Until I attended culinary school, tempeh always seemed like some weird meat-alternative that people tended to cook especially poorly. It was dry, bland, or rubbery. However, at the Natural Gourmet Institute, a plant-based culinary school where vegetarian proteins like tempeh took center stage, I learned that tempeh is a dynamic food with incredible versatility. It can be transformed to take on complex flavors and its meaty texture can satisfy vegetarians and omnivores alike.
So what is tempeh? Tempeh is made from fermented soybeans. Its actually a staple food in Indonesia and has only recently become more widely available in the US. Because of the controversy surrounding soy foods, I want to clearly differentiate between tempeh and other soy products on the market.
First, tempeh is a whole food - the soybean. Ingredients like soy protein isolate or textured soy protein are usually the product of genetic engineering and a long refinement process. Processing reduces the fiber and many of the nutrients in soy. Much of the current concern over the health effects of soy are related to these processed soy foods rather than the whole food form.
Second, tempeh is a fermented food. Since the benefits of fermentation in general are fairly well understood, I'd like to explain how it relates directly to the nutrition of soy. During fermentation, molds, yeasts, and bacteria convert carbohydrates into gasses, alcohols, and other molecules. In the case of soy, proteins are also altered in the fermentation process. This is highly beneficial for the fermented soy eater! Not only are the proteins made more digestible through fermentation, but they also form smaller protein molecules, called peptides, that act as antioxidants, boost the immune system, and help decrease inflammation. Fermentation also makes soy nutrients like calcium more bioavailable for the body. Finally, one of the key anti-cancer phytochemicals in soy, genistein, is found in higher concentrations in fermented soy products like tempeh than in other soy products like soy protein isolate, soy milk, or non-fermented tofu.
If you are new to tempeh, this is a great recipe to get your toes wet. By grating the tempeh and cooking it like ground beef, a simple tomato sauce is elevated to a hearty meatless meal. (You could apply a similar technique to make a tempeh filling for tacos.) While the sauce could be served over pasta for a more traditional spaghetti meal, as usual I was looking for an easy way to up the nutrition on my plate. I roasted a spaghetti squash, used a fork to separate it into strands, and topped it with my tempeh Bolognese. To add some flavorful greens to the plate, I blanched some broccoli rabe and sautéed it with garlic and olive oil. Wellness on a plate!
Spaghetti Squash Boats with Tempeh Bolognese
Yield: 2 squash boats
Adapted from Natural Gourmet Institute’s Tempeh “Bolognese”
1 medium spaghetti squash
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil, divided
1 yellow onion, diced
1-2 teaspoons sea salt
8 ounces tempeh, grated
3 gloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons Italian seasoning (or 1 teaspoon dry basil and 1 teaspoon dry oregano)
1/8 – ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes (depending on desired spice level)
1 cup red wine
28-ounce can tomato puree
- Pre-heat oven to 375F. Halve spaghetti squash length-wise, season with salt and pepper, drizzle with olive oil and place face up on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake for about 1 hour or until tender.
- Heat half of the olive oil in a large skillet or sauté pan. Add onion and ½ teaspoon salt and cook until softened. Add remaining olive oil, tempeh, and ½ teaspoon salt and cook until tempeh has slightly browned. Add the garlic, dried herbs, and red pepper flakes and cook for a few more minutes.
- Add the red wine and reduce the liquid by simmering. When the tempeh is almost dry, add the tomato puree and cook covered for 15 more minutes.
- When the squash is cooked, use a fork to break apart the strands. Top with tempeh Bolognese and chopped parsley for garnish.