A few nights ago, in the throes of insomnia, I did the thing I always do when I can't sleep; I perused endless news blogs and ordered a pile of books on Amazon. Sometimes when I do this, a package arrives days later and I open it and think, "Huh?" My judgment at 4 AM can be a little clouded. This time, I had ordered three vegan cookbooks after reading about Bill Clinton's impressive transformation and following a Google thread for a deeper look into the lifestyle. It wasn't the first time I had considered veganism; except for a brief period of vegetarianism in my teens, my diet has never reconciled very well with my love and respect for animals. I figured I could at least explore adding vegan meals to my repertoire, but first I would need help familiarizing myself with uses for a few of the mainstays: tempeh and seitan.
For this post, I went with tempeh. Although I have eaten tempeh at restaurants, I hadn't cooked with it so I was surprised to discover a good variety representing assorted legumes and grains. I started with a classic soybean tempeh, and found the recipe below in Veganomicon by Isa Chandra Moscowitz and Terry Hope Romero. Since I love fish tacos I thought it would be interesting to see if these tacos could hold their own against others in the class.
The recipe calls for a beer marinade spiked with typical barbecue seasonings and garlic. Since the tempeh is best prepped a day ahead to marinate overnight, I prepared the accompanying slaw and crema too while I was at it so I would be set for a quick meal the next day.
The following evening I removed the tempeh from the marinade (reserving the marinade), but instead of browning all the pieces at once, I started with a few to get an idea how they tasted in case the flavors needed tweaking. I browned them in oil and finally basted them with a bit of marinade until the pieces were coated with a nice glaze. Then I sliced the chunks crosswise and tested a sample. For my taste, the tempeh was bland, despite all the seasonings in the marinade. I decided to apply a quick rub of cumin and chipotle chili powder to the other pieces before browning them. This helped form a spicy crust and perked up the flavors considerably.
The red cabbage for the slaw was quickly shredded in a food processor. I followed the instructions and added apple cider vinegar, but later wished I had used lime juice in its place. The slaw was very acidic which I knew meant I wouldn't be able to pile it on for the crunch I like in fresh tacos.
The crema called for non-dairy yogurt but since I didn't have it I defied vegan rules (that didn't take long; oh well, one step at a time) and used 2 percent Greek yogurt. I also left out the oil because the crema was rich enough without it.
The tacos were very enticing to look at, but I wasn't completely satisfied with their flavor. Mostly, I was disappointed by the harsh vinegar clang. Although tempeh looks rich and meaty, it's actually too lean to stand up to all that acid in my opinion. Maybe the authors use a mellower cider vinegar, but if I make these again I'll use lime juice in the slaw, and not too much of it. Also, I'd leave out the pickled jalapenos (more sharp acid) and rely on a shot of hot sauce on top instead.
I realize vegan veterans may disagree with my comments completely! I'm not an instant convert, but still very interested in exploring more recipes from my new books in posts to come. Philosophically and medically, veganism is looking more and more like a no-brainer. Maybe one day I'll get there.
Baha-Style Tempeh Tacos
3 heaping cups shreddes purple cabbage
1 carrot, shredded
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
2 pickled jalapenos, diced finely
1 teaspoon salt
a few twists of freshly ground black pepper
3/4 cup plain soy yogurt
3 tablespoons lime juice
2 tablespoons grapeseed oil or avocado oil
1/3 cup lightly packed cilantro leaves
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup pilsner or ale
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 tablespoons peanut oil
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons lime juice
2 - 3 teaspoons chile powder
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 8-ounce package tempeh
12-16 soft corn tortillas
red radishes, sliced paper thin
fresh tomato, seeded and diced
pickled jalapenos, sliced
Mexican hot sauce
avocado, sliced or diced
Prepare the slaw:
Mix all ingredients in a glass bowl. Cover with plastic wrap, pressing it down on top of the slaw. Weight the slaw down with a can of beans or a full pickle jar and place in fridge to sit for at least an hour. Slaw improves the longer it is allowed to mellow. When ready to use, squeeze out handfuls to release any excess juice.
Make the crema:
Blend ingredients in a blender until creamy and smooth. Add more salt or lime juice if desired. Pour into airtight container and chill for an hour.
Make the marinade:
Whisk all the ingredients together and pour into a glass pie plate or casserole dish.
Prepare the tempeh:
Bring a pot of water to a boil. Slice the tempeh into 3 pieces lengthwise, then slice each in half horizontally through the middle. When the water is boiling, add the tempeh, lower the heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Remove tempeh from water and place in marinade. Marinate for 1 hour, flipping them occasionally.
Preheat the oven to 200 degrees F. Liberally grease a grill pan with peanut oil and place over medium high heat or coat a heavy skillet with enough peanut oil to lightly coat its surface, and preheat.
Remove pieces of seitan from marinade with tongs. **Reserve marinade. Grill or fry each side of the tempeh pieces for 5 minutes. When each side is almost done, spoon some of the marinade over the tempeh at let it cook for 30 or more seconds. Remove the tempeh from the heat and slice into thin strips. Keep warm, covered in foil in the oven while preparing and assembling tacos. Continue to heat your heavy skillet once the tempeh is done. If the skillet is too sticky use a new one or wipe it down to continue.
Heat corn tortilla in the skillet for 30 seconds, then flip it and heat until it has become soft and pliable. Repeat with second tortilla and arrange both, slightly overlapping, on serving dish. (Using 2 tortillas per taco allows heavier toppings.) If not using immediately, stack tortillas, wrap tightly in foil and keep warm in oven.
Spread a little crema down the center of the tortillas, add some slaw, top with tempeh and garnish with whatever you like. Drizzle on extra crema and hot sauce, if desired. Fold and eat.
*Recipe from Veganomicon by Isa Chandrs Moscowitz and Terry Hope Romano, De Capo Press 2007
I mixed a heaping tablespoon each of chipotle chili powder and cumin to create a rub for the tofu pieces. Roll tofu in spices after marinating and before browning in skillet.
If I make this again, I'll use lime juice in the slaw and omit the pickled jalapenos.
I used 2 percent Greek yogurt in the crema and omitted the oil.