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Meatless Monday: Tofu &Tempeh Challenge, East Meets West

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I used to live in Asia, from whence soyfoods originated about 2,000 or so years ago and where tofu chefs and tempeh artisans are respected and revered. Just last month, Oyama, Japan had its annual Tofu Festival, a weekend of celebration and thanksgiving, because everyone there is so dang grateful for bean curd. But that's Asia, we're in America.

Here, most of us understand eating less meat lightens our carbon load and lightens us up, too, that tofu and tempeh offer us as much or more protein as meat, without the fat and cost. For those looking for a meaty substitute, tempeh and tofu are your go-to guys. And yet, we would rather attack them than eat them.

Americans do love some things Asian. Like Hello Kitty. I was bewildered by the Hello Kitty cult when I lived in Tokyo, am bewildered by it still, but it has more fans here than tempeh and tofu combined. Maybe Hello Kitty works here because what you see is what you get -- a cartoon image of a big-eyed girly cat. Tofu and tempeh have a thousand guises. This, frankly, wigs us out.

That's why this week, I join Licking Your Chops author Kim O'Donnel
in issuing the T&T challenge -- try tempeh and/or tofu in the privacy of your own home. To sweeten your soyfood experience, Kim has assembled tempeh and tofu titans including Bryant Terry, Isa Chandra Moskowitz, Mollie Katzen and mere mortals like myself to talk you through, talk you down, provide soylicious recipes, courage and give T&T a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

If you love Hello Kitty, you can totally get into T&T. This is a challenge you can handle. Swapping whole soy for a real or faux burger offers trade-ups by way of super-lean protein, intact phytonutrients and good value. And if it's burger you're after, tempeh's your guy. Plant-based and made of whole, not processed soy, it's dense, almost burgerlike, without tofu's jiggle and a pleasantly mild fermenty taste. A three-ounce serving averages out to 150 calories, eight fat grams, 10 milligrams sodium and 16 protein grams, roughly half the calories and a third less fat than a BK burger, with miles less sodium and a gram more protein.

You can make your own tempeh. All you need's soybeans, white vinegar, tempeh starter, a couple of days to let everything ferment. For those who think struggle is overrated, do what I do -- buy it ready-made at your favorite natural food store.

Make tempeh, buy it, dice it or the other T up and add to salads, toss with veggies, noodles and peanut sauce, or use in east-meets-west in dishes like vegan spinach pie. You get the reward of facing down the T&T challenge and get dinner, too.

Vegan Spinach Pie

An easy but impressive appetizer or main course, this lacks the cheesy ooze of traditional Greek spanakopita, but is vegan-friendly, has a fraction of the fat, no eggs or dairy, and a great, vibrant taste.

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large onion
1 pound fresh spinach (or 2 10-ounce packages frozen chopped spinach)
8 ounces tempeh
2 tablespoons tahini (Middle Eastern sesame seed paste)*
4 tablespoons fresh dill
juice of 1 lemon
sea salt and pepper
1 sheet frozen puff pastry, thawed according to package directions

Heat oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Chop onion coarsely and add. Saute for about 3 minutes, until onion just soften. Cover and reduce heat to low, leaving onion to take care of itself for about half an hour. When you come back, it will have produced a lot of liquid. This is good.

If you're using fresh spinach, raise heat to medium-high and add spinach to onion, stirring constantly, about 5 to 7 minutes, until it is still tender and bright green.

If you're using frozen spinach, set in a strainer and drain well, pressing out all extra liquid.

Chop tempeh coarsely.

Preheat oven to 350.

In a food processor or blender, add spinach, tempeh and onion, plus any onion broth created during cooking. Blend or process briefly. Then add fresh dill, lemon juice and tahini. Blend again and season generously with salt and pepper.

Roll out puff pastry sheet to into a 10-inch round about 1/4 inch thick and and lay gently in a 9-inch pie pan. Prick pie dough all over with a fork (thus preventing soggy crust) then pour in spinach-tempeh filling.

Bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until knife inserted in center comes out clean. Remove from oven and let cool.

Serves 6.

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