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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Christmas Spice Porridge

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William and I ventured out to a tree farm last weekend and cut down our first-ever Christmas tree. We then spent the day readying the house for the holidays, putting up lights, hanging stockings, decorating the tree, and rounding it all out with superfood hot chocolate and Harry Potter. I’m a complete minimalist and sometimes our home with so many empty spaces feels a little cold and less than comforting. Inviting in a tree after so many years without reminded me that the simplest traditions are sometimes the best comforts.

I’ve learned a lot this year about true comforts, what I need to thrive, and about seeking joy. I’ve even been sharing reflections about it over on Instagram. In addition to this porridge, a seasonal favorite which tastes like Christmas morning, I’ve collected a few bits of of inspiration towards taking care of yourself through the holidays and into this cold, dark time of year. Read along or find the recipe at the end.

 

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Self-Care and Introspection:
Renee’s 35 simple self-care practices for the highly sensitive person is absolutely essential in this season.
Dream Freedom Beauty is my new favorite podcast. It’s one for the intuitives/healers/spiritual/plant medicine people. I was led to it by episode 80 with Sophia Rose, which is one of many great ones.
Speaking of which, I love this Interview with Sophia Rose, in which she says:

There is very little in the outer world that is solid, unchanging, or steadfast. In reality, we are constantly flowing in and out of home, whether to go to the grocery store or travel to a foreign country.  Home is a construct.  All my things are there, and I have passionately devoted myself to the garden I’ve created, but it won’t be my home forever and I cannot predict the exact moment when this will shift.  Nothing belongs to us and we can’t take any of it with us when we go. Best to get real comfortable where we are, as well as comfortable in the knowing that it will all inevitably change, in ways both large and small.

and

Spend as much time alone in nature as possible. Spend time with people who delight you and who bring you into the world in ways that are foreign and novel. Make time to wander. And know that you might have to dissolve a bit first to make space for the magic that is trying to find you.  The world is not quite so solid as you might have thought. Be curious about what can shift within you, and the world beyond your own body, heart, and mind will begin to reflect this inner refinement.


A Good Book:

I’m recently loving Give A Girl A Knife
and more of a self-care/DIY inspiration manual, A Wilder Life
and the best I read this year, Paradise in Plain Sight.


To Listen: 

The playlist I’ve got on repeat.


To Make/Gift:

Kick-Ass Cookies. Five ingredients, all of them “more nutritious,” chocolate optional, and feedback of the best peanut butter cookies ever by William and a few of his co-workers. They hold up well too, for holiday gatherings or gifting.
Cashew Butter. (or any other nut butter). It’s suuuper simple and will make the best wholesome, thoughtful gift.
Muesli or Granola. I make one or the other every year to gift and my family loves the endlessly varying combinations I tend to come up with.
Spiced Nuts. Make the gently honeyed and salted hazelnuts, or switch them for pecans for a tasty, decadent treat. Add minced rosemary to turn them just a touch more special.
And if you must have all the holiday cookies, David and Luise’s Sunflower & Jam Thimbles are absolutely the best.


To Eat: 

I’m craving all sorts of warm, comforting, “soul-healing” meals lately and Renee’s spin on a super green miso soup definitely hits that mark, as does kitchari and countless variations on dals.
In fact, we ate dal the night before my marathon a few days back and while eating, I relayed to William, no wonder I like dal so much; it’s basically the exact same consistency as my morning oatmeal. He nodded along emphatically.

Speaking of oatmeal, this Christmas Spice version is the one I’m making daily. It’s loaded with creamy, sweet shredded parsnips, cinnamon, cloves, and orange zest. All together, it’s definitely infused with the flavors of the season, and will be a good start to any winter morning, but perhaps especially on days that are filled with meals rich with holiday feasting.

 

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Christmas Spice Porridge, serves 1-2

1 1/2 cups water
3/4 cup old-fashioned oatmeal (gluten-free if necessary)
1 small parsnip, peeled and grated
1/8 tsp. ground ginger
1/8 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/8 tsp. sea salt
a good pinch of ground cloves and cardamom
1-2 Tbs. raisins, dried cherries or cranberries
1-2 Tbs. ground flax seeds
zest from 1/4-1/2 an unwaxed orange
additional sweetener to taste

  • Bring 1 1/2 cups water to a boil in a small saucepan. Add grated parsnips, spices, oats, and dried fruit. Turn down to low and cook until the porridge is soft and to your desired consistency, about 5-7 minutes.
  • Stir in the ground flax, and zest the orange over the top.
  • Spoon into bowls and adjust sweetness as needed with maple syrup, honey, or stevia drops.

Soba Bowl with Braised Cabbage + Tahini Dressing from Eat This Poem

Soba Bowl with Braised Cabbage + Tahini Dressing from Eat This Poem

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Both the cook and the poet are makers.
One holds a knife, the other a pen.
– Nicole Gulotta from Eat This Poem

 

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Years ago, I began this blog as a recent college graduate with an abundance of quiet determination and no real idea what to do with it. I had a degree in agriculture and a minor in English, it was 2009 and the jobs for recent graduates with very generalized degrees were particularly non-existent. I was headed towards a teaching program in the fall, mostly because I had said I was going to years before, and every time I brought up my doubt, mentors and loved ones said try it and then decide. 

Words, whether mine or another’s, have always been a big part of my life, hence the reason I opted to keep pursuing literature courses long after deciding I did not want to specialize in the subject. So too has food, and the ability to create and celebrate a community about it, been particularly important. This space took its beginnings with that idea, of merging these two interests of words and meals because I didn’t know then of another way to combine the two. And so that first post back in June 2009 was about picking cherries high in a tree in a dress on the curb outside my last college house. And then making pie afterwards, a gift for my dad.

Since then, it’s fair to say I’ve often questioned whether I want to continue here, what the content should be, and whether anyone other than me cares for the words (or meals) that are shared.

 

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Though there are so many blogs now, I am still drawn to the ones that do as I started to all those years ago, capturing an otherwise forgotten moment or memory with the meal that accompanied it, in a way that is not often practiced in writing online. That is, with a real voice. Nicole Gulotta’s Eat This Poem, is one of those sites. And Nicole just wrote a whole cookbook merging the two! I’m so glad I get to share about it here.

Eat This Poem is at once a poetry anthology and a cookbook, as Nicole believes food and poetry are two of life’s essential ingredients. In the same way salt seasons ingredients to bring out their flavor, poetry seasons our lives; when celebrated together, our everyday moments and meals are richer and more meaningful. Each of the twenty-five inspiring poems—from such poets as Marge Piercy, Louise Glück, Mark Strand, Mary Oliver, Billy Collins, Jane Hirshfield—are accompanied by seventy-five recipes that bring the richness of words to life in our kitchen, on our plate, and through our palate. Eat This Poem opens us up to fresh ways of accessing poetry and lends new meaning to the foods we cook.

With poems simple and complex and recipes that mirror them, Eat This Poem nudges us to be thoughtful, to slow down, to pause and consider, and to cook and eat in the same way. I chose to make and share this particular recipe because it did exactly that, and after pausing and reflecting, I wanted to literally eat the poem, letting the meaning of the words fill me completely.

 

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After a life spent doing other people’s taxes, this writer has purchased a new pen; dusted off an old desk; and written a single, fresh word on his blank piece of paper. Cabbage. That wrinkled, heavy, winter globe of a vegetable can be intimidating, but with a few slices of a knife and a bit of heat under its leaves, cabbage transforms into something tender and approachable. 

For writers, the blank page can be just as intimidating. Fearing rejection, they talk themselves out of doing the very thing they must do, burying their work in drawers for years. One day, they buy a new pen in hopes that it will fuel inspiration. They press on. Let this poem be a reminder to keep putting one foot in front of the other, to raise our heads, to do the difficult work, whatever it may be. Whatever struggle a writer endures, it is fuel for the page. The good news, always, is that what challenges us also changes us, usually for the better if we recognize its potential. 

What I love above all are Nicole’s reflections on each poem, like this one above about writing the word cabbage, in Determination. What I love too, is that poetry has the power to mean so many things, far beyond perhaps its literal meaning. So when I read Determination, it hits me where I’m at in life for reasons completely beyond the “simple” task of putting words to a page. And those words were more impactful when I ate them, mindfully and with intention, in this beautiful and tasty Soba Bowl with Braised Cabbage + Tahini Dressing which they were presented with.

I hope you pick up a copy of Eat This Poem when you get a chance, for it is filled with many more beautiful and moving poems from prominent and less known authors, along with recipes that fill us, in the way that only well spoken or written words and lovingly prepared meals can.

 

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Soba Bowl with Braised Cabbage + Tahini Dressing, serves 4

2 Tbs. toasted sesame oil
2 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
One 1-inch knob of ginger, finely grated
2 garlic cloves, finely minced
1 medium head cabbage, halved, core removed and thinly sliced (6-8 cups)
¾ cup water
Salt
8 ounces soba noodles (gluten-free if necessary or try adzuki spaghetti noodles)
1 bunch green onions, green parts only, thinly sliced
½ cup lightly packed cilantro, minced
1 red chile pepper, optional
2 Tbs. sesame seeds

For the Dressing:
1/3 cup tahini
¼ cup water
2 tsp. toasted sesame oil
1 tsp. rice wine vinegar
½ tsp. salt
2 tsp. honey
1 small garlic clove, peeled

  1. Set a large sauté pan over low heat and add the sesame and olive oils. Add in the ginger and garlic; cook for 1 minute or until they begin to dissolve and become fragrant. Add the cabbage and water, then season with 1 teaspoon salt. Increase the heat to medium, cover and cook for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the cabbage is tender. Check on it halfway through and toss the cabbage.
  2. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. While you’re waiting, make the dressing. Combine all the ingredients in a blender and pulse to combine. If you make the dressing in advance, put it in the refrigerator until this point. Take it out and thin with a bit of water if needed; it will have thickened when chilled.
  3. Cook the soba or other noodles according to package directions, roughly 3 to 4 minutes. Remove from the heat, drain, and rinse with cool water to stop the cooking, then pour into a large bowl. Pour the dressing over the top and work it together with tongs or a large spoon. It may need an additional sprinkle of salt. Mix in the cabbage along with the green onions, cilantro, minced chile pepper (if using), and sesame seeds; toss. Serve with additional sesame seeds sprinkled on top.

NOTE: For this dressing, you want just a whisper of garlic. A good clove would be one pulled from the interior of the bulb.

 

Adapted from Eat This Poem A Literary Feast of Recipes Inspired by Poetry by Nicole Gulotta, © 2017 by Nicole Gulotta. Reprinted by arrangement with Roost Books, an imprint of Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO. www.roostbooks.com