“Indulgence” Fats in a Nourishing Diet

I dislike labeling any food “good” or “bad,” but the terms do come in handy sometimes, especially when it comes to fats. Olive oil and avocados, which are full of monounsaturated fat, for instance. GOOD. The omega-3 fatty acids in salmon and flaxseeds. REALLY GOOD. Trans-fats. REALLY, REALLY BAD. But what about butter and bacon and cream? Are they all that bad?

That’s where I dispense with the “good” and “bad” labels and bring out a new one: Indulgence.

indulgence-healthy-fatsLet’s get one thing straight up-front. Our bodies need monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats like those I mentioned above (olive oil, avocados, salmon, flaxseed, etc.). They play several essential roles like storing energy and regulating cell function, and also have a positive impact on blood lipid levels (they lower overall cholesterol and LDL while raising HDL). So these types of fats aren’t luxuries; they’re a necessary staple of a nourishing plate.

Saturated fat, on the other hand, is a luxury (and it raises LDL)—your body already makes all it needs. So there’s no need to look for ways to add saturated fat to your daily diet. But … saturated fats, which come primarily from meat and dairy, are the creamy, silky, buttery, melt-in your mouth fats that can pack a lot of pleasure into just a few calories, which can come in quite handy if your meals are heavy on veggies. Not every meal. Not every day. But every once in a while.

Which is why I call them “Indulgence Fats.” Here are a few ways to use them:

  • Butter – Butter is renowned for adding richness to a dish. Swirl in a tablespoon or so (off the heat) at the end of a sauté to give it body and depth. Or brown the butter slightly before sautéing your veggies, like we did with these Sauteed Radishes with Mint, for an even more complex flavor.
  • Cream – Cream brings a lush silkiness to foods. Whisk a tablespoon or two into a pasta sauce, like our Brussels Sprouts Carbonara, or dribble some into a pan sauce for a creamy texture.
  • Duck Fat – This may sound wacky, but duck fat is a terrific indulgence fat. Make our Revelationary Duck Confit, save the fat in a jar in the fridge and use it in place of oil to add ridiculous richness to things like mushrooms, onions and potatoes. One tablespoon (enough, quite frankly, to sauté mushrooms for four people) has just 4 grams of saturated fat, which is half the amount of butter.
  • Bacon – People tend to demonize bacon, which is too bad. One slice has just 40 calories and 1 gram of saturated fat, and it can add a LOT of flavor to a dish (it is high in sodium though, which is another thing entirely). Try these Clams with Bacon and Garlicky Spinach and you’ll see what I mean. I recommend chopping the raw bacon up and sautéing it with onion or garlic so the flavor permeates the ‘base’ of the dish. Then drain off all but a teaspoon or so of the fat and go on with your sauté.

Is this a green light to sit down and eat a package of bacon fried in butter for dinner tonight? Um, no. But you already know that. This is more about letting go of the paradigm that Indulgence Fats are “bad” and using them (occasionally) to enhance the wholesome foods you want to be eating more of.


Finding Satisfaction in Indulgence

It’s the holiday season, a festive time when we’re expected to indulge. Yet the media also serves up advice to avoid overdoing it, along with plenty of low-cal, low-fat seasonal treats. For years, I rode that bandwagon. Then, this year, I went to culinary school and a funny thing happened. I found satisfaction.

Why? I made a happy truce with fat.

candied-bacon-creditMaybe it was finally cooking with abandon, using all the butter, cream and eggs a dish needed to be truly delicious (it was a French-based cooking school, after all). Whether it was boeuf Bourguignon, made with luscious fatty short ribs, or pasta carbonara, enriched with egg yolks, cream, bacon, and cheese, I soon yielded to chasing flavor rather than running from fat.

I also dropped about 15 pounds while enjoying this fare. Granted, cooking, especially in a restaurant setting, can mean being on your feet all day hoisting heavy pans and running around to fetch ingredients. But my mate, who also enjoyed my educational efforts, lost closer to 30 pounds . . . and he wasn’t doing the hard labor. I began to suspect it was the deep satisfaction we were getting from the food I was cooking that really deserved the credit.

This theory was driven home on the last day of my advanced baking course, which was devoted to lighter pastry techniques. With my background as an editor at a national food magazine devoted to light cooking, I’d come home, culinarily speaking. After months of full-fat decadence I was back on the familiar turf of low-fat chocolate tarts and custard made with nonfat milk and cornstarch. But I had an epiphany as I sampled the finished product:

I had one bite.

Then another.

And a third.

Suddenly, I was plowing through the whole thing not, I realized, because I was enjoying it, but in search of something the virtuous, low-cal, low-fat treat ultimately couldn’t offer: satisfaction. After having experienced the real deal, I realized this counterfeit lacked the intense flavor and wonderful mouthfeel of its authentic counterpart and no matter how hard it tried, it couldn’t satsfy.

The experience encapsulated one of the most important lessons I learned during my culinary training: A few bites of truly good food both satisfies the belly and nourishes the soul. And if you prepare a truly indulgent dessert in a way that has portion control built in, you’ll send yourself a smart signal about when to stop. That’s the idea behind Mini Dark Chocolate Puddings with Chocolate Shavings, which are served in petite, 2-ounce ramekins. Cookies, like these beauties, work the same way. Redolent with dark chocolate, pecans, and candied bacon, they pack plenty of flavor–and big satisfaction–in a small package.

One really is all you need.

alison-thumb-frameA longtime editor, writer, and recipe developer, Alison Ashton is a Cordon Bleu-trained chef. She has worked as a features editor for a national wire service and as senior food editor for a top food magazine. Her work has appeared in Cooking Light, Vegetarian Times and Natural Health.

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