Folks think of Southern food and envision Fried Chicken, Fried Green Tomatoes, Fried Catfish, and Fried Okra. There’s a suspicion that is not completely unfounded, that if something doesn’t move fast enough in a Southern kitchen it will soon find itself sizzling away to golden brown perfection in a cast iron skillet. However, that’s merely a one-dimensional view. The truth is that Southern food doesn’t have to be unhealthy or trapped in the past. And, frankly, some food that is portrayed in the media and on television isn’t actually real Southern cooking.
But, yes ma’am, there’s no doubt, we Southerners do love our fat. I’m not a hypocrite. I’m not pretending that we’re not known for things like Biscuits smothered in Tomato Gravy and that Bacon is pretty much regarded as a food group.
Fat enhances the taste, aroma, and texture of food. Fat makes food taste good. With the entire nation embracing Southern cooking it has brought attention to a regional American cuisine that’s not fearful of fat. Our bodies are hard-wired to like fat. There are some fats we actually can’t live without! In fact, our cell walls are built of fat. Fats play a crucial role in transporting nutrients throughout the body, healthy skin, good eyesight, to name just a few of their many benefits. Healthy fats can also help you lose weight.
The trouble is, most Americans, Southerners included, no - especially - generally eat too much fat and too much of the wrong kind of fat. Look at this map of obesity rates from the CDC. The red indicates a real problem.
Here’s a primer on fats so when you make the choice to enjoy fat – in matters of both indulgence and moderation – you’ll know what just what needs to sizzle in your skillet. (And before I lose you, there’s some delicious recipes – including a cookie – for you at the end.)
FAT FACTS: There is a well-established link between fat intake and the risk of heart disease and stroke. Diets rich in “bad fats” – saturated fat and trans fat – cause high blood cholesterol. But, all cholesterol is not the dirty word most folks think it is. Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance produced by the liver that occurs naturally in all parts of the body. It is also present in the foods that we eat. Our bodies need cholesterol to build healthy cells, produce hormones, and help the brain, skin, and other organs to properly function. Once again, however, Americans tend to over do it. Too much cholesterol in your bloodstream can collect as plaque on vessel walls causing them to narrow. Over time this keeps blood from moving freely and can cause less blood and oxygen to reach your brain and heart. This can result in a heart attack or stroke. Eat this, don’t eat that. Low fat isn’t always good fat. Good – and bad – cholesterol? It can be pretty confusing, so it’s important to know your Fats Facts:
Unsaturated fats are found mainly in many fish, nuts, seeds and oils from plants. These fats may help lower your blood cholesterol level when you use them in place of saturated and trans fats. Food containing unsaturated fat include salmon, trout, herring, avocados, olives, walnuts and vegetable oils such as soybean, corn, safflower, canola, olive, and sunflower. Omega 3 fatty acids are class of unsaturated fat. They are found in foods including walnuts, some fruits and vegetables, and coldwater fish such as salmon, herring, mackerel, sturgeon, and anchovies. Omega 3 promotes healthy blood circulation and helps reduce inflammation. The bottom line on unsaturated fats is that these are the ones you want to use the most.
Saturated fat is found mostly in foods from animals and some plants, including tropical oils such as coconut, coconut oil, palm oil and palm kernel oil and cocoa butter. Too much saturated fat can raise cholesterol. The bottom line on saturated fat is that they should be used in moderation.
Trans fats or Trans-fatty acids are mainly found in processed hydrogenated oils such as margarine and shortening and processed foods made from processed oils. They are also found in lesser amounts in animal products such as beef, pork, lamb, butter, and milk. Some science indicates naturally occurring trans fats aren’t viewed as harmful as those that are from processed foods. Companies like using processed trans fats in their foods because they’re cheap. Stay away from processed foods with trans fats.
LET’S GET COOKING
Animal Fat The flavor of all animal fats is rich, savory, and, well, meaty. Lard is rendered fat produced from pigs, schmaltz is rendered fat from chickens, duck fat is the equivalent of liquid gold, suet is raw beef or mutton fat, and once it is rendered it is called tallow. (Rendering is a process of cooking that melts the fat and makes it fairly shelf stable.) Lard was the premier Southern fat of days gone by and biscuits and piecrusts made with lard are old-fashioned Southern classics. Potatoes fried in duck fat are simply otherworldly, and the secret to many a Jewish grandmother’s light-as-air matzo balls is schmaltz. Uses include frying, sautéing, and for use in baked goods. Alas, any thing that tastes this good should be enjoyed in moderation.
Butter Classic French cooking pretty much considers butter to be a food group. My view is on butter is that, if you’re going to eat it, you may as well eat the absolute best since the gourmet like French Echiré Butter has the same amount of calories as the cheap stuff. The great part is just a little butter will go a long way. Butter lends a smooth and creamy taste to foods and is silky on the mouth and tongue. Magical, exquisite, wonderful things happen when the milk solids in butter begin to brown. Butter can be used in medium temperature sautéing, sauces, and perhaps most famously, in baking.
Canola Oil Canola oil is among the healthiest of cooking oils. It’s high in Omega-3s, a class of unsaturated fat that helps promote healthy blood circulation and reduce inflammation. As a chef, I often use canola oil because it’s flavorless and allows the flavor of the food shine through. I look for Expeller Pressed Canola Oil canola oil, which is a chemical-free mechanical process that extracts the oil. Canola is a good all-purpose cooking oil and is excellent for sautéing, frying, and baking or for use in raw form in salad dressings, mayonnaise, and vinaigrettes. It’s hands down my favorite oil in the kitchen.
Olive Oil Olive oil is at the heart of all Mediterranean cooking. Extra virgin olive oil is cold-pressed and is the least refined of the olive oils. Depending on the olives, from which it was pressed, will have varying flavor and aroma. This oil is best for low to medium heat cooking due to its low smoke point. The finest Extra Virgin Olive Oil is best used without cooking at all and simply as a finishing touch on a dish. Pure olive oil is slightly more refined and has a higher smoke point. It is best for sautéing at medium heat. Both oils are flavorful and best used where the oil’s full flavor is intended as an integral part of the finished dish.
Peanut Oil If you’ve had a deep fried turkey at Thanksgiving, it’s likely it was fried in Peanut Oil or a peanut oil blend. Refined peanut oil has a very high smoke point. Smoke point is just what it sounds like – the point an oil will start to smoke and break down when placed over high heat. The higher the smoke point, the better it is for frying and high-heat cooking. Since peanut oil used for deep-frying you’ll often find 1 to 5 gallon jugs that are pretty heavy for shipping if buying online. Instead, look at local hardware stores or big box supercenters.
Safflower and Sunflower Oil Sunflower Oil and the related safflower oil are both used as cooking oils in cuisines over the world. Produced from related flowers, they are very versatile. Safflower oil is a favorite for salads because it doesn’t solidify when refrigerated and chilled. Both can be used in cold dressings and mayonnaise as well as high heat cooking and sautéing and are neutral enough for baking. These oils are heart healthy and fairly inexpensive.
Vegetable Oil Growing up, my grandmother had a small bottle of “salad oil” in her cupboard. That’s a pretty non-definitive term, much like the term Vegetable Oil. It’s a bit sneaky; for the most part vegetable oil is actually soybean oil with a few other plant-based oils blended in. The deal with vegetable oil is that it’s less expensive than pricier oils such as olive, sunflower, or safflower. Vegetable oil is widely available.
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Below are some recipes using oil including a basic vinaigrette that shares some tips on choosing oil for a dressing, my grandfather’s grilled chicken using peanut oil, and lastly, shortbread cookies made with butter.
Bon Appétit, Y’all!
PS: Happy to announce Basic to Brilliant, Y’all was nominated for a Southern Independent Booksellers Award and that I am a new contributing editor for Southern Living!
Classic Shallot Vinaigrette
Makes about ½ cup
There’s been a whole lot of talk about culinary “apps” (as in smartphone applications, not starters or nibbles) and cooking by ratio, not by recipe. Vinaigrette is an excellent example of this premise. To make a proper vinaigrette, that is, one that is a perfect balance of smooth and creamy to acidic and tart, a certain ratio of ingredients must be followed: one part acid to three parts oil. The recipe emerges from the technique when the acid is sherry versus balsamic vinegar, or lemon juice versus a combination of white wine vinegar and champagne vinegar. One could also use apple cider, white wine, or red wine vinegar, each vinegar with a different flavor profile. The recipe continues to unfold when the oil is chosen. Is it a full-flavored vinaigrette for tomatoes and cold meats made with extra-virgin olive oil, a milder combination of corn and olive oil, or even milder still, with grapeseed or canola oil? The choice is yours!
2 large shallots, finely chopped
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons vinegar
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
6 tablespoons oil
In a small bowl, whisk together the shallots, mustard, and vinegar. Season with salt and pepper. Add the oil in a slow stream, whisking until emulsified. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.
Dede’s Grilled Chicken
Serves 4 to 6
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup peanut oil, plus more for the grate
2 tablespoons hot sauce
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon coarse salt, plus more for seasoning the chicken
1 (4 to 5-pound) chicken, cut into 8 pieces
2 lemons, sliced Freshly ground black pepper
Prepare a charcoal fire using about 6 pounds of charcoal and burn until the coals are completely covered with a thin coating of light gray ash, 20 to 30 minutes. Spread the coals evenly over the grill bottom, position the grill rack above the coals, and heat until medium-hot (when you can hold your hand 5 inches above the grill surface for no longer than 3 or 4 seconds). Or, for a gas grill, turn on all burners to High, close the lid, and heat until very hot, 10 to 15 minutes.
Combine the water, vinegar, peanut oil, hot sauce, Worcestershire sauce, and salt in a squirt bottle. Set aside. Season the chicken with salt and pepper. Apply some oil to the grill grate. Place the chicken on the grill, leaving plenty of space between each piece. Grill until seared, about 1 to 2 minutes per side for legs and thighs, and 3 or so minutes for breasts.
Move the chicken to medium-low heat or reduce the heat to medium; continue to grill, turning occasionally and squirting with the marinade, until the juices run clear when pierced, 12 to 18 minutes. Add lemons and grill until charred. Remove the pieces from the grill as they cook and transfer to a warm platter. Give them a final squirt of sauce for flavor and serve immediately with grilled lemons on the side.
Makes about 3 dozen
These are delicious, indulgent, and incredible. It’s basically just enough flour to hold the butter together. They are perfect along with ice cream or a cup of tea. And, since they are so very indulgent, it’s good to know they freeze exceptionally well in an airtight container.
2 cups all purpose flour
1⁄2 teaspoon fine sea salt
1⁄4 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1⁄2 cup confectioners’ sugar, more for flattening the cookies
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Heat the oven to 350 F. Line 2 cookie sheets with parchment paper or nonstick silicone baking sheets. Set aside. Sift together the flour, salt, and baking powder. Set aside. In the bowl of a mixer using the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar on high speed until light and fluffy, about 1 minute. Add the flour mixture and vanilla; beat until just combined.
Using a small ice cream scoop, portion the cookies about 2-inches apart on the prepared sheet pans. Dip a smooth glass in confectioners’ sugar. Press to flatten to about 1/4-inch thick. Using a wooden skewer, make 4 holes in the center of a cookie so that it resembles a button.
Transfer the cookie sheets to the refrigerator and chill until firm, about 30 minutes. Bake until the cookies are pale golden brown, about 15 minutes. Let cookies cool slightly on the cookie sheet then transfer to a rack to cool completely. Store in an airtight container up to 7 days.
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Food pics by me.
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