Tempting Tempeh

Considering how long I’ve been vegan, it’s surprising how rarely tempeh has appeared on my menu. Even more stigmatized by mainstream cooks and eaters than tofu, it hasn’t quite reached universal acceptance as not only a viable but delicious ingredient, and is all too often labeled as a very “crunchy-granola” sort of food. Funny enough, tempeh has much more in common with tofu than meets the eye, and the biggest difference stems from the fact that the soy beans are pureed and filtered to make tofu, whereas with tempeh, you get the whole thing. Thus, these cakes of naturally fermented soy are higher in fiber, in addition to that all-important protein. It’s no beauty to look at though, so the fear of picking up one of these lumpy, brownish-greyish blocks or strips is understandable. My own hesitation to incorporate such a nutritious ingredient into my diet is not due to bias or lack of initiative, however, but a lack of imagination. What to do with these firm, somewhat crumbly slabs? How should they be cooked, and where does one start when it comes to adding harmonious, appealing flavors?

For those of you in the same boat, fear not. LightLife has just developed Tempeh-Tations, a new line of pre-seasoned tempeh cubes that provide an easy starting point for any meal, and a painless way to test the waters of cooking with tempeh. Available in three different varieties, they’re found in the refrigerated section, ready to eat, making those little packages especially appealing after a long day at work.

Ripping open the Zesty Lemon flavor, I’ve got to admit, these bumpy brown chunks didn’t immediately get me salivating. Aesthetics aside, it smelled quite promising, and an little pool of extra marinade sitting at the bottom of the package meant that there was plenty to help flavor the rest of the dish these pieces went into as well. Tossing the tempeh into a very quick pasta salad, it was all but an instant meal once the orzo was cooked and drained. Strikingly tangy and perhaps even bordering on sour, the lemon flavor is definitely front and center here. A nice hit of garlic balances things out a bit, and the soft but toothsome texture makes it a very satisfying addition. While it wasn’t my favorite meal in the world, I was thrilled with how convenient and satisfying this product proved to be.

“Planning” a meal around the Ginger Teriyaki flavored Tempeh-Tations meant scrounging through the fridge at the last minute, using up all the veggies I could find to make some simple cabbage wraps. Smelling of the ubiquitous Americanized Chinese Food brown sauce, I didn’t have very high hopes for this one from the get-go. Undeniably sweet, mild in overall flavor, and completely lacking the zing of ginger I had wanted, this sticky marinade didn’t do very much for me. While it was unoffensive and pleasant enough to eat, I don’t know that I would want it again. Nonetheless, it may very well have been tastier had the cubes been sauteed and served warm in a stir-fry instead of eaten cold with raw veggies.

When it came time to try the Classic BBQ, I was trepidatious, to say the least. Barbeque sauce is perhaps the last condiment on earth I would want to add to my plate, but shockingly, I found this rendition to be so mild, it was easily the best BBQ’ed-anything I’d had in a long time. Wonderfully smokey with just a vague tang, no spice or heat to speak of, I’m sure it would be a hit with picky kids, too.

Going all-out to dress this one up, I thought it might be fun to make my own “meat” buns, cooking up the tempeh with a mess of vegetables and lentils, and then stuffing it into bread dough. The result was a savory, portable snack or meal, perfect for a packed lunch or easy eats on the go. This formula also opens up the possibility to insert any sort of veggies you have on hand, so don’t let my suggestions limit your creativity.

Vegan “Meat” Buns

3 Cups All Purpose Flour
1/4 Cup Instant Mashed Potato Flakes
2 Tablespoons Granulated Sugar
1 1/4 Teaspoons Salt
1 0.6-Ounce Cube Fresh yeast
1 Cup Warm Water
1/2 Teaspoon Apple Cider Vinegar
2 Tablespoons Canola Oil

2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
1 1/2 Cups Roughly Chopped Cabbage (Pack to Measure)
1 Cup Chopped Yellow Onion (About 1 Medium)
1/2 Cup Diced Zucchini
1 6-Ounce Package BBQ Tempeh-tations
1 Cup Cooked Black Lentils
1 Cup Chopped Potato (About 2 Small)
Freshly Cracked Black Pepper
Chili Powder

Plain Soymilk
Sesame Seeds

In a large bowl, mix together the flour, instant mashed potato flakes, sugar, and salt. Crumble the fresh yeast into small pieces with your fingers, and stir to disperse the pieces evenly throughout the dry ingredients. Separately, combine the water, vinegar, and oil before pouring the whole mixture into your bowl of dry goods. Mix well, and once everything has become incorporated into a loose dough, switch over to using the dough hook for your stand mixer, and allow it to slowly work the dough for about 10 minutes. Let the dough rest for 5 minutes before proceeding.

If you don’t have a stand mixer, just skip right to kneading by hand on a lightly floured surface- Take about 15 – 20 minutes on this step if you haven’t work it with the machine, but only 5 – 10 if you have. Once it becomes smooth and elastic, tacky but not sticky to the touch, place it in a greased bowl and cover loosely. Place it in a warm area and let it rise until doubled in volume, about 1 – 1 1/2 hours.

While the dough is rising, you can begin to prepare the filling. In a large skillet over moderate heat, begin by heating up the olive oil before tossing in the cabbage, onion, zucchini, and tempeh. Stir frequently, and once the onions are translucent, add in the potato and lentils. Cover and let cook for about 15 minutes or until potatoes are fork-tender. Add seasoning to taste (I didn’t measure, but all you need to do is just add spices until it tastes good.) Move the filling into a large bowl and allow it cool.

Once risen, Punch down the dough and divide it into 12 equal pieces. Gently roll out each piece into a 5-in. circle, or as thin as you can get it. Place around 1/4 cup of filling in the center, and fold dough over that filling to meet in the center; Pinch the edges together to seal, and place each finished bun with the seam side down on a silpat-lined baking sheet. Repeat for all of the remaining buns, and let rise once more for about 30 minutes. Brush lightly with plain soymilk to encourage a golden-brown crust, and sprinkle lightly with sesame seeds. Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for 20 – 25 minutes until nicely browned.

Makes 12 Buns

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