Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Animal Lovers in Austin, Rejoice!

Although compassion for all living creatures was one of my many reasons for becoming a vegan, I don't currently have any pets, but I do know that they can provide comfort, therapy and companionship, so I thought it was pretty neat to hear about this. Families who have been devasted by fire now have one less thing to worry about.

I'm the Lady You've Looked for, Write to Me and Escape

When I was little, my parents had an old cassette of music from the 70's called something like, AM Radio's Greatest Hits that featured songs like "Love Will Keep Us Together" by Captain and Tennille, "Alone Again (Naturally)" by Gilbert O'Sullilvan, "Knock Three Times" by Tony Orlando and Dawn, and "Escape (The Pina Colada Song)" by Rupert Holmes.

R, JD, our friend Ruff Draft and I were having Pineapple, Tequila, and Lime Sorbet after a dinner of Spanish Rice, Fresh Sweet Corn, and Tempeh Tacos last night. Ruff Draft commented that the sorbet was refreshing and tropical, like a Pina Colada, which prompted a discussion of the song, "Escape". He'd never really listened to the song, but JD and I were quite familiar with it: a man is bored in his relationship, so he looks at the personals, an ad catches his eye, and he writes back. He goes to meet the lady and it's his current significant other (JD and Ruff Draft thought it was his wife, I always assumed it was his girlfriend), and they discover that there's a lot about each other that they didn't know, and it can be inferred that the couple is going to stay together and do all the things mentioned in the song with each other.

Of course, during this discussion, we started singing the chorus. I had always thought the song was a bit morbid because of the line, "If you like making love at midnight in the tombs of a cave," which I questioned JD about. He laughed and said it was actually, "If you like making love at midnight in the cool summer rain," which, I had to admit made a hell of a lot more sense, and seemed logical enough, although sort of weird, because there's already a line about getting caught in the rain....Fast forward to today, when I began writing this post, and decided to look up the real lyrics. It's actually,"If you like making love at midnight, in the dunes on The Cape," according to Wikipedia, which I must say relieves me a bit. I didn't want to forever associate the song with some kind of rain fetish.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Tempeh Madness!

Golden Brown Pan Fried Tempeh

Let's talk about tempeh. No, it's not a town in Arizona. The picture above is a great example of tempeh that has been pan fried until golden brown. I'm sure by now most vegans and vegetarians know what tempeh is. Hopefully, you've tried it, and it has become a part of your diet, whether you're a vegetarian or not. JD loves tempeh's nutty texture and flavor. As a chef, I love its versatility. It can be steamed, marinated, deep fried, pan friend, baked, sautéed, simmered, braised, smoked, grilled, broiled, crumbled, used in sushi, sate, paella, gumbo, fried rice, tacos, burritos, paté, stews, stuffing, patties, and, I've even heard of people using it for smoothies! Some of my favorite tempeh dishes to prepare include Tempeh Marsala, Tempeh Tacos, a Persian dish of tempeh in a walnut pomegranate sauce, Tempeh Sushi and Tempeh Ruebens, and I love ordering Nasi Goreng with Deep Fried Tempeh locally from Java Noodles, or getting Tempeh Scallopini from Watercourse Foods when I'm in Denver.

So what is tempeh? It's a soybean product. A fermented soybean patty, to be exact. I know it sounds kind of horrendous, but good homemade tempeh only has the most subtle of smells, and really only an earthy, slightly mushroomy smell. Commercial tempeh doesn't even really have a smell. Don't let the fermentation scare you, I think Americans in general are scared of fermented foods, but we unwittingly eat them every day from various sources like: chocolate, coffee beans, sauerkraut, beer, wine, yogurt, kefir, vinegar, pickles, olives, cheese, soy sauce and tamari.

Recently, soy foods have been getting unfairly lumped together, but as I've stated before, soy foods are not all equal. Tempeh is frequently grouped with tofu as a meat analog or meat substitute, and although both can a great addition to vegan or vegetarian diets, they're both foods with long, rich histories. Tofu originated in China, most likely more than two thousand years ago. Tempeh originated in Indonesia, probably around the 16th century, where it was produced by the Javanese people. Both of these soy products have been the subject of cancer prevention studies.

So how is tempeh different from tofu, you ask? Texturally, I always think of tempeh as the "steak" of soy products and tofu as the "cheese", although I think tempeh has much more inherent flavor. Nurtritionally, tempeh has more calcium and iron, and almost twice as much protein as tofu.

Tempeh is made from whole, skinned soybeans which are soaked, partially cooked, then mixed with the Rhizopus oligosporus spore (usually called PTS for Powdered Tempeh Starter), and incubated for about 24 hours, so it's not only a whole food, but also a cultured food which (when prepared properly*) is easy to digest since the fermentation has started breaking it down, and over time it can aid digestion and help propagate good intestinal flora and strengthen your immune system. Tempeh has also been sited as a good source of vitamin B12 for vegans, although that is up for dispute.

Tofu, on the other hand is a heavily refined soy food made from soaked soybeans, the raw soaked beans are blended with hot water, then lightly cooked and the soybean pulp is strained, giving you soy milk and okara (soy pulp). A coagulant is then added to the soy milk to make it curdle ( like dairy cheese), and then the curds are strained and pressed.

I know that you have busy lives and sometimes it's hard enough to order take-out, let alone prepare a food that requires not only incubating and culturing for 24 hours, but also de-skinning soybeans (!), but I'd like to encourage the more adventuresome of you to try your hand at culturing your own batch of tempeh. Why? Well, for one thing, once you get the hang of it, and set up your incubator, it's pretty easy. For another, there's a huge difference between homemade tempeh and store bought tempeh. Finally, you know how I said that tempeh could propagate good intestinal flora? Well, commercially produced tempeh is made in sterile environments, and pasteurized, so while it can be easy to digest, most likely it won't do much for your flora or immune system. In even the cleanest of home kitchens, there's a little bacteria in the air, and in this case, that's a good thing. That bacteria makes your tempeh more hardy, and when you eat that fresh, unpasteurized tempeh, your immune system reaps the benefits.

And if you needed any other reasons, imagine going to bed at night and waking up to find this lovely, downy white block of tempeh all ready to prepare for your breakfast, lunch or dinner?

Fresh, homemade chickpea tempeh.
Or maybe making something wild like chickpea tempeh, sesame seed tempeh, pumpkin seed tempeh, walnut tempeh, wakame tempeh, or fu nori tempeh?

Clockwise from top left: wakame tempeh, pumpkin seed tempeh, flax seed tempeh and fu nori tempeh.

Since there are already some great online guides to making tempeh, most notably this one, I'll only offer some notes and tips.


To make skinning the soybeans easier, I pulse the dry beans in my food processor 1 cup at a time, until the majority of the beans are cracked (but not powdered!). This is very loud, so I wear earplugs. Skinning the soybeans is an important step, and ensures that you have firm, non crumbly tempeh. You don't have to remove ALL the skins, but you do need to take off most. Why? Well, the mycelia attaches to the outer layer of the soybeans, if that layer happens to be the skin of the beans, then as soon as you cut into your tempeh, the skins will stay attached to the mycelia, but the actual bean will pop out, leaving you with a soggy mess when you try to do anything with the tempeh.

I like to crack and soak the beans in the evening, then soak them the next morning (loud noises early in the morning are too jarring for me), cook them in the evening, after dinner, so I can begin the fermentation process a few hours before bed. This way, I'm usually home from work to check on them around the time they're done fermenting. Of course, you may not work outside the home, or choose to do this on a weekend. I'm just saying that you do need to take into account where you'll be between about hour 18 and 24.

I've experimented with using vinegar along with the starter, and it's never worked, so I just use PTS and the soybeans. I've never tried brewer's yeast, but I've heard that others do. Experiment with small batches and see what works best.

I like culturing the tempeh patties in zippered, sandwich size plastic baggies. I use a fork with thin, sharp tines to poke holes in the bag for ventilation, usually three rows of four. The baggies make the finished tempeh cakes easy to handle and store and means that the tempeh is already divided into portions.

If I'm making large batches all at once, I chill the tempeh cakes in the fridge, and once they are cool, put them into gallon sized freezer bags and freeze them.

For general use, I put about 1 1/2 cups into each baggie, which is about 3 or 4 servings.

Make sure you have a warm, dry place all prepped BEFORE you begin boiling the beans. Optimal incubating temperature is about 85, so your home's normal room temperature might be perfect. If not, the oven, top of the refrigerator, above the dryer, etc. might be good spots. I use my oven, turned off, with the light on.

I like to dry the partially cooked soybeans on large flour sack towels, because terry cloth towels can leave fuzzy lint threads, that can look like hair. Not appetizing.

I'm still experimenting with adding things to my tempeh, but 2-3 teaspoons per 1 1/2 cups of tempeh seems to be a good amount for small seeds like sesame or flax. Additions should be dry, room temperature, and at least as small as the beans, so nuts or seeds can be roasted, toasted or soaked, but cool and toweled dry like the beans. For sea vegetables, I've had good luck cutting them into small bits and adding them dry. I think if you reconstituted them, they'd be too slick and add too much liquid. For the bean mixtures, I think it's a good idea to boil them separately so that you have more control over how soft they become. I made a mostly chick pea version that was very nice, although JD didn't like it (R, who has a soy sensitivity, loved it) . The chickpeas are drier and almost pasty, but I enjoyed it very much, and I think it would be great for people with soy sensitivities. I know you can make soy/grain tempeh, but I haven't done this. I'm not a fan of the Lightlife and White Wave versions, so I don't see a point in trying it at the moment.

Good luck and happy fermenting!

Glamour shot of the pumpkin seed tempeh (which happens to be my favorite so far).

*Please note: since the soybeans for tempeh are only partially cooked, it's very important that you always cook any commercially produced tempeh for at least 20 minutes in order to make it digestible. I've noticed that my tempeh is always much more tender and the beans are much softer, so I think cooking homemade tempeh for 10 minutes is probably sufficient.

May Updates

Platter of deliciousness.
I've been a bad, bad blogger. I'm sorry about the lack of posts. It's not from a lack of cooking. I've been taking tons of pictures, and creating many, many dishes. These pictures give you a glimpse of some of the dishes and recipes I'll be writing about in the coming weeks.

Strawberry Sorbet with Lime Zest

Raw TuNut Wrap

Quick Wonton Ravioli

Vegan Ceviche
During the winter and first half of spring, I was taking inspiration from Indian food, although lately Persian food has been my muse, so expect to see some recipes with Indian and Persian flavors.

I have also been very busy with our garden. In January, R and I moved into a lovely house. In March, JD joined us. JD and I have built three raised bed gardens, one full of vegetables including roots like carrots, onions, radishes and turnips, plus some tomatoes, fennel, broccoli, cabbage and jalapenos, one that has cucumbers and zucchini, and, once we make it a bit longer, will have cantaloupes, and my favorite bed, the herb garden, which features a bust that we've been calling The Lady.

The Lady watches over our herbs from her perch in the backyard.

The herb garden currently has dill, cilantro, thyme, lemon thyme, lemongrass (to go with our two kaffir lime trees), sage and basil. We have about 5 or 6 spots open for more herbs, in the herb bed, and a couple of container herbs, like chives and oregano. I recently bought some Asian seeds, including two amaranths (for the greens), Chinese cabbages, two daikons, shiso, Chinese leeks, bunching onions and burdock. I want to built three more raised beds; a tall bed for the burdock (you harvest it when it's 3 to 4 feet long, and it will grow through rock and around other roots, so with all the tree roots in our yard, planting it straight in the ground would make a harvesting nightmare), a large bed for all the other Asian vegetables, and a small bed like the herb garden for edible flowers.

Late Bloomers: I had all but given up on these pansy seedlings

We're also growing a few other things in the garden, outside of beds, like English peas, sweet potatoes, a fig tree, raspberries, blackberries, hibiscus, and of course the avocado trees and pineapples.

This is kind of a teaser, as I plan to write more on the topic later, but, at the school, it's home processing time, which means I get to teach some of my favorite classes. To view info about all the upcoming events, see more recipes and pictures, and see what else I'm up to, you can check out the blog I moderate for work here, I write the posts for NaturalEpicurean.

In more personal news, JD and I will be going to the ACL festival again this year. I'm especially excited to see DeVotchka, The Decemberists, Andrew Bird, Bjork, Regina Spektor, and Bob Dylan (Did you hear about this? The story made me giggle.) It will be great to see Wilco, Ben Kweller, The Del McCoury Band, Spoon, Kaiser Chiefs and Bloc Party again, although I'm not a huge fan of the latter four artists, I've seen them live, and they all put on great shows. I saw Jack White play with the Raconteurs last year, which made me wish I was watching The White Stripes, even though I stopped following them after Elephant, so this year I'll get my wish. I haven't decided if I'll check out Muse. I caught some of their show last year, but JD wasn't into them, so we left after two songs. I think their debut, Showbiz was my personal favorite, and honestly, I haven't kept up with them too much recently. Anyone on the lineup you consider to be must-see? I was disappointed that Interpol and Of Montreal weren't tapped since they (will) have both released albums (by the time of the festival).

Last, but certainly not least, my best friend, H will be visiting me this week! I have many potential ideas, including:
Zilker Botanical Gardens - the Oriental garden and koi ponds are gorgeous.
Happy Hour(or dinner) at the Clay Pit - appetizers are half price during happy hour, and although I always enjoy the food, it's the pashwari naan that I really want H to try.
Lunch at Aster's Ethiopian - plenty of injera, and many delicious vegetarian dishes.
Uchi - everyone in my social circle raves about Uchi, but I've never been since I can get decent vegan sushi anywhere, and I can make AWESOME vegan sushi at home, it always seemed as pointless for me to go to an expensive sushi place as it would be for me to go to an expensive steakhouse. H loves the sushi, though, so this is a good time to check it out.
Cocktail party! - I think the South Austin Spec's just opened....
Threadgill's - I've never been, but one of my favorite locals band is having a show there.
The Draughthouse Pub and Brewery and/or The Gingerman - both have an vast & varied selection of exquisite beers, and the Draughthouse (obviously) brews their own. If we go to The Gingerman(which I've been known to drunkenly call "The GingerBREAD Man"), we'll probably check out Halcyon, because, though they are not vegan, H would love the idea of their indoor S'mores.
The Alamo Drafthouse - hopefully we can check out Terror Thursday at the original before they close.
The Whole Foods flagship location - it's kind of a huge yuppie amusement park, yes, but good Lord, do they have a lot of beautiful, tasty stuff, plus, they give out tons of samples.
Waterloo Records/Waterloo Video - 'nuff said.
Book People - Ditto.
Kerbey Lane - I'm sure we'll be out really, really late at least one night, in need of nourishment, and what's better for that than KL's Mushroom Artichoke Spinach Omelet, veganized? Nothing, that's what.
I'm also taking recommendations, so if you have suggestions for quintessentially Austin things, or know of any fun events occurring between May 31 and June 6, let me know.