Before you run screaming, hear me out: Frying isn’t an actual sin. I mean, yeah, it’s bad for you, if you do it every day. Plus, your curtains will smell weird if you have hot oil around the house a lot, and if you own drama queen smoke detectors, like we do, it’ll probably cause you permanent hearing damage if you indulge more than once a month.
But sometimes—when the rains come, and the days seem to be ending sooner, and you’re dealing with, say, a borderline-unhealthy squash addiction—you just need a good fry.
When it comes to fried food, in our house, there are the usual suspects: Chicken. Onions. Potatoes. Fried and true, those guys are. But squash? Never. Squash was an Untouchable.
I had fried squash (tempura, naturally) for the first time in Japan, in the basement food gallery of Takashimaya, which someone once described to me as the Nieman Marcus of Japan. The exterior was surprising – more rough-textured than any fried food I was familiar with, shattery in the mouth, and somehow ethereally light, even though it was served cold. I loved every vegetal bite.
At home, I searched for a recipe, but each click uncovered another layer of musts: You must keep tempura batter coldcoldcold, so the gluten in the flour doesn’t develop. You must use eggs. You must use rice flour. You must not use eggs. You must use oil. You must use wheat flour. You must stir with chopsticks, and leave the batter lumpy, if you want the perfect texture. You must recite the text of Tampopo while mixing. You must use baking soda. You must use baking powder. You must not use any leaveners. You must . . .
I did what any cook worth her salt would do: I tried the tempura batter that comes in a box in the grocery store. And you know what? That worked, for me, for a while.
Then I became a whole-baked squash evangelist. I’ve been roasting away for weeks now, making cakes and food for Graham, and generally abusing every type of squash available by baking it whole, until soft, pureeing it, and putting it into something. I sort of got to feeling sorry for the things – they did all the work and didn’t get any of the credit. I wanted a recipe starring squash as itself. And well, goodness me, doesn’t everyone go through an autumnal fried food binge?
My goal was to avoid tempura altogether, the way you avoid a parallel parking spot that’s technically big enough for your car but too scary to actually use. I went with what I thought was a basic beer batter, spiked with a touch of Tabasco for intrigue. I thought I’d just dip my little kabocha crescents in, fry ‘em up, and that would be that—like onion rings, only orange inside. But no. Nooooo. That first batch had to come out all shattery and elegant on the outside, with a thin, crisp crust barely strong enough to encase what had become, in essence, mashed squash.
If I’d been counting, I’d say I fried six or seven batches that first time, by myself in the kitchen, dipping kabocha into batter and then oil time and time again, just to prove to myself that yes, it would happen again. It did. I was delighted.
Then I started to play: I thickened the batter with a bit more flour, and it bulked up a bit, which gave the kabocha a protective layer that steamed and hissed when the squash was cooked. In this second version, I started to really taste the beer – which is why when I made them again a few days later, instead of using another one of the PBR cans we’ve been fostering in our fridge for going on 4 months, I used a deeply malty, nutty local amber ale.
Then I added more flour. Result: Fair food. I had squash with a chewy, doughy batter, thick enough to sink my teeth into but not so thick it hid the taste of the squash. The crust lifted up off the vegetable just enough to hold a hot, moist puff of beer-flavored air that rushed out with the first bite. Excellent.
Give it a try, if your arteries are feeling unusually elastic (especially if you’ll already have a vat of hot oil around for your turkey one of these days). Start with the thinnest batter, and play with it a bit. Just think: It could very well be the first time you fry a quintessentially seasonal food.
About that seasonality thing: I believe we think of winter squash as something that’s always ripe, but that’s not true. Most squash have to be aged a bit, to achieve peak sweetness. At the market, look for specimens whose stems have dried out and become corky or woody – wet, green stems indicate a freshly-picked squash, which isn’t what you want (unless you want something less sweet that’s harder to cut and sccop, per the photo above).
And oh, yes. I almost forgot. After much testing, it seems like the fried kabocha reaches the ultimate interior texture – and the batter’s crispness and color peak – when the squash is sliced a bit shy of 1/2” thick.
Try not to kill yourself when you cut it, eh?
Beer-Battered Kabocha Squash (PDF)
Made with moonish slivers of bright orange kabocha, this Japanese-inspired snack skips traditional tempura batter in favor of something a bit more American: beer. The batter will fry up differently depending on how much flour you add, so try experimenting—the thinner the dip, the more elegant, crunchy, and tempura-ish your end product will be, and the thicker it is, the more doughy and chewy (and the more you’ll taste the beer). In any case, the sweet squash (and its skin) cooks up to a sweet, soft treat inside.
Dip the squash in a traditional aioli, a Japanese-style combo of dashi, soy, and mirin, or simply sprinkle it with sea salt right when it comes out of the fryer. But be sure to eat your squash hot!
TIME: 40 minutes, start to finish
MAKES: Fried squash for a crowd
Canola oil (enough to fill a deep pot with 3” oil)
1 5- or 6-pound kabocha squash (about the diameter of a soccer ball), halved and seeded
1 to 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup cornstarch
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 12-ounce beer (still cold)
Tabasco sauce (optional)
Heat the oil in a deep, heavy pot fitted with a frying thermometer over medium heat until the oil reaches 325 degrees. (The burner temperature will depend on your stove, so keep adjusting it as needed.)
Meanwhile, use a large knife to slice the kabocha squash into half moons just under 1/2” thick—any thicker, and the squash won’t cook enough before the batter gets nice and brown. Cut each piece in half again and set aside. Line a large plate with paper towels (or line your kitchen counter with newspaper) and set aside.
Whisk the flour, cornstarch, salt, and baking powder until blended in a large mixing bowl. (For a lighter, more tempura-like crust, use 1 cup flour, or use more flour for a thicker, slightly chewier crust. Or start with 1 cup, and add a little as you go, if you’d like to experiment!) When the oil has reached 325 degrees, whisk the beer into the dry ingredients, stirring only until the flour is incorporated. Add a dash (or a glug) of Tabasco sauce, if desired, and mix in.
Working with a few pieces of squash at a time, dip the squash into the batter. Let any excess batter drip back into the bowl, and carefully transfer the squash pieces to the hot oil. Fry for 1 1/2 to 2 minutes, or until the batter is golden brown and the skin of the squash begins to turn from green to brown. (If you made your batter nice and thick, you’ll need to turn the squash pieces over halfway through frying.) Use a slotted spoon or mesh ladle to transfer the squash to the paper towels, and repeat with the remaining squash, keeping an eye on the oil temperature and adjusting the heat as necessary. Serve hot.