By Anne Palumbo
Ever since I put the breaks on meat consumption, I’ve been on a quest to find plant-based meat alternatives. Like many, I first turned to a popular meat substitute: tofu. While I certainly like tofu and continue to consume it, I’m now smitten with tofu’s heartier cousin: tempeh (pronounced “tem-pay”).
We met by accident. When I was reaching for some tofu, I happened to notice an ill-placed package of tempeh tucked amidst the tofu. Curious, I picked it up (firm and nubby), read the label (high in nutrients), and decided to throw caution to the wind (a true food romantic!).
What is tempeh? Tempeh is a high-protein meat alternative made from fermented soybeans that have been cooked and compressed into a dense cake. Some versions also contain beans and grains, which is why gluten-sensitive folks should scour ingredient labels. Unlike tofu, tempeh has a meaty, firm texture and an earthy, nutty flavor.
Tempeh has about 20 grams of protein per average serving, an impressive amount that puts it on par with some animal-based sources of protein, like shrimp, tuna, tilapia, and many lean meats.
What’s more, its protein is complete, meaning it has all the essential amino acids every body needs. Studies show that a diet high in protein can aid appetite control by increasing fullness and decreasing hunger. For some, this means better weight management; for others, it can mean weight loss.
Looking to shore up your bones? This tasty meat-alt brims with bone-building minerals: calcium, phosphorous, manganese and magnesium. All four work synergistically to build and maintain strong bones, which is important in reducing the risk of bone fractures and osteoporosis. In addition, tempeh’s bounty of protein is also a boon for bones, say experts.
Hearts benefit from tempeh in more ways than one. Its soy isoflavones — natural plant compounds — have been linked to reduced cholesterol levels. Studies show that these same plant compounds also have antioxidant properties and reduce oxidative stress by neutralizing toxic free radicals. A buildup of these highly unstable atoms has been linked to many diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. And, unlike the unhealthy saturated fat in some meats, tempeh’s fat is mostly heart-healthy mono and polyunsaturated fats.
An average serving of plain tempeh has about 170 calories, no sodium or cholesterol, good amounts of several B vitamins, iron, and, depending on the kind of tempeh you buy, even some fiber.
Buy tempeh in the refrigerated section of your grocery store, typically near tofu. Check the label: some flavored tempehs have added sugar and salt while others have gluten proteins. Tempeh loves marinades and absorbs flavors better with a thinner slice (1/4 “) or a finer chop. Use grated tempeh as you would ground meat for meatballs, taco fillings, or a meatless “meat” sauce for pasta.
Tempeh BLT (Bacon-Lettuce-Tomato) Bowl
Adapted from Salad Samurai Cookbook
Tempeh Bacon Bites
8 oz tempeh
2 tablespoons maple syrup
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon ketchup or hot sauce of choice
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon liquid smoke (optional)
Olive oil for pan-frying
1 tablespoon water
6-8 cups mixed greens
½ red onion, sliced in half-moons
1 pint grape or cherry tomatoes, sliced in half
1 ripe avocado, diced
Dressing of choice
1. Slice the tempeh (widthwise) into ¼-inch thin strips. Then, stack two strips at a time and slice the tempeh into bite-size pieces, about an inch long.
2. In a small metal baking pan (i.e., 9” x 5” loaf pan), whisk together the maple syrup, soy sauce, ketchup or hot sauce, vegetable oil, salt, and liquid smoke until smooth. Add the tempeh bites and gently toss to completely coat with marinade. Let stand for 10 minutes (flip after 5) or cover and chill overnight.
3. Use your fingers or a fork to transfer the tempeh pieces (leaving the marinade behind) to a lightly oiled skillet preheated over medium heat. Lay the pieces in a single layer. Cook until well browned on one side, flip, and cook the other side until browned, about 2 to 3 minutes per side. After the tempeh is browned on both sides, turn the heat to low, mix 1 tablespoon water into remaining marinade, and then pour the mixture over the bites and cook until the marinade is absorbed, about 1 to 2 minutes more. Turn off heat and cover to keep warm until ready to use.
4. Place the mixed greens, red onion slices, tomato halves, avocado dices, and tempeh bacon in a large bowl. Using your hands or tongs to combine, toss the salad with just enough dressing to moisten completely. Serve and enjoy!
*Salad Samurai is my all-time favorite salad cookbook. Although geared to vegans, which I am not, its unique recipes are loaded with flavor and nutrients.