In our continuing efforts to reduce the amount of meat in our diet, I’ve been examining some of our standbys and thinking about how we could replace or eliminate the animal protein and still wind up with a delicious meal. One such subject for experimentation that yielded very satisfying results was our favorite comfort classic: the breakfast burrito. My typical procedure is gratuitous. I fry up some crumbled breakfast sausage, cook hash brown patties in the sausage grease (I like the ones from Trader Joe’s; starting from raw potatoes both takes a while and never yields the perfectly crispy results I’m after), then scramble some eggs. All this, along with some shredded cheese, sometimes a few slices of avocado, and some sort of spicy sauce, get folded into an enormous tortilla, and then seared on either side in a nice hot pan so the tortilla loses that raw flavor and the cheese has a chance to melt a bit.
Since there’s already so much happening inside that tortilla, subbing out the sausage and figuring out how to flavor tempeh to work as its stand-in seemed like a worthy project. The main issue that separates tempeh and sausage (besides that obvious truth that one is made from pig and the other is made from soy beans) is an absence of fat and salt. Frying the tempeh in plenty of olive oil and seasoning it aggressively seemed a logical step toward creating an adequate substitute. But before doing that, there’s a secret I’ve learned from S.: steaming.
Tempeh is fully cooked when you open up that vacuum-sealed package and take out that weird, bumpy beige block. But it is also cold and hard and needs a little prep to make it more amenable to accepting flavor. After all, you can’t exactly stud it with garlic and rosemary like a leg of lamb. Wrapping the block in a damp kitchen towel (or just a paper towel) and popping it into the microwave for 2-3 minutes first makes it suck in flavors a bit better – I like to think of it as… opening its pores. From that point, you can marinate or salt or fry or whatever you like, and the tempeh will do a little more than just… get warm.
From there, fat and salt and flavor are your focus. I considered adding smokiness: the depth of smoked paprika and the funk of Worcestershire sauce seemed like a good bet. Finally, a little squeeze of tomato paste added color and savory richness the tempeh just didn’t have. All browned together with some black pepper made a satisfying pan-full, but in my second attempt I opted to sauté some onion and garlic first for added moisture and flavor complexity we were happy with.
Look, this isn’t really a replacement for breakfast sausage. It doesn’t taste like pork, and it doesn’t cook like it either. But it is delicious, and the texture is surprisingly close, especially when you combine it with other things. I wouldn’t put it on a pizza, but wrapped up with other deliciousness in a breakfast burrito, it is savory and comforting and feels a little fatty: exactly what we needed for the night before the new semester begins. Sprinkled over a baked potato along with some shredded cheese and maybe steamed broccoli, it would be outstanding. And I must admit, the little bit I have left over in the fridge? I’m looking forward to eating it cold, right out of the container, when I get home from – gulp – work tomorrow.
Tempeh sausage crumbles
About 15 minutes
1 shallot or ¼ medium onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
¼ cup olive oil + possibly more
salt and pepper to taste
8 oz. tempeh
½–1 teaspoon smoked paprika
2 teaspoons tomato paste
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce (fair warning: Worcestershire usually contains anchovies, so if you don’t eat fish, you can replace this with soy sauce or even Bragg’s liquid aminos for a similar flavor.)
- Liberate the tempeh from its packaging and wrap it lightly in either a clean, damp kitchen towel, or damp paper towels. In its wrapping, heat it in the microwave for 2 minutes, then set it aside until it has cooled enough to handle. This steams the tempeh, making it more receptive to absorbing flavors.
- While the tempeh steams and then cools, heat the olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the onion or shallot and garlic, and turn the heat down to medium low. Season with salt and black pepper and let them sweat until soft and translucent but not browned.
- When it is cool enough to handle, crumble the tempeh – I like it like granola: some large chunks and some more like pea- and even oat-sized. Stir it into the onions and garlic and turn the heat back up to medium before adding the smoked paprika, tomato paste, and Worcestershire sauce. Stir well to incorporate everything.
- Cook over medium heat for 5-8 minutes. If it looks dry after 2-3 minutes, add a tiny bit more oil. Taste for seasoning; it probably needs more salt and more pepper.
- When the tempeh is heated through and has taken on some color on the outside, it is ready. Eat as is, or add to the entrée of your choice: over baked potatoes with some cheese and maybe steamed broccoli, in a hash, over a salad, or as we like it, wrapped up with hash browns, eggs, and cheddar in a breakfast burrito.