Big Little Recipes

Plant-Based Tacos to Win Taco Tuesday

May 12, 2020

A Big Little Recipe has the smallest-possible ingredient list and big everything else: flavor, creativity, wow factor. Psst—we don't count water, salt, black pepper, and certain fats (specifically, 1/2 cup or less of olive oil, vegetable oil, and butter), since we're guessing you have those covered. Today, we’re whipping up some tacos for lunch, dinner, whenever.


As you might expect from a recipe developer, I eat everything. But I didn’t always.

For a short stint, I was a pescatarian—or, a vegetarian who dabbles in seafood. In total, it lasted almost exactly as long as my first boyfriend, a matter of months, until one of my favorite Top Chef contestants caught me staring in his restaurant and sent over on-the-house chicken tacos, which my mom, who hated that I had become a pescatarian, told me would be rude to refuse.

I ate the chicken taco. And then I ate another chicken taco. And I’ve been eating chicken (and beef and pork and fish) tacos ever since.

Still, on any given week, you’d be hard-pressed to find meat or seafood in my fridge. A hard salami occasionally finds its way into the cheese drawer and, if you dig deep into the freezer, there’s an icy pork shoulder somewhere. But on the whole, I prefer plant-based proteins—like tofu, seitan, and, best of all, tempeh.

Photo by Anna Billingskog

Of course there’s the environmental benefit: This Indonesian ingredient leaves behind a fainter climate footprint than animal products do. But I keep it around for a less selfless reason: It’s easier to work with than raw meat. You don’t have to worry about cross-contamination or look up internal temperatures. Much like cooking with vegetables, cooking with tempeh is less error-prone, more intuitive. And it tastes really good, meaty in its own way. As our food stylist Anna Billingskog put it when she cross-tested this recipe, “The flavor of the tempeh really is like a chicken nugget.”

Which is ironic, considering all the contemporary vegetarian products manufactured with that goal in mind. As Deborah Madison writes in the first edition of Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, “Traditionally, tempeh isn’t used as a mock meat but as a highly nutritious food with its own properties and flavors.” In other words, it’s not trying to be someone else, like Morning Star (“veggie chick’n”) or Impossible (“meat made from plants”). It is what it is.

Anna has a point, though. Even if tempeh isn’t dressing-up as meat, it still tastes, well, meaty. Unlike tofu (a curd made from soymilk, akin to how ricotta is made from whey), tempeh is fermented. Soybeans are cooked, inoculated with spores, then pressed into cakes—yielding a protein that, much like chicken or seafood, drinks in other flavors but, at the same time, still can hold its own.

The possibilities are endless. You can grate it into a chili. Or slice into slabs and marinate until bacon-esque. But there’s one method I keep coming back to:

Crumble tempeh into craggy-shaggy pieces and toss those in a hot, oil-slicked pan. In the blink of an eye, the nuggets form a golden, crunchy crust, with juicy interiors. Sometimes, I toss these with a quickie glaze (gochujang, honey, and soy sauce). More often, I sprinkle them with salt and call it a day. Put the nuggets toward a rice bowl with avocado and sautéed greens. Or marinara-ed pasta with grated Parm. Or these Big Little tacos.

In this recipe, tempeh takes the place of Baja-style, batter-fried fish—bundled in a warm tortilla, piled with creamy slaw—though neither batter nor frying are involved. To go on top: a scrunched cabbage slaw tossed in cashew-mayo (cashews blitzed with water and a drizzle of oil) and more hot sauce than seems appropriate.

It’s a dish that just happens to be vegan, made with ingredients that just happen to stay good for weeks. A cold beer alongside doesn’t hurt either.

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  • Johnny Randall
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  • Emma Laperruque
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Emma is the food editor at Food52. Before this, she worked a lot of odd jobs, all at the same time. Think: stir-frying noodles "on the fly," baking dozens of pastries at 3 a.m., reviewing restaurants, and writing articles about everything from how to use leftover mashed potatoes to the history of pies in North Carolina. Now she lives in Maplewood, New Jersey with her husband and their cat, Butter. Stay tuned every Tuesday for Emma's cooking column, Big Little Recipes, all about big flavor and little ingredient lists. And see what she's up to on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.

6 Comments

Johnny R. May 20, 2020
A taco without meat? Blashemy. Just like vegan "sushi".
 
gandalf May 13, 2020
What differences would result from using TVP instead of tempeh?
 
Author Comment
Emma L. May 13, 2020
Hi! You could use that in a taco just like this (with cabbage-cashew slaw and hot sauce). But whereas tempeh can hold its own flavor-wise, TVP is often bolstered with other ingredients. Really a matter of personal preference!
 
gandalf May 13, 2020
Thanks! Would you marinate TVP (can it be marinated) to enhance flavor? If so, any recommendations for a marinade?
 
Author Comment
Emma L. May 14, 2020
Here's a recipe that could be a good starting point: https://www.bobsredmill.com/recipes/how-to-make/vegetarian-tacos
 
gandalf May 15, 2020
Thank you!