A friend invited me to a cookout this summer. Experience had taught me that at his party, vegetables would be few and far between, so if I wanted to eat vegetarian, I'd have to bring my own ingredients over and do it myself. So while he pulled chicken thighs out of a marinade and plunked them on one side of the gas grill, I did the same with tempeh I had brought. (The last time I was there, it was a fish fry, and I brought mushrooms for the battering.)
Tempeh's firm texture makes it perfect for the grill, and its blandness allows it to pick up bold marinade flavors. As a bonus, while my friend had to be careful not to put the chicken back into his marinade, which of course was too dangerous to eat without boiling, I didn't have any such issues to worry about. A tempeh marinade can become a quick dressing, no further cooking required.
All this was on my mind when I craved grilled tempeh again recently, and spied a way to get my fix in Louisa Shafia's recent book "The New Persian Kitchen" (Ten Speed Press). Shafia proves my point about that marinade idea, soaking tempeh in a pungent combination of lime, scallions, garlic and turmeric for a day or two before skewering it with cherry tomatoes and grilling it as a vegetarian take on Iran's beloved street food. A little of the leftover marinade becomes a basting liquid, while most of it combines with mint, cilantro and yogurt for a vibrant green sauce.
I didn't have access to a grill when I tried it the first time, so I did the next best thing and put it under a hot broiler, basting it every minute or two until the tempeh started to char, just as if charcoal had been involved. I ate it with rice and a little salad, but the next time I make it, pita will be part of the picture.
Tempeh Kebabs With Minty Cilantro-Lime Sauce
These kebabs are based on Iran's beloved street food, but use tempeh for a vegetarian option that holds up to grilling as well as any meat. Tempeh can be bland, but it easily absorbs the Middle Eastern flavors of this marinade, which can then be turned into a bright sauce with no further cooking. Serve with rice and salad greens or pita. The tempeh can marinate in the refrigerator for up to 2 days. Adapted from "The New Persian Kitchen" by Louisa Shafia (Ten Speed Press, 2013).
5 scallions, green and white parts, minced
1/2 cup grapeseed oil (may substitute another neutral vegetable oil)
1/2 cup freshly squeezed lime juice (from 3 to 4 large limes)
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon sea salt, plus more to taste
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
1 pound tempeh, cut into 1 1/2-inch cubes
1 pint cherry tomatoes
1 cup loosely packed fresh mint leaves
1 cup loosely packed fresh cilantro
1/3 cup plain yogurt
2 tablespoons sumac, for garnish (optional)
In a shallow casserole dish, whisk together the scallions, oil, lime juice, turmeric, garlic, salt and pepper. Add the tempeh and toss to coat. Cover the dish and marinate in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour or up to 2 days.
If using wooden or bamboo skewers, soak them in water for at least 2 hours before grilling. Thread the tempeh and tomatoes onto the skewers, leaving 2 inches of space at one end. (You should have enough for six 12-inch skewers.)
Reserve 1/4 cup of the remaining marinade for basting, and pour the rest into a blender. Add the mint, cilantro and yogurt. Blend until smooth to make the sauce, tasting and seasoning with more salt if needed.
Prepare a grill for direct heat. If using a gas grill, preheat to high (500 degrees). If using a charcoal grill, light the charcoal or wood briquettes; when the briquettes are ready, distribute them evenly in the cooking area. For a very hot fire, you should be able to hold your hand about 5 inches above the coals for 1 or 2 seconds. Have ready a spray water bottle for taming any flames. Lightly grease the grill rack with cooking oil spray and place it on the grill.
Grill the skewers, basting a few times with the reserved marinade, until the tempeh begins to char, 4 to 5 minutes per side. (Alternatively, cook the kabobs indoors, under the broiler or on a grill pan set over high heat.)
Transfer the skewers to a serving platter and spoon the sauce on top or serve it on the side for dipping, along with rice and salad greens. Garnish the skewers with sprinkles of sumac, if desired.
Per serving: 340 calories, 16 g protein, 14 g carbohydrates, 27 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 380 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 3 g sugar