What do you get for the man who has everything? More importantly, what do you make for the man who isn’t particularly thrilled by birthday cake, lives on the opposite side of the country, and would never so much as drop a hint about any particular wants or needs? This is the conundrum I face every time my dad’s birthday rolls around. Proving that the ones who give the most are terrible at accepting the same kindness, he’s notoriously impossible to shop for, even when it comes to the most basic necessities. Appreciative of the gesture, he will always accept the typical gifts of shirts, books, and ties with grace, but really, you shouldn’t have. Really.
The only thing I know for sure is that my dad loves music, obscure movies, and ever-so-slightly burnt popcorn to enjoy with both. I have strong memories of working diligently upstairs in my room, only to smell the distinct aroma of toasted, vaguely blackened kernels wafting through the air, and I’d know it was time to take a break. That meant it was 9:00, our designated TV hour, which always came with a heaping handful of his homemade snack mix. Crowning this simple blend was a generous shake of bacon salt, the curiously vegetarian seasoning with a smoky, savory edge. It was a comforting routine, and one that I still miss almost three years since moving out.
If I can’t be there to share the flicks and snacks in person, then I had to find a way to send an edible understudy.
Vegans are making everything into bacon these days, from eggplant to coconut, but my unique blend goes back to a classic mixture of meaty tempeh and deeply umami mushrooms. It’s a simple yet remarkably satisfying seasoning that adds an extra punch to any dish, not just freshly popped corn. Think french fries, avocado toast, veggie burgers, roasted Brussels sprouts, corn on the cob, bar nuts, and so much more. It could quickly become the new savory staple that you suddenly can’t live without, even if you’ve never tasted the “real” thing.
Birthdays come and go, but the opportunity to treat loved ones to a special delicacy is fleeting. This successful, universally appealing formula may just be an ideal gift for equally discerning recipients in your life, too.
3 Tablespoons Soy Sauce
1 Tablespoon Liquid Smoke
1 Tablespoon Maple Syrup
1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
1 Tablespoon Nutritional Yeast
1/4 Teaspoon Smoked Paprika
1/8 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper
1 8-Ounce Package Tempeh
1/2 Cup Sliced Cremini Mushrooms
1/4 Cup Dried, Sliced Shiitake Mushrooms
1/4 Cup Coarse Sea Salt
Preheat your oven to 300 degrees and set aside an 8 x 8-inch baking pan.
Stir together the soy sauce, liquid smoke, maple syrup, oil, nutritional yeast, paprika, and pepper in a large mixing bowl. Crumble the tempeh as finely as possible and toss it in, along with the mushrooms. Mix thoroughly, coating the pieces.
Pour everything, including the excess marinade into your waiting pan. Bake for 2 1/2 – 3 hours, stirring every 15 – 25 minutes or so to keep the entire batch cooking evenly and preventing it from burning. The edges can go from soft to scorched surprisingly quickly, so standby and keep a close eye on it the entire time it’s in the oven.
Cook until brown all over, dry to the touch, and highly aromatic. Be aware that your kitchen may smell like bacon for the rest of the day, but I would hardly consider that a problem.
Let cool completely before transferring to your blender or food processor along with the salt. Pulse until the pieces are completely broken down. Strain through a fine mesh sieve if you would like a particularly even grind and re-blend any remaining large pieces. Store at room temperature in an airtight container.
Makes About 1 Cup