Josh Ozersky has written on his carnivorous exploits for Time, Esquire and now Food & Wine; he has authored several books, including The Hamburger: A History; and he is the founder of the Meatopia food festival. Follow him on Twitter @OzerskyTV.
Fat is what matters in your food. That’s the key thing to remember about fat. The lean mean tastes like whatever; you couldn’t tell a thin slice of chicken breast from a carpaccio if your life depended on it. No, “The fat is the meat, and the meat is the vegetable,” as the saying goes, and this is especially true of real fat, the kind that comes from animals.
I should clarify here - so to speak - that I am not talking about the revolting white fat that sits congealing on the plate when they slice open the prime rib. No, I mean hot fat, crispy fat and most of all liquid fat, the kind you can roast or sauté things in. Most herbs and spices, as volatile organic compounds, are fat-soluble, so it’s not hard to give the fat you use deep flavor - deeper than you ever get by just seasoning the food. I use Aleppo pepper, rosemary, chiles, sage and whatever else I can think of to put into it.
But are all fats created equal? I don’t think they are. I think there is a eternal hierarchy of Seven Great Greases, as I have come to think of them. They are as follows.
2. Olive Oil
That aside, the stuff has an astonishing range of flavor: from the hot, grassy finish of late-harvest Tuscan, to the buttery nuttiness of Umbrian oil, to the punchiness of the really fruity stuff, like Portuguese Cabeço das Nogueiras.
These two fats are so necessary and so universal that they are in a class by themselves. I apologize to all of the animal fats below, starting with lard.
I won’t even get into bacon fat, ham fat, fatback and the rest; a pure, clean lard, skillfully applied, can cover a multitude of sins. This doesn’t even touch on lard’s irreplaceable use as the basis for pies and pastries and piadinas and meat patties, all confections that would be unthinkable without melted-down pigs.
There can be no chicken soup without the “gold coins” that float on top; no chopped liver, no true potato latkes or kugels - essentially the whole of Jewish food. And, lest it seem that you can file it away under Judaica, consider this: There can be no chicken gravy, no chicken dumplings, no fried chicken without a goodly amount of the stuff dissolved into it.
5. Rendered Beef Kidney Suet
Truly well-marbled meat is rarely easy to find, and always expensive. A little of this stuff supplies nature’s defect, and provides the most unskilled chef with a shortcut to greatness.
6. Lamb Fat
Lamb fat is one of the only reasons we can enjoy lean meats that have been frozen solid and flown halfway around the world; it’s one of the only reasons we can enjoy lamb shanks, a cut which is—in every other animal—so bad that we don’t even let it into soup. Lamb fat is everything. (For me; otherwise it would be higher on the list.)
7. Duck Fat
I realize these rankings are slightly subjective, but they are to make a point, that being that not all fats are created equal, but that all of them are better than vegetable oil. If a single reader raises his or her cholesterol from this list— - and with it, their happiness - I will have done my duty.
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