Monday, July 20, 2009

Tempeh Piccata

When I first joined Team Vegetarian, the summer between middle school and high school, I loved mock meats. Loved them. Couldn't get enough. I should remind you of the time: 1990. There weren't a lot of options. Saying "veggie burger" didn't conjure up frozen packages of Boca or Gardenburger, or debates between soy- or gluten-based. Veggie burger meant a package of Fantastic Foods' veggie burger spice mix combined with a squealchy package of trembling, aseptically-packed tofu. You'd mix them, squeezing it between your fingers, and then pan-fry it into some semblance of solidity. These burgers weren't winning any converts.

But at the summertime folk festivals, with their seitan fajita stands and gluten burger booths, you could find something that reminded you of meat. Something that had a savory toothsomeness, and the protein you craved. I ate them every chance I got. And when these products started making their way into grocery stores, I bought them up. I experimented with veggie meatballs, home-made gluten loaf, "notso" bucco, and the like. But the years passed, and I started care more and more about qualities of food beyond how closely it resembled bacon. The mock meats faded away.

Tempeh piccata is something of a holdover from those days. And yet it's so much more. Yes, the tempeh is used as a meat substitute, taking the place of the traditional chicken or veal in this Italian dish. But it's not really pretending to be meat, no ill-advised soy sauce or nutritional yeast trying to add some umami. The tempeh tastes like tempeh, but fried to a savory crust, and in a deliciously piquant sauce, sharp with capers and wine, deep with mushrooms. I daresay even meat-eaters might enjoy.

Tempeh Piccata
serves 3-4

This makes a fairly saucy version, perfect served over noodles in a bowl. Any leftovers will thicken somewhat overnight. If you prefer a drier version, use only 1/2 cup broth.

8 oz tempeh, sliced into 1/2 inch fingers
1/3 cup flour
salt and pepper
2 Tbsp olive oil (or half olive oil and half butter)
1/2 lb mushrooms, thinly-sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup white wine
1 cup vegetable broth
3 Tbsp capers
juice of 1/2 lemon
1/2 bunch spinach, washed and roughly chopped

Heat the oil to a medium heat in a deep skillet. Season the flour with salt and pepper, and dredge the tempeh fingers until they're well-coated, shaking off excess. Fry in batches until golden-brown, about 5 minutes per side. Remove from the skillet and set aside.

In the same skillet (adding more oil if needed), add the mushrooms, and leave them there until the liquid is released and evaporates (at which point a nice browning should have occurred). stir, and continue to cook until well-browned. Add the garlic, and cook for a few minutes until the garlic is lightly browned. Add the white wine, allow to simmer for a minute, and then add the vegetable broth, and simmer for several more minutes, until reduced and slightly thickened. Return the fried tempeh to the pan, and season with the capers and lemon juice. Add the spinach, and cook a few more minutes, until the greens are wilted and the flavors have blended. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve over pasta.


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