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Jack Spratt's Wife - Cooking with Fat

by John Raven, Ph. B.

According to the old nursery rhyme, Mrs. Jack Spratt could "eat no lean," so she got to enjoy the full flavor of things containing fat. I thought this month we would explore the wonderful world of fat. If you are on a non-fat or low-fat diet, go straight to the salad bar.

You can't get a cooking show on the TV without seeing some dude or dudette with a foreign accent pouring olive oil on everything. They always specify extra virgin olive oil. I think they do this because they all own stock in the olive oil market and the EV (That's short for extra virgin to save space) is the most expensive.

EV olive oil is made by pressing ripe olives in a big pressing machine. EV is considered the finest olive oil as it contains very little acid. The acidity is about one percent. Depending on where the olives are harvested, the oil can vary in color and taste.

Next on the list is virgin olive oil. V, as we'll call her, is made the same way as EV but contains a bit more acid, say two percent.

Olive oil marked "Fino" (meaning fine) is a mixture of EV and V olive oils.

Just plain old olive oil, our everyday product, is a mix of refined olive oil and EV or V oils. It contains more acid and has less flavor than its betters. (Refined olive oil is made from the leftovers of the first pressings that produce the EV and V oils. It goes through a refining process to remove unwanted flavors, etc.)

The so-called "light" olive oil you see is put through a fine filtering process that lightens the color and removes a lot of the flavor. This light oil is fine for baking and frying, as it does not have much flavor of its own and has a higher smoke point, that is, you can get it hotter without it smoking up the kitchen.

You should keep on hand a small bottle or can of EV oil for your fancy dishes and a large bottle or can of light oil for your everyday needs. Olive oil will keep for a couple of months on the shelf and for a year in the ice box. It will get thick when it's cold, but all you have to do is let it warm a little and it will go back to its natural state.

If you are doing a little French cooking, butter is the fat of choice. Butter from the rich cream of contented cows has a down-home flavor that just can't be beat. Butter comes in two flavors: salted and unsalted. I'll let you figure that one out.

If you are going to do some serious frying in butter, it needs to be clarified. That is, you heat the butter gently until it melts and then separate the clear liquid from the dregs in the bottom of the container. The dregs are what cause the popping and spattering when you fry things in just plain butter. Clarified butter has a very high smoke point. You can mix clarified butter and light olive oil to get a great frying medium.

Vegetable oil is very popular with us American cooks. It's inexpensive and it gets the job done. Vegetable oil can come from almonds, corn, cottonseed, grapeseed, hazlenuts, peanuts, pumpkin seed, safflower, sesame seed, soybeans, sunflower seed and walnuts. It can also be a mixture of several of the above. Read the label to see what a particular brand contains.

Vegetable oil is fine for frying. If you run it through a very fine sieve after each use, it can be used several times. If you burn something in it, discard it. It's not that expensive.

Canola oil comes from our Canadian friends. It started life as Rapeseed oil but got its name changed when it started getting popular in the States. Canola oil is getting very popular as it contains less saturated fat than the other oils. Canola oil can be used just like any of the other oils. It has very little flavor of its own.

My pioneer ancestors had to make do with hog lard. Lard was probably the first fat used by man. It is the rendered fat of hogs. It is made by cooking raw fat trimmed from freshly killed hogs in a big pot until it is a clear liquid. The stuff in the pot that was not clear liquid was removed and the liquid fat would cool into a solid state. One byproduct of the lard rendering, as it was called, was cracklings. Cracklings today are known as fried pork rinds or skins and are supposed to be good for you.

Texas Nostalgia Food:
It is said that pie crust made with lard has no equal. Most folk have been scared away from lard because of its high saturated fat content. A little won't hurt you.

The pioneers also used lard for medicinal purposes. It was particularly good for mild burns. You could also grease the farm machinery with the lard. It didn't last as long as the petroleum product, but if that was all you had, it was just fine.

We will round this little discussion out with suet or tallow. The terms are interchangeable. Suet comes from beef or sheep. It's the hard fat from the loins and around the kidneys. Beef tallow is very popular with the fast-food establishments for their deep frying. It gives everything a rich, delicious flavor that cannot be obtained from anything else. It may not be on the top of the health food charts, but it does give fried foods a wonderful taste.

You know I can't leave you without a recipe. Here's one my Mama's favorites.

Turkey Creek School Lunch (Circa 1911) (or Lard Sandwich)

  • 2 slices homemade bread, fresh if available
  • lard
  • sugar
Smear the bread with a good coating of lard. Sprinkle on sugar. Wrap in cloth and put in a Karo syrup bucket. If times are good, send two sandwiches.

Mama said she often traded her lard sandwiches to the Rich Kids for their meat sandwiches.

Try this recipe at your next high tea.

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