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Fats: the good, the bad and the ugly

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We’ve all heard that saturated fats are bad. It clogs our arteries, it makes us gain weight, it has bad cholesterol and the list of terrible things seems to go on and on. We watch TV and every other commercial is about low fat yogurt or some such thing. But, there is a new movement emerging out there, quietly mind you, since low fat diets are a huge market now, and it’s saying that saturated fats are not only not bad for us, they’re actually quite healthy. When I think about it, it makes sense: our ancestors ate a lot of animal fat, the traditional Inuits pretty much have a diet of blubber and are real healthy tough cookies, and what about the fact that our own body produces saturated fats to store energy?

Always look at what's in your food.

Don’t rejoice too quickly though. Even if saturated fats are part of a healthy diet, there are other fats out there we want to avoid. Typically, on food labels, you will see saturated fats, transfats, polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats. So what does it even all mean?

Saturated fats: these are found in animal tissue and tropical oils, like coconut or palm. They help our body absorb many important minerals and vitamins (which are fat soluble). They also protect the liver from alcohol and other toxins and help enhance the immune system.

Look at these healthy monounsaturated fats!

Monounsaturated fats: these are found in olive oil, avocadoes, almonds, pecans, cashews and peanuts in the form of oleic acid. Monounsaturated fats are stable and do not go rancid easily, unlike polyunsaturated fats. Our body produces and uses monounsaturated fats for many different functions.

Polyunsaturated fats: this is a tricky one. Polyunsaturated fats contain the essential omega-3s and omega-6s, which the body cannot make on its own, that’s why they are called essential. Even so, it does not make polyunsaturated fats healthy, since they go rancid when heated. Rancid oils are characterized by free radicals, which attack cells and causes damage in DNA/NRA strands. What? That translates to things like wrinkles, premature aging, tumors, plaque and autoimmune diseases. Polyunsaturated fats are found in vegetable oils (corn, soy, safflower, canola), which is in almost all packaged and processed food. Our diet today can contain as much as 30% of calories from polyunsaturated fats, but research indicates that a healthy number should be 4%, just like our ancestors consumed.

Salmon is an excellent source of Omega-3 and we should all try to eat more of it.

The best eggs would come from a chicken foraging for food in the wild. I know that's not very practical in this day and age, but nutrition-wise, it would be the healthiest.

Another big problem with commercial vegetable oils is that they have much more Omega-6 than Omega-3. Too much Omega-6 is linked with blood clots, inflammation, high blood pressure, irritation of the digestive tract, depressed immune function, sterility, cell proliferation, cancer and weight gain. Not enough Omega-3 is linked with asthma, learning defficiencies and heart disease. This is an imbalance that is extremely hard to fix, because vegetable oils are everywhere and good sources of Omega-3 are becoming more and more scarce. Did you know that eggs used to contain a ration of 1:1 Omega-6 to Omega-3, but commercial supermarket eggs can contain as much as nineteen more times Omega-6.

Transfats: these are hydrogenated oils. Avoid them like the plague. Basically, hydrogenated oils are polyunsaturated fats (so cheap oils, like corn or soy), already rancid from the extraction process, which are mixed with metal particles like nickel oxide. Then comes the high pressure, high temperature, and emulsifiers and starches are added. Did you know margarine is naturally grey? So after all that, the hydrogenated oils are bleached to make them more appealing (somehow, it’s not working for me). Partially hydrogenated oils are much worse than fully hydrogenated oils, but I suggest staying away from both. Which, one more time, can be hard to do, because if a product has less than 0.5g of transfat, it will be listed as 0 transfat. Just read the ingredients and stay away from hydrogenated oils.

So now that you know more about fats, here is how to choose oils. First, it’s important to know that oils all have a mix of saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, just in different quantities. Good oils will be rich in saturated/monounsaturated fats and the ones you want to stay away from will have more polyunsaturated and transfats.

What do I use?

Extra Virgin Olive Oil: I love the taste, I enjoy it a lot in salads and it’s a healthy, useful oil to keep in the pantry.

High Oleic Sunflower Oil: If you must have a seed oil… well this is probably the healthiest out there. Make sure it’s not plain sunflower oil, but the high oleic one. It’s very rich in monounsatured fats and barely has any polyunsaturated fats. I’ve never found this at the grocery store (don’t confuse it with high oleic safflower oil, the ratio of mono to poly isn’t as healthy) but I know some places sell it, just not in my area. It’s easy enough to buy online though.

Coconut Oil: This is a great oil for baking. It does have a strong coconut taste though. You can find this in any Whole Foods. Note that it is semi-solid at room temperature.

My very own bucket of red palm oil, which I reserve for deep frying only.

Red Palm Oil: I use it for deep frying. This oil is also rich in betacarotene, which is what gives it its rich red color. It’s an oil that’s impossible to find in grocery store… I heard it used to be very popular and after the whole deal with “saturated fats are terrible!”, it got a bad reputation. I buy mine online in bulk and even though it’s a bit pricier, since I use it mainly for frying, it lasts a very long time.

Butter: I love butter. I use it to sautee onions, garlic, mushrooms. I also use it all the time for baked goods. If any recipe requires oil, I try and substitute butter as much as I can.

Lard: I’ve never actually cooked with it, but the rare times I buy chips at the grocery store, I always pick ones that were fried in lard.

No, I did not make all of this stuff up. I’ve been reading a lot on fats lately and these are the articles that spoke to me the most. They’re all backed up with actual studies and they are an absolute must read if you want to be on the right path to healthy eating.

The skinny on fats

Olive Oil Buyer’s Guide

Tropical plant fats: palm oil

Fish and Chips

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Fish and Chips

I’ve always heard that the secret to a great batter for fish and chips was beer. Well, what a turn off! Beer comes from wheat, so no fish and chips for us, right? Wrong! I felt like experimenting yesterday, and I made fisn and chips using… hard cider! You know, from apples? It was very successful! The taste wasn’t overwhelming at all, but the batter was nice and airy.

Here is what I used and what I did. It feeds two people.

This is the exact hard cider I used in my recipe.

This is the exact hard cider I used in my recipe.

Ingredients:

  • 1lb cod (you can use other white fish)
  • 1 cup white rice flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
  • 1 teaspoon thyme
  • 1/2 bottle hard cider
  • Oil for frying (red palm oil is the best)

Mix in the flour (3/4 cup), baking soda and salt. Add the hard cider and let it fizzle for a moment, then add the seasonings. The batter is now done and you can let it stand while you prep the fish.

Wash the cod, cut it in small pieces, season it with salt and pepper and coat it lightly with the remaining white rice flour. Now, dip the small pieces in batter and fry it in batches. I followed the manufacturer’s instruction of my fryer for temperature and cooking time, which is 350F for 5 minutes. Check this out!

I was sloppy on the presentation but the taste really hit the spot!

I was sloppy on the presentation but the taste really hit the spot!

I also used 5 medium sized potatoes for the fries. I cut them in small slices and fried them in red palm oil. For the green beans, I boiled them until they were soft, but not too soft, then I drained them, mixed them in with a little olive oil, salt and pepper.

This was the most delicious meal I’ve had all week. Can you believe I ate that whole huge plate all by myself?

Gluten free key lime cake

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Gluten free key lime cake

A friend of mine made a key lime cake last week and asked me if I could come up with a gluten-free version. I was pretty excited at the challenge, and even more excited at the result. I liberated his cake from the evil gluten, and it was really quite delicious! He used a box of lemon cake for the base, so I was a little lost at where to start. I found inspiration looking at this recipe.

My friend’s cake turned green because of the packet of lime jello used for flavor.

Ingredients for the cake:

  • 1 cup brown rice flour
  • 1/4 cup chickpea flour
  • 1/4 cup millet flour
  • 2/3 cup potato starch
  • 1/3 cup tapioca starch
  • 1 Tablespoon guar gum
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1 cup red palm oil*
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 Tablespoon lemon zest
  • 4 eggs
  • 2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup orange juice
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon tapioca starch
  • 1 small packet of lime jello

* I use red palm oil because I believe it’s one of the healthiest oils out there. However, it’s an ingredient that is hard to find; I buy mine online. Other good oils you may use would be olive oil, coconut oil or high oleic safflower oil.

Ingredients for the glaze:

  • 3/4 cup powdered sugar*
  • 1/2 cup lime juice

* Powdered sugar is made with cornstarch. There are also a few brands, like 365 Organic, that make it with tapioca starch instead and that’s what I use.

Even if I also used a small packet of lime jello for my cake, it stayed yellow. I believe the rich color of red palm oil overwhelmed the green.

Ingredients for the icing:

  • 1 stick unsalted butter, softened
  • 80z cream cheese, softened
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 1/2 cup powdered sugar*

Now that you have all the ingredients you need, preheat the oven to 350F. You will need three large mixing bowls for the next step.

In the first bowl, mix your flours, starches, guar gum and salt.

Eggs and sugar, flours and oil mixtures.

In the second bowl, mix in the milk, palm oil, vanilla and lemon zest.

In the third and largest bowl, whisk the eggs and gradually add all the sugar, until it is smooth and not grainy.

Now, slowly add some of the flour mixture to the eggs and sugar, mix well, add some of the oil mixture, mix well. Repeat until all the flour and oil has been incorporated to the eggs and sugar, starting and ending with the flour.

The bubbles and fizzles help make the cake more airy.

In a glass, mix in the baking soda and tapioca starch. Add the orange juice and mix well so it’s bubbling. Add that to the cake batter and fold it in (baking soda, starch and an acid is what I use instead of baking powder since that is made with corn starch, which I don’t eat).

Finally, add the lime jello packet and mix well. Don’t worry if it turns a weird color. Pour the batter in two cake pans that were previously greased, lined with parchment paper and greased some more. Can’t have this delicious cake stick!

Put it in the preheated oven for about 45 minutes. At around 35 minutes, you can take it out and poke a few holes in the middle with a toothpick so it all cooks evenly.

Divide the glaze evenly between the two cakes.

When it’s ready, take it out of the oven, put it on a cooling rack, or two plates, and let it sit for 10 minutes or so. Meanwhile, prepare the lime glaze. It’s pretty easy. Just whisk the powdered sugar and lime juice. Poke some holes in the cake so it soaks in the glaze really well and pour it in.

Make sure to cover it and keep it refrigerated.

Now for the frosting! It’s also pretty easy. Just put the butter, cream cheese, vanilla and powdered sugar in the food processor and pulse it a few times, until it’s smooth and nicely combined. Using a spatula,  generously frost the top of one of the cakes. Put the other cake on top and frost everything some more.

My only complaint about this cake is the amount of sugar going in it. It doesn’t taste too sweet; it really is a wonderful combination with the tartness of the citrus. But it’s still over 4 cups of sugar! Oh well, it’s okay to treat yourself once in a while and this cake is definitely a good way to do it.

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