Welcome back to Dirty Work, our series of dispatches from the MUNCHIES Garden. We're inviting chefs, bartenders, and personalities in the world of food and drink to explore our edible playground and make whatever the hell inspires them with our rooftop produce. In the latest installment, chefs Nick Kim and Jimmy Lau are here to show us how to get all of the best of late summer produce onto the same plate, and the trick is tempura batter.
When the chefs from Shuko visit the MUNCHIES Test Kitchen, there’s not a lot of idle chit-chat happening. Nick Kim and Jimmy Lau were quietly focused on doing what they do best—making beautiful, tasty food with finesse and precision, and extraneous small talk was not part of the equation.
The duo run the kitchen at their critically-acclaimed omakase sushi restaurant near Union Square. Earlier in the day, they wandered through our rooftop garden with our culinary director Farideh Sadeghin and editor-in-chief Rupa Bhattacharya, picking out the best of what was growing at the moment.
They settle on spindly Japanese eggplants that look like witches' fingers, perky little sungold tomatoes, a handful of shishito peppers, scallions, and some mugwort leaves. (What? You don’t have mugwort casually growing in your windowbox herb garden?)
Once we’re back inside, the two begin their prep. Nick brings a small sauce pot of water up to a boil, then tosses in a full cup of umami-packed bonito flakes. (These are sushi guys, after all—you knew they couldn’t help but insert some fish product in here somewhere.) He lets them rehydrate and create what basically amounts to the quickest broth we’ve ever seen.
Jimmy scores the deep purple eggplants so thoroughly and intricately they end up looking like scaly snakes. Might not be entirely necessary, but it definitely shows off his knife skills and it looks pretty fun while he’s doing it.
He cuts the scored eggplants into two-inch sections, getting them ready to be fried, sans batter, in hot vegetable oil until they turn slightly golden brown. Then he takes a knob of ginger to task, again busting out some fancy knife work that seems wholly unnecessary but is nevertheless extremely mesmerizing to watch.
LIKE HOW? WHAT SORCERY IS THIS?
Anyway—meanwhile, Nick begins dredging the tomatoes and a few mugwort leaves in a light tempura batter, then drops them into hot frying oil. To keep the leaves from folding over on themselves, he pokes and prods them occasionally with chopsticks, then gently removes them from the oil to let them rest and drain on a paper towel.
In a dry and very hot pan, he sautees de-seeded shishitos until the skins get nicely blistered and the flesh is slightly wilted.
To plate this up, Nick uses those same chopsticks he used for frying to carefully arrange the eggplant, tomatoes, and peppers.
He carefully spoons some of the bonito broth into the base of the bowl, trying not to get any of the crispy tempura batter too soggy. He garnishes the bowl with the crunchy mugwort leaves, the perfectly thin spears of ginger that Jimmy sliced earlier, a whole host of edible flowers from the garden, thinly sliced scallions, and more dry bonito flakes.
It’s a dish that evokes what Shuko is all about—subtle flavor buildup with immaculate preparation and presentation. Plus a little bit of the whimsy that comes with hanging out with a bunch of weirdos like us here at MUNCHIES, in the form of a random assortment of edible botanicals strewn on top just for shits and giggles. It also happens to be a collection of the best of what late summer farmer's markets have to offer, so you should give this one a try, soon.