A Japanese twist on holiday entertaining

Originally Published November 29, 2012 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated November 28, 2012 at 12:03 p.m.
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Tribune Media Services

Bite-sized tempura pieces are easy to prepare in advance and cook quickly in batches.

By Wolfgang Puck

Tribune Media Services

“Do you have any ideas to help me throw a different kind of holiday party?”

That’s one of the questions home cooks ask me most often at this time of year. They’re tired of cooking yet another big sit-down dinner; tired of putting out huge buffet spreads of the usual hors d’oeuvres to serve with choices of red and white wine or beer, and maybe a punchbowl; tired of dessert parties that look beautiful and taste delicious but leave all the grownups wishing they hadn’t indulged quite so much — and all the children supercharged on sugar.

I usually answer with a few tips that can help anyone throw a memorable party, and I’m happy to share them with you here.

First, I suggest that you simplify and limit the menu, whether it’s appetizers or a multi-course meal or sweet treats, to just a few special recipes. And maybe limit the guest list, too, inviting over just a few friends or family members one evening for a more intimate holiday celebration. Both of these approaches will make it easier for you, the host or hostess, to prepare and serve everything perfectly; and, just as importantly, it will make the food you serve all the more memorable.

Next, think about doing something different. Maybe cook a featured dish not normally associated with the holidays, yet one that feels festive and fun. And, while you’re at it, choose one or more recipes that you can prepare ahead of time and cook quickly, so you easily perform the final steps after your guests have arrived. Better still, consider a recipe that you can cook and serve simply in batches; and maybe that also has a communal aspect to it, so all of your guests can join in the fun.

I know that all of those factors together sound like a tall order. But I know it’s possible. Think of a do-it-yourself pizza party, for example; or a big pot of cheese fondue with good bread chunks, sausage cubes and vegetable crudites for dipping.

Or consider the popular Japanese specialty of tempura.

The batter, bite-sized morsels and dipping sauces for tempura are very easy to prepare in advance. And, once guests have assembled, the food cooks quickly batch by batch — especially if you have one of those relatively inexpensive, easy, thermostat-controlled countertop deep-fryers sold everywhere today. (Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions, and keep children safely out of the way.) Everybody loves the crispy, flavorful results — which will be remarkably light when cooked at the right temperature. Serve a steady flow of tempura, and your guests will feel they’ve really had a memorable holiday party.

And so will you!

SHRIMP AND VEGETABLE TEMPURA WITH TWO DIPPING SAUCES

Serves 4 as a main course, 8 as an appetizer

Tempura batter:

1/4 cup rice flour

3 cups club soda, plus extra as needed

2 cups all-purpose flour

1/2 cup cornstarch

1 tablespoon baking powder

1 tablespoon salt

1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Chinese Hot Mustard Sauce:

2 tablespoons dry Chinese mustard powder, or English mustard powder

Pinch ground turmeric

2 tablespoons rice vinegar

2 teaspoons water

1/4 cup liquid from bottled pickled Asian ginger

1 lemon, juiced

1 tablespoon sugar

1 cup peanut oil

1 tablespoon Asian hot-chili oil

1 tablespoon Asian toasted-sesame oil

Sesame-Scallion Dipping Sauce:

1/4 cup mirin (Japanese rice wine)

1 tablespoon dark brown sugar

1/4 cup lemon juice

1/4 cup soy sauce

1 tablespoon wasabi powder

2 tablespoons Asian toasted-sesame oil

2 tablespoons minced scallions

Shrimp and vegetables:

1 1/2 pounds medium-sized fresh shrimp, shelled and deveined

6 cups assorted bite-sized pieces trimmed vegetables, such as whole button mushrooms, pieces of scallion or asparagus, broccoli or cauliflower florets, or chunks of Japanese eggplant, zucchini and onion

1 quart safflower oil or canola oil

Directions:

First, make the Tempura Batter: In a small bowl, stir together the rice flour and 1/2 cup of the soda water until blended. Set aside. Into a medium mixing bowl, sift together the all-purpose flour, cornstarch and baking powder. Into this mixture, stir in the remaining soda water, salt and cayenne. Then, stir in the rice-flour mixture. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour before use.

Meanwhile, make the Chinese Hot Mustard Sauce: In a bowl, stir the dry mustard and turmeric into the rice vinegar and water until dissolved. Stir in the ginger liquid, lemon juice, and sugar, whisking until blended. In another bowl, combine the peanut, chili, and sesame oils. Whisking continuously, slowly pour the oils into the mustard mixture until smooth and creamy. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until needed.

As soon as the mustard sauce is done, make the Sesame-Scallion Dipping Sauce: In a small bowl, whisk together the mirin, brown sugar, lemon juice, soy sauce and wasabi. Stir in the sesame oil and scallions. Set aside.

When ready to prepare the tempura, fill an automatic deep-fryer or a deep, heavy saucepan with the oil. Heat to 350-375 degrees on the deep-fryer’s thermostat or a deep-frying thermometer clipped to the side of the pan. Preheat the oven to its lowest setting.

Remove the batter from the refrigerator and, if it seems too thick, stir in a little more soda water to reach the consistency of heavy cream. Piece by piece, dip the shrimp and vegetables into the batter; then carefully drop into the hot oil, taking care to avoid splashing or splattering. Do not overcrowd the oil, cooking the food in batches. Fry until golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes per batch. With the deep-fryer basket, a wire skimmer, a slotted spoon or metal tongs, remove the food from the oil and transfer to paper towels to drain. Then, transfer to a heatproof dish and keep warm in the oven while cooking remaining batches.

To serve, arrange the shrimp and vegetables on napkin-lined plates or a napkin-lined platter. Serve with individual bowls of the dipping sauce or larger sauceboats with spoons for guests to help themselves.

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