Formerly Demonized Fat Is Actually Good For You
So by now most of us have gotten the message: Trans fats are bad for you. Really, really bad. What's more, the same people--doctors, nutrition scientists, the whole fricking government--that for decades told us, `Trans fats are great! Eat up!' also held that all saturated fats are very, very bad. Now that they're finally admitting that pimping hydrogenated vegetable oil to an unsuspecting nation was a terrible idea, public health-wise, perhaps it's time to take a look at the flip side. Are the fats of our fathers--butter, tropical oils, schmaltz (chicken fat), beef tallow, even lard--really all that evil?
Well, recent studies are showing that natural saturated fats are not only not evil, that they are actually good for you. Read that sentence again, because it goes against all nutritional advice given in this country for the past 50 years. I know what you're thinking: Isn't it well established that eating saturated fats correlates with higher rates of heart disease? As it turns out, the government's nutritional sat-fats data used to lump natural fats together with industrial fats like hydrogenated vegetable oil. When you split out the different kinds of fat, the artery clogger was not butter but trans fats.
Butter--so long as it comes from grass-fed cows--may actually help keep arteries clear, thanks to newly discovered vitamin K2. K2 has been shown to both strengthen bone and prevent arterial calcification. Coconut oil, long shunned as one of the most highly saturated of all fats, has been shown to improve the HDL/LDL ratio, raising the level of "good" HDL cholesterol in the blood while lowering "bad" LDL. And, interestingly, lard--rendered pig fat--is mostly unsaturated oleic acid, the same exact fat in olive oil--monounsaturated, the healthiest of all fats. Lard: the new health food. Who'd a thought?
The first problem with bringing lard into our culinary lexicon was finding it. Lard is available in many grocery stores--Wal-Mart even sells an eight-pound tub-o-lard for under $5--but everything I saw had been hydrogenated to improve its shelf life. Uh, no thanks. I finally hooked up with some natural lard from pasture-raised pigs, heat-rendered the old fashioned way rather than chemically extracted, and adamantly non-hydrogenated. (Nor was it interesterified, the new man-made miracle fat replacing trans fats; these have been shown to lower HDL and insulin production while raising blood-sugar levels). The Amish pig product was smooth and snowy white but did have the faintest whiff of bacon.
Now I grew up in a family where a can of bacon grease lived on the back of the stove, all the better for tossing it in pretty much everything we cooked. It was, however, still a big mind shift for me to toss a big old scoop of lard into the frying pan one recent night when I was making sweet potato fries for dinner. Intellectually, I knew that normally I would have cooked them with olive oil and this was the same fat, but it still just felt wrong. It's really hard to go against a lifetime of being told that animal fats will kill you, but nobody keeled over at the dinner table that night, and in fact the lard-fried sweet potatoes were delicious--crisp, caramelized exterior and greaseless, moist interior, easily the best I have ever eaten.
The thing is, we actually don't fry all that much of our food, and I had this economy-size container of lard to use up. We do use a lot of grass-fed butter, which is really expensive, so the idea of replacing some of that with lard was appealing. Slowly I adopted the practice of sautéeing some savory foods in it; eggs, hearty greens, and particularly hamburgers are all very tasty pan-fried in a little lard. Still, I was only using it up a tablespoon at a time, until I remembered my grandmother's advice regarding lard: It makes great pastry.
I have a friend who grew up in the South and who rhapsodizes about lard biscuits, but I am more of a dessert kind of gal, so I set about making a pie crust with lard. The problem was lard has been off the radar for so long that recipes utilizing its monounsaturated oleic acid goodness are few and far between--Joy of Cooking, for instance, has recipes for muskrat but none for lard. Alas, my grandmother, pie-pastry whiz that she was, is no longer around to share her recipe; she had taught me using butter-flavored Crisco because she could no longer buy natural lard. Fortunately, I have one of the two cookbooks she owned, The Women's Home Companion, published in 1935, and it has all sorts of lard leads.
Working with lard pie crust is a little different from butter in that the lard melts faster and makes a softer crust; my usual Cuisinart blending of fat into flour was a disaster. I compensated by measuring out the lard by tablespoon ahead of time and putting it in the freezer for 20 minutes to harden, and then working it by hand into chilled flour. I also found that when I assembled the pastry using unbleached regular flour but rolled it out in whole wheat the resulting pastry was still very fine but had a nice additional heft from the grainier flour finish; it shattered when bitten, but then melted on the tongue (get the full recipe at www.citypaper.com/eat) True to its porcine origins the final crust also had a very slightly savory taste, a juxtaposition that I happen to enjoy against sweet fruit fillings, but some of my volunteer tasters found it disconcerting. But not so much that they didn't devour every lard-o-licious crumb.
(makes two nine-inch pie crusts)
Chill flour and lard in freezer.
Measure flour into bowl with salt and sugar; mix.
Work one tablespoon of lard at a time into flour with pastry cutter or two knives until the mixture resembles coarse meal. (If it gets too soft or starts to get sticky, put bowl back into freezer for five to 10 minutes.)
Sprinkle the water, one tablespoon at a time, over the flour-lard mixture and gather it together with a wooden spoon between each sprinkling. Stop when it forms a loose ball; you may not need all four tablespoons.
Gather pastry into ball with your hands, divide in half, and flatten each half into a disk.
Place in refrigerator to chill for at least 30 minutes.
Before rolling out, generously sprinkle the work surface with whole-wheat flour.
Roll with light pressure from the center outward until dough forms a circle about 10 inches across.
Drape dough over rolling pin and unroll it into pie pan.
Press into bottom edge of pan and crimp top with fingers.
Refrigerate until ready to fill and bake.
6 cups fruit either whole (berries, cherries) or peeled and cut up (apples, peaches). Feel free to mix and match!
1/2 to 1 cup sugar; use more or less depending on sweetness of fruit and your own preference.
1/3 cup fine tapioca; omit for apple pie and add 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg and 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon in its place.
Toss fruit, sugar, and tapioca in large bowl and let rest for 30 minutes, until the fruit begins to exude juices.
Pour gently into prepared crust, top with second crust.
Bake at 450 degrees for 15 minutes.
Reduce oven to 350 degrees and bake 45-60 minutes longer, until crust is golden and filling is bubbling. Check at 45 minutes to make sure the edges aren't getting too brown; if they are dark, you can cover them with strips of aluminum foil for the remainder of baking time.
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