Sunday, December 25, 2011

It just wouldn't be the holiday season without a lingering sense of disappointment....

Gather 'round while I give you the pertinent details behind this meal.  Everyone settled in?  Good, because this may take while....  

Did you ever have a favorite food experience that reached mythical proportions in your memory once it was no longer accessible?  I'm not positive this phenomenon has to be restricted to one-time eating experiences, although such cases may be particularly likely to lead to potent future obsessions.  I'm talking about eating something that you absolutely fall in love with, and then you are somehow tragically cut off from that something.  Maybe you move away from the restaurant that sold it, maybe they stop offering it on the menu, maybe (as in the present case) the place goes out of business.  Regardless of how, you are now stone-cold S.O.L.  

Or are you?!?! Maybe you can reverse-engineer your beloved food obsession!!!  Oh sure, you may hear objections from gloomy skeptics (like your very own mother, just say for instance, who may be nursing her own tragic obsession with the exact same food item).  Such pessimistic nay-sayers may try to tell you it can't be done.  They may insist that you leave the past in the past, that you are setting yourself up for further heartbreak.  They may further insist that the reason your beloved object tasted so great was because it was cooked on a grill with grisly meat products, which you (as a vegan) are in no position to simulate.  

Yet you (despite a reputation to the contrary) are not a pessimist.  You are a confident cook who knows her way around a kitchen.  So you set out to resurrect the world's best tempeh burger from beyond the grave.  You don't even really like tempeh all that much usually, preferring tofu and seitan, but something about this burger was magic and you are determined to recreate it.  It was smoky, blackened, and served with grilled mushrooms and green chile.  You start by marinating your tempeh overnight in soy sauce, tomato paste, liquid smoke, and brown sugar.  You make your very own homemade sesame seed buns.  You make a slaw and sweet potato fries for sides, and you grill up some red onions, mushrooms, and chile to go with the veganaise and Tofutti slices you procured.  After frying up the tempeh, you assemble it all, and it looks, well, pretty much perfect***.  

Then you sit down to eat, and it tastes, well, disappointing.  It's certainly not bad, but it's just not quite right.  The condiments are pretty much spot-on, but the burger itself is lacking something, a certain smokiness,'s hard to say exactly what.   The texture is part of the problem in that your burger is a little mushy, lacking the crispiness of the original.

So now what? Keep trying or concede defeat? Anybody got a great technique for cooking up crispy tempeh burgers?  Or is the problem not with the food, but with the memory of something so perfect that any real-life facsimile is bound to disappoint?

***seriously, usually my food looks pretty questionable, but this is pretty much textbook, no?


  1. Well, it certainly looks great! There's a restaurant in Milwaukee that has crispy burgers. They're not tempeh, but they get them quite crispy by pan frying them. For the smokiness, maybe add a touch of liquid smoke? Don't give up! You can perfect it. We did the same thing with a sandwich we fell in love with while in Boulder. We just keep adjusting our recipe until it was up to par with our memory, although it took quite a few tries.

  2. The burger looks great! Sorry but I'm horrible at cooking tempeh so I'd be of no use to you. Maybe it's one of those things where if you actually could try that other burger again, it wouldn't be as good as you remembered?

  3. I understand the feeling about being disappointed about faulty recipes. I probably have 1200 recipes or pictures I haven't posted that I've promised because of failures. ^^; But I digress! This meal looks absolutely delicious!

  4. Better to have loved and lost your crispy Tempeh Burger, than never to have loved at all. Plus, you probably need an industrial fryer.

  5. OK Molly, you've convinced me to keep trying. I do have another block of tempeh ready to go. Thanks!

    Carissa, you may be right about the memory thing. I always wonder about that. Thanks for saying hi in your "delicate condition." :).

    Aiko, new commenter, hooray!!!!! I like your humility, and thanks for the compliments!

    Shen, I always wonder whether home recreations of restaurant favorites are doomed to failure due to lack of equipment. However, I don't think these folks deep-fried their tempeh burgers. Interestingly, my mother ran into the former owner (small town) and tried to pry some recipe secrets from him. He said something like "be sure to microwave your tempeh so it's thawed out." Errr.....thanks?

  6. Total bummer that the results weren't up to par, but it sure sounds and looks good!
    I've only used tempeh a couple of times, so I'm clueless on cooking it.
    Since you loved the burgers so much, you have to keep trying until you get them the way you remember. I disappoint myself a lot by trying to recreate something.

  7. Thanks, Michelle. I *am* going to keep trying. Oh BTW, I read somewhere that you should always add salt after baking to oven fries, lest the salt draw out the moisture during baking and make them soggy. I tried that with these sweet potato fires and they were indeed the crispiest I've ever made. I mention this 'cuz you said your hubby was griping about this :).

  8. Your recreation attempt sounds like your hot on the right track. It can so hard to get same effect at home as restaurant food sometimes: I swear it's the grease/fat factor. And the thawing out thing might be a good clue: it means they started with frozen tempeh, which if it's anything like tofu (you know how it's all spongy after you thaw it and press the water out) means that the tempeh might absorb more of the sauce and the fat that it's fried in. Might be worth looking in to.

    I'm sure someone eating that plate of food without your same expectations would *not* be disappointed in the least. Your homemade buns are admirable! And it does look like a quintessentially perfect burger meal with all the fixins!

  9. Rose, you always leave such thoughtful comments. I really appreciate it! Maybe the thawing issue is more critical than I realized. I do think restaurants pile on way more fat that I ever would at home--yikes!!
    Happy New Year to you, too!!

  10. Well, this is the story of my cooking life, but I have to agree with Shenandoah and Rose. It is very likely grease of some kind that is lacking. Nothing like deep frying to get that lovely crispy coating. I still have to source out unflavoured tempeh so I haven't cooked with it much and don't know if this will work in a tempeh context, but I've found that adding some dry TVP crumbles to my burger mixes does a lot for the crispiness factor.

    All that said, your meal is definitely gorgeous enough for any cookbook illustration. The bun, so perfect! Mine always look deformed. I bow down.

  11. Thanks for that tip on the fries. I will try that the next time we make them. :o)

  12. So you're saying to salt the Fries after baking? That's a new one. What if I'm using something like Lawson's Seasoning? Do I bake the Fries completely without seasoning and when they come out of the oven just sprinkle my seasoning on top? This is quite the revolutionary suggestion.

  13. Zoa, I just hope it's not bacon-fat related. The grill of this place was probably crawling with it. This was many years ago and I had a "don't ask, don't tell" policy with this place. The original was really just a slab of tempeh but they seasoned it time I visit my mom, I am going to waterboard the former owner until he tells me!!!

    You're welcome, Michelle! I want to try it again but I have to say it really seemed to work with this batch.

    Shen, I have yet to do repeated testing, but I read somewhere to hold off on the salt until after baking. I tried it with these sweet potato fries (mine are usually tasty but pretty limp), and they were definitely the crispiest I've ever made. I meant to mention this in the post, but I was too depressed about the burger failure. I would think you could add any seasoning afterwards too, but you probably don't need to unless the mix has salt in it.

  14. I try to recreate dishes I love from restaurants I only get to visit on vacations. And while they're close - never as perfect. I think part of my problem as a cook in general is that I can't bear to see the amount of oil or sugar, etc. that might be required for a particular meal so I cut back, then of course, it isn't as tasty.

    I'm no expert on cooking tempeh, either. Tempeh is also one of those foods I need to not see while it's cooking (the mold) in order for me to enjoy it. But your plate looks DELISH! Some might say NOMULENT.

  15. Ahhh, Jenny, you're back! I missed you! And you used the word nomulent! There is a Santa after all :)!!!