Tempeh town

Reintroducing Boulder to one of the tastiest original plant “meats” on the planet

Tempeh photos from Project Umami

Living in and around Boulder, we’ve had the opportunity to taste tons of tofu, loads of seitan, and oodles of vegetable-based meat substitutes. By themselves, none are particularly tasty until infused with salt, spices, herbs and fermented flavor enhancers.  

Lightly pan-fried with a little salt, tempeh actually tastes quite good all by itself: nutty, toasty, a bit mushroom-y with lots of savory umami. 

Technically speaking, tempeh is created by inoculating grains, nuts, and beans with the Rhizopus species of filamentous fungus. 

Okay, so maybe tempeh doesn’t sound that yummy. Also, it looks a little like a science experiment covered in white fuzz in the back of your refrigerator. However, tempeh may well be the next big thing.  Griffin Giordano, the 27-year-old founder of Boulder’s Project Umami Foods, is setting out to evolve our thinking on plant protein. 

Giordano is no newcomer to sustainable cuisine.  

“I grew up with health foods. I had macrobiotic grandparents. I drank soy milk and ate nori as a snack as a toddler,” Giordano says.  

Chelsea Didinger Tempeh from Project Umami. Photo by Chelsea Didinger 

Project Umami offers four types of fresh organic soy-free tempeh. One variety combines black beans and sunflower seeds and another green and yellow split peas. One tempeh celebrates two crops where Colorado leads the agricultural world: pinto beans and millet. Giordano says his most “local” tempeh variety combines Boulder-grown chickpeas from Black Cat Farm and quinoa from White Mountain Farm in Mosca. 

Giordano, who moved to Boulder in May from New York City, started making fresh tempeh because he was searching for plant protein that gave him the energy he needed for an active life. “I had not paid any attention to tempeh. It was not a food I was thinking of. I didn’t know what it was made of,” he says.

The tempeh-making process brings out the best in the ingredients. “Tempeh breaks down the grains, beans and seeds so they can be more easily metabolized. Your body gets more out of it and it keeps your gut happy,” Giordano says. 

In short, tempeh predigests the beans and such. One upside is that it can make the legumes a little less gas producing. 

Making fresh, live organic tempeh from scratch is a major, time-intensive labor of love, Gordano says. In a Boulder kitchen, organic beans, grains, and seeds are split and soaked overnight before being cooked and cooled. Giordano and his one or two employees inoculate them with [[i]]rhizopus[[i]]culture, then incubate them in a warm, moist and sterile environment, something easier to do naturally in tropical Indonesia where tempeh originated. The tempeh is frozen in bars.

Tempeh is a ready-to-use product. “It’s remarkably convenient. All you have to do is defrost it and slice it. You can brown it in a pan with a little oil. It’s firm and holds up better than tofu. Some cooks bread it first or marinate it in aminos. Tempeh is porous so it soaks up flavors,” Giordano says. 

“Many people who’ve have tried it at the farmers markets are vegetarians or vegan but there are more who just want to cook a little healthier using natural, local ingredients,” Giordano says.

Project Umami frozen tempeh is available at Nude Foods Market in Boulder, Nederland’s Mountain People’s Co-Op, and through the Boulder Farmers Market online year-round. 

Claim to fame department

“[Former] Boulder Daily Camera food writer John Lehndorff coined the term Tofutown USA to describe Boulder.”—Noted in “History of Soybeans and Soyfoods in Canada 1831-2019” 

A grumpy dining critic rant

Grubhub is now advertising that it will deliver your food “as the restaurant chef intended it.” I know chefs. I know that no chef [[i]]ever[[i]] intended that their precisely crafted fare would end up encased in plastic and tossed and transported to be enjoyed lukewarm in anonymity with a plastic fork in front of a TV. They merely accepted the necessity of delivery. 

People tell me that eateries are much better now at delivering “restaurant quality” meals at home but I haven’t seen it. Even that upgrade is compromised by a serious shortage of plastic and paper goods, not to mention cooks and drivers. 

I get food delivered, too, but my expectations are low. That food isn’t and never will be the same as eating that dish at the restaurant that made it. It will taste similar but mostly it is an echo, a shadow of a culinary experience no matter how fast it arrives. 

Local food news

More than a few restaurants have opened and closed in Longmont since 1981. Happy 40th anniversary to Mike O’Shay’s Restaurant and Ale House which has survived changes and challenges to become the longest serving independent eatery in the city . . . Breaking holiday news: The bakers have poured the brandy over the fruitcakes at Arvada’s Rheinlander Bakery. That means they’ll be ready just in time for Christmas!   

Words to chew on

“Food comes from our relatives, whether we have wings or fins or roots. That is how we consider food. Food has a culture. It has a history. It has a story. It has relationships.”—Winona LaDuke

John Lehndorff hosts a live, call-in Radio Nibbles show 8:30 a.m. Nov. 25 on KGNU (88.5 FM, streaming kgnu.org) to help listeners solve last minute Thanksgiving cooking crises.