Spare The Fat, Spoil The Flavor – Making Your Food Pop, Part 3

Mandarin_Extra_Virgin_Olive_Oil
Superb EVOO infused with Mandarin from ChefShop.com

I’m not the first person to observe that Americans have a crazy, conflicted relationship to fat. We love it, and eat far more of it than probably just about any other country in the world. God knows we have the obesity epidemic to show for it. At the same time, we fear it mightily, speaking in terms like sin and indulgence as if there were a higher power monitoring our every fat gram.

More than anything, we don’t like to see liquid fat on our food. A drizzle of extra virgin olive oil over a plate of sauteed broccoli raab or a small slick of ghee on the chana masala is thought of as greasy and repulsive, even though in their native lands (Italy and India, in this case), those fats would be considered the mark of a wholesome, delicious meal.

The bizarre thing is, if you take ten times that amount of fat and put it in a obscenely large slice from the Cheesecake Factory, most people will say “oh, just this once”. So that is what restaurant chefs do, they use (and frequently hide) quantities of fat that would make most home cooks blanch in horror, and then you wonder why it is that their food tastes so good.

People, it is time for some sanity.

You don’t need to fear fat. You just need to learn how to use it in moderation, and generally eat in moderation. If you skip that cheesecake and the triple cheeseburger with fries, or at least only eat them only occasionally, you can afford to have a decent amount of oil in your stir-fry and even a pat of delicious, sweet cream butter on your morning toast. One of life’s best things, and there is no substitute.

Why does a little fat make food so good? Three main reasons: it carries flavor (because it can dissolve aroma compounds that aren’t soluble in water), it feels good in your mouth, and it transmits heat efficiently. Not counting of course the more technical things fat does, especially in baking.

Try this experiment, either in your mind or in your kitchen. First, steam a big handful of green beans and toss them with salt and raw garlic, or garlic that has been roasted with no fat.

Now mince 2 or 3 cloves of fresh garlic. Take another handful of green beans heat up a saute pan quite high, add a tablespoon of extra-virgin olive oil, half of the minced garlic and, a few seconds later, saute the beans, adding a pinch or two of salt, until they are getting some nice dark, caramelized spots. When they have about two minutes to go, add the rest of the garlic.

Which dish tastes better? The first one tastes dull and vegetal. If you used raw garlic, it will be harsh and poorly distributed. The roasted garlic might be better but will likely be just sweet and anemic.

In the second dish, the oil will have picked up the flavor compounds from the garlic and distributed them throughout the food. The garlic will neither be as pungent as it was raw nor mild as it would be roasted. Its intoxicating aroma will have spread throughout your house, whetting everyone’s appetite. The beans will have beautifully blistered skin courtesy of the low-moisture heat transfer. And when you eat those beans, the slight amount of oil on their surface will contribute a sense of richness that contrasts nicely with the vegetable itself. Done right, they should taste amazing.

So you tell me, was it worth that small increment of calories?

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Posted by Michael Natkin on Thursday, January 21st, 2010 in Miscellany, Theory and Rants.

11 Responses to “Spare The Fat, Spoil The Flavor – Making Your Food Pop, Part 3”

  1. January 21, 2010 at 8:06 am #

    I feel like in America we’re more addicted to fake food and carbs than fats. I love fats! Avocado, olive oil, nuts! It’s awesome!

  2. January 21, 2010 at 12:19 pm #

    I’ll say: eat more fat less!

    To clarify, ‘fatty’ food is nice, mmmmh, and we need it too, but I think that some people exaggerate with portions!!!

    Going back to your Making your food pop theme Michael, I don’t usually do soliciting on other people’s blogs, but I would like you, (and your readers if they like) to try this very easy food experiment for an unusual and amazing taste experience link to alessandra-onlyrecipes.blogspot.com

    Let me know!!

    ciao

    Alessandra

  3. January 21, 2010 at 5:17 pm #

    mmmm, good quality olive oil is worth every single calorie. Not only is it healthy but it is also delicious. It can elevate any dish from mediocre to outstanding – just as you proved with the case of the green beans.

  4. Suzanne
    January 21, 2010 at 6:52 pm #

    Not only in moderation but by making better choices we can have our fat and eat it too! Wouldn’t be without my olive oil or my butter! It certainly does make food pop!

  5. January 21, 2010 at 7:19 pm #

    Lately I’ve been crazy about truffle oil and truffle salt – it’s amazing how the tiniest amount imparts such dynamic flavor. I can’t get enough, and I’m 5′ 5″ and 130 pounds…I never eat anything that is not food, and I eat until I am full. I do think there is something to the real food part of it all.

  6. January 21, 2010 at 8:36 pm #

    I have just learned about Etruria products this past weekend at the Fancy Food Show- and what a line!! I will always splurge on good quality EVOO, especially because I don’t do prepackaged dressings or sprays or whatever else. I like my food to taste like food, just like Sarah said!
    However, I have to say I was quite surprised by some lower-calories options, like the vinegar made from honey- which has a completely different taste profile and intrigued me to no end!

  7. Michael Natkin
    January 21, 2010 at 8:42 pm #

    @Vanessa – Isn't that Etruria mandarin-infused EVOO spectacular? I've got a bag of their pasta I'm dying to try too. What else did you try?

  8. January 21, 2010 at 8:47 pm #

    OUT OF THIS WORLD- I have a bottle of truffle-infused olive oil, but I have to say that I was really blown out of the water by the vinegars. I am dying to get a few and try them out- and they were possibly my favorite things at the show, along with the Filippino ice cream and the vanilla from Sonoma Syrup Co. Oh, and the smoked olive oil was just… ehm, different?? In all I was a bit underwhelmed by the show. What did you like?

  9. Michael Natkin
    January 21, 2010 at 10:01 pm #

    @Vanessa – I wasn't at the Fancy Food Show, I learned about Etruria at ChefShop.com's brick-and-mortar location in Seattle. They have a good part of their line their; seems to be wonderful stuff.

  10. January 23, 2010 at 11:03 am #

    Are you kidding – worth the calories!!!??? I don’t even think twice about calories. When I eat good food, made from scratch, I don’t gain weight, and I don’t eat too much because the food is actually filling and fulfilling too. I definitely try to eat my vegetables and all, but if my soup that is loaded with vegetables has some nitrate-free bacon in it for flavour, a bunch of salt, and perhaps some more fat from olive oil, I don’t give it a second thought.

  11. January 25, 2010 at 6:01 am #

    This post reminded me of how I felt returning to the U.S. from a trip to Italy a few years back. I was eating out a lot then, and the contrast in the food quality was startling. Suddenly I realized how awful most food in the average American restaurant was–because they tend to pile poor quality fat (cheap Provolone cheese, ranch dressing, bacon) on dishes to mask the poor quality of the ingredients. In Italy, though, there was no need for that–they used oil just enough to bring out the flavor of the ingredients.

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