We usually do a pot luck when we have a large family reunion. This year however, everyone was too busy to cook. Someone suggested we order sushi. That would have been an easy solution but my sister Fuyuko and I wanted to cook something for my father's birthday. It was his 88th, a particularly festive age in Japan. I told everyone to just show up, that Fuyuko and I will cook. Of course, no one in our family ever comes empty handed. My brother Hiroshi and his wife Kanako made red azuki bean rice. My brother Takashi and his wife, Yoshie, brought a beautiful melon. In the end, everyone pitched in, as always.
I did most of the shopping at the Tsukiji Market the day before, including the tuna and bonito for sashimi, the wild mountain vegetables and burdock root for the tempura. I had fun getting these unusual wild vegetables. I can only name a few of them. I love them for their young bitter taste. They bring spring to the table.
One the festive day, everyone arrived punctually. The women gathered in the kitchen. The men in the patio. The women cooked and chatted. The men swept, smoked, drank beer. My father stayed upstairs to watch the news. He told us to call him when lunch was ready.
The tempura and sashimi were prepped ahead of time but needed to be assembled last minute. As we floured the vegetables and dipped them in batter, we took turns talking about life, as we always do when we see each other. First, about our children. Then our spouses. And finally about ourselves. Somehow, our hands became the subject of our discussion. Yoshie was complaining that sometimes her finger tips hurt. She is the youngest of our group, and her fingers look fine to me. Kanako thought her finger joints were getting fat. I don't have such symptoms but my hands are getting wrinkly. Fuyuko showed her chapped hands. She has typical hardworking pastry chef's hands. These imperfecitons told stories. We admired them for a minute, just long enough for the wild mountain vegetables to cook. They came out of the oil nice and crispy, as they should. I asked my nephew Hayato, to call Grandpa. It was time for him to come downstairs and begin the birthday celebration.
Kanako mixes the vegetables with the batter.
She deep fries the wild vegetables at 160 centigrade.
Yoshie arranges the tempura on the platters.
Yoshie and Kanako look at each other's hands.
Yoshie arranges the tempura on the platter.
The branken fiddlehead tempura came out crisp.
The wild vegetable tempura was a hit with my father.
The sashimi was very good, especially the bonito,
which was seasoned in a soy-sake marinade and
served with a variety of garnishes - Myoga, Shiso,
Kaiware and daikon radish.
Vegetable Tempura Recipe
Makes 4 servings
1 cup - Cake flour mixed with 2 tbls corn starch
1 cup - chilled water mixed with egg yolk*
1 quart of vegetable oil (peanut or canola) for deep frying
*egg yolk is optional
1 cast iron pan, 2 inches deep
A deep fat thermometer
Since wild mountain vegetables are not readily available outside of Japan, use young spring vegetables of your choice.
1 handful, Fiddle headferns, Trim brown ends
4 Asparagus, ends trimmed
1 Burdock, washed and sliced thinly into match sticks
4 Young carrots, sliced thinly into matchsticks
A few herbs such as parsely sprigs, basil, dill, fennel, sage, shiso leaves
Wash the vegetables and slice them thinly, if they are firm root vegetables.
Heat 2 inches of oil in a 4 quart heavy pot over moderate heat until it registers 160C or
320 F. on thermometer.
Make the tempura batter. Whisk the flour together in a mixing bowl. Stir in the ice water; don't overmix. Just tap the flour. Don't worry about lumps. The batter should be the consistency of a lumpy light cream.
Start with the root vegetables. Then fry the other vegetables.
Working in batches of about 6-7 matchsticks, toss burdock and carrrots in batter until coated. Lift the matchsticks out of batter in a bunch, letting excess batter drip off, and transfer to oil. Add a couple more bunches to the oil but never crowd the pan. Fry the matchstick roots, turning with a slotted spoon or wire mesh, until slightly golden, about one to one and a half minutes. Transfer with slotted spoon to paper towels to drain. Return oil to 160C or 320F between batches.
Fry the other vegetables. Begin with the asapargus, following the same steps as the root vegetables but fry them one stem at a time. The asparagus should take a no more than a minute. Then fry the herbs, which also need less than a minute to fry. Hold the herb by the stem and dip into the batter. Lift it out and hold it for a moment over the bowl to let the excess batter drip off, then fry it in the oil. Drain in paper towels.
Serve the tempura with heated dipping sauce while warm. Alternately, you can serve the tempura with salt on the side.