Brokeass Gourmet: Tempeh Bacon

You won't confuse this tempeh bacon for the real thing, but it's smoky and delicious in its own right

They say there's nothing like falling in love for the first time; the excitement, the magic of connection, the rush of hormones—when you've never felt it before, it overtakes you, like liquor on the lips of someone who's never been drunk.

I remember the first time it happened to me, as a 17-year-old at a retreat for Jewish teens. In the Marin Headlands, just above the Golden Gate Bridge, I went wandering down a sandy beach in the dark with a boy I'd only recently met, but for whom I felt a shock of electricity the moment he said hello. Our first kiss didn't happen until later that night, in the dormitory bunk, and when it did, it intoxicated me instantly. In the days and weeks that followed, I could think of nothing other than when I could kiss him next. I was a cliche, an infatuated teenager, but in that moment on the beach, I was changed. I had tasted the zing of intense mutual desire, and I liked it.

Of course, I've had other serious relationships between that first one and my recent engagement to someone else, Evan, but I've been taking a mental inventory of my romantic history—a sort of internal tidying and boxing up—as I prepare for this next step. Still, the memories that remain the clearest and most significant are of the first. The first time imprints you in a way that can never be replicated. And though the imprinting experience is intense in and of itself, its real purpose is to prepare you for what more is to come.

Sixteen years after that walk on the beach with my first love, I got engaged to Evan at Cavallo Point, less than a mile away from that beach.

And now, when I drive by the Golden Gate Bridge and see the exit sign for the Marin Headlands, I think instead about Evan and our recent engagement. Though the whisper of that first taste of love remains a sweet memory, it is quieter now.

On a seemingly separate but definitely related note, I want to talk about tempeh.

I first tried tempeh right after moving to San Francisco at age 24. A Greek food stand in my neighborhood served traditional Greek gyros with lamb, and for vegetarians, as I was at the time, tempeh gyros. Tempeh is like tofu in that it is a protein source made from soy beans, but that's where the similarities end. While tofu is uniform in flavor, tempeh is fermented and tangy—and full of nooks and crannies that get crispy when cooked. It takes on the flavors of whatever you add to it, unlike tofu, which tends to just swim around in sauce.

I ordered a tempeh gyro, wrapped in pillowy fresh pita, topped with creamy yogurt tzatziki, cubed cucumbers and tomatoes, and the thinnest slivers of red onion. I had intended to eat it in my new apartment, but it smelled so good, and was so warm in the bag, that on my walk home, I found a bench and dug in. It was unbelievable. Somehow, the crunch and flavor of this soy product stood up to lots of yogurt and juicy vegetables. It was dense yet tender, and rife with umami flavor. I was in love.

I cooked it myself several times immediately afterward, and it took some time to figure out how to make it as crispy as it was in that phenomenal gyro. Eventually I discovered the secret: plenty of oil and medium-low, consistent heat. Today, I like to crisp strips of it, spiced with paprika, smoked salt, brown sugar, and black pepper, in the oven and serve it alongside scrambled eggs, like bacon. Of course, you would never confuse it with real bacon, but it's smoky and crispy and utterly delicious in its own right.

That gyro all those years ago was my first taste of tempeh love--my imprint. This bacon is my love letter to it.

INGREDIENTS

1 teaspoon smoked sea salt $2

1 tablespoon dark brown sugar pantry

1 1/2 teaspoons smoked paprika $2 for 1 ounce

1 teaspoon ground black pepper pantry

1 8-ounce package tempeh, cut into long, thin strips, about 1/8-inch thick $2.50

1 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil pantry

Estimated total cost of ingredients: $6.50

DIRECTIONS

Heat the oven to 350 F.

Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil and set aside.

Combine the smoked salt, brown sugar, paprika, and pepper in a small bowl. Mix well and set aside.

Put the tempeh slices in a rimmed dish, like a pie plate, and drizzle the oil all over, using your hands to ensure each strip is coated lightly.

Wash and dry your hands, and sprinkle the spice mixture all over the oiled tempeh strips, making sure they are evenly coated.

Arrange the coated strips on the prepared baking sheet with a little bit of space between them.

Bake for 22-25 minutes, or until brown and very crispy.

Let cool slightly, then serve warm.

Serves 2-3.

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