Despite its unfortunate reputation, I have always been fond of broccoli. But I did not fully understand broccoli's potential until I was served an enormous slab of it encased in a golden-brown tempura shell at No. 7 restaurant in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Chef Tyler Kord's flagship establishment, which recombines cuisines the way "Vampire Weekend" recombines genres, is full of unexpected fare, from scrambled eggs with Brussels sprouts to double-decker broccoli tacos. But while the brunch and dinner offerings change regularly, the fried broccoli is ever-present on the evening appetizer menu.
Granted, virtually everything tastes good when it's battered and fried. But the treatment is particularly suitable for broccoli because of those frilly flower buds, which grab the batter exceptionally well with their ample surface area. Once fried, the top portion of each floret becomes soft and doughy on the inside, like a moist, savory doughnut. While the florets become meltingly tender, the stalks just steam through, retaining some of their crunch. (There is never any danger of the stalks overcooking.) All this happens within about a minute of frying time. And I haven't even mentioned the ultra-crisp exterior that makes all tempura pretty much impossible to stop eating.
Tempura batter is among the simplest of batters to make: It sometimes consists of just flour and water, though No. 7's cooks enhance the flavor of their batter with dark sesame oil and balsamic vinegar. Kord's recipe calls for tempura flour — a specially formulated blend of wheat flour, rice or tapioca starch, and leaveners — but all-purpose flour combined with a little bit of baking powder is a virtually indistinguishable substitute. Tempura batter should be whisked until it's as smooth as possible, and its consistency should fall somewhere between that of American pancake batter and that of crepe batter. You want it to obscure the florets' color, but not swathe them so heavily that they're no longer recognizable as broccoli florets.
Deep-frying is scary only to the extent that it's unfamiliar. Yes, hot oil can hurt you badly. But if you heat it in a pot with tall sides, and slide your battered florets into it gently, it's unlikely to make contact with your skin. Deep-frying also suffers from a reputation of being a fastidious activity, but it's not an exact science: If you have a thermometer handy (or use an electric countertop deep-fryer), heat the oil to 400°F. If not, just wait for it to be hot enough to turn a few flecks of tempura batter golden brown in 30 to 45 seconds. And don't be afraid to adjust the heat under the oil as needed -- once you start frying, the broccoli will lower the temperature of the oil, so you may have to nudge the dial up to keep the oil sizzling.
No. 7 fries its broccoli by the quarter-head, but cooking such gargantuan pieces is difficult to pull off without an industrial fryer. So when you're doing it at home, just cut your broccoli into large florets.
Broccoli Tempura With Black-Bean Hummus
Adapted from No. 7
Yield: 4 to 6 servings. Time: About 1 hour
1/4 cup black sesame seeds
1 1/4 cups drained cooked black beans, cooking liquid reserved
Juice of 1 lemon
2 tablespoons tahini
2 teaspoons sugar
1 garlic clove
Canola or safflower oil for deep-frying
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
2 tablespoons sesame oil
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 head broccoli (about 1 pound), cut into 2- to 3-inch florets
Put the sesame seeds in a large skillet over medium-low heat and cook, shaking the pan frequently, until fragrant, about 5 minutes. Put the seeds, black beans, lemon juice, tahini, sugar, garlic, and 3/4 teaspoon salt in a blender or food processor along with 1 cup black-bean cooking liquid or water. Process until smooth, and set aside (or store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to several days).
Put at least 2 inches of the canola or safflower oil in a large, deep pot over medium-high heat. Combine the flour, baking powder, and 1 teaspoon salt in a large bowl. Add 1 3/4 cup water and whisk well to combine, then whisk in the sesame oil and balsamic vinegar.
Add a few drops of the tempura batter to the oil to test whether it's hot enough; the batter should immediately sizzle vigorously. Working in batches, dip the broccoli florets in the tempura batter, let excess batter drip off them, and then transfer them to the oil. Cook, turning once, until deep golden brown, about 1 minute. Transfer the florets to paper towels to drain, and season with salt. Serve hot, dipped in the black-bean hummus.