluten-free tempura is a breeze.
Don’t let a lack of gluten keep you from anything.
If you want light tempura, you want to use the batter right away. Do not make it an hour in advance or the night before. Work quickly. Have the oil heated and the ingredients ready.
What should you batter? We love green beans, zucchini, mushrooms, and shrimp. For this batch we photographed, we also made roasted beet tempura (not traditional but darned fine) and kale tempura, which might be my new favorite thing. You could use any vegetables you want. In general, slice them no larger than 1/2-inch thick.
And when you are ready to fry, cook no more than a few pieces at a time, gently moving them around and flipping them over as they fry, to make sure you don’t burn them or brown them too much.
Put them on a cooling rack covered with a paper towel and let all the pieces drip dry and cool to room temperature. Eat them right away. Right now, we’re dipping our tempura in this pickled ginger dipping sauce Danny made.
Whatever or however you decide to dip, have fun with this. No one expects perfection at first. Use every attempt as a chance to learn something new.
Start making some gluten-free tempura.
Those of you afraid of frying? You can do this. Those of you who fear that life will never be as good without gluten? You can do this. For those of you fear this food is too “fancy” for you or your family? Remind them it’s fried food. You can do this.
Pay attention. Don’t burn yourself. Don’t overcrowd the pot.
Use our gluten-free flour for best results.
To quote Charles Duhigg, “When something doesn’t work, it’s not a failure. It’s an experiment that gave you some data. The only way it ever becomes a failure is if you don’t learn what you can from it.”
Prepare to fry. Set a large pot over high heat. Pour in the oil. Add a thermometer to be able to read the heat. Line a cooling rack with 2 layers of paper towels.
Make the batter. Whisk together the flour and salt in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, wish together the egg and club soda until they are smooth. Pour in the egg and club soda. Hold the bowl of batter in one hand and a pair of chopsticks in the other. Shake the bowl and swirl the chopsticks around in the batter until it is barely combined. There might even be little clumps of flour still not mixed. That’s okay.
Batter the vegetables. Immediately, add 7 or 8 vegetable slices to the batter. Start with the thickest vegetables first. Toss them around to make sure they are coated. Using a Chinese spider or slotted spoon, add them to the hot oil, slipping them into the pot just above the surface of the oil.
Fry the tempura. As soon as the battered vegetables are in the hot oil, turn up the heat to keep the temperature as close to 350° as possible. Using the chopsticks, move the vegetables around in the oil, separating them and flipping them to make sure they are fried evenly. Tempura vegetables that are done rise to the surface. Fry until the batter is crisp and blonde, 1 to 4 minutes, depending of the thickness of the vegetable.
Move the tempura with a slotted spoon onto the paper towels and let them dry.
Repeat with the remaining vegetables, battering them just before frying them.
pickled ginger dip. Combine 1 cup mayonnaise, 2 tablespoons of pickled ginger, and 1 tablespoon of rice wine vinegar, plus salt to taste, in a food processor until everything is combined and frothy.
Feel like playing? If you feel comfortable making tempura, try making kale tempura. Take the bottom, woody part of the stem off but leave just enough of a nub to have something to hold. Hold the kale stem and dip the leaf into the batter and swirl it around to coat it. Drop it into the hot oil. It will make an enormous, scary sound. Don’t worry. That’s just the water in the kale reacting with the oil. You don’t need to agitate the kale as much as you do the smaller vegetables. Turn it once, to be sure to avoid burning.
Remember that you don’t have to throw away the oil after you have made tempura. Let it cool completely. Pour it through a funnel into a large container. Keep that in your cupboard as your fry oil. Use it for frying until you can’t see the bottom of the pot when you pour it in.