As you have no-doubt surmised from my pizza and cookie posts, "Oui, Chef" is not a site with a focus on low fat, or no-fat cooking. I am decidedly an (almost) everything in moderation kind of guy, and believe that a well balanced diet, and a reasonably active lifestyle, should allow most of us to not stress so much about every calorie or fat gram we consume. As such, you will not hear me preach about how you should eliminate a long list of “unhealthy” foods from your diet, but rather how you should include as much of your rich, local bounty as possible in your cooking, while still working to achieve a healthy nutritional balance in what you eat. For me the most important thing in my cooking, and in what I am trying to teach my kids, is that we cook and eat “whole”, or real foods, not foods that are imitation, highly processed, or pre-prepared. When we can buy these goods from local and sustainable sources, we do. We eat more fish and poultry than red meat, lots of vegetables and fruits, and include as many whoIe grains in our diet as we can.
The fats I use in cooking are natural, not concocted in a lab somewhere. They are used judiciously, but not exactly sparingly, and I would encourage you to do the same. I am an absolute believer in the old maxim, fat = flavor, and find most fat free dishes almost unpalatable. Fat is an important contributor to the mouth feel and texture of food, and is why eating a well marbled piece of Kobe beef from Japan can be a transcendent experience, while eating a boneless, skinless chicken breast is more akin to kissing your sister (not that I have, mind you, I’m just sayin’). Fat is also a conveyor of a food’s flavors, transporting them to each corner of your mouth and helping them to linger there. This is a good thing. I mean, if you’ve gone to the trouble of cooking a nice meal, don’t you want to be able to savor it for a while?
As with all things in life, moderation is key when cooking with fats. There ARE some fats to totally avoid, such as all partially, or fully hydrogenated or trans fats, but the rest, used in moderation as part of a well balanced diet, will make your food taste that much better, so don’t be afraid of them. The good news on trans fats for the home cook is that they are really easy to avoid if you are cooking from scratch. Stay away from margarine (yuk) and solid vegetable shortenings, and you are pretty much in the clear. Avoiding them becomes much harder to do if you buy a lot of prepared baked goods as they are used extensively by commercial bakers to improve the texture and shelf-life of their products. Gotta be a label reader to avoid them in these situations. If the product label has the word “hydrogenated” on it, do yourself a favor, and leave it on the shelf.
Obviously, if you need to maintain a fat restricted diet under doctor’s orders, then you have to do what you have to do, but if not, I urge you to relax a little on this score and let the judicious use of good fats carry your food to a new level. I sauté primarily with a good quality olive oil, for high-heat cooking or deep frying, I use canola, corn or peanut oil. I use locally sourced butter when called for, and when I really want to go big, reach for the “ne plus ultra” of fats….DUCK FAT, which I keep in tubs in my freezer (at just it’s mention, the heavens open and the angels begin to sing….can you hear them?). Don’t worry if you can’t, because one day soon I’ll share my recipe for duck fat sauteed potatoes, and you too will hear the angels, trust me on this.
So…..the take-aways from today's little fat chat are as follows: absolutely stay away from hydrogenated or trans fats because they are bad, bad, bad for you. Don’t be wildly afraid of animal fats such as meat and dairy fats, just don’t make them the primary source of calories in your diet. Reach often for high quality vegetable oils such as olive and canola oils for the way they will improve the mouth-feel and flavor of your food. Finally, go to Dartagnan and get yourself a few tubs of duck fat. It will totally change your life.
Cheers – Steve