Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Daring Cooks Challenge: Tempura and Soba Noodles

As the monthly Daring Cooks challenges are supposed to be posted on the 14th of each month, I am a day late with this. It was Friday night's dinner which I planned to blog about yesterday but I was inexplicably wiped out last night so it did not happen.
This month's Daring Cooks challenge was to cook Soba noodles and tempura, both of which were new experiences for me. We were given the recipe for a dish called Hiyashi Soba, which is a cold Soba noodle salad. One of the two sauce options called for the Japanese broth Dashi which was not available locally so I made a batch of that in addition to the two sauces. I had some scallops in the freezer which needed to get eaten so decided to use those for the tempura. My dining partner, B, requested shrimp as well. For vegetables, I thinly sliced some zucchini and onion, as B -- who otherwise picks the onion out of his food -- loves fried onion rings. Instead of putting raw vegetables on my Soba noodles, I made a separate Japanese-style cucumber and radish salad. So, this challenge which should have taken me less than an hour took more than twice that!

First I made the Dashi using this recipe. In retrospect, I should have read more carefully and noted that two sauce recipes were included, one traditional dipping sauce -- which called for Dashi -- and one spicy -- which did not. I would have been perfectly happy with just the spicy sauce and could have saved the $8 I spent on kombu. The plain sauce consisted of Dashi, soy sauce, and mirin. I much preferred the spicy sauce which included green onions, soy sauce, rice vinegar, dry mustard and sesame oil, in addition to a few other ingredients. B was not very impressed with either.

The next step was to cook the noodles. The instructions we were given were considerably more complicated than the ones on the package:

Heat 2 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot over high heat. Add the noodles a small bundle at a time, stirring gently to separate. When the water returns to a full boil, add 1 cup of cold water. Repeat this twice. When the water returns to a full boil, check the noodles for doneness. You want to cook them until they are firm-tender. Do not overcook them.

Drain the noodles in a colander and rinse well under cold running water until the noodles are cool. This not only stops the cooking process, but also removes the starch from the noodles. This is an essential part of soba noodle making. Once the noodles are cool, drain them and cover them with a damp kitchen towel and set them aside allowing them to cool completely.

I confess to cheating a little here. I was only cooking two bundles of the noodles so I cooked them together. My noodles may have been a little overcooked.
To serve the noodles, I tossed the noodles with the spicy dipping sauce rather than dipping them because I again did not read the directions as carefully as I should have. Apparently, when you don't ever really follow the recipe you become unable to follow a recipe...
For the tempura batter, I followed the recipe given:
  • 1 egg yolk from a large egg
  • 1 cup iced water
  • ½ cup all-purpose flour, plus extra for dredging
  • ½ cup cornstarch
  • ½ teaspoon ) baking powder
  • oil, for deep frying preferably vegetable
  • ice water bath, for the tempura batter
Place the iced water into a mixing bowl. Lightly beat the egg yolk and gradually pour into the iced water, stirring (preferably with chopsticks) and blending well. Add flours and baking powder all at once, stroke a few times with chopsticks until the ingredients are loosely combined. The batter should be runny and lumpy. Place the bowl of batter in an ice water bath to keep it cold while you are frying the tempura. The batter as well as the vegetables and seafood have to be very cold. The temperature shock between the hot oil and the cold veggies help create a crispy tempura.

Heat the oil in a large pan or a wok. For vegetables, the oil should be 320°F/160°C; for seafood it should be 340°F/170°C. It is more difficult to maintain a steady temperature and produce consistent tempura if you don’t have a thermometer, but it can be done. You can test the oil by dropping a piece of batter into the hot oil. If it sinks a little bit and then immediately rises to the top, the oil is ready.

Start with the vegetables that won’t leave a strong odor in the oil. Dip them in a shallow bowl of flour to lightly coat them and then dip them into the batter. Slide them into the hot oil, deep frying only a couple of pieces at a time so that the temperature of the oil does not drop.

Place finished tempura pieces on a wire rack so that excess oil can drip off. Continue frying the other items, frequently scooping out any bits of batter to keep the oil clean and prevent the oil (and the remaining tempura) from getting a burned flavor.

I was fairly pleased with my finished product, but have decided that my rule of thumb for the future will be: If I fried it, I don't want to eat it. Not a comment on my frying abilities -- I just find frying food and then eating fried food unappealing.

And finally, I made this Japanese-style Cucumber and Radish Salad from Cooking Light:

I wish I could be a little bit more enthusiastic about my first Daring Cooks challenge meal. I think if DH had been home, it would have been more fun to cook and eat. Oh well, on to the next challenge!

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