Monday, September 17, 2012

Cornmeal-Crusted Tempeh from The Conscious Cook

L'Shanah Tovah!  Today marks the celebration of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.  It is a time to reflect on the past year, as well as to reflect on life's blessings - friends, family and community.

Traditionally, Rosh Hashanah is celebrated with a meal with family.  Growing up, I remember eating brisket, roasted potatoes and apple cake with my parents and grandparents.  Now that I follow a vegan diet, I wanted to capture the same sort of celebratory meal for my husband and me.  The exact elements of the meal don't matter as much as the intangible ingredients - care and love.  And, as our rabbi's remarks spoke about the importance of compassion, I find a vegan meal to be very appropriate for this holiday!  Philosophy aside, I also knew that getting home from services mid-day would give me plenty of time to whip up something special for us for dinner.

With all that in mind, I decided to crack open Tal Ronnen's The Conscious Cook.  In his introductory chapter, Chef Ronnen notes that his goal has been "creating vegan food that was just as mouthwatering and delicious as anything I'd ever had as a meat eater" and that "if you like hollandaise sauce, rich wine reductions and meat-like textures, you'll love these recipes."

I let my husband flip through the book to select what I was going to make.  I thought he would go for the Peppercorn-Encrusted Portobello Fillets with Yellow Tomato Bearnaise and Mashed Potatoes, but, to my surprise, he suggested the Cornmeal-Crusted Tempeh with Smoked Tomato Sauce, Green Chile Relish, Black Bean Puree and Braised Kale.

This recipe has multiple steps and involves a lot of pots and timing, so I'll walk through some ways I multi-tasked throughout the two-hour (yes, you read that correctly) prep and cooking time.  If you're a beginner cook, you may want to pair up with a friend and use multiple kitchen timers.

Simmering the tempeh
The recipe has seven parts: pre-cooking the tempeh, making the smoky tomato sauce, making the black bean puree, making the green chile relish and breading, braising the kale and pan frying the tempeh.  The recipe is very clearly written out, so if you follow the steps as they're written, it won't be stressful.  Note that you'll have a lot of idle time while the tempeh and sauce are simmering, so I suggest doing a good amount of prep then, as the final minutes of the recipe will go by quickly.  For me, this included chopping the kale, chopping the onions and the garlic for the bean puree and green chile relish, and roasting the chile pepper for the relish. 

Since I was only cooking for the two of us, I halved the entire recipe, except the black bean puree (which I thought I'd use in a burrito or another dish).  I prepared the tempeh according to the recipe directions.  The broth, which included soy sauce, ginger, garlic, peppercorns, dried ancho and chipotle peppers and bay leaf, smelled fantastic.  While the broth was coming to a boil, I made sure to start chopping the veggies for the sauce.

The recipe said to reserve the cooking liquid from the tempeh, but I read through the recipe multiple times and couldn't figure out why it needed to be reserved, so I rinsed out that pot and used it for the black bean puree.

Another time saver was using an immersion blender.  Rather than putting the tomato sauce in the blender and putting the black beans in a food processor, I used the immersion blender to puree them.  I had better luck with the beans than the sauce (my guess, not enough liquid), but both came out fine, and this saved some dishwashing for us later.

Since we don't have a gas range, I roasted my pepper in the toaster oven, rotating it with tongs so it would blacken on all sides.

The recipe for the braised kale is in another part of the book.  I found it made sense to make the kale in one pan and fry the tempeh in the other concurrently, as the timing on both of them is similar.

Unlike some of the other recipes in the book, there's no accompanying photo, so I'm not sure what Chef Ronnen intended for plating.  I decided to do three "zones" - the tomato sauce, the bean puree and the kale, then layered the tempeh over the "zones" and sprinkled the top with the chile relish.

The tomato sauce definitely has a smoky flavor, and the black beans were surprisingly and pleasingly sweet.  Simmering the tempeh in broth very much improves the flavor and texture, and for once, I managed to pan fry something without the breading falling off.  If you want to simplify this recipe further, I think you can omit the chile relish.  I don't think it will make or break the dish. 

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