Honey, There's Beer in My Batter
As home cooks, we're told to cook with the same wine we like to drink. Why not apply the same argument to beer? In the spirit of beer-food pairing in today's Food section, I set out to put this theory to the test.
Earlier this year, I shared my love for the line of Hitachino Nest beers, particularly the Red Rice Ale, one of the few things I've found to marry well with spicy noodles and curries.
But I wondered: Would my favorite pinky-rose ale work as well in my mixing bowl as it does on my tongue? When Food section editor Joe Yonan challenged me to think about how I'd cook with my favorite beer, I immediately leaped to the idea of onion rings.
The free association quickly followed: Beer batter. Red rice. Japanese. Yes, tempura! That was it. My day dream included visions of sweet potatoes and broccoli, with some kind of piquant soy dipping sauce.
As I researched recipes for tempura batter, many called for all-purpose wheat-based flour, but I wanted more of an ingredient symbiosis. Whenever I eat tempura in a Japanese restaurant, I drink sake, which is also made from rice. Rice wine, rice beer -- well, of course, I needed to use rice flour in the batter.
On my first batter attempt, I used rice flour only, which yielded a crunchy exterior that bordered on brittle. I also noticed that the batter was slipping from the vegetables. Although I could have added an egg wash for extra batter support, I wanted to tinker with the very batter itself.
I decided to go 50-50 and do a mix of rice flour and wheat-based flour, but instead of all-purpose, I chose the finer, more delicate pastry flour. The first batch revealed that the rice flour had the potential for a delicate crunch, and that's what I was shooting for.
The new batter was definitely improved; it clung to the vegetables throughout frying, and it yielded the right amount of light crunch without fear of breaking a tooth. The recipe details are below.
A few notes:
If you use the red rice ale, you'll notice that the batter turns pinky rose. Don't worry; your final dish will be golden brown, just as you remember.
I used nearly an entire bottle of beer, which runs about 8 bucks a pop. This beer ain't cheap. But you get what you pay for, and wine drinkers will tell you that life is too short to drink bad wine.
Make sure the beer is cold; every single recipe I looked at called for cold liquid, be it water, club soda or beer. Although I don't know the science behind this argument, I say, "Monkey read, Monkey do."
As much as I love the decadence of thin rounds of fried onions, I adored the battered sweet potatoes. What a flavor kick in the pants. If sliced thin enough, the sweet potatoes will get tender, but still with a little tooth that I think is key for this kind of dish. I was also surprised by the broccoli, and am thinking next time, I'll do green beans.
The dipping sauce is a take on the classic soy sauce offering (details below). I urge you to play around and see what you like, but keep in mind you probably want a cross-section of salty, sweet, spicy and sour/pungent.
The pairing was seamless, which means the beer and the tempura equally carried its flavor weight, without one dominating the other. You could taste the sweetness of the beer in the batter, which was my other concern.
I know many of you will argue that I could have used a cheap can of Bud and call it a wok wrap, and maybe you're right. I didn't have time to test other beers in this batter (although I did work with another beer in another dish -- stay tuned for those details in tomorrow's blog post), but that's where you come in.
If you're a beer-batter veteran, share your favorite brew and flour flavor combination. Come on, I wanna hear from you!
Vegetable Beer-Batter Tempura
1 cup white rice flour
1 cup pastry flour
2 cups (16 ounces) of very cold beer that you really enjoy drinking -- I used Hitachino Red Rice Ale for the purposes of this experiment.
1 quart vegetable oil -- Peanut, canola, sunflower
1 medium onion, peeled and sliced into rings, about Â½ inch thick
1 sweet potato, peeled, halved and sliced into half moons, about Â½ inch thick
1/2 bunch broccoli florets
Other veggie possibilities: asparagus tips, carrot slices, mushroom caps, eggplant rounds
Salt to taste
Useful tools: Instant-read thermometer, tongs, skimmer, wok
In a large mixing bowl, combine both flours and beer, which will foam. With a rubber spatula, gently stir to integrate the flour into the liquid; it's okay for lumps to remain. Set aside while you prepare vegetables.
Heat a wok or deep, heavy-bottomed skillet until nearly smoking, and add oil. Heat oil until it reaches 350 degrees. While oil heats, submerge one type of vegetable into batter.
With tongs, extract vegetables, one at a time, out of the batter, shaking to remove excess. Dip in hot oil and allow to cook until golden brown on both sides, about 2 minutes. With skimmer, remove from wok and allow to drain on paper towels. Lightly salt, if desired.
Between batches, use skimmer to remove flour droppings and allow oil to return to 350 degrees.
Eat immediately and serve with dipping sauce.
1/3 cup soy sauce of choice
1 inch hunk of fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped or grated
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon sugar
At least 2 teaspoons rice wine
1/4 teaspoon chili flakes or 1 teaspoon of your favorite hot sauce
Mix all ingredients together in a small bowl and stir to combine. Taste and add accordingly; you want a mixture of salty, sweet, spicy and pungent/sour.
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