Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Are Your Cookbooks Making You Fat?

As my high school social studies teacher used to say, You bet your sweet bip.

In the Pinch kitchen, food has a triple mandate: healthy, delicious, and family friendly. Everything cooked here has to be a ten in each category, or it doesn't get made. The average cookbook has a taste mandate. Food will taste great, but it may take you awhile to produce, and it's going to contain unhealthy fats, excessive calories, and probably too much sugar or salt.

It goes the other way, too. If health is your priority, your food will meet different criteria, umami not among them. Plus, vegetarian fare can be loaded with saturated fat.

Concerned your cookbooks are adding to the girth of your sweet bip? Here's what you should look out for:

What cut? - You don't have to limit animal protein in your diet to eat a heart healthy diet. You just have to choose your cuts carefully. Leg of lamb is very lean, compared to chops or shoulder. Flank steak trumps skirt steak, and ground beef comes in a variety of leanness. It's no surprise that for poultry, white meat trumps dark. Pork loin and tenderloin beat everything else porcine. One reason I love Trader Joe's is that I can check the nutrition data on meat.

Trim the fat/Drain the fat - This is a hugely important step in lowering the unhealthy and unnecessary fats in your diet. Leg of lamb, which starts lean, should still spend some time under the knife before it's cooked. Unwrap the whole thing, separating it in its natural places and cut out everything white and unsightly. You can then tie it back up with butcher's twine (but not before adding some rosemary, salt and feta, or maybe a smidge of Gorgonzola), or leave it butterflied since it grills up so quickly.

Bacon has tremendous flavor - go ahead and use it sparingly (like use a slice or two) and trim the heck out of it, discarding all the bits that are white or translucent. And drain it after cooking. Same goes for the ground beef used for tacos. Start with a 96/4 (superlean) ground beef. After you brown it, drain it. The purpose is twofold here - you don't want wet meat in a taco shell, and following this step removes even more of the fat. Especially in this case where there is so many flavors (cumin! chili! jalapeño! lime! avocado!) the extra fat is not going to bring anything to the table.

Too much of a good thing - Olive oil is a wonderful thing but don't be mislead: like all oils it is 100% fat. One tablespoon contains over 100 calories. Let 3 T be the maximum addition of oil into anything you make - sauces, dressings, etc.

Oils are shifty when exposed to heat, meaning they become harmful ingredients. Instead of following a recipe that directs you to saute some garlic in a cup of olive oil (that's sixteen tablespoons - you do the calorie math), do this: use a scant bit of oil - like 1-2 tablespoons, or saute in an oil with a higher smoke point, like canola or safflower oil, and add a tablespoon of olive oil to the sauce at the end of cooking. It will give your sauce a velvety smooth finish, not unlike the beurre monté championed by the French.

Further, all oils are not created equally. Canola and walnut oils win bonus points for being exceptionally low in saturated fat. Any pan frying you can't talk yourself out of should be done in canola.

Removing skin from poultry before cooking. Chicken breasts are most lean when the skin is removed. That means cooking them without the skin. Don't worry about losing moisture. Sure, if you overcook it a turkey or chicken breast will dry out, but that will happen with the skin on too. A marinades will help with moisture, and allow you to control the fat content. I never cook a chicken breast that didn't get at least 20 minutes in a basic olive oil/tamari marinade). I take the skin off turkey too, whole and split breasts. If  you're especially anxious about not overdoing a turkey breast simply cover the breast with an broth- or olive oil-soaked cheesecloth. For weeknight turkey meals,  just rub the surface with a little olive oil and few shakes of salt and pepper or a blended seasoning like the Spice House's Milwaukee Iron.

Cheese - if you're using more than one ounce of cheese per person in a given dish, then that recipe gets low points on the health scale. One ounce is not a lot. Cheese should absolutely be enjoyed - just enjoy it sparingly. I prefer to forgo dairy where it's not needed (like on those tacos) and instead enjoy a selection of the world's finest as a cheese course now and then.

Butter - At best, you can make substitutions, or at least compromise with a blend of butter and olive oil.

Cream - Please. Only the truly disciplined have read this far, and the truly discipled aren't cooking with cream.