Tempeh Stir-Fry

There’s a reason I had to come up with a decent-tasting tempeh stir fry.

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Read about it, along with the step by step instructions, unless you want to just jump to the recipe. Also know that, if beef is your thing—or chicken or shrimp—this will work just fine.

I’ve been very open about my no-beef policy. But guess what picture stops my little heart every time I see it? (In a good way, mind you, not a CPR-requiring way.) Beef stir-fry. I see them all the time, the strips of meat looking all dark and salty next to bright green broccoli or asparagus and shocking red strips of bell pepper. And I think, hmmm, I want that. But….beef! Ick.

I’ve never been a huge burger fan, either, so this stir-fried beef visual craving is just plain weird.

(I’m not, by the way, going to try to convert any of you beef lovers out there. Truthfully, I don’t eat beef because the texture freaks me out, and I just don’t like how it tastes. BUT at a recent show at the California Academy of Sciences, this incredible museum in the middle of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, I saw the difference between the carbon footprint of a hamburger vs a turkey burger or veggie burger. Let’s just say I felt quite, quite smug and righteous, because that carbon footprint for one beef burger is Massive. Lessening your beef consumption really can make a huge positive difference to the planet. I mean, I believe the planet’s going to take care of itself; it’s just going to get pretty gnarly for us as a species to continue to live here, particularly with some of our more insane practices. One of which is destroying the rain forest—which we really require in order to breath—so MacDonald’s can make more money. And c’mon, those burgers are total crap, and also, how much money do those guys need? If you do eat beef, support a local ethical cattle farmer. They exist! That way, you help out a local farmer, which gets a big yay in my book, and you put higher quality fuel in your body. And if enough folks will make the switch, the rain forests and subsequently Planet Earth have a better shot at being healthy as well.)

Tempeh Stir-Fry: Why Tempeh?

According to many vegan cookbooks, the go-to alternative to beef is wheat gluten or seitan, which is pronounced very close to the name of the Great Deceiver Himself. Appropriate, because are you seriously going to chew on a big old piece of gluten? I mean, that just seems so, so wrong. Tofu I like, but it’s tofu. Nobody’s going to convince you it’s anything else, and I recognize that for most of the world, tofu is to them what beef is to me, i.e. a really bizarre texture and something most folks just don’t want to put in their mouths.

Tempeh Stir-Fry: The Marinade

So tempeh. Tempeh comes out of the package looking a bit weird and pebbly. You could just fry it, but you will probably be sad. Let’s admit that, in the flavor department, tempeh makes you wish for bland. Because bland is more interesting than tempeh. Here it is after marinating, and it STILL looks pretty boring.

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But that marinade is the solution. And while I’m still experimenting, so far in my experience, only a soy-sauce based marinade does the trick. Tempeh needs the salt pretty seriously, or at least the salt flavor. A low sodium soy sauce will do the trick just fine. Give it at least four hours to soak, but for this recipe, I let it sit for 36 with no detriment.

My tempeh marinade was inspired by tempeh stir-fry

Last of all mix up a little sauce from sake. Yes, you can use cooking sherry or white wine if they’re what you have on hand. Sake, however, is my go to for cooking. For one thing, unlike wine, I’m not tempted to drink it. But that flavor I’m not crazy about in a glass is glorious in a saute pan: clean, bright, just a little sweet. Other sauce ingredients should include a little more soy—about 1 part to 2-3 parts sake—and a splash of rice vinegar, a pinch of sugar, and 4 parts broth or water. Carefully sprinkle in some cornstarch or potato starch, about a tablespoon for 1/4 cup of liquid, and whisk til smooth. This is how you get that syrupy finish that makes a classic Chinese stir-fry, well, classic. Make sure you have it made up ahead of time so you can just throw it in at the last minute.

Heat your pan, then your oil, and fry the tempeh first, about 4 minutes a side. Then remove it to a plate.

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Add a little more oil—you really do need to be pretty generous with it if you don’t want stuff to stick. First add your minced garlic and ginger. Then sauté the veggies in the order of longest to shortest cooking time. Of this batch, eggplant cubes took the longest, then bell peppers, mushrooms, green beans, carrots, and scallions.

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Give the starch/broth mix one last whisk, then pour it in. Steam will rise dramatically, so have a lid handy to capture it.

After a few minutes, remove the lid and mix in the cubed jicama and, if you like, chopped cilantro and a sprinkle of hemp hearts, sesame seeds, or even toasted nuts or seeds if you like. I put some noodles on the side, because I love them.

Enjoy with chopsticks or—sigh—if you must, a fork.

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Tempeh Stir Fry: The Recipe

The Maharajah Bowl

Indian cooking—the northwestern branch of it specifically, as “Indian” is as sweeping a description as American, Italian, or Spanish—is the first exotic cuisine I can remember getting a proper introduction to as a kid. My parents hosted some Pakistani missionaries at our home; and while, of course, Pakistan is not India, the cuisine across the subcontinent has some shared characteristics: rice, spices, vegetables, amazing and mysterious smells, singing sweet music to my suburban California child’s soul.

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When I met my daughter’s father Joel, he gave me what has become a cherished lexicon of food from across the vast country: Lord Krishna’s Cuisine, a massive and lovingly assembled compendium from Yamuna Devi, whom Joel had known when he lived in India.

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The sheer luxuriance of color that occurs when I muster up the ingredients for an Indian dish gives me a little shiver. For this one, I knew I wanted to use up some apricot-hued lentils, as well as (of course) a cauliflower and an eggplant that had been waiting patiently. A mix of whole and ground spices provided the depth and complexity that makes good Indian food so special; no curry powder circa 1970, please, which has  unfairly convinced more people they don’t like Indian food than any other single factor. Plenty of mint and parsley on hand, because I had them and didn’t have cilantro, which also would have worked.

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I’ll be the first to admit that the dish, when you first glance at the recipe, is going to seem overly complicated. It DOES have quite a few components. Feel free to skip any of them, and to assemble the dish any which way that suits you. For instance, leave out either the carrots or the roasted veggies, or both, simply serving the lentils with the various toppings and the rice if you like. Or leave out the lentils, which take the longest. Even better, make the lentils and the carrots the day before; the flavor gets better as they sit.

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Another way to simplify is to simply pick up a bottle of garam masala already mixed, and replace the spices with that. One of the great joys of Indian cooking is its improvisation, which rivals Coltrane, Bird, and Monk in their finest hours.

The point, of course and as ever, is to make it yours. And most importantly, as Joel told me, to make it and offer it with love. Namaste.

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