Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Low-fat but which fat?

The type of oil or fat used in the kitchen is immensely important, even when aiming to cook 'low-fat' recipes. Fats give flavour and character. Even when tasteless, each have their own quality of 'greasiness' and can produce quite different results when mixed with flour in a sauce, or used in a pastry and every recipe should be specific about which oil or fats should be used, and not just generalise (as so many do).

With our need to cut down on saturated fats, is it any wonder that we find the chips we fry, or even buy are not 'like they used to be'? Remembering the days when chips were really crisp, and stayed so for quite a long time, nowadays they become limp and soggy almost as soon as brought from the fat, even after a double fry. More and more chip shops fry in oil, and - in general - the more saturated the fat, the higher temperature it will tolerate, which is why chips fried in beef dripping are really, really good, and those fried in oil are not.

Of the vegetable oils regarded as suitable on a low-cholesterol/low-fat diet, safflower, sunflower, soya, grapeseed, corn and sesame are good. Olive oil and peanut oil are in the middle category, as are avocado oil and nut oils. Oils in fish (particularly herring) are very good for us, and surprisingly chicken fat is not as bad as it seems, much depending upon what the chicken has eaten. Chicken fat is nearer in consistency to oil than the more solid fats and, when clarified, it fries well to 200C without burning. The reason I mention chicken fat at all is that we can 'collect' free chicken fat if we simmer the carcase with the chicken skin and any fat taken from the bird. After making the stock, chill then removed the fat from the top. Free is free, let's not forget that.

The oils /fats to avoid are coconut oil, palm oil, and the animal fats such as butter, vegetable shortening, and hard margarines. We know that butter is 'bad' for us (not that this stops me using it), but often think of vegetable shortening and margarine as 'better for us'. Some margarines are better for us than others.

The fats used give areas of the world their 'regional flavours'. In Normandy they would cook with their renowned butter; in Provence oil is preferred. Eastern France uses lard, and towards the south-west they cook with goose-fat. Maybe it is because abroad they seem far more 'laid-back' than us, and their fatty diet does then little harm. Add stress and things might be different.
In China, butter is not used (don't think any diary products are eaten there), instead they use lard, but not the steam-stripped flavourless lard we are accustomed to - no, they render down pork fat (as we could and probably should do). They also use oils such as peanut and sesame.
In India the refined butter called ghee is most often used, and it is said that there is an incredible difference in the taste between a curry made with ghee, coconut oil or dalda (a hydrogenated fat) that no amount of spices can change. Proving again, that it is the flavour of the fats used that really make a difference to a dish, and a good cook should always take that into account.

So - even when cooking a low-fat recipe, by all means cut down, but try not to cut out altogether, and if possible use the correct type of fat - even if only a drop or two. Generally, low-fat recipes suggest using olive oil, but from the cook's point of view even this needs to be of reasonable quality.
The best oils (of any type) are 'cold-pressed' which retains some of their original flavour, and when it comes to olive oil the more information we have on this the better chance of choosing the right ones to use.

olive oil:
To give oil, the olives must be ripe, and the traditional method of extracting the oil - and still used today in some villages - is to crush the fruit in a trough under a rolling stone - similar to a millstone - so that the liquid is squeezed out and then purified by floating it in water.
The modern way is to squeeze the fruit under hydraulic presses and separate the oil by centrifuge (as a washing machines spins out the water). Oil pressed without any other treatment is called virgin oil, although there are many differences in this depending on the country it is made. In Spain, they produce a good oil, which is on sale, but prefer their virgin oil to have a 'rank' flavour just because it is the way the Spaniards prefer it. So if holidaying in Spain take care if bringing home a bottle.
In Italy their virgin oil has several grades, the 'extra virgin' having 1% acidity, 'superfine virgin' 1.0 - 1.5%, 'fine virgin' 1.5 - 3.0%, and 'everyday virgin' 3 - 4% acidity (and apologies to any Italian reader for making a hash of the translation).
Poor quality and acidic oils can be treated by adding an alkali to neutralise the excess acid, then filtering and finally steam-stripping to remove the flavour. 'Ordinary' olive oil can consist of stripped oils with between 5 - 15% virgin oil added for flavour - but if made by extraction should be labelled so (eg Olio di sansa e di oliva), and although fit to use, is not really 'proper' olive oil.

Light affects oil, and not in a good way, so always store the bottles in the dark, and even better, decant into small full bottles and keep in the fridge. The cold will cause the oil to go cloudy, but once at room temperature it will return to normal clarity.
The custom in many Italian households is to use oilseed oils for cooking, and to keep olive oil as a condiment to sprinkle over the food when served.
All good olive oil is expensive, and the top quality extra virgin is always recommended (and by Italians) as being used as a condiment rather than used for cooking. To make a good light oil for cooking purposes, blend together equal amounts of sunflower and olive oil. This way you get the flavour without the expense.

Cod with an Olive Topping: serves 4
10 black olives, stones removed, flesh finely chopped
3 oz (75g) fresh breadcrumbs (brown, white or mixture)
1 tbslp chopped fresh tarragon
1 clove garlic, crushed
1 shallot, finely chopped (or 3 spring onions)
1 tblsp olive oil (see above tip)
4 x 6oz (175g) thick, skinless cod fillets
After preparing the olives, put them into a bowl with the breadcrumbs then gently stir in the tarragon, garlic, shallot, and olive oil.
Place the fish fillets on a lightly oil baking sheet and place spoonfuls of the olive mixture on top of each fillet, spreading and pressing the mixture down lightly and evenly so the top of the fish is covered.
Bake at 190C, 375F, gas 5 for 20 minutes or until the fish is cooked through and the topping is golden brown. Serve with vegetables or salad of your choice.

Another fish dish, but why not? Fish is good for us and we should eat it more often. This next recipe is a good way to use the frozen plaice fillets that - it has to be said - lack the flavour of fresh fish, but then also work out cheaper.
Traditionally we serve lemons with fish, but oranges work equally as well alone, or with lemons as in this dish.

St. Clement's Grilled Fish: serves 4
1 teaspoon sunflower oil
1 onion, peeled and chopped
1 yellow or orange bell pepper, deseeded and chopped
6 oz (175g) long-grain rice
5 fl oz (150ml) orange juice
2 tblsp lemon juice
8 fl oz (225ml) vegetable stock
spray of oil
4 x 6 oz (175g) plaice fillets, skins removed
1 orange and 1 lemon
1 oz (25g) low-fat butter or spread
2 tblsp chopped fresh tarragon
salt and pepper
Heat the oil in a frying pan and fry the onion, bell pepper and rice for 2 minutes, then stir in the orange and lemon juice and bring to the boil. Pour in half the stock, bring back to the boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 15 or so minutes or until the rice is tender. Add more stock as necessary.
Spray the base of a grill pan with oil, then place the fish fillets in the pan. Grate the orange and lemons, then cut each in half and squeeze the juice from one half of each fruit.
Take a small saucepan and - over low heat - melt the butter, then add the citrus zest, the squeezed juices and half the tarragon. Brush this over the top of the fish then - under a pre-heated medium grill - cook for 5 minutes, basting continuously.
When the rice is cooked, stir in the remaining herbs and season to taste. Cut the reserved citrus halves into wedges. Serve the fish immediately with the rice, garnished with the lemon and orange wedges.
tip: timing needs to be fairly accurate to have everything ready at the same time, so have the basting liquid ready and kept warm, and the fish ready to put under the grill just as the rice becomes tender. Turn the heat off under the rice, but cover the pan (it will still cook on in its own steam), and the rice will stay hot long enough to cope with several minutes delay before serving.

Not everyone wishes to eat prawns, but they do make good eating, as long as enough flavour is added. The little frozen prawns are often sold 'reduced-price', and so here are two dishes that make good use of them:

Prawn and Corn Soup: serves 4 - 6
2 tsp grated root ginger
1 tblsp dry sherry
8 oz (225g) frozen peeled prawns, thawed
1.5 pints (900ml) light chicken stock
1 x 326 (12 oz) can sweetcorn kernels, drained
pinch salt
2 oz (50g) lean ham, diced (opt)
1 tblsp chopped chives
low-fat yogurt (opt)
Mix together the ginger, sherry and prawns. Put the stock in a pan, bring to the boil, the stir in the prawn mixture and the sweetcorn, adding salt to taste. Cook/stir gently for 2 minutes. Serve immediately either sprinkled with the ham and chives, or drizzle a swirl of yogurt on top, also sprinkled with chives.

For this second prawn dish, the prawns can either be fresh or frozen. Frozen is easiest as they have already been cooked and shelled, all they need is thawing and heating through. The time given in the recipe is for 'cooking' fresh peeled prawns, reduce this to 2 minutes if using thawed prawns as they toughen if cooked too long, but they do need heating through.
Prawn Creole: serves 6
2 tsp light olive oil, or sunflower oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
2 ribs celery, thinly sliced
12 oz (350g) tomatoes chopped, either fresh or canned
1 green bell pepper, deseeded and chopped
salt and pepper
4 tblsp white wine
1 tblsp tomato puree
1 lb (500g) peeled prawns (see above)
dash Tabasco sauce or to taste
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1 tblsp chopped fresh parsley
Fry the onion in the oil until softened and just beginning to brown, then stir in the garlic and celery, and fry for a further 2 minutes before adding the chopped tomatoes and green pepper, with seasoning to taste. Stir in the tomato puree and the wine, then bring to the boil and simmer (uncovered) for 20 minutes.
Stir in the Tabasco and Worcestershire sauce, also adding the prawns if uncooked. Simmer for five minutes. (If using frozen, cooked and thawed prawns, add the two sauces with the prawns but reduce the simmering time to 2 minutes) then stir in the parsley. Serve immediately, garnished with celery leaves if you have them (tender ones usually found in the centre of a head of celery). This dish is good served with rice, pasta, couscous or quinoa, and a green salad.