Thursday, May 27, 2010

Fat of the Land

Much of our nation is lipid-averse. Saturated and trans fats are about as popular these days as Osama Bin Laden. Although animal fat is a saturated fat, it is not chemically identical to artificially saturated fat. About a hundred years ago scientists learned how to bubble hydrogen (with a nickel catalyst) through unsaturated fats like corn oil or vegetable oil to add hydrogen atoms to the existing fat molecules to solidify (hydrogenate) them. That’s how such liquid oils were made into oleo margarine during the Second World War to serve as a substitute for the then-severely-rationed butter. Recently, these artificially hydrogenated oils, particularly trans fats, have been found to be very damaging to our health as they unacceptably push up our cholesterol levels (particularly LDLs). So, since animal fats are also naturally saturated, they have been also condemned by implication.

This development is unfortunate because animal fats add a great deal to the good taste of foods. We have seen over recent years the food Nazis forcing restaurants to substitute bad oleo for good butter … McDonald’s to be required by these same loonies to no longer cook their French fries in lard … and New York’s Mayor Bloomberg has banned all trans fats from the city's restaurants.  But, being a contrarian, I still cook with animal fats and will continue to do so. May I suggest the following uses:

Butter – I cannot imagine many desserts made without butter … perhaps Jello or zabaglione.  It took level-headed cooks like Julia Child sensibly to advocate for butter over oleo. She most often picked butter as the fat of choice in her cooking and baking … but, as she also always said, “in moderation.”  I would like to throw my lot in with Julia’s legacy.

Lard – Pie crust and scones made with lard (or half lard, half butter) have an unique, attractive taste. Although Crisco has generally been called for in pie crusts, I can’t help but think that this fat is (or, at least, was) artificially hydrogenated (ergo, saturated.)  And don't forget to use lard for frying French fries ...

Bacon grease – I find that frying a ham steak in bacon grease works best. As the first side is cooking, sprinkle a few teaspoons of dark brown sugar and some ground cloves on the up side. Quickly turn the ham steak and briefly cook the sugar-covered side and then flip back again so that both sides are covered with the sugar covering. Cook, turning back and forth until both sides are well done but not burnt. Serve with baked beans, and/or escalloped potatoes, and/or carrots Vichy.

Duck fat – Next time you roast a duck, save (in a closed container in the refrigerator) the usually copiously rendered duck fat like it was precious gold. Then, whenever you prepare oven roasted potatoes, use this duck fat in the bottom of the roasting pan. Preheat gently. Next peel, quarter, salt, and pepper some Yukon gold or Russet potatoes and swill them in the melted duck fat. Add a bunch of peeled garlic cloves and sprinkle with rosemary (or thyme). Roast until nicely browned and serve. You will get gastronomic raves from your guests but don’t you dare tell them the secret to these splendid spuds least they turn you in to Jenny Craig.

Chicken fat – This is also known by Jews as “schmaltz”. One cannot make good chopped chicken livers without schmaltz. Since chicken livers are almost free at grocery stores these days, they are very economical (and tasty). To make chopped chicken livers, clean one container of livers of their white sinews and connective tissues, separating each pair into singles. Dry them off well. Melt some schmaltz in a frying pan (augmented with butter if you don’t have a good three tablespoons of schmaltz). Thinly chop one very large shallot and add it to the frying pan. Slide in the chicken livers carefully as they tend to spatter. Salt and pepper them well and also add a good pinch of powdered bay leaf. (You can create powdered bay leaf by grinding two dried bay leaves in a spice grinder or in a mortar and pestle.) Cook the livers until medium (just a hint of pink). Deglace the pan with a good shot of cognac, letting it flare up. Turn off the heat and let cool. Place this mixture in a blender with half a hard-boiled egg and pulsate until a course pate is formed, adding a little cold water if needed. Place in a small bowl topping with the rest of the cooked egg white, finely chopped, and finely chopped parsley. Stand a bay leaf on the top so that its consumers will know what that elusive taste is. Refrigerate overnight and then serve the next day with rice crackers.

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