Food & Drink

How to turn eggplant and zucchini into deep-fried deliciousness

Chunky slices of fried eggplant and a crispy garnish of puffed fried mochi cake set off a boldly flavored soup. (Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
Chunky slices of fried eggplant and a crispy garnish of puffed fried mochi cake set off a boldly flavored soup. (Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
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Once upon a time, it felt lonely to cook for a hobby. Thanks to YouTube and countless food websites and blogs, I connect easily with kindred spirits now. So when I spend a gloomy Saturday in the kitchen working on a technique, or recreating a favorite restaurant dish, I know I am not alone.

Deep-frying is one of those techniques for which I welcome tips from others. As with any new-to-me cooking technique, I take my time. Thin slices of zucchini are a good start. Deep-fried, wow, delicious. A light coating of potato starch or cornstarch adds a crisp, light texture. Sprinkle the slices with salt as soon as they come out of the oil, then serve them with a dipping sauce or slip into brothy soups or omelets for a rich, intriguing element.

Do the same with eggplant — even if you don’t think you like it, try it fried. I am already looking forward to the long, crisp, skinny strips sold at the Venice Club stand at Milwaukee’s Summerfest. They serve the deep-fried goodness with a cup of zesty marinara sauce for dipping.

Truth be told, I prefer others do the frying when things get complicated. But a bowl of amazing fried eggplant, called mizore gake, served at Yakitori Totto in Manhattan, propelled me into the kitchen.

Golden, pudding-tender slices of eggplant rest in a sweet, spicy broth surrounded by bouncy nameko mushrooms and crispy-chewy mochi nuggets tucked under a pile of aromatic greens. Absolutely delicious. The combination of textures and flavors, and the richness of the fried eggplant, make this Japanese bowl a standout worthy of my time to perfect.

Making the broth proves simple — especially since I rely on instant dashi purchased from a local Asian market. At its simplest, dashi, Japan’s most basic cooking stock, combines sea kelp (kombu) simmered in water. Easy enough to do at home. (Kelp is available at Whole Foods and most large supermarkets.) More common is the addition of dried fish known as bonito; it’s in the powdered dashi I rely on for speed. Low sodium chicken broth makes a fine substitute in this dish.

The other ingredients that flavor the broth, such as soy sauce, mirin and rice vinegar are readily available. I add the soaking liquid from dried mushrooms to boost the umami.

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The tricky part of this dish is deep-frying thick slices of eggplant to tender, creamy goodness. First, salt the eggplant to draw out some of the water. After standing, it’s important to pat the eggplant absolutely dry before immersing in the oil. Same goes for nearly anything you’re frying — use care to prevent dangerous hot splatters.

Use a deep, heavy-bottomed saucepan or wok that holds heat well. Have a paper towel-lined tray nearby, as well as a slotted spoon or wire skimmer. It’s smart to have a large box of kitchen salt handy should you need to douse flames. Of course, never put water into hot oil.

Always use the best oil you can afford. I prefer safflower or sunflower oil for its high heat cooking properties and odorless frying. Rice bran oil, peanut oil and expeller-pressed canola oil also are good. Ordinary vegetable oil, or regular canola oil, overheat easily and give off a fishy smell when frying. To regulate the oil temperature, I recommend investing in a good deep-fry thermometer.

The frying oil can be cooled, strained and bottled to use again later. Think about the flavor the oil might have picked up in the frying. For example, oil used to fry vegetables could be used later to fry fish — but not vice versa.

For fun frying (!), purchase dried unsweetened mochi (sticky rice cakes — not to be confused with mochi the frozen ice cream dessert) from a Japanese or pan-Asian market. Then cut the firm, dried blocks into small cubes. Add the cubes, a few at a time to hot oil. Watch them grow and puff as they fry into irregular white clouds of sticky rice. Doused in the flavorful broth alongside the fried eggplant, the mochi lends a fun, chewy texture.

Not quite a soup, more like a stew, this bowl of inspired goodness stars as a meatless main course or a hearty first-course to dinner of grilled steak or fish and steamed asparagus.

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We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

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