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The Alternative Meat Alternative

Tempeh: Indonesia's Best-Kept Culinary Secret


One of my favorite versatile food ingredients, one that I rely heavily upon, is tempeh (tem-pay). This flat solid and chunky cake of compressed cultured soybeans and sometimes grains can be cooked in a variety of ways. Its uses are limited only by one’s imagination. 

Tempeh is an Indonesian staple food, where it’s eaten as snack and used widely in cooking.

Tempeh is perfect for anyone who wants to eat healthy food (except those allergic to fermented foods). It’s a wonderful and nutritious meat substitute with absolutely no cholesterol. It’s low in fat and calories and rich in protein and vitamins, especially B vitamins. Tempeh is a good source of fiber. It’s easily digestible and causes no more flatulence than non-legume food. Tempeh is also rich in isoflavones, which act as antioxidants, lowering the risk of certain types of cancer and suppressing tumors.

Here's how Tempeh makers create this wonderful ingredient: The beans or grains are cooked and dehulled, then germinated with a starter culture (Rhizopus oligosporous, which is a mold) overnight at a warm temperature under controlled conditions. The germination process causes the mold spores to cover the soybeans or grains with a white substance called mycelia. The layer of mycelia binds and Amira Elgan holds together the soybeans or grains forming a compressed cake that has a nutty rich flavor, chunky texture and chewy consistency.

Tempeh is basically ready to eat out of the package, but not very appetizing that way. It's much better heated or sautéed with your favorite seasonings or sauces. It absorbs flavors easily, so it can be marinated, steamed, sliced and grilled or sautéed. Add crumbled tempeh to your favorite sauces, soups, chilies, casseroles or pasta dishes. By the way, it’s the key ingredient in this issue’s Vegetarian Organic Recipe of the Week. 

You should store Tempeh in the fridge. Keep an eye on the expiration date, as no preservatives are used in organic tempeh. It may be frozen before it expires for up to a year, though once it’s been frozen the texture may change a little. Defrost at room temperature or slowly in the fridge. If you thaw it in the fridge, it will last longer -- up to three weeks. Once opened, tempeh lasts up to seven days if kept refrigerated and tightly wrapped in plastic.

My favorite brands of tempeh are Lightlife and Whitewave. These companies make different varieties of tempehs that are vegan, kosher, made with organic beans and are wheat and gluten free (check the label).

Tempeh is widely available at produce or refrigerated sections of health or natural food stores. Even some Wal-Mart, K-mart and Target stores carry tempeh now.

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Reader Q&A 

Q: My family is vegetarian. Our one-year-old has a dairy allergy. I am still nursing her but would like to wean her in a couple of months. What are some ways I could incorporate fat in her diet which she needs for brain development? Also, do you recommend that I give her a B12 supplement? 
Thanks 

A: I don’t know what your vegetarian diet consists of but generally speaking, there are many nutrients a child needs in order to grow and develop healthfully. For example, in addition to the fats and vitamin B12 milk provides, the exclusion of milk might also create an insufficiency of calcium, phosphorus, riboflavin, pantothenic acid, and vitamins A and D. An adequate and well-balanced vegetarian diet with no dairy can provide all the necessary nutrients, but it is crucial that you understand what nutrients you’re excluding by eliminating dairy so can make sure to get these nutrients from other sources. 

You can provide fats and essential fatty acids, for example, from certain vegetable oils (flaxseed, primrose, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, safflower seeds), nuts, nut butters, avocado, grains, legumes, etc., and B12 from fermented soy products such as tempeh and seaweed.

Having said that, I recommend that you consult a pediatric dietician and request a complete clinical assessment of child’s food allergies if you haven’t already done so. 

Food allergies vary from child to child, as does degree of severity. Given the importance of the relation of proper nutrition and growth development, it’s important that you develop a complete list of allergies, then systematically identify any possible nutritional deficiencies that will result from avoiding the foods that trigger these allergies. Here are a couple of resources that can help:

The American Academy of Pediatrics 
800-433-9016

The American Academy of Allergy and Immunology
800-822-ASMA

And here is a recent study on the subject.

Good luck!


Words of Wisdom

A happy person is not a person in a certain set of circumstances, but rather a person with a certain set of attitudes.

Hugh Downs

Reader Comment

Dear Amira,

I love your newsletter, but I totally disagree with your statement about garlic in the last one.

I have an extreme aversion to garlic because of its horrible odor and pungency. I NEVER use it! There is not a trace of garlic in my kitchen. I would get convulsions (literally), if I smelled someone who had eaten a dish with lots of garlic in it (like your pesto recipe). I don't believe in "the more, the better," even if I didn't have a problem with garlic. Five garlic gloves (!) overpower everything. I use spices like cumin or paprika to bring out flavors. I also don't believe in all the "powers" garlic is supposed to have. Maybe they're a myth dreamt up by garlic growers in Gilroy, the capitol of Garlic (where I never go!).

Since I grew up in a country where garlic is virtually never used, I had no idea about its smell until I went to Paris, France, where everyone reeked of it. It was especially horrid in an overcrowded Metro! I used to hold a tissue drenched in perfume under my nose. As I was never accustomed to cooking with garlic, I could never get used to it here in California. It still puzzled me what the fascination is about this appalling vegetable.

When going to restaurants, I have a even tougher time finding something to eat, even in a vegetarian or vegan place, because of my disgust with garlic in dishes. If it were up to me, I would ban it from planet Earth!

Those are my 2 cents worth...

My Reply: 

Thank you for your input. I appreciate interacting with active readers like you. 

I gather you really do abhor garlic. You’re not alone, there are others who have a strong distaste for it too. Rumors have it that the British royal family does not eat garlic because they don’t want to offend anyone with their breath. Apparently, their employees must renounce garlic as well. In fact, I know people who feel the same way about onions, which belong to the lily family along with garlic, leeks, chives, shallots and other plants.

(My advice: When in San Francisco or Los Angeles, don't go here.)

Some garlic-averse people characterize their dislike for garlic as an allergy, but unless the reaction involves digestive distress, skin reaction to exposure or other physical symptoms, it’s not an allergic reaction but simply a strong dislike. 

Unfortunately, for those who loathe garlic, the less they eat it the more attuned and sensitive they become to others’ garlic smell. Avoiding garlic makes you hypersensitive to detecting garlic odor in others. The essential oils in garlic saturate the lung tissue causing breath and even skin odor to linger long after it’s been eaten. Likewise, those of us who eat garlic become immune to the smell in others.

The eating of garlic dates back about 6,000 years. Some of its claimed medicinal properties have been studied and scientifically proven. German authorities recommend that garlic be avoided before and after surgery because it can slow blood clotting. These anti-coagulant agents help prevent and break up blood clots. It is believed that blood clots in blood vessels cause many heart attacks and strokes. 

My pesto recipe in last week’s issue calls for five garlic cloves and makes about 1½ cups of pesto. This amount of sauce, for example, allows for at least three pasta dishes of six servings each (18 total servings). For the number of servings of food that can be made with 1½ cups of pesto, five garlic cloves is not an overpowering amount. Each serving provides just a miniscule amount of garlic and not even enough for cardiovascular and cold prevention and treatment (eating one clove daily indefinitely is recommended for the former and one three times a day during symptoms for the latter). 

I don’t believe in “the more the better” either -- on the contrary, I’m a strong believer in moderation. I simply suggest the use of garlic in cooking whenever possible. However, even if used in every meal, the individual garlic intake is minimal.

You mention you like to use cumin and paprika for flavor, I love those spices as well and use them in many of my recipes. Having said that, they don’t work with everything, as there are some foods and ingredients that clash and the results can be unappealing. 

Herbs and spices combined with food can create and array of flavors, but like most things, using them (or not) is often a matter of personal preference and taste. If you see a particular ingredient you dislike in my recipes, simply ignore it or ask me for an alternative.


Vegetarian Organic Recipe of the Week

My Boys' Pesto Pasta (vegan) 
Serves 6

This is both of my sons’ favorite pasta dish. I like making it for them because it is high in protein, which they need because they both lift weights and play sports. I use broccoli, edamames and corn in this recipe, but other vegetables will go well with it too.

Ahead of time: My vegan pesto recipe from last week’s issue.

Preparation time: 10 minutes Cooking time: 20 minutes 

Get ingredients ready (use organic ingredients if possible)
Boiling water for cooking pasta
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil 
2 fresh garlic cloves (minced or pressed)
3 cups uncooked pasta (farfalle/bowties or fusilli/spirals)
20 oz (3 cups) of fresh firm tofu cut in small cubes 
1 (8 oz) package of tempeh (crumbled)
1 cup frozen corn
1 ½ cups broccoli florets
½ cup frozen shelled edamames (soybeans)
½ cup pesto sauce
Low fat Veggy Parmesan, optional (cheese alternative made of tofu)
Sea salt & freshly ground pepper

1. Boil water for pasta in a large pot half full. In a separate large pot, heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil on low heat. Add pressed or minced garlic and cook gently for 2 minutes then add tofu and tempeh stirring and cooking for 3 minutes. Add corn, mix well and cook for 3 minutes. Turn off heat, cover and set aside.

2. Meanwhile, add pasta to boiling water and cook as indicated on package instructions (about 8-10 minutes for dried pasta) stirring occasionally to prevent sticking. 3 minutes before the pasta is done add the broccoli and edamames to the boiling pasta increasing heat and cooking until pasta is done. Drain and rinse with running cold water for 15 seconds. Toss pasta and veggies with remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil.

4. Over medium heat, add pasta with the broccoli and edamames to the tempeh, tofu and corn mixture combining well. Immediately add pesto sauce, toss and mix thoroughly cooking for 5 more minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle each serving with Low fat Veggy Parmesan cheese alternative and serve immediately for best flavor and texture. Leftovers should keep for up to 3 days in the refrigerator.

For dairy lovers: Use with fresh cheese tortellini or ravioli pasta instead. Or sprinkle with real Parmesan cheese.

Cook’s tip: The pasta can be dried or fresh but should be organic with no egg in it. Also, you can add more pesto sauce if it looks too dry for your taste.

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Comments? Please send e-mail to Amira at [email protected]