It can be hard to keep up one’s spirits in the wake of disaster. Between Japan’s earthquake earlier this year and Joplin, Missouri’s record-shattering and town-destroying tornado yesterday, I think we’re all natural disaster’ed out for the year. I am sure that Japan and Missouri would agree with me. Then, of course, there’s that niggling sense of ridiculousness as the rest of us carry on with our lives, including our blogging, and we wonder to ourselves, Should I be doing something more important? I’m sure I should be embarrassed by the way I carry on as though life is fine and dandy, even though earthquakes and tornadoes have destroyed and dismembered the lives of anyone who was unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
And yet. What other choice do we have? Sure, we can give money to relief efforts, and that’s a noble thing to do. If you paid your taxes, you’re already part of the relief efforts because, among others, the National Guard is helping with the aftermath of Joplin’s tornado. In addition, President Obama has dispatched FEMA to the scene.
As selfish as this may sound, I don’t think the rest of us should feel guilty for living our everyday lives in the wake of disaster. Bad things happen, and we should try to be prepared for them, but life is lived in the right-here, right-now moment. Life is happening right this minute—good, bad, happy, sad, in joy and in sorrow. This is life. We carry on because it’s all we can do, besides offering our money and our time to the causes that matter most to us. “To hunger is to be alive, and to hope,” wrote Crescent Dragonwagon in the introduction to Passionate Vegetarian. So it is our hunger and the daily cycles of cooking and eating that keep us alive and wanting more. On that note, let’s return to our regularly scheduled programming.
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I know it’s a scary food, but today we’re going to talk about tempeh. I’ll spare you the photo of raw tempeh, because Ahhh! It FRIGHTENS me! For some reason, I’m fine with culturing my own dairy at home, but anything involving spores is anxiety-inducing. Perhaps it’s my years of lab experience: bacteria are a-okay in my book, but fungi and the like are mysterious and unpredictable creatures. Are they even creatures? Whatever they are, I find them spooky. But they do have some culinary merits, so I take a deep breath, unwrap the tempeh, and start making dinner.
Tempeh, for the uninitiated, is fermented soybeans that have been pressed into a bumpy, nubbly, grayish-brown block. I first ate tempeh back in college, probably when my friend Shawn Marie cooked up some delicious stir-fry that contained tempeh. Since then, I’ve tried cooking it myself in a number of ways, including pan-frying, simmering in thick chilies, and, most recently, as tempeh “bacon.”
That’s the tempeh bacon up there, between the lettuce and the tomatoes. Now, let me be the first to say: this tempeh “bacon” tastes nothing like real bacon, except for the fact that both foods are salty. Bacon is unique—its crunch, its salty-savory intensity. I really like bacon, but I’m committed enough to vegetarianism that I only eat it if I’m with my family and they’re eating it. Call my a hypocrite if you want, but for me, it’s a special occasion food that comes from humanely and responsibly raised pigs, so I feel fine about eating it. I say all of this to illustrate that yes, I do know what real bacon tastes like, and while this tempeh bacon is not even close to the real thing, I still liked it for its own sake.
I especially liked tempeh bacon as part of a BLT: (tempeh) bacon, lettuce, and tomato on a spicy wrap. The tempeh bacon is made by marinating thinly sliced tempeh in a spicy-salty mixture that includes soy sauce and chili powder, so it picks up a hefty dose of saline and a zippy heat. The marinated tempeh strips are baked, and supposedly they crisp up while baking, but mine never got crispy, so consider yourself warned. Because the tempeh bacon is so intensely seasoned, it goes well inside a BLT—the lettuce and tomatoes help to cool and balance the tempeh. With a generous slathering of mayonnaise to add cool and creamy flavor, a pair of BLTs make a lovely lunch entree, especially if there are no carnivores around to harass you about making tempeh “bacon.” Meat-eaters can be so annoying.
Adapted slightly from Vegetarian Times
Makes enough for 4 servings
1 8-ounce package of tempeh, sliced into 24 thin pieces
1/4 cup soy sauce (VT calls for low-sodium soy sauce, but I just used regular soy sauce, which is what I had on hand)
1/2 cup water
2 tbsp. apple cider vinegar
1 tsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. ground cumin
1/2 tsp. chili powder
1/2 tsp. smoked paprika
1 tbsp. canola oil
1) In a large rectangular dish for which you have a lid, lay the tempeh pieces.
2) In a small saucepan, whisk together the remaining ingredients except for the canola oil. Bring the mixture to a boil, let it boil for 1 minute, then pour this marinade over the tempeh slices, and let it cool.
3) Cover the marinating tempeh slices and refrigerate for 2 hours or up to overnight.
4) Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F. Line a large baking sheet with parchment paper. (I used a 10x15-inch rimmed baking sheet, and it was roomy enough for a single layer of the tempeh slices.) Lay the tempeh slices in a single row on the baking sheet. Place the canola oil in a small bowl or ramekin, and use a pastry brush to brush the slices with oil. Bake for 10-15 minutes, then remove the baking sheet from the oven. Flip the tempeh slices over, brush with the remaining oil, and bake for 5-7 minutes longer until they are nice and brown (and maybe crispy?). Serve immediately, or allow the baked tempeh to cool, then cover tightly and refrigerate. They taste great the next day.