Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Spicy Teriyaki Tempeh Stir Fry

Teriyaki….this was an undecided and hesitant vegan exploration of the well-known goopy goodness. Teriyaki seems so basic...because it is. Basic can be ok, but for a chef that tends to get carried away with complex ingredients and grandiose cooking techniques, it is borderline dull. It doesn’t ring bells of Japanese authenticity such as, say, Ohitashi or Bakkake Udon. At its worst it poses as a cop-out during times of indecision or reluctance to venture out at an Asian fast food chain. In its better moments it's a boon for both the inexperienced chef looking with immesnse bottle-opening skills as well as the busy body who aims for something convenient. I see the pros and cons, but it's hard to shake the perception of this sauce as either doing the molasses mamba out of a bottle or slimed all over a fast food order from Samurai Sam’s. What’s so great about Teriyaki?

Everything. Salty, sweet, and hugs food perfectly. Not to mention you can whip it up in about 5 minutes. There are many Teriyaki recipes out there to choose from, though they vary a bit. Regardless of the small nuances here and there between recipes, there are really just two key components essential to the salty-sweet flare of many Asian sauces: soy sauce and sugar. Working at the Indonesian restaurant in Madison, I learned very quickly that sugar is the secret to the deliciousness of most Asian cuisines. And so, soy sauce and sugar are the key players in most versions of Teriyaki. Presumably water is an easy ingredient to come by, so with those three things you're half way there. Garlic, ginger and cornstarch complete the Teriyaki Team and if you don't have those in your kitchen, get them immediately. I chose a simple recipe based on the ingredients at hand and the ease of preparation. With a few tweaks, I was very pleased.

Customizations: For one, I added Sambal Oelek, another Indonesian staple. It takes hardly a teaspoon to break a sweat, so this red chili garlic paste is deceivingly spicy. I used just under a full teaspoon in the whole batch which was perfect. Sweet sauces don’t do much for me, but a mouthful of something sweet and spicy sauce will make my eyes roll in the back of my head. Has anyone seen What About Bob? I hope some of you recall the dinner scene. The second tweak was my sad attempt to make myself feel better about using so much sugar and salt in one sitting. The recipe initially called for brown sugar, but I used turbinado sugar which is raw and unrefined. Its granules are much larger but dissolve all the same. Why not throw in an extra nutritious punch? It made me feel better, especially since I wasn't willing this time around to sacrifice taste to use the low sodium soy sauce. Another way to make this just a smidge healthier is to use less oil when stir-frying and replace with water which deglazes and steams instead. In the end, when you add a thick sauce anyway, it won’t affect the taste at all unless you’ve over-watered your wok (wow, I sure hope those last few words are what people remember me by).

Once again, I’ve used the boil-then-fry method for cooking tempeh with fabulous results. The addition of a handful of sweet, thin green beans and vibrant red bell pepper was perfect. I am very much averse to mushy, overcooked vegetables so I tend to eat them al dente (crisp to the bite) – take care to add the veggies later in the game or they were sog up in no time. When adding the sauce at the end, you won’t need to remove the wok from heat, but you’d be safe turning the burner off so that you don’t overcook the cornstarch. Otherwise you'll end up with gloppy gastro nightmare. I served this over brown rice and decided it’s true what they say – sugar and spice is very nice.

Spicy Teriyaki Tempeh Stir Fry
Serves: 3-4
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 10 minutes


For the Sauce
¼ c. Tamari (gluten-free soy sauce)
1 c. Water
2-3 T. Sugar, brown or turbinado (raw)
1 T. Ginger, freshly grated or minced
1 Large garlic clove, minced
½ - 1 tsp. Sambal Oelek or red chili garlic paste
2 T. Cornstarch
¼ c. Cold water

For the Tempeh
1 Package Tempeh, cut into small strips or cubes
1 ½ c. Water
½ tsp Onion powder
½ tsp Garlic powder
1 T. Soy sauce

For the Stir Fry
1 ½ T. Canola oil
2 Green onions, white and green parts chopped and divided
2 tsp. Ginger, freshly grated or minced
2 c. Green beans, ends trimmed and cut in half
½ Red bell pepper, chopped
½ c. Water (or as needed)


For the Sauce: Combine the first 6 ingredients in a small sauce pan, adjusting the spice level by using more/less Sambal Oelek. Heat mixture over high heat and boil until sauce has reduced slightly, 4-5 minutes. In a small bowl, mix together cornstarch and cold water. Add to sauce and stir constantly until reaches desired thickness. The sauce should be fairly liquid still, because some will evaporate in the next cooking stage.

For the Tempeh: Combine all tempeh ingredients in a small sauce pan and bring to a boil. Turn heat down slightly and keep at a rolling boil until tempeh has absorbed most of the water. Remove from heat and set aside.

For the Stir Fry: Using a stove-top wok or large skillet, heat canola oil over high heat. Add white part of onions and ginger, cooking until just fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add tempeh to the pan and toss around to coat all sides. If necessary, add ¼ cup of water if pan becomes too dry. Cook until tempeh starts to brown. Add green beans and red pepper to the pan with another ¼ cup of water. Let cook, stirring frequently, until vegetables are al dente (crisp and tender, but not mushy), about 2 minutes. Stir in ½ c of the teriyaki sauce and turn burner off. Stir until sauce has thickened and completely coated vegetables and tempeh. Serve over brown rice.

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