Vegan-ish

An "almost-vegan" meal, my obsession with fish sauce, and the glories of tempeh

Happy fall everyone!

As summer fades and autumn shows its colors, change is afoot: the leaves are tinting ever so slightly, there’s a chill most mornings and evenings, and retailers are pushing pumpkin-flavored everything.

In my little corner of the world, things have also been changing: I got new glasses (after years of squinting to read with my old pair), cleaned my stove, and dyed a streak of orange/pink in my hair (don’t worry, it’s not permanent).

(^New glasses! Pink hair streak not pictured.)

I’ve also been experimenting more with meat-free cooking.

While this includes easy vegetarian/pescatarian staples like Serious Eat’s fish-fragrant eggplant, vegetarian chili, and seared fish with succotash, I’ve also been experimenting with some classic meat substitutes: Tofu and tempeh.

Let’s talk tempeh

Tofu is the more mainstream of the two, and you can find countless creative recipes from the likes of the New York Times, Bon Appetit and Serious Eats. Tempeh? Not so much. (For reference, The NYT has 8 tempeh recipes and on BA and Serious Eats it’s hard to count them all since tofu recipes get lumped in with the search results.)

While tofu takes the spotlight and has crossed the vegetarian to omnivore divide, tempeh has had a harder time. Some point to the fact that tofu doesn’t need to be fermented, making it easier to produce on a mass scale, while others say it’s the large influx of East Asian immigrants who brought the love and craft of making tofu to the U.S.

But let’s back up a bit here and learn a little more about what tempeh is exactly and where it comes from.

What is tempeh?

Tempeh originates in Indonesia, specifically Java, where the first recorded mention of it pops up around 1850. Soybeans were first brought to Indonesia from Chinese immigrants, and it’s been suggested by some scholars that tempeh was created as a tofu byproduct. But while it may share the same origin, tempeh is nothing like it’s soy cousin. Unlike tofu, tempeh contains whole soybeans (and sometimes grains like barley) that have been soaked, packed together, and inoculated with a strain of fungus before being left to ferment. It’s somewhat complicated, but during this fermentation process, a mass of mycelium forms around the beans, creating a white cake that they are suspended in. (Mycelium is the vegetative part of a fungus. Check out this fascinating article about how it could be used to make much more than food.) Tempeh can be aged to create a stronger flavor, and here in the U.S., it’s usually blanched to end fermentation and avoid contamination. (Fresh tempeh is usually sold frozen for this reason).

Tofu vs. Tempeh

Tofu has a range of texture and flavor: Silken tofu is creamy and smooth, firm tofu denser and textured, and smoked, spiced, or fermented tofu bring a whole new flavor game. But aside from the smoked, spiced and fermented tofu, most tofu has a slight soy milk flavor and moist (sorry) texture.

Tempeh, on the other hand, is dense, chewy, and nutty, and has a slight mushroom fragrance. It’s easy to crumble (just grate it), making it a great ‘ground meat’ substitute texture-wise.

Truth be told, I actually prefer tempeh over tofu. I’ve tried frying tofu, baking tofu, searing it and basting it in marinade Kenji Lopez-Alt style, and just never really was ‘wowed’ by the texture or flavor. And while there are some ways I do enjoy tofu—mainly the silken variety when it’s “scrambled” or served cold under sliced avocado with a soy sauce/wasabi/sesame oil mixture and crunchy furikake—I find tempeh’s texture and flavor much more appealing. But according to my small Instagram poll on tempeh vs. tofu, most of ya’ll are in the tofu-lover category (teach me your ways!), though I hope that the recipe below will open a new world of tempeh to you.

In Indonesia, it’s often served cubed, fried, and tossed in a chili sauce. Here in the states, tempeh bacon has become an (in)famous preparation, along with tempeh Reubens. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a huge fan of these marinade-soaked slabs of the stuff. Instead, I prefer using it in a variety of Thai, Cambodian and Laotian dishes, like the tempeh and shrimp natang recipe below, where the nuttiness and crumbled texture of the tempeh, combined with coconut milk, fish sauce, and other aromatics, holds its own.

Tempeh and Shrimp Natang with Crispy Rice Cakes

When I was a kid, there was a pan-Asian restaurant that my family would go to for special-occasion meals. My favorite thing to order there was the natang: Ground pork and shrimp in a coconut broth spiked with peanuts, fish sauce, lime, garlic, cilantro root and palm sugar for sweetness. A soup spoon was provided to ladle heaps of the runny mixture into lettuce cups or onto crispy square rice cakes. Salty, sweet, savory, and funky, it was a magical dish. As I got older, whenever natang was on a menu it was guaranteed to be part of my order. Recently, I decided to try to recreate it at home but found that only two of the few Cambodian cookbooks out there (I’d love for someone to write one!) had any mention of this dish. The internet proved more fruitful, and the recipe below was developed based on a few I found online. I kept the shrimp but substituted tempeh for the traditional pork; the tempeh’s crumbly texture and earthy flavor stand up nicely to the rich flavors at play here.

Note: The crispy rice cakes used here are worlds away from the Quaker oat kind; If you can get your hands on them, it’s well worth it. If not, serving the natang over rice is perfectly acceptable and equally delicious.

INGREDIENTS

3 Tbsp coconut or canola oil, divided

1/2 pound shell-on Gulf shrimp, peeled (reserve the shells) and finely chopped

1 can coconut milk

3 cloves garlic

1 Tbsp cilantro stems, chopped

1 small jalapeno or habanero chili, seeded, de-veined and roughly chopped

1 block tempeh, grated on a large-hole cheesegrater

2 small shallots, thinly sliced

3 Tbsp fish sauce

1/3 cup roasted peanuts, ground (I use a spice grinder for this), plus more for serving

2 Tbsp brown sugar or grated palm sugar if you can find it

1/4 tsp white pepper

1/3 cup water

2 Tbsp lime juice (about the juice of 1 lime)

chopped cilantro or thinly sliced scallions for serving

Sambal for serving

Crispy rice cakes or rice for serving

INSTRUCTIONS

  1. Heat 1 Tbsp oil a large, deep skillet over medium heat. Add the shrimp shells and cook for a few minutes, until pink and fragrant.

  2. Add the coconut milk and let simmer on low heat for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Strain into a heat-proof bowl and set aside. Wipe skillet and return to burner.

  3. Use a mortar and pestle to mash the garlic, cilantro stems and chili into a rough paste (or use a food processor). Set aside.

  4. Heat 2 Tbsp oil in skillet and add grated tempeh and shallots. Stir occasionally, until tempeh is slightly browned and heated through and shallots are translucent.

  5. Add the ground shrimp, and the garlic mixture and cook until fragrant, about 2 minutes.

  6. Add coconut milk, fish sauce, ground peanuts, brown sugar and white pepper and stir. Bring to a simmer over medium-low heat and cook for 5 minutes.

  7. Turn off heat and stir in the lime juice. Serve in a bowl with rice cakes and sambal, and peanuts, cilantro and scallions for topping.

An Ode to Fish Sauce

Seafood is divisive. Some people gulp down oysters by the dozen (myself included) while others poke tendrils of calamari to the side of their plate. But for many cultures, like Cambodian, Thai, Laotian and Vietnamese, seafood is not only often eaten as the main protein in a meal, it’s also used to flavor dishes. While each of these culture’s foods are distinctive, they all contain various seafood extracts and pastes that lend salty, umami and sometimes intentionally fishy flavors to a dish. And I’m a sucker for one of them: fish sauce. At first smell, it might not strike your fancy, but the umami-rich, briny sauce adds savoriness, saltiness and depth to any dish. I love it, but John winces every time I crack open a jar of Maangchi’s turnip kimchi which has a hefty dose of the stuff.

What is fish sauce?

Fish sauce is the liquid pressed from salted anchovies. The production and quality is similar to that of olive oil in that the ‘first press’ is considered the best quality, with the second press slightly less intense. High-quality fish sauce brands (Red Boat and Son) use only three ingredients: anchovies, salt, and time. Other brands often add MSG and sugar to create a golden color without the aging involved. They’ll work just fine, but often have a more diluted flavor.

Nuoc Cham: An essential Vietnamese dipping sauce with fish sauce

This simple dipping sauce is wonderful paired with salt and pepper fried chicken wings or squid, used to marinade pork, tofu or beef, or mixed with a little canola oil and used over a salad of tomatoes and cucumbers.

INGREDIENTS

1/2 cup hot water

1/4 cup sugar or 2 Tbsp honey

1/4 cup lime juice, freshly squeezed

5 Tbsp fish sauce

1 clove garlic, minced or grated on a microplane

1 small chili, finely sliced into thin rounds

INSTRUCTIONS

Pour hot water over sugar and stir until dissolved. Add remaining ingredients and stir. Serve.

Now that I’ve sufficiently diverted from my typical newsletter format, let’s get back to what I’m reading and drinking, since eating has been covered!

What I’m Drinking

Cider, again, because the air is starting to get crisp. Downeast has a pumpkin cider that is so good, I would take a bath in it. I’m also getting the hankering for spiced, mulled cider, and will be picking up a jug or two from a local farmstand.

The Heartbeet

This cocktail has its roots in a cheesecake. Strange, I know, but hear me out. Back when I was in college, I had a meal at a trendy little joint in Pittsburgh called Legume. For dessert, I ordered the goat cheese cheesecake with candied kumquats and beets. It was divine: tangy from the goat cheese, earthy from the beets and a bittersweet kick from the candied kumquats. Over the years, I couldn’t stop thinking about that cheesecake, and while I tried my hands many a time trying to replicate it, it never quite hit the mark. And while I fully intend on trying once more, in the meantime, here’s a cocktail with some of the flavors that made that cheesecake so memorable: earthy beet juice, bittersweet kumquat syrup, port, bourbon, lemon juice, and a dash of bitters. Served with a little jewel of a candied kumquat and you’ve got an elegant tipple to sip while wearing your autumn sweater.

INGREDIENTS

  • 1/2 oz beet juice (see note)

  • 1/2 oz kumquat syrup

  • 1 oz lemon juice 

  • 2 oz bourbon 

  • 1 oz Port 

  • dash of bitters

  • Candied Kumquat to garnish

INSTRUCTIONS

  1. Add all ingredients except the candied kumquat to a shaker filled halfway with ice. 

  2. Cover and shake thoroughly for 10 seconds, or until sides of shaker get cold and frosty. 

  3. Strain into a coup glass, garnish with candied kumquat on a toothpick. 

Note: To make the beet juice, peel 1 medium-sized beet and shred it in a food processor or on a large-hole grater. (If you have gloves, I recommend using them because the beet juice will stain your hands!). Combine shredded beet with 1 cup water and 2 Tbsp sugar in a sauce pan and bring to a simmer. Cook until sugar has dissolved, then let cool. After cool enough to handle, blend in a blender and strain the juice using a fine-mesh sieve. Store in a jar in the fridge.

What I’m Reading

The Beetlebung Farm Cookbook by Chris Fischer

Oh, this cookbook is lovely. The photos, the recipes — everything has that effortlessly delicious look. Beetlebung Farm is a family-run operation in Chilmark, Martha’s Vineyard, that is run by chef Chris Fischer (husband to Amy Schumer for all you pop culture aficionados). One day, I’ll try the local bonito with olive oil, salt and fennel blossoms. And if I come into some money, I’ll pick up some lobsters for the lobster pan roast with tomato butter crostini. If you want a taste of Martha’s Vineyard—of salt and sea and sky—this is the cookbook for you.

Vietnamese Home Cooking by Charles Phan

If you’re interested in Southeast Asian (and specifically Vietnamese) cooking, this is a great book to start with. Phan is the chef at the groundbreaking Slanted Door restaurant where he peddles elevated versions of the Vietnamese food he grew up eating. But in this cookbook, he takes it back to the home kitchen with unfussy versions of classic dishes. His recipe for fried rice is my go-to, and I could eat platters and platters of the salt and pepper wings.

Question(s) for you

What’s your favorite tempeh or tofu dish? Care to share?

What’s your go-to fall dish?

Do you run to your nearest coffee shop at the first sign of pumpkin-flavored anything?

What is an autumnal food that you’ve always wanted to make but never got around to?

Reply to this email with your answers!