By the time my sisters and I went off to college, my mother had probably prepared and served us several thousand dinners, everything from sauerbraten to spanakopita, and tamales to tuna casserole to beef tongue in mushroom sauce. Although we each had our particular favorites, I now think that the variety was itself a kind of favorite: It was thrilling to be exposed to so many dishes made by such a talented cook.

Barbecued Tempeh
Barbecued Tempeh

Then we went away, and all that adventure and diversity was replaced by cozy familiarity. Beginning during our school years, and continuing well into our adult lives, we spent our family holidays dining on a Top 10 list of reliable hits.

At the time, I loved knowing what to expect whenever I came home. I have written in the past about how, even if we traipsed into the kitchen long after midnight from a delayed flight into Dayton or Indianapolis, there would always be a warm pot of Finnish meatballs waiting on the stove to welcome us, with a pot of buttered noodles beside it.

A couple of weeks from now, our three sons will be returning home for spring break. Naturally, I am thinking about what to cook for them, because whenever I’m faced with change, I think about food.

Unlike my mother, however, I can’t rely solely on nostalgia to help me come up with a menu. The older two boys both became vegetarian during their first year of college, which means most of our tried-and-true family favorites are off the table. And although vegetables were always the center of our weeknight family dinners, they weren’t the cornerstone of meals I made for special days and celebrations. As a result, I find myself suddenly needing to create a whole new special-occasion repertoire, rather than turning to the comfort of old friends.

It’s both a blessing and a spur. It also has me wondering if all those “it’s-your-favorite!” dishes that parents and caregivers cook for their children through the years constitute a kind of tacit agreement, a consensus about constancy despite the inevitability of change. Like, if I make this meal just the way you remember it, kiddo, surely some part of you will remain the same sweet child who loved it when you were 5.

A few weeks ago, I attended an eight-day silent retreat at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. All the food was vegetarian, and (almost) all of it was outstanding. One favorite was barbecued tempeh that the kitchen made for lunch one day, serving it with maple-bottomed cornbread and stewed greens. Just the smell of it triggered an onslaught of very un-mindful impulses in me, including a compulsion to walk calmly but exceedingly quickly to the front of the buffet line before everyone else arrived.

The cooks offered up the recipe, and yesterday I tried scaling it down for our family before the kids get here. The result was every bit as good as I’d hoped. Perhaps I will have it waiting on the stove when they descend on our house in 10 days. The next day, my mom will drive up from Sleepy Hollow to join us for lunch or dinner. And no matter what time she arrives, I guarantee you this: She will bring with her a warm pot of Finnish meatballs, updated for her grandchildren with vegan meat.

Barbecued Tempeh
Adapted from the Insight Meditation Society recipe book

Serves 4

Note: You can simplify this recipe by skipping the sauce and mixing the marinated, baked tempeh with your favorite bottled barbecue sauce, warmed on the stove.

For the marinade

  • ⅓ cup mild oil, such as canola or safflower, plus more for sautéing onion
  • ¼ cup tamari or soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon smoked paprika
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • 2 teaspoons liquid smoke flavoring
  • 1 pound tempeh, cut into 1-inch square pieces

For the BBQ sauce

  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1½ cups tomato puree
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • ¼ cup molasses
  • ⅓ cup mustard
  • ½ teaspoon allspice
  • 1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
  • ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 2 teaspoons tamari
  • 2 teaspoons cider vinegar

Cornbread and sauteed greens, for serving

1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Whisk together the marinade ingredients, minus the tempeh. Add the cut tempeh and allow to marinate 45 minutes to 1 hour, stirring occasionally.

2. Meanwhile, heat ⅓ cup oil in a skillet. Add the onion and sauté until quite soft and beginning to turn golden, about 12 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté for 2 minutes. Add all the remaining ingredients, except the tamari and vinegar. Simmer for 1 hour over low heat, stirring regularly, and adding more water if it begins to look dry.

3. Spread the marinated tempeh on a baking sheet lined with parchment or a nonstick mat. Transfer to the oven and bake 30 minutes, flipping the tempeh over and rotating the pan once or twice during baking. Remove from oven and transfer to the skillet with the barbecue sauce. Add the tamari and vinegar and stir to combine. Serve hot, with cornbread and sauteed greens on the side.

Behind The Story

Type: Opinion

Opinion: Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.

The Philipstown resident has been nominated for two national James Beard awards for food writing, including for her column in The Current. Location: Cold Spring. Languages: English. Area of Expertise: Food