Meatless Monday: Hooray, Tempeh!

In the four years that I’ve known about my allergy to mushrooms, I’d never really bemoaned the absence of edible fungi -- until now. With the weather crisping up and calling for heartier supper fare, my thoughts recently took a detour into off-limits territory -- a pasta dish with caramelized onions, goat cheese -- and portobello mushrooms.

Tempeh stands in for mushrooms in this hearty pasta dish with goat cheese. (Kim O'Donnel)

A long-time dog-eared favorite discovered during my cooking school days in New York, this dish single handedly helped me to appreciate mushroom cookery, and it quickly became part of my recipe repertoire.

Since my diagnosis, however, the only thing that recipe has been doing is collecting dust. With this unexpected craving parked on the front burner of my brain, what could I do in lieu of an Epi-pen prescription, I wondered.

And then along came tempeh (pronounced TEM-PAY), fermented soybean cakes that had long been off my culinary radar. To be honest, I couldn’t even remember if I liked the stuff, so when a recent Meatless Monday sweet potato dish called for crispy tempeh strips, I knew it was time to get reacquainted.

Like tofu, tempeh is made from soybeans, but that’s about where the similarities end. For tempeh, which is a culinary staple in Indonesia, soybeans are cooked, then mixed with a yeasty culture, causing the beans to bind and form into a firm patty cake, if you will. (Conversely, tofu is made from soybean curd, which is then molded.) The resulting texture is assertively toothy and chewy, qualities that this omnivore finds more appealing than the passive-aggressive squishiness of the more aqueous tofu.

Tempeh in its uncooked state. (flickr/Dr_Avocado)

Like tofu, tempeh is a flavor chameleon, which translates into an open invitation for marinades. For my beloved pasta dish, I infused the tempeh with a mix of soy sauce, strong mustard, vinegar and hot sauce, flavor profiles that in my mind’s eye would complement the sweetness of caramelized onions and the richness of the goat cheese.

While the tempeh marinated, Mister MA chopped shallots (I like them for their delicate sweetness over storage onions), grated cheese and picked thyme off their twigs. While the tempeh browned, I put on a pot of pasta water. Shallots followed the tempeh, by which time, the water was a-boil. This two-handed approach (which I like to think of as a kitchen waltz) helped us get dinner on the table in an hour.

A few initial whiffs indicated delicious promise; this smelled just like I had remembered. I could wait no longer and speared a tempeh morsel with my fork. It worked. It worked!

Better still, I’ve got a new friend, and her name is Tempeh. I can't wait to invite her over again.

Penne With Tempeh, Caramelized Shallots and Goat Cheese

1 8-ounce package soy tempeh, cut into one-inch dice
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon vinegar of choice (I had champagne vinegar on hand)
1 teaspoon Dijon-style mustard
1 teaspoon hot sauce of choice (optional)
Oil for pan-frying (I used grapeseed oil; peanut oil, with its high smoking point, would be equally good)
2-3 whole shallots (all of its cloves), diced (about ½ cup)
A few sprigs’ worth of fresh thyme leaves, picked from stems
Salt and pepper to taste
3 ounces soft goat cheese
3 tablespoons grated Parmigiano
¾ pound short pasta, such as penne, rotini or ziti
A small handful of fresh flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped

Marinate tempeh: In a shallow bowl, combine soy sauce, vinegar, mustard and hot sauce, and blend. Add tempeh, making sure it’s coated evenly by marinade. Let tempeh sit in marinade at room temperature, for a minimum of 20 minutes and up to several hours.

Remove tempeh from marinade and gently pat with paper towels to minimize splattering when frying in hot oil.

Pour oil to a depth of ¼ inch into a wide skillet and warm up over medium heat. Oil is hot enough when it surrounds tempeh with bubbles. Gently add tempeh and turn with tongs or a fork, until golden brown on as many sides as possible, about 3 minutes. Add more oil as necessary and allow to heat up before adding more tempeh. Transfer tempeh to paper towels to drain.

Lower heat, and add shallots. (Add more oil if need be, but be careful, you don’t want shallot mixture to be overly greasy.) Cook over low-medium heat, so they soften, sweeten and reduce but not turn brown. Add thyme, salt and pepper. Remove from heat.

Meanwhile, boil water for pasta and prepare according to package instructions. Add tempeh to shallot mixture and stir to combine.

In the bottom of a serving bowl, place goat cheese. Drain pasta when ready (saving a few ounces of pasta water just in case end result needs thinning) and pour into bowl over goat cheese. With two wooden spoons, coat pasta with melting goat cheese. Add tempeh-shallot mixture and parsley, gently stirring until well combined. Garnish with Parmigiano, if you like.

Serve hot. Makes four servings. Reheats beautifully.

By Kim ODonnel |  October 27, 2008; 7:00 AM ET Meatless Monday , Vegetarian/Vegan
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Oh no! Were I allergic to mushrooms, I don't know what I'd do because they figure prominently in most of the recipes I use! But tempeh... hmmm, I'll have to give that a whirl again. The last time that I bought it, I had no idea what it was (except that it was a meat substitute - I was experimenting with cutting red meat out of our diets) and the resulting off-the-cuff meal was a disaster. You've mentioned it a few times other than in the MM page (a BLT, "T" for tempeh), so it's time to try it again.

Thank you for saving me the time of finding recipes AND posting your first-hand tweaks/results - I can't wait to try 'em out (especially that sweet potato's on the "to make" list!).

-Centre of Nowhere
(now posting as "con-e")

Posted by: con-e | October 27, 2008 8:59 AM

Hey, Kim,

For those of us that DO eat mushrooms without problem, could you tell us the original recipe, too?


Posted by: ArlingtonGay | October 27, 2008 9:51 AM

Hi Kim!

Appoximately where would you find tempeh in a grocery store? Would it be by the tofu? Thanks! :)

Posted by: Merdi | October 27, 2008 10:09 AM

GAFF, check the link in the first paragraph -- takes you to the recipe I fell in love with many years ago.
Merdi, typically the tempeh lives with the tofu in your grocery store. Let me know if you need more help finding.

Posted by: Kim ODonnel | October 27, 2008 11:01 AM

Pastuerized tempeh is in the refridgerator case with tofu. I've heard that unpastuerized tempeh, which is supposed to be even better for you, is in the freezer section but I have yet to find it there. Has anyone seen this legendary frozen tempeh?

Posted by: mee3c | October 27, 2008 12:39 PM


Posted by: blogger421 | October 27, 2008 1:52 PM

Thanks for this post, Kim. I've long wondered if tempeh would hold together in a marinade or come 'unbound,' but never quite wanted to risk dinner on the result. Knowing that it does really boosts the versatility!

Posted by: mailergoat | October 27, 2008 2:12 PM

The tempeh in my grocery store is in the frozen section, near the organic/meatless type stuff. It is Twin Oaks brand from Louisa, VA. I suppose since it is in the freezer it is this unpasteurized "fresh" kind.

Posted by: mecila | October 27, 2008 4:19 PM

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