Sunday, January 8, 2012

Candied walnuts with prawns

Few things in life give such immediate pleasure as candied walnuts. They are one of those things that everyone seems to adore, as they strike some happy chord in the brain.

Fortunately, they are also a snap to make. And, if you like tempura shrimp, combining them with candied walnuts and a bit of Japanese mayonnaise will turn this into immediate heaven for you. This is a lively Cantonese dish that is easy to master and fun to serve.

This is also great food for fancy dinners, as most of it can be done ahead of time, and yet just fancy enough that your guests will be thrilled. I served them to Mexican cooking icon Diana Kennedy at a party in her honor a while ago, and I heaved a huge sigh of relief when she pronounced them delicious.

Luscious halves and pieces
Serving up tasty walnuts -- as with any other nut -- depends on one thing and one thing only: freshness.  So, start with the best walnuts you can find, which for me usually means heading over to the health food store where I can rummage around in their bins and taste a couple before buying them.

Get the walnut halves and bigger pieces this time, rather than the smaller bits. These are usually the best when it comes to quality anyway, and it's nicer to serve up walnuts this way than as a crumble. 

The second thing you have to remember when using walnuts is that they must be blanched first to get rid of the bitterness in their skins. This will also serve to turn the nuts into tender pillows that only need to be fried to wake up their flavors. Candied walnuts are so good that I often serve them on their own as a cocktail snack or little side dish, and they disappear awfully fast. So be sure to make enough!

Fry the shrimp with tempura batter
The seasoning can be adjusted to fit your palate and whatever it is you are serving them with. I like a bit of spice in them, but this can easily be omitted or exchanged with something else. A dash of toasted sesame seeds also adds another dimension, if you like, and gives a nice, pale contrast to the dark walnuts, but this again is all up to you. 

Deep-frying prawns or large shrimp for this recipe is also easier than it looks. The secret is tempura flour, which you can buy already prepared in most East Asian markets (look in the Japanese aisle if it is a Chinese or Korean market). Then, stir ice water into the flour before dipping in the prawns and deep frying. It is the ice water that makes the batter explode in the hot oil, which then turns the batter into something lighter than air.

The sauce is simply Kewpie mayonnaise, a Japanese brand that I love. And I serve the prawns over nothing more than thinly shredded cabbage or iceberg lettuce. This may seem awfully prosaic, but the flavors of the mayo and walnuts and fried prawns trickle down into a delicious dressing. Plus, the heat from the prawns cooks the veggies every so slightly so that it makes this simple bed the perfect foil for everything else.

Cantonese delight

Candied walnuts with prawns 

Hetao xia  核桃蝦  
Guangdong
Serves 4 to 6 as part of a multicourse meal 

Candied walnuts:
3 cups very fresh shelled walnuts (halves and large pieces)
Boiling water, as needed
4 cups peanut or vegetable oil
¼ cup sugar
2 teaspoons sea salt
1 teaspoon five-spice powder
1 teaspoon ground ginger
¼ cup toasted sesame seeds, optional

Shrimp:
12 prawns or large shrimp, shelled but with the tail attached if possible
2 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
1 teaspoon sea salt
½ cup tempura flour
Filtered ice water, as needed

To serve:
Shredded head cabbage or iceberg lettuce (about 3 cups)

1. Place the walnuts in a medium heatproof work bowl and cover them with boiling water. Leave them in the water for at least 10 minutes (although longer is better here), and then drain and rinse. Pat the walnuts as dry as you can, since you will be frying them. 

Nuts before & after caramelization
2. Heat the oil in a wok over medium-high heat until a wooden or bamboo chopstick inserted in the hot oil is immediately covered with bubbles. Place a dry work bowl next to the stove for the fried walnuts and have a slotted spoon handy. Add the walnuts to the wok and gently stir them in the oil until they are a golden brown and taste toasty and crunchy. Remove them with the slotted spoon to the dry bowl. Drain off and reserve (you will need it later for the prawns) all but 1 tablespoon of the oil from the wok. Place a piece of parchment paper on a baking sheet and set it next to the stove.

3. Return the fried walnuts to the wok and sprinkle them with the sugar, salt, and spices. Stir-fry the walnuts with the seasonings over medium-high heat until the sugar caramelizes. Immediately empty the wok onto the parchment paper and use chopsticks or a fork to separate the walnuts. (If you want to add the sesame seeds, sprinkle them over the walnuts and then toss some more.) The walnuts can be prepared ahead of time up to this point, placed in a covered container, and refrigerated. Just before you cook the shrimp, pick out and reserve the prettiest walnuts and reserve them as garnish.

4. Clean and devein the prawns (slit the backs of the prawns only until you get to the long, gray string; remove that, as it is the prawn's sandy intestinal tract). Keep the tails attached, if at all possible, but remove any legs, heads, and shells. Place the shrimp in a small work bowl and toss them with the rice wine and salt; let them marinate for about 15 minutes and then drain. Pile the shredded cabbage or lettuce into a shallow mound on a serving platter and have a large, clean work bowl next to the stove, along with the mayonnaise and salt.

5. About 15 minutes before you want to serve this dish, mix the tempura flour with just enough ice water to make a batter the consistency of thick cream. Pat the shrimp dry. Return the oil to the wok and place it over high heat. 

Pick up the prawns by the tail
6. When a bit of the batter dropped into the hot oil immediately bubbles and floats to the surface, pick up the prawns one at a time by the tail and dip the bodies into the batter. Gently lower them into the hot oil and repeat with about half of the prawns. Fry and turn the prawns until the tails are bright pink, the batter is golden brown, and the shrimp float, but do not overcook them. Use a slotted spoon or chopsticks to remove them to the clean work bowl. Repeat with the rest of the prawns until all are cooked.

7. Immediately add all of the walnuts (except for the ones reserved as garnish) to the shrimp and squeeze about ¼ cup of the mayonnaise over them and a pinch or two of salt. Toss and add a bit more mayo as desired; it should be a light dressing and not be so much that it turns the batter soggy. Taste the dressing and adjust the flavors as needed. Quickly arrange the shrimp and walnuts on top of the cabbage or lettuce, sprinkle the reserved walnuts on top, and serve.

Tips

Use either fresh or frozen prawns/shrimp. The only requirement is that they are sustainable and of excellent quality. 

When you place any food in hot oil, do it this way to avoid getting burned: put it down on the surface of the oil and then slide it in so that the oil doesn't splash on you.

Add the prawns to the hot oil one at a time and in different places so that they do not stick to each other.

When deep frying anything, avoid overcrowding the wok with too much at one time. What this does is radically lower the temperature of oil, causing the food to poach rather than fry. Also, things will clump up this way. So, even though it may seem that you are taking more time by frying small amounts, you will end up cooking the foods faster and achieving nice, crispy exteriors.

Cleanup for a wok and spatula covered with caramel is a lot easier than it looks; simply fill the wok with hot water and wait a few minutes until the caramel has dissolved.

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