a primer on cooking with fats and oils + quick-sautéed greens

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One of my goals for this space this year is to share a nutrition tip each month which can guide us towards preparing and enjoying better meals. I’ve been sitting on this first topic for the better part of the last year, and it’s one that has been increasingly on my mind.

Let’s talk about cooking with different types of fats and oils.

For quite some time, I’ve tended to use olive or coconut oil for a lot of recipes. Up until a few years ago, I almost exclusively used extra virgin olive oil for all purposes outside baking sweets, at all temperatures. While I was familiar with the term “smoke point,” I never thought much of it, because I never saw smoke. What I didn’t realize was that I was wrong.

While there are many different kinds of fats and oils, some are more delicate than others, meaning their beneficial compounds break down or oxidize easily, creating harmful chemicals in the process. Those chemicals damage cells, promote widespread internal (and invisible) inflammation, and lead to a vast number of health concerns now considered common such as cardiovascular disease and cancer.

The three factors that cause fats and oils to oxidize and create harmful chemicals include exposure to heat, light, and oxygen, and the more unsaturated a fat is, and thus a lower smoke point, the more easily one of these factors will cause it to become highly inflammatory to our system.

My longtime go-to, extra virgin olive oil, is similar to most vegetable/plant oils, and is not particularly stable at temperatures above 320 degrees F (its smoke point). This means it is not suitable for stir-frying, sautéing, baking or roasting, or other high-heat cooking methods. What’s more, unsaturated oils such as corn, soybean, sunflower, and others which we’ve heard can stand up to high heat have instead been found to break down extremely easily at high temperature. In research, these were found to be some of the worst types of oil to cook with.

 

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So the question remains: what type of fat or oil can you use (safely) for high temperature cooking, such as roasting, baking, sautéing, and stir-frying?

Essentially, I no longer recommend cooking much above 350 degrees using any type of fat or oil unless it’s a special occasion. But when those high-heat-necessary meals are prepared, using fats that are more stable (and thus more saturated), hold up the best. This means coconut oil, butter and ghee (if you’re not sensitive to or actively avoiding dairy) are best. The other option is to choose a lesser quality (non virgin) olive, unrefined avocado or sesame oil, and possibly small amounts of non-gmo canola oil for baking. These oils are rich in monounsaturated fats, which tend to be slightly more stable at temperatures up to 350 degrees. And because they’re less refined and ideally cold-pressed, that fatty acid oxidation won’t be happening as much during the processing/pressing, since we’re aiming to avoid oxidized and rancid oils, especially before they even makes it home to cook with!

This also leaves the really-good-for-you extra virgin olive oil, as well as omega-3 rich flax and walnut, for drizzling on dishes after they’re off the heat. And if you really want to get right down to it, using less oil of all types and more fat-rich whole foods (like nuts, seeds, olives, and avocados) can never be a bad way to go.

 

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Quick Sautéed Greens, serves 1-2
Early in the new year might be the time when some of us are actively adding more greens to our routines, but a cold kale or green salad is often not the best when it’s cold outside and we’re bundled in layers. This is my favorite way to eat greens in the winter. The cooking process takes but a minute and the result is garlic-y, lightly spiced, and delectable. They’re a great addition to almost any meal. 

1 tsp. unrefined coconut oil
1 large clove garlic, smashed and minced
1 bunch winter greens (Collards, Kale, Swiss chard, etc.), stems chopped, leaves sliced
1 tsp. grounding masala, optional
salt and pepper to taste

  • In a medium sauté pan, heat the oil over medium-high. Add stems from the greens and allow to cook until beginning to soften.
  • Then add in the garlic, sliced leaves, and masala and heat just until the leaves begin to wilt. Remove from heat and add salt and pepper to taste.

 

RESOURCES:
Malhotra, A. (2016). The toxic truth about vegetable oil: Cooking with ‘healthy’ fats increases the risk of disease, type 2 diabetes and cancer. Retrieved from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-3574810/The-toxic-truth-vegetable-oil-Cooking-healthy-fats-increases-risk-heart-disease-type-2-diabetes-cancer.html?utm_sq=fjjqojxgyn.

Peng, C.Y., Lan, C.H., Lin, P.C., and Kuo, Y.C. (2017). Effects of cooking method, cooking oil, and food type on aldehyde emissions in cooking oil fumes. Journal of Hazardous Materials, 324(Pt B), 160-167. doi: 10.1016/j.jhazmat.2016.10.045.

Pitchford, P. (2002). Healing with Whole Foods: Asian Traditions and Modern Nutrition (3rd ed.). Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

Uribarri, J., Woodruff, S., Goodman, S., Cai, W., Chen, X.,…and Vlassara, H. (2010). Advanced glycation end products in food and a practical guide to their reduction in the diet. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 110(6), 911-16.e12. doi: 10.1016/j.jada.2010.03.018.

 

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vibrant winter dal with roasted cauliflower + toasted seeds

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I took a real slow down in the days after Christmas and into the first part of the new year and in that time I gave this space a little update. With it, I also set the intention to align the content a little more towards what has been calling to me these last few months.

Like the couple years before it, 2017 was a particularly challenging year. Even as I was in it, I knew it was a year of lessons and great strides were being made, even as it was difficult to see through the moment. Out of it, or out of those years I should say, I’ve developed a fairly different relationship with myself, one where the person before writing this blog post is like a long-ago friend I no longer know well. I spent a lot of the past couple years delving into the silence, watching the chaos in my brain, going far back into memories of my childhood, seeking to understand what and where I lost myself. I wouldn’t say I’m done with all that necessarily, (because are we ever?), but I do believe I’ve forgiven, learned about, and let go of the events and traumas that were keeping me stuck between being the person I am and the one I thought others wanted me to be.

I feel a lot more like me these days. And more free.

Because I’m drawn to the concept of food as medicine, slightly shifting my eating habits, not just the food but the way in which I try to eat it, has been a big component of the shift. I’ve taken to noticing how I feel, whether it’s cold, anxious or ungrounded, hot and fiery-tempered, or calm and assured, and then adjusting my meals to accommodate. I learned this method of tuning in and then adjusting from Ayurveda, and though to explain it, the idea sounds trite, I’ve noticed improvements in my digestion and mental health from the subtle change in how I season foods, the mindset I prepare them in, and how much attention I give while eating. Ayurveda, like other ancient medical systems, puts digestion as the foundation of health since what and how we eat, so we become.

The biggest difference? There’s rarely mind chatter in the line of “diet culture” thinking, i.e. too much, guilt about eating this or that, wanting a different body or trying to control the one I have, etc. If food is medicine and food is fuel, it’s also nourishment, and nourishment for more than just the physical self.

So to get me through the cold and dark of winter, I’ve been making routine bowls of creamy dal, sometimes simple with a few random root vegetables and greens thrown in, and sometimes fancied up with a quick puree, roasted cauliflower and toasted seeds. Either way, after trying a couple dozen different versions of dal these past few years, I’ve come to this recipe. I’ve taken many concepts from Divya Alter’s What to Eat for How You Feel in making it, and compared to many dal recipes, this one tones down the spices and keeps them to those that gently warm and ground “airy” mind and digestion in this cold season.

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Part of the process in making this is preparing your own grounding spice blend to season the roasted cauliflower and dal. It’s a quick extra step but definitely worth it–I tend to add the blend as a quick sprinkle to many meals that need a little extra something, or on days I feel particularly all over the place. My spice grinder is a favored and frequently used kitchen implement, but if you’re without one or prefer to skip this step, using your favorite curry powder will work as a substitute–however, I tend to think a lot of the magic here is in using tailored spices.

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The spices in this blend are ones that particularly help with digestion and tend to be warming and pungent without being outright hot (like cayenne or chili). This results in open circulatory channels and the ability to warm up and eliminate toxins and congestion. It is especially helpful in the cold season or for the cold person. Specifically,

Coriander improves digestion, calms the mind, and binds toxins in the blood.
Fennel regulates and improves digestion, and is a cooling spice in smaller amounts. It balances the warming spices in this blend.
Cumin stimulates digestion, eliminates toxins, and helps with the absorption of nutrients.
Cloves improves digestion, reduces toxins, and opens circulatory channels.
Black pepper improves digestion, opens circulatory channels, eliminates toxins, and enhances oxygenation in the brain.
Turmeric cleanses the liver and helps break down fats, improves digestion, and is an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant.

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Vibrant Winter Dal, serves 4
1 cup split mung dal (split mung beans) or red lentils, or a combination of both
1 Tbs. coconut oil
1/2 tsp. ground turmeric
1 Tbs. minced ginger
2 bay leaves
2 tsp. grounding masala (see recipe below) or ground coriander
3-4 cups water
1 cup frozen peas
a couple large handfuls diced greens (spinach, kale, etc.)
1 tsp. sea salt, plus more as needed
cilantro and fresh lime slices, to serve

  • Soak the mung dal or red lentils for 30 minutes. Then drain and rinse well.
  • Heat the coconut oil in a medium saucepan over low heat. Add in the turmeric and toast for about 10 seconds. Then add in the minced ginger and bay leaves. Cook for about 30 seconds more and then add in the masala or coriander and mung dal. Stir and cook until the beans are almost dry.
  • Add 3 cups of water and bring the soup to a boil. Then cover, reduce heat and simmer for about 30 minutes, or until the beans have become tender and begin to disintegrate. Stir in the frozen peas and greens and cook a few minutes more, just until they are warm and wilted. Add the salt and more water as needed.
  • Then, transfer the dal to a blender and puree, working in batches. Add back to the saucepan and gently warm. Taste and adjust seasoning.
  • Serve bowls of dal topped with roasted cauliflower, toasted seeds, cilantro and freshly squeezed lime, as desired.


Roasted Cauliflower
1 large cauliflower, outer leaves removed and cut into small florets
coconut oil, as needed
1 Tbs. grounding masala
sea salt and black pepper

  • Line a large baking pan with parchment and toss the cauliflower, spices, and oil to coat. Roast in an oven preheated to 350 degrees F for 25-30 minutes, or until fork tender.
  • Remove from the oven and spoon atop individual bowls of dal.


Toasted Seeds
1 tsp. olive oil
1/4 cup hemp seeds
1/2 tsp. cumin seeds

  • Heat the oil in a small pan over medium-low heat and add in the hemp and cumin seeds. Toast them until they begin to turn golden brown and release their aroma.
  • Divide among bowls to top finished soup.


Grounding Masala Spice Blend
, adapted from What to Eat for How you Feel
2 Tbs. coriander seeds
2 Tbs. fennel seeds
1 tsp. cumin seeds
1 tsp. whole cloves
3/4 tsp. black peppercorns
1 tsp. ground turmeric

  • Add all the spices to a coffee or spice grinder and grind to a fine powder. Put into a labeled container and store away from light.

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Savory Spinach Crepes with Sautéed Mushrooms

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When I was on study abroad several years ago, my roommates and I frequented  a handful of restaurants semi-regularly, one of which was a creperie in Dublin’s city center. Like many that cater to the brunch crowd, this was an order at the counter establishment, and all the cooking was done just to the right of the till, behind the counter. I remember watching each time as the cook spread buckwheat or regular batter across the big crepe pan, let it sizzle, flipped, and then added toppings. Ever the one to favor vegetables, I often reverted to the menu options that leaned heavily towards spinach and mushrooms.

 

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Like in years past, The Recipe Redux challenged us to Grab a Book and Cook this month and because I wouldn’t want to break from tradition too terribly much, I reached for my newest Green Kitchen Stories cookbook and found a recipe on page 127 I’ve been tweaking for quite some time. I had even transferred my version to a word document, dated last from July. Of course it was a quick and savory green crepe recipe, leaning heavily on spinach and mushrooms. Apparently my preferred crepe flavors have changed remarkably little in all these years.

David and Luise use rice flour and eggs in their crepes, and then they dress them up with an extra step of tahini, apple, and garbanzo salad. I never did favor that particular combination, the extra step involved, or the heavy egg flavor that came through, as I’m often particular about how and when I’ll take my eggs. Instead, I tweaked the recipe over time to include buckwheat, garbanzo or garbanzo/fava flour for extra protein without another topping, and aquafaba as an egg alternative.

Being quick and easy, these are weeknight friendly and the batter will keep for a couple days in the fridge if needed. As an extra note for those who have allergy/intolerance restrictions or prefer to avoid purchasing unnecessary ingredients, I realized a few months back that my favored buckwheat flour was no longer being milled in a gluten-free facility. I tend to opt for metrics when working with flours anyway, and if you do too and have a semi well-stocked pantry and a coffee grinder, unroasted buckwheat groats (not kasha) will grind into a fine flour as quick as can be and doing so mostly skips the gluten-contamination issue. I also tend to keep leftover aquafaba (chickpea cooking water) in the freezer for occasions that call for quick crepe meals like this one, but if you’re partial to eggs and/or have flax or chia, those options work as well.

 

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Savory Spinach Crepes with Sautéed Mushrooms
, serves 3-4
adapted from Green Kitchen at Home

Crepe batter

¾ cup / 112 g buckwheat flour
¾ cup / 112 g garbanzo or garfava flour
6 Tbs. aquafaba (or 2 eggs, or 2 Tbs. ground flax or chia plus 6 Tbs. water)
2 cups / 500 ml non-dairy milk
1 cup / 250 ml water
a pinch of sea salt
1 1/2 cups fresh spinach, rinsed
1-2 tsp. coconut oil, for sautéeing

Mushrooms
1 lb./450 g mushrooms, cleaned and thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tbs. coconut oil
a couple sprigs fresh or dried thyme
salt and pepper

Optional Accompaniments
plain coconut yogurt
additional spinach
toasted sunflower seeds

  • Place the crepe ingredients in a large mixing bowl and blend, using a hand (immersion) blender, until smooth and green. Alternatively, mix the batter ingredients together in a blender. Refrigerate for about 30 minutes while you prep and cook the mushrooms.
  • For the mushrooms, heat a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add coconut oil, garlic, sliced mushrooms, thyme, and a couple pinches of salt and pepper. Cook until the mushrooms are soft and glistening, about 8-10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and set aside while cooking the crepes.
  • To cook the crepes, heat an 8 inch (20 cm) sauté pan over medium heat. Add a pinch of oil and when it is melted, about 1/3 cup (80 ml) of the crepe batter. Tilt the pan until the batter is evenly distributed. Cook for 2-3 minutes per side, until each crepe is golden and can be turned easily. Repeat with the remaining batter until all the crepes are cooked. There will be about 12 in total. Place the finished crepes on a plate in the oven on the lowest setting while cooking the remaining batter.
  • To serve, top each crepe with yogurt, if desired, and mushrooms. Feel free to add a small handful of additional spinach and/or some toasted sunflower seeds alongside to round out the meal.

If you’re of the mind, check out past December Recipe Redux posts:
Toasted Oat Porridge with Chamomile, Walnuts + Spiced Apples, from Chefs on the Farm
Chili with Chocolate and Walnuts, from Green Kitchen Travels
Quinoa + Chorizo Wintry Salad, from Vegetarian Everyday

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