Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Good Fats and Bad & the truth about canola oil

Dear Readers, I love most of you, but a few of you get a little overheated. Riled up. Just downright sad. And sometimes out and out belligerent.

good fat bad fat
Good fats to use include butter, olive oil, and coconut oil. They're good for you, and they're delicious Real Foods.

Case in point: I’ve slung a few arrows at the promiscuous use of Canola oil by everyone from home cooks to commercial fryolator drivers in my last few columns. Admittedly, I just slung ‘em, didn’t stop to correct my aim, didn’t explain – yet again – why I was slingin’. Maybe I never have – that’s the problem with writing columns – you can’t assume that your present reader has read the column from two years ago about the downside of vegetable oils, and assimilated the info thoroughly enough to be able to draw on it again when you mention canola oil today. Actually you can’t REMEMBER if you’ve already explained your bias.

First came four ladies with downcast eyes, who told me they were disturbed that I didn’t approve of Canola oil. Why didn’t I? They had thought they were being virtuous by using Canola oil. I felt badly about that, but I threw off four or five facile reasons, ending with “it’s a man-made oil and why trust man-made foods when we have great whole animal and vegetable foods readily available to us?”

We should know better, having been the recipient, en masse, of governmental and industrial proclamations and directives to eat fake instead of real – margarine instead of butter; something called, I believe, Eggbeaters, instead of eggs. Why? Because butter and eggs were bad for us! Why? Because they contained cholesterol, and it was believed that cholesterol in our food translated into cholesterol in our blood. And it was believed by some that cholesterol in our blood built up on our arteries and choked them off, so that blood couldn’t get to the heart, or that chunks of that plaque would break off and shoot directly into our brains or our hearts. Killing us. Incapacitating us. Chilling, isn’t it? Do you doubt that fake-food companies instill fear of whole foods into us so that we will buy their product?

How did this come about? Someone, long ago, back in that early and mid-century just behind us, got this cholesterol-as-demon idea in his head and instituted several massive studies, which never really proved his point. Nevertheless, cereal companies were really big, and they took the idea and ran with it. Kellogg. Post. People like that. They grew grains, puffed them up, flaked them, and sold us cereals. What a great boon if they could also sell us vegetable oils from those same seeds and grains to take the place of butter, lard and other animal fats, even olive oil, if anyone even knew what that was back in the '50s. The 1950s!

They got their chance when the McGovern Committee on Nutrition and Human needs began to meet back in 1968 in response to an increase in chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, obesity, and diabetes. But many renowned scientists of the day objected to the lipid hypothesis. They said that there was nothing to link cholesterol or saturated fat with the diseases. George McGovern replied, “I could only argue that senators don’t have the luxury a research scientist has of waiting until every last shred of evidence is in.” Watch that on a new video that’s just been released! Fascinating stuff!

In 1977 the McGovern Committee issued dietary guidelines that called on Americans to lessen their consumption of red meat and dairy products. The red meat and dairy industries objected, so the Committee replaced that wording with “choose meats, poultry, and fish that will reduce saturated fat intake.” Now THAT is an oxymoron. It’s also the beginning of ‘nutritionism’: that practice of recommending or dismissing parts of foods instead of whole foods.

They thought – 'well, it’s probably true that we should eat less red meat and fat even though we have no scientific proof for it.'
And they thought, 'even if it isn’t true, it can’t hurt us to eat less meat and dairy.'

Little did they know that by replacing animal fats with vegetable fats we would alter our diets, our environment, our health, our very way of life, our world, irrevocably. The entire middle of our country – millions upon millions of acres – is paved over with the industrial crops of genetically modified corn, soy, and rapeseed – the seed that makes canola. The residues of those crops drip down the waterways into the Gulf of Mexico creating environmental catastrophes in their beginning, on their way and upon their arrival. And the subsequent upsetting of the omega 6 to omega 3 ratios in our diets is increasingly being considered to be the cause of many of our chronic health problems, including a massive increase of autism in children.

But, specifically, Canola?
About 50% of that fat in traditional rapeseed was erucic acid, which causes heart lesions. Back in the ‘70s scientists bred a new rapeseed oil low in erucic acid, and called it canola, for Canadian Oil. In 1985 that new oil was granted the status of 'Generally Recognized as Safe' from the FDA. The coveted GRAS designation.

Note that erucic acid was not eradicated, but was merely lessened.

Nina Planck, in her book REAL FOOD, tells us that “animal studies have linked canola oil with reduced platelet count, shorter life span, and greater need for Vitamin E. The United States and Canada do not permit canola oil to be used in infant formula because it retards growth in animals. In one human study, canola oil raised triglycerides... while saturated fats lowered triglycerides.” She also points out that, since canola oil is a ‘new’ food, no long-term studies of it have been made.
“I never use canola oil,” writes Planck, “largely because I have no reason to. For flavor, health, and cooking, I simply prefer other fats. The flavor is nothing special.”

She, as I do, too, uses olive oil and butter for sautéing, and butter and lard for baking.

I simply do not use any vegetable oil except small amounts of dark sesame for flavor, perhaps a nut oil sometimes for the same reason; and I simply do not deep-fry, but if I did I think I’d splurge on beef tallow. That’s what many commercial establishments used to use before forced by the cholesterol scare to turn to hydrogenated fats, and then when the truth about trans-fats came out they switched to ... mostly canola oil as far as I can see. Beef tallow is also a very tasty fat and makes fabulous French fries.

But be sure to get beef tallow from grass-fed beef, and lard from foraged pigs, or you will be loading up on the antibiotics and hormones fed to enslaved animals.

I also love coconut oil – there is quite a bit of proof that the slathering on of coconut oil can help you lose weight. Besides, it's delicious. You can buy it at the Co-op.

Isn't this amazing stuff? You probably don't believe me --it is, not to put too fine a point on it, unbelievable that a hoax such as this has been perpetrated upon an entire country! So, to you doubters, it's time for you to do your own work:

Watch THE FUTURE OF FOOD to see to see how some of our so-called healthy industrial foods are grown, and the effects on the land and the farmers who farm it. Read QUEEN OF FATS by Susan Allport if you’d like to know more about the omega 6/omega 3 conundrum. And certainly, if you have not read IN DEFENSE OF FOOD by Michael Pollan, do that. I also like THE GOOD FAT COOKBOOK by Fran McCullough, the aforesaid REAL FOOD by Nina Planck, EAT FAT LOSE FAT by Dr. Mary Enig, and... well, that should keep you busy for awhile. But if you still have time, read GOOD CALORIES, BAD CALORIES by Gary Taubes. He takes on all the studies that have been done trying to link saturated animal fats with cholesterol and cholesterol to heart disease. The proof is simply not there!

I really did not want to spend my Sunday afternoon getting these particular fat ducks in a row, but after the opening at the Brick Box a week or so ago, when one of my “Fans” actually became rather physical in his frustration with my denigration of poor little canola, I felt the need. And when I got a note from another dear reader saying, “Perhaps sometime you can educate readers a bit more about so-called ‘canola’ oil,” I knew Sunday was a bust.

So there you have it, and for being such good and attentive readers, I’ll give you a technique for

Corn Fritters
Very seasonal just now.

TAKE 2 or 3 ears of cooked corn and scrape the kernels off into a bowl. You might use the edge of a round cookie cutter for this, to get the most cream out. Make a tiny dice of whatever complementary vegetables you might have – jalapeno, sweet pepper, tomato, that’s about it. Add them to the corn.

Whip an egg or two, a tablespoon or two of milk or cream, a tablespoon of flour, salt and pepper... mix them up. Add them to the corn. Let the whole melange just lie there and meditate with each other for awhile.

Then, when you are ready to eat, heat a pan, scrape some butter and olive oil into it, let that get hot and just beginning to brown, and ladle in a half cup or so of batter. Turn it after three or four minutes. When it is done, put it on a plate, sprinkle, if you like, with some very finely chopped onion, some lime juice, pour a few drops or spoonfuls of maple syrup over it, add salt if you need to, and eat it

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Tomatoes! Get ‘em while they’re green!

Fried Green Tomato
This was an enormous just-ripening Striped German tomato, the flower end of it fully yellow, the rest still green.
I sliced it rather thin, dredged it in flour, then beaten egg, then panko crumbs.
It was totally delicious. I had the leftovers for breakfast this morning.
Greasy, salty, hot and crispy on the outside,
and al dente sourness inside. Mmm.

A year ago about this time, Leo and I were in a little hamlet called Hot Springs, in North Carolina, the town that straddles the Appalachian Trail on the one hand and boasts a beautiful place called the Mountain Magnolia Inn on the other. Different clientele, you might say.

It was our daughter Isobel's birthday and we took her and boyfriend-in-law Jesse to the Inn to celebrate. By far the most interesting item on a menu that did not lack interesting items was a fried green tomato and lobster appetizer. Rustic and elegant – down-home and up-town. I envisioned medallions of lobster tail alternating with medallions of fried green tomatoes. Instead, the chef used claw-meat, which was cheaper, to be sure, and just as tasty as the medallions would have been, if not as intuitively beautiful. But appearance hardly mattered, since we ate on the sweeping veranda and the lighting was less than brilliant, unless you count the moon and stars pointed to by the tall pointed mountains. As a matter of fact, it was an interesting experiment not to know what you were putting in your mouth until your tastebuds went into effect. How good are YOUR tastebuds.

I had not a bit of trouble recognizing the taste of a good fried green tomato – I could do it in my sleep! Greasy, salty, hot and crispy on the outside, and al dente sourness inside. Mmm. One of my favorite things. Another is fried eggplant, treated just the same way – dipped in flour, then egg, then flour again or crumbs – and fried in... oh, butter and olive oil or lard or coconut oil, until crisp and golden outside and puddeny on the inside. The difference between the two is that texture as well as the taste: the tomato’s tang is recognized in the back of your throat; the eggplants’ with a slight puckering of the roof of your mouth.

A platter of fried green tomatoes, fried eggplant, fried zucchini blossoms, and fried okra, with basil leaves and nasturtium blossoms tucked in here and there would seem a very good thing. With one caveat – it’s pretty, but it takes too long to fry each of these things, while the ones already fried sit on newspaper, cooling and uncrisping. Each one of these foods should be eaten hot, straight out of the pan, with a good shake of salt.
Olive oil is a very good oil for frying. Somehow people worry that it can’t stand extreme heat. Well, no fat can stand extreme heat for very long, nor can our innards, but olive oil is sufficient – if the miracle of an extra virgin olive oil by any name could ever be deemed only ‘sufficient’ – to most tasks. Adding butter to it creates more complicated taste and a good color.

Eugene Walters, who styled the movie Fried Green Tomatoes some years ago, suggests frying in olive oil and bacon fat, and he likes to use celery seed and dillweed in the flour binder. Another time he suggests using truly hard green tomatoes and coating them with mayonnaise before dipping them into toasted breadcrumbs. My grandmother always used smashed saltines as a coating.

If you love fried green tomatoes, but no one else does, yet, I suggested this in my book, Tomato Imperative! “Make a private treat for yourself of a fried green tomato in the middle of a hot summer day. Take the plate of slices with a big napkin and a good book out to the hammock, and if there’s anyone else around, particularly children, even picky eaters, pretty soon they’ll come nedging along and asking, “Whatchoo doin’? Whazzat yer eatin’... all alone?” And then they’ll want a taste, and then you’ll have to get up and fry another tomato.”

This year, of course, our entire crop of tomatoes is imperiled by the dratted Black Death, or more precisely Late Blight. I thought I was escaping it, having planted an heirloom Striped German along with a newfangled Sweet Olive miniature tomato together in a sunny spot in rich soil. They were mammoth, with multitudes of green tomatoes on them, when suddenly I spotted a wrinkled leaf, then the black spots, the bruises on the stems, and finally, looking closer, the incipient black sores on the tomatoes themselves. Oddly enough it was the miniature, hybrid, tomatoes that showed the blight first. But since the two plants were so intertwined, I just picked off leaves and diseased tomatoes in order to save the heirloom. I harvested a lot of the Sweet Olives, one or two ripe Striped Germans, and finally picked all of the green Striped Germans, which had finally succumbed, trimmed them of bad spots, sliced the rest and fried ’em up. Yumm.

I’m not quite sure how Grandma, of good northern European stock, learned to take such satisfaction in frying green tomatoes. It seems to have remained a southern technique, probably an African one, brought forth to utilize New World foods such as tomatoes and cornmeal and, from the ubiquitous pig, lard. But since she did, the mere thought of the taste of them brings to me a stab of excitement, of nostalgia for long-lost times and loved ones.

Most northern people pickled green tomatoes, made them into chutneys and mincemeat, and there are recipes for that. But I think that come early season or end of summer, people through the centuries have been tossing a few chopped green tomatoes into soups and stews, paellas, risottos, and/or pastas – depending upon their culture of origin – without thinking about it too much or writing it down in a recipe to pass on to future generations. There lies the danger that, as youngsters spend less time learning from their elders, this kind of unwritten wisdom will disappear from culinary practice.
Green Tomatoes
Farmers' markets are good sources for green tomatoes. At this peak season
time of year, if you don't find any, ask the farmer.
S/he'll be sure to bring some to you.

Still need a recipe? How about some guidelines, a technique? Let’s start with one large green tomato with just a blush, somewhere on it, of incipient pink. Core it. Slice it about a third of an inch thick. Dredge it in flour and tap off the excess. Dunk it in beaten egg, tap off the excess, then dredge in seasoned flour, crushed saltines, cornmeal, or fine bread crumbs. If you have a bag of Panko around, try that. Gently tap the slice again, then place on a folded newspaper, preferably one with my column on it. Let them dry a bit, to create a harder coating, as you heat a sauté pan over medium high heat. When the pan is hot scoop about a tablespoon of butter into it and pour in an equal amount or a bit more of olive oil. You want a little depth to the oil on the bottom of the pan.

When that is hot, place the slices into the hot oil, maybe turn the heat down a bit – you want the coating to become crisp and golden in the same amount of time it takes the inside to become tender. After 3 or 4 minutes – watching carefully – turn the slices and allow them to cook just the same way. When they’re done, sprinkle with salt and eat them!

If there are more slices to be fried, run the pan under hot water to get out the burned bits, wipe with a paper towel, and start all over again with new butter and oil.

Now do the same with eggplant. Ditto Okra.

But this is not brain surgery. The other night I had no eggs, but I did have green tomatoes that needed to be used before they got ... gasp... ripe! So if I couldn’t do the traditional flour, egg, flour coating without eggs, what would I use to make those slices crisp. I remembered cornstarch, and poured and thumped a quantity into a used plastic bag, along with a quantity of flour and salt. The result? Best Fried Green Tomatoes ever.

Bon, as they say, Appetit!