When I was a little mini-chef (I started chefing at the ripe old age of twelve) and had a thriving catering company cooking for the affluent, "ladies that lunched" in my swanky Southern California community, the instructions for every tea party, luncheon, baby shower or cocktail party were simple and unwavering, “low fat or no fat.” I could make anything I wanted, just so long as egg yolks, butters or oils of any kind never slipped their way into the recipe.
Meanwhile, I was in the throes of puberty and began sporting curves where there had previously been none (in a land ruled by bikinis) and became increasingly concerned by the largeness of it all. I too was seduced by every label sporting the no fat lo fat banner. I truly believed that the way to lose weight was to completely eliminate all fat from my diet. I dutifully removed all the yolks from my classic French omelettes, trimmed all the fat and skin from my chicken and poultry, emulsified my dressings with cornstarch and egg whites, grilled everything dry (only lemon juice please!) and tried every creative way I possibly could to return the flavor to the dish without the fat.
In short, I fell victim to the myth that all fat was evil and all fat was the same.
There are a lot more chapters to this story and if you want to read them you can switch over to my blog ;) but for now I’m going to focus on a much bigger one that affects us all.
Shortly after WWII a great quantity of food was needed in our city centers. Moving from an essentially agrarian society with small pockets of urbanization to exactly the reverse, the baby boom era required large quantities of food that was both shelf stable and portable. The inventions of hydrogenated oil and high fructose corn syrup (another story altogether!) helped to achieve this goal quickly and thus the era of Industrial Farming was born.
So what were hydrogenated oils and why were these miracles of modern technology so bad?
Hydrogenated oils were heat treated and processed in a way that allowed them to be transported in hot or cold conditions without spoiling. At this point in time everything went cross country in railway cars so extremes in temperature were a factor. The main reason for the hydrogenation of oils was that the process itself created an end product that acts as a preservative. This leads to increased shelf life of foodstuffs and less returns or spoilage of products.
But what was lost? All your antioxidants, for one, and anything even remotely resembling an omega 3 or 6. In their place we found a little thing called, "tranfats," molecularly altered oil toxic to the human body. Once food production companies started using hydrogenated oils, substantial increases in several diseases were seen within the space of a few years. High blood pressure, cancer, heart disease, obesity, and even mental illness became endemic in our country where traditionally their rates had been largely comparable with most European nations. In particular, was a new disease which the medical profession named Diabetes Type II.
Over the last fifty years since the introduction of hydrogenated oils, Diabetes Type II has increased by a staggering 1000%.
The healthiest oil with which to cook is one that is composed primarily of mono-unsaturated fat. Conversely, those oils containing a high degree of saturated fats are considered the least healthy by most doctors, though most doctors now feel that the naturally occurring saturated fat in products like butter are in fact better than the saturated fats found in products like margarine. Contrary to popular American diet mythology, fat is actually a valuable part of one’s diet, allowing people to absorb essential nutrients into the body. In short, the human body needs the type of essential fatty acids that Mother Nature has provided us in real non-genetically altered food. Even the previously shunned poly saturated coconut is making a stunning comeback as a super food.
Oils low in saturated fats and transfat free are a positive addition to a healthy diet. Traditionally, the items we buy in the grocery store as low fat and no fat are items that have been modified to such an extent that all they are as far from the original source that it is possible to be. They are processed within an inch of their life and contain chemicals and preservatives that are entirely manmade. Let’s take a bottle of any low fat dressing from the grocery store aisle. Several of its primary ingredients will be High Fructose Corn Syrup, modified food starch and cornstarch, not to mention the inclusion of heat treated oils to expand its shelf life. Compare these ingredient lists to a homemade dressing of extra virgin olive oil, whose health benefits are so numerous and well documented in nutritional studies that it is completely unnecessary and redundant to repeat them all here. Not only does the first run extra virgin olive oil promote heart health, lower cholesterol, kidney health, joint and brain function, it actually allows the lycopene from the tomato to be absorbed into our system. All this and it tastes so good.
Allow me to interject one small caveat emptor at this point. All EVOO’s are not created the same. The Bertolli and Colavita EVOO that you buy on your grocery market shelf has no where near the same properties as an estate bottled masterpiece. My standard one liner when teaching my cooking classes is ‘if you didn’t take out a second mortgage you didn’t buy the right oil.’ There are no shortcuts in this department, I’m afraid. You are going to pay for quality.
The argument of no fat /low fat being better for your health just doesn’t hold ‘weight’ anymore. Any oil that is capable of being heated to temperatures above 190 degrees (commonly called the smoking Point) and not losing its potency is considered heat safe oil. There are huge differences between heat safe and heat treated oils and they shouldn’t be confused. Heat safe oils include sesame sunflower canola safflower just to name a few and are generally mono unsaturated oils. Extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil, flax oil or hemp oil to name a few cannot be heated to these extreme temperatures without being destroyed in the process.
For a chef, the greatest challenge in its usage also becomes its greatest attribute in promoting health. How to infuse the EVOO flavor without heating it beyond its smoking point? Although this point is being challenged I still prefer ‘cooking’ with olive oil by the methods that I delineate below. The first and my favorite is my method for roasting vegetables (traditionally at temperatures of 450 or so). Firstly, I toss the selected vegetables liberally (but not to the point of saturation) with non-hydrogenated canola or safflower oil (clean and flavor neutral) and roast till complete, then “finish” with an EVOO as it comes out of the oven. The EVOO flavor is thereby imparted to the dish without damaging the integrity of the oil. Another technique is to wet sauté’ - where non-hydrogenated canola oil and vegetable stock are used in the pan followed by the drizzle of EVOO when the pan is removed from the heat.
The following is my signature Panzanella Salad recipe, a perfect example of letting the canola do the work and the EVOO move in and take all the deserved glory.
4 heirloom organic tomatoes - sliced
1 sourdough baguette – sliced or cubed
2 small balls of fresh mozzarella – shredded
1 tsp homemade pesto (the addition of which is optional, but I always include it)
3 bunches of basil – leaves removed
Equivalent amount of arugula
Cold pressed evoo
Red wine vinegar
Place tomatoes, mozzarella, pesto, basil and arugula into a bowl. Toss baguette liberally with non-hydrogenated canola oil and salt and white pepper. Toast in 400 degree oven for approx. 10 minutes till browned and smoking. Throw hot bread in bowl and douse with red wine vinegar (the sizzle is so satisfying! ) Dress salad with EVOO, more sea salt and pepper as needed and again, toss.
Serve immediately. Does not travel. Does not keep. Eat right that instant.
Note: You will note that there are no measurements for vinegar, oil, seasonings. This is deliberate since it is to taste. I generally use an equal ratio of oil to vinegar.
Gretchen Hanson is the Executive Chef of Hobos Restaurant and Bar.
Hobos has organic, entirely local, flavorful food lovingly prepared entirely by scratch by Executive Chef Gretchen Hanson in her sassy global eco-fusion style. Hobos caters to individuals with special foods choices. Visit the restaurant and Chef Gretchen on the web at www.myhobos.com.