Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Redeeming Fat

During my years in undergraduate education, I spent a month or so in Morocco.  During this time, I desperately wanted to learn the processes and practices that produced the amazing tajines* that I grew accustomed to eating for many of my meals.  I was usually prevented from doing so by the simple fact that I was male, and especially when staying in the traditional home stays, cooking was explicitly not what I was supposed to be doing.  However, finally, after a few weeks, we made our way into the mountains outside of Marrakech to a Berber village and I learned how to cook a tajine (after enduring some laughter and name-calling from the men).

This meandering tale is all to get to the moment in the cooking process where we added the fat.  I held a small clay bowl in my hand, and it held somewhere in the vicinity of a cup.  An older woman brought out a jug of olive oil and handed it to me, motioning for me to fill the bowl and pour it into the dish.  I filled the bowl once and poured it over the dish, thinking that it seemed like a lot of oil to be adding.  However, she motioned for me to fill it again.  I did so again, and tried to pour it on a different dish, but she shook her head and pushed my hand back to the first.  I added it, thinking that it the amount of oil was now fairly excessive.  Except, I was to foiled again, as she motioned for me to fill the bowl a third time, and pour it over the same dish.  The chicken and vegetables were positively swimming in olive oil at this point. 

My non-fat, low-fat American self immediately began thinking about how olive oil was at least a "healthy oil,"  but  the three cups worth surely seemed over the top.  I was imagining myself having an intense gastrointestinal disturbance after eating this dish (and thinking about how I would manage this on the "squatty-potty" toilets). I was also marveling at how healthy, generally fit, and vibrant the people in the village were.

However, miracle of miracles occurred.  No GI disaster, only the most delicious, satiating dinner I had enjoyed in possibly my entire life.  I was a fat convert that day.

There is a great deal of nutritional controversy about the role of fat in one's diet, especially saturated fat.  You can go and look all of that fun information up by yourself if you find it interesting.  What I am more interested in is how neutered our cooking becomes when  we subscribe to low or no-fat propaganda.  So, allow me a moment to reflect on adding and not adding fat to your cooking.

Due to a less than certain correlation between poor health and saturated fat, we have been inundated with so-called "solutions" to this problem in the form of cheap, mostly rancid plant oils.  Many of these oils are usually hydrogenated, which involves metal particles, soap, electricity, and radiant yellow dye, none of which sound appetizing.  So, my first call is for you all to use better fat.  I have instructions on rendering pig, beef, and sheep fat.  These are all relatively inexpensive if you can find a good source for the fat.  You can also render chicken, goose, and duck fat.  There is nothing in the world as satisfying as a pie crust made with lard, or potatoes fried in duck fat.  If you find all of these too grisly for your tastes at the moment, you should firstly work on changing  your tastes, and secondly use butter,  olive oil**, or coconut oil (in that order).  All other fats are strictly second-class.  They are disgusting, even if they promise that they are made with an expeller (which makes them both disgusting and expensive).  There is something odd about a fat that is not solid at room temperature (or even fridge temperature) suddenly being so.

The second call is for you to think about fat as a way to make what you cook amazing, and to be free about adding it wherever appropriate.  There are a couple of decent dishes that don't involve a good bit of fat, but they are few and far between.  Think of adding your quality fat not as a indulgence, but as a typical practice.  I am not saying that you necessarily need to add three cups of olive oil to everything you cook.  However, a nice knob of butter is just amazingly delicious when added to tomato sauce right before you serve it.   

The third, and final call is to never take the fat away from a dish that is supposed to have fat in it.  Such effrontery is a disrespect to the ingredients, as well as the Platonic concept of the dish itself.  Look at what gets involved when you take the fat out of ingredients that ought to have them there.  I saw non-fat cream cheese the other day, it involved a number of very strange ingredients, including a dubious "gum" or two that likely took the place of...the fat that is supposed to be in a product with "cream" and "cheese" in its name. 

Obesity and poor health are present in our culture in a major way, and I don't think it has much to do with fats.  Lots of cultures all over the world use very large amounts of fat in their cooking and daily eating.  We are one of the few western ones with a low or non fat substitute for everything we can imagine, yet no one seems to be benefiting from it.  Yes, fast food has lots of fat in it, but I am not advocating fast food here, as they are perhaps the biggest users of hydrogenated and other crappy fats - not to mention that most folks give the old pancreas a serious workout when they eat a refined flour bun, processed potatoes, sweetened sauces, and the ubiquitous carbonated water with HFCS added.  Think about the healthy Berbers the next time you worry about the fat content of your food.

* A tajine is a kind of meat and vegetable stew cooked slowly in a special clay pot.  It is sometimes served with couscous.

** Don't waste your money on Extra Virgin Olive Oil if you are cooking with it.  Use the regular stuff for cooking.  EVOO is great for dressings or drizzled over an already cooked meal, but when you heat it up for frying in pans and such you destroy a lot of the flavor that is gained by its cold-pressing, as it has a relatively low smoke point.  It would be a better plan to buy a large amount of less-expensive, non-EVOO olive oil for your cooking, and to spend your money on a smaller, pricier, yet higher quality EVOO.

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