Although I became a vegetarian when I was fifteen, it wasn't until almost ten years later, when I started visiting my local farmers market, that I learned to love vegetables. What I don't talk about as much is how long it took me to get my protein healthily and deliciously, too.
For many years I lived on processed fake meats – veggie burgers, chik patties, and immitation lunchmeats. They tasted good(ish), and I knew what to do with them. (Okay, I admit – Morningstar's chik patties taste amazing.) They have respectable protein numbers, and I figured that was good enough for me.
But processed food is processed food. That's one big way mock meat differs from the real thing – fresh, humane, grass-fed meat is a pretty awesome food. Reconstituted, flavored, and styled soy protein? Not so much.
Oh, and also there's the $5-a-box price tag. Ouch.
So in the last several years I've gotten to know tempehs, tofus, and seitans (and cottage cheeses and eggs). I learned – finally! – to press tofu, and cook it hot and fast; I made my own seitan. Tempeh, tofu's healthier, meatier cousin, has its own flavor and bite.
But even now, as I type the word “tempeh,” I see the supermarket case, the packages of tempeh and one variety with an enticing, bright red label. It holds about half as much food as the others, and costs almost twice as much, but man, does that label make it seem worthwhile.
No, it does not taste like bacon. Nothing does. (Though good, crispy Brussels sprouts seem to, I swear, satisfy something similar.) But these thin strips of smoky, savory tempeh make my vegetarian mouth water.
And so, like a good and frugal vegetarian, I set out to learn how to make it myself. The strip shape wasn't important to me; the delicious, bacon-adjacent flavor was.
It turns out that what was missing from all my years of marinating and cooking my foods was this:
Liquid smoke. Made by running smoke through water (and then filtering out the nasty stuff), it adds that je ne sais quois, which we actually know exactly what it quois – smokiness. Bacon gets it by, you know, being smoked. My tempeh gets a few drops of this elixir. Boom.
I've been tweaking and playing around with this recipe for months, and just about every variation (dictated by what’s in my fridge) has been delicious. A tablespoon or two of maple syrup doesn't make it too sweet but adds a great layer to the flavor. Less ketchup or nutritional yeast makes the marinade thinner and less strongly savory. Play with the spices, play with the sauce. It doesn't taste exactly like bacon, but that's become sort of beside the point now. What it does taste like is good.
This recipe makes a bit more sauce than needed to cover one package's worth of tempeh. Once the tempeh was browned (ahem, very browned, sadly, in this execution), I added a bunch of trimmed string beans and a splash more oil. I sauteed until the beans were bright and just barely cooked – the freshness of their flavor plays nicely with the strong, salty sauce and tempeh. Also, the pretty green beans distract from the fact that some of my tempeh's on the blackened side of golden. Luckily, still delicious.
This sauce works brilliantly, too, as a tofu marinade. Just press the tofu well first, for at least half an hour, and let it sit at least overnight. Whereas tempeh's got its own flavor, tofu needs to really absorb the sauce. After that it's basically the same thing – cook it fast and hot, get a good brown on the outside, and enjoy.
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Bacony Tempeh with String Beans
1 package tempeh, cubed (I used Lightlife Flax tempeh)
1 lb (or so) string beans (about 3 cups)
2 T canola or other neutral oil (plus a bit more for sauteeing)
3 T soy sauce or tamari
2 T ketchup
2 T apple cider vinegar
¾ t liquid smoke
1 T nutritional yeast
½ t cumin
½ t hot paprika
½ t powdered ginger
a few dashes garlic powder
one dash nutmeg
1. Combine marinade in a bowl or a resealable container. Whisk (or shake) to combine. Add the tempeh. Toss (or shake) to cover. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes, up to a day or two.
2. Heat a splash of oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add tempeh, saving extra sauce, and cook, tossing or stirring every so often, until the tempeh is hot and somewhere between golden and browned on all sides.
3. Lower heat to medium. Add string beans and remaining sauce, plus another little splash of oil if you need it (and a tiny splash of water if your beans are dry). Cook covered, stirring or tossing every so often, so nothing burns, until beans are bright green and soft, about five minutes.
Approximate Calories, Fat, Fiber, Protein, and Price Per Serving
346.7 calories, 20.4g fat, 12.1g fiber, 18.6g protein, $1.62
1 package tempeh: 460 calories, 18g fat, 22g fiber, 40g protein, $2.49
1 lb string beans: 102 calories, 0.4g fat, 11.2g fiber, 6g protein, $1.50
3 T canola: 371 calories, 42g fat, 0g fiber, 0g protein, $0.15
3 T tamari: 32 calories, 0.1g fat, 0.4g fiber, 5.7g protein, $0.27
2 T ketchup: 29 calories, 0.1g fat, 0.1g fiber, 0.5g protein, $0.07
2 T apple cider vinegar: 6 calories, 0g fat, 0g fiber, 0g protein, $0.08
¾ t liquid smoke: 0 calories, 0g fat, 0g fiber, 0g protein, $0.08
1 T nutritional yeast: 27 calories, 0.3g fat, 1.7g fiber, 3g protein, $0.19
½ t cumin: 4 calories, 0.2g fat, 0.4g fiber, 0.2g protein, $0.01
½ t hot paprika: 3 calories, 0.1g fat, 0.4g fiber, 0.2g protein, $0.01
½ t powdered ginger: 3 calories, 0.1g fat, 0.1g fiber, 0.1g protein, $0.02
a few dashes garlic powder: 1 calorie, 0g fat, 0.1g fiber, 0.1g protein, $0.01
one dash nutmeg: 0 calories, 0g fat, 0g fiber, 0g protein, $0.01
TOTAL: 1040 calories, 61.3g fat, 36.4g fiber, 55.7g protein, $4.89
PER SERVING (TOTAL/3): 346.7 calories, 20.4g fat, 12.1g fiber, 18.6g protein, $1.62