I have a confession to make. I love fat.
I've said this before, but I'm not afraid to repeat it. Often. I revel in the obscenity of the word itself. The Federal Communications Commission is out of touch, because we all know that the dirtiest F-word in America is spelled F-A-T.
My goal is to bring balance back into the discussion of fat, to wrestle the topic away from doctors and nutritionists and bring it back into the realm of gastronomy, where it belongs. If health is our primary objective, we need to first alter our culinary attitude towards fat, then a decrease in our consumption of the unhealthier fats will naturally follow.
Even the most fat-phobic American nutritionist admits fat is a major requirement of the human diet. The dietary guidelines of most medical and governmental agencies recommend that between a quarter and a third of a healthy person's calories come from fat. That's a lot of fat!
What would our cuisine be without fat? Imagine croissants without butter. Steak without marbling. Tamales without lard (or oil). Chocolate without cocoa butter. French fries without frying oil (ideally, beef or even horse fat).
If we look at fat from a gastronomic perspective, from the vantage point of a cook, we look at it as an ingredient. As with all of our food choices, we want to use the highest quality ingredients available. If fat is going to make up so much of our diet every day, we want to extract the most flavor possible out of every drop we consume. We should assess the fats we use from a culinary, not a scientific, perspective.
Banish all flavorless and artificially manipulated lipids from your cabinets at once! Throw away that Crisco, margarine and any other hydrogenated trans-fats, which are both tasteless and dangerous to your health. Stop eating processed foods which contain these fats. Toss those awful vegetable oils made from corn or soy into the trash bin. On those occasions you need a neutral tasting oil, use grape seed oil or maybe a GMO-free, expellier pressed Canola oil. Make room for tastier, fresher oils by tossing into the garbage any bottles that smell off or rancid.
Learn from professional chefs and understand that fat equals flavor. Incorporate a variety of fats, which all contribute different flavors, into your cooking. My freezer, for example, is stocked with fat rendered from ducks (to cook confit and potatoes), chicken (to make matzoh balls), and pigs (to flavor pinto beans and Catalan stews). In my refrigerator, there are three kinds of butter: salted (for bread), unsalted and clarified (Indian ghee). My pantry contains oils from grape seeds, tea seeds, walnuts, hazelnuts and argan nuts.
Without a doubt, though, the oil I reach for most often is extra virgin olive oil. Not only is it one of the healthiest of the lipids (containing the highest percentage of the desirable monounsaturated fatty acids-74%-amongst culinary fats), but it is also immensely flavorful. I have six bottles in my cabinet right now: three from Spain (one from Andalucía and two from Catalonia), one from Italy (Tuscany) and two from California.* It is the one fat I use with abandon.
As cooks, our primary goal is always to produce food that tastes good. With that principal guiding us, we will not serve food to those we love (including ourselves) that is greasy, heavy, or laden with too much fat. We will naturally choose to eat fat in moderation, with our stomach, not some impersonal government agency, guiding our choices. Eating too much fat doesn't feel good. Remember how you felt the Thursday before last, after that extra piece of pumpkin pie? Learn to listen to your body, and you will naturally lead a healthy life.
At one of my favorite restaurants in San Francisco, Delfina, the chef's motto is "Don't be afraid of your food." My reminder is that "food" includes fat. Learn to embrace fat and make it your friend.
*On a side note, not many people are aware that olive oil, like wine or any agricultural product, is seasonal. Right now, we are towards the end of the olive harvest and crush. The first olive oils of the season, called olio nuovo, are available in some stores or online. In San Francisco, I bought a bottle of olio nuovo from Californian Olive Ranch, which is made from the same variety of olives grown in Catalonia, arbequina, that were harvested just over a month ago. The oil is intensely green, fruity, aromatic and peppery. To fully appreciate the bold flavor of freshly crushed oil, use it as a condiment at the table. It is especially good generously splashed on grilled or toasted bread, which in Tuscany is known as fettunta. Another favorite is to drizzle it on top of a white bean soup or on the crinkly Tuscan black kale, known as cavalo nero or sometimes "dino kale."