Deep-frying is one of those techniques for which I welcome tips from others. As with any new-to-me cooking technique, I take my time. Thin slices of zucchini are a good start. Deep-fried, wow, delicious. A light coating of potato starch or cornstarch adds a crisp, light texture. Sprinkle the slices with salt as soon as they come out of the oil, then serve them with a dipping sauce or slip into brothy soups or omelets for a rich, intriguing element.
Do the same with eggplant — even if you don’t think you like it, try it fried. I am already looking forward to the long, crisp, skinny strips sold at the Venice Club stand at Milwaukee’s Summerfest. They serve the deep-fried goodness with a cup of zesty marinara sauce for dipping.
Truth be told, I prefer others do the frying when things get complicated. But a bowl of amazing fried eggplant, called mizore gake, served at Yakitori Totto in Manhattan, propelled me into the kitchen.
Golden, pudding-tender slices of eggplant rest in a sweet, spicy broth surrounded by bouncy nameko mushrooms and crispy-chewy mochi nuggets tucked under a pile of aromatic greens. Absolutely delicious. The combination of textures and flavors, and the richness of the fried eggplant, make this Japanese bowl a standout worthy of my time to perfect.
Making the broth proves simple — especially since I rely on instant dashi purchased from a local Asian market. At its simplest, dashi, Japan’s most basic cooking stock, combines sea kelp (kombu) simmered in water. Easy enough to do at home. (Kelp is available at Whole Foods and most large supermarkets.) More common is the addition of dried fish known as bonito; it’s in the powdered dashi I rely on for speed. Low sodium chicken broth makes a fine substitute in this dish.
The other ingredients that flavor the broth, such as soy sauce, mirin and rice vinegar are readily available. I add the soaking liquid from dried mushrooms to boost the umami.
The tricky part of this dish is deep-frying thick slices of eggplant to tender, creamy goodness. First, salt the eggplant to draw out some of the water. After standing, it’s important to pat the eggplant absolutely dry before immersing in the oil. Same goes for nearly anything you’re frying — use care to prevent dangerous hot splatters.
Use a deep, heavy-bottomed saucepan or wok that holds heat well. Have a paper towel-lined tray nearby, as well as a slotted spoon or wire skimmer. It’s smart to have a large box of kitchen salt handy should you need to douse flames. Of course, never put water into hot oil.
Always use the best oil you can afford. I prefer safflower or sunflower oil for its high heat cooking properties and odorless frying. Rice bran oil, peanut oil and expeller-pressed canola oil also are good. Ordinary vegetable oil, or regular canola oil, overheat easily and give off a fishy smell when frying. To regulate the oil temperature, I recommend investing in a good deep-fry thermometer.
The frying oil can be cooled, strained and bottled to use again later. Think about the flavor the oil might have picked up in the frying. For example, oil used to fry vegetables could be used later to fry fish — but not vice versa.
For fun frying (!), purchase dried unsweetened mochi (sticky rice cakes — not to be confused with mochi the frozen ice cream dessert) from a Japanese or pan-Asian market. Then cut the firm, dried blocks into small cubes. Add the cubes, a few at a time to hot oil. Watch them grow and puff as they fry into irregular white clouds of sticky rice. Doused in the flavorful broth alongside the fried eggplant, the mochi lends a fun, chewy texture.
Not quite a soup, more like a stew, this bowl of inspired goodness stars as a meatless main course or a hearty first-course to dinner of grilled steak or fish and steamed asparagus.
JAPANESE-STYLE EGGPLANT AND MUSHROOMS IN SPICY BROTH
Prep: 25 minutes
Stand: 20 minutes
Cook: 20 minutes
Makes: 4 to 6 servings
I enjoy stocking up on condiments and dried mushrooms at the local Japanese market. Fortunately, all of the items needed for this dish can be found in large supermarkets with Asian sections, or from online markets.
2 medium purple eggplants, about 12 ounces each
1 ounce dried nameko or shiitake mushroom caps
2 cups dashi broth or chicken broth, see note
1/4 cup mirin (rice wine) or dry sherry
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon each: unsweetened rice wine vinegar, sugar
1/4 teaspoon Asian chile paste with garlic (or crushed red pepper flakes), or to taste
1 tablespoon potato starch (or 1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch) dissolved in 2 tablespoons water
Safflower, sunflower or expeller-pressed canola oil for frying
4 ounces dried unsweetened mochi cakes, cut into small cubes, optional
12 to 16 ounces firm tofu, drained, patted dry, cut into 1-inch cubes
1 cup baby arugula leaves
4 green onions, trimmed, thinly sliced
1/2 cup cilantro leaves
1. Trim ends off eggplants. Cut eggplants crosswise into 1-inch-thick slices. Salt the slices and let stand in a colander, about 20 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, put mushrooms into a small dish; add 1 cup hot water to cover. Set a small plate on top to keep the mushrooms submerged. Let soak until tender, 10 to 20 minutes. Remove the mushrooms and cut them in half. Reserve the soaking liquid.
3. Strain the mushroom soaking liquid into a small saucepan. Add the dashi broth, mirin, soy sauce, vinegar, sugar and chile paste. Heat to a simmer. Cook until reduced a bit, about 10 minutes. Stir in the dissolved potato starch. Cook and stir until boiling and thickened. Add mushrooms. Remove from heat.
4. Pour oil into a small, deep saucepan to a depth of 2 inches. Set the pan over medium heat. Put a deep-fry thermometer into the pan and monitor the heat until the oil reaches 350 degrees. Pat the eggplant dry and slip 2 or 3 slices gently into the oil. Fry, turning once, until golden and the center is fork tender, 2 to 2 1/2 minutes. Remove eggplant with a slotted spoon to a piece of paper toweling. Repeat to fry the rest of the eggplant in small batches, adjusting the heat as necessary to maintain 350 degrees.
5. If using the mochi, slip a few cubes into the hot oil and fry until they puff into white irregular mounds, about 1 minute. Remove with a slotted spoon to drain on paper toweling.
6. To serve, put 3 or 4 slices of eggplant into each serving bowl. Top with some of the tofu cubes and the fried mochi, if using. Reheat the broth to a simmer. Divide the hot broth and mushrooms over the eggplant. Top with equal portions of the arugula, green onions and cilantro leaves. Serve right away.
Note: You can make dashi from instant packets sold in the Asian section of supermarkets or online. I like to use 1 to 2 teaspoons dashi powder per cup of hot water.
Nutrition information per serving (for 6 servings): 192 calories, 12 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 11 g carbohydrates, 6 g sugar, 8 g protein, 371 mg sodium, 3 g fiber
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CRISPY ZUCCHINI CHIPS WITH MARINARA
Prep: 10 minutes
Cook: 10 minutes
Makes: 4 servings
When ready to fry, coat only a few slices at a time with potato starch just before slipping into the oil. You can also try this recipe with 1/2-inch-thick strips of eggplant or boneless, skinless chicken thighs cut into 1-inch pieces; increase the frying time by a minute or two.
4 small zucchini, ends trimmed
1 cup marinara or spaghetti sauce
1/2 cup potato starch, cornstarch or flour
Safflower, sunflower or expeller-pressed canola oil for frying
1. Slice zucchini into 1/4-inch-thick rounds. Sprinkle with salt and let stand in a colander for 20 minutes or so. Pat the zucchini slices completely dry with paper towels.
2. Heat the sauce in a small covered dish in the microwave on high (100 percent power) until hot, 1 to 2 minutes.
3. Put potato starch into a shallow dish. Pour oil into shallow saucepan to a depth of 1/2 inch. Heat oil until it sizzles when a slice of zucchini is dipped into the oil.
4. Coat a few zucchini slices with the flour, shake off the excess and add to the hot oil. Do not crowd the pan or the slices will stick together. (Even if they stick together, they still will taste good.) Fry, turning with a slotted spoon until golden, about 2 minutes. Remove to paper toweling to drain. Sprinkle with salt. Repeat to fry remaining zucchini in small batches.
5. Serve hot with the sauce for dipping.
Nutrition information per serving: 101 calories, 4 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 12 g carbohydrates, 3 g sugar, 4 g protein, 291 mg sodium, 2 g fiber
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