Starting this week’s blog with burning foodie question no. 1.
Q – Which oils are best nutritionally and good to cook with?
A – We need oils for different purposes, general cooking, hotter applications like deep-frying, and salad dressings. No one oil fits all these requirements. Also different oils have different types of fatty acid chains so it’s a good idea to get a variety in your diet.
For frying – Pretty much all oils with a smoke point of 180C and above are good for frying. Cold pressed versions of oil have lower smoke points than refined high-extraction versions. This causes confusion. If you try googling “extra-virgin olive oil for cooking?” you will get several articles, each contradicting the other.
For deep-frying – an oil with a high smoke point is preferred, so groundnut oil, and rice bran oil are all good choices. Recent research suggests that sunflower oil & corn oil should be avoided for high heat cooking, because although they have high smoke points, they are rich in polyunsaturates which generate very high levels of aldehyde above 180C. The other downside of these two oils is that they are very high in Omega 6, and the body needs to maintain the ratio of Omega 6 and Omega 3.
For salad dressings – Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) is the undisputed winner because the flavour EVOO can transform a dressing. Having said that, cold pressed rapeseed oil, avocado oil and nut oils are all excellent choices as well, but can be expensive.
Therefore in theory, you can stock just two oils, one for dressings and general cooking, and one for higher heat applications. However, like me, if you are keen to diversify the range of oils the family consumes, read on.
So here’s my considered view, and I would welcome other opinions. These are the 5 fats we use regularly at home, and why:
Extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO)
- The view that extra virgin olive oil shouldn’t be used for cooking is incorrect. EVOO can be used for everything, including cooking, the only downside being the price of good oil. In general, olive oil has a lower smoke point than say groundnut oil, which is why it isn’t recommend for anything that requires very hot applications, for e.g. searing steaks. As long as you cook the moment the oil starts shimmering and isn’t smoking, it’s fine. I also recall a conversation with the owner at Olio Verde in Sicily (makers of one of the finest olive oils) who said that it was a myth that EVOO shouldn’t be used for cooking. The main thing to look for is the date of manufacture. It’s surprising how difficult this can be to locate on supermarket oils. Older oils are undesirable, go for the freshest you can find, ideally less than 1 year old, and bottled in dark bottles or cans.
- I cook with this, not because it’s been newly discovered by the world, but because it’s been used for centuries in India, and its nutritional properties well known. I use it for many oriental and Indian dishes, but not when the coconut flavour might be too overpowering. Coconut oil contains Lauric acid, which is excellent for increasing good cholesterol, and isn’t found in such concentration in other fats. However, too much of good thing is also not great, hence I don’t use coconut oil to the exclusion of everything else.
Rapeseed oil (often just labelled as vegetable oil in the UK).
- It’s humble and cheap, and local to the UK. It’s what I use when I need something neutral, with a good smoke point, and where both coconut and EVOO would be too assertive. I also use it for Japanese salad dressings where the flavour of EVOO would be too strong.
Butter / Ghee (clarified butter)
- I would cook everything in butter if I could! Butter has a low smoke point but it’s excellent combined with another oil which is why for scrambling eggs or cooking a pasta sauce, I often use a combination of butter and EVOO. Grass-fed butter (and ghee) is richer in CLAs (immune boosters) and fat-soluble vitamins.
- Ghee has a much higher smoke point and is an excellent choice for Indian style tempering. It’s also recommended for lactose intolerant people. It has a strong flavour, so I wouldn’t use it unless the flavour works with the cuisine. It’s also excellent for pan-frying Indian breads like parathas.
Groundnut or peanut oil
- My favourite for deep-frying, which I don’t do often, so I keep a small bottle of the stuff at home. The flavour of this oil can be quite strong, but it works well for Thai and Chinese food, including stir-fries requiring high heat.
Other oils that I often use:
- Avocado oil, which is great for dressings and for cooking with
- Walnut oil for dressings –pairs really well with goats cheese salad and French style dressings. I also use it for homemade Nutella if I can’t find hazelnut oil. It’s high in omega 3.
Prepared foods that I stock
Following on from last week’s blog, here’s the “Prepared list”; a list of ingredients that I am never without. Having these on hand, makes it easy to throw together a quick meal. Some out of the pantry, and some that need a tiny bit of work.
This list is by no means exhaustive, pick and choose what you like.
In my fridge:
- Fresh salad leaves, anything from kale to rocket to baby spinach. Nothing gets wasted as anything threatening to wilt goes into my juice.
- Spring onions – they are versatile and I use them to elevate eggs by sprinkling on a few finely sliced greens from the onions. Think of them as a stronger version of chives. They also make a great garnish for all things oriental. And leftovers can be used like normal onions.
- Free range eggs
- Sun blush or sundried tomatoes – excellent to add to salads, sandwiches and pasta.
- Homemade pesto – apart from the ubiquitous pesto pasta, it also converts quickly into a salad dressing, and is an delicious sandwich spread. Also try it stirred into scrambled eggs.
- Harissa – to add a spicy kick to almost anything.
- Hummus – apart from eating as a dip, serve with poached eggs, harissa and some sourdough makes an excellent lunch with some greens thrown in.
- Smoked salmon- for sandwiches, or with eggs and some greens.
Three cheeses I am never without:
- Parmesan – which is so versatile and can be used to great affect in small amounts. Apart from pasta dishes, use in sandwiches, grated into a soup, or added to an omelette.
- Hard cheese, usually Swiss because it’s higher in protein and lower in fat compared to cheddar. Small cubes of cheese are superb in a kale salad combined with a crisp fruit like apple or pear. And grated, it’s perfect for a cheese toastie.
- Feta cheese (which we often eat with melon for breakfast, something I learnt in Turkey) is quickly incorporated into meals and is one of the best ways of adding some oomph to eggs and salads.
In my pantry:
- Roasted nuts & seeds (my favourites are walnuts, almonds, pumpkin seeds)- they can be used to add crunch to salads or pasta.
- Leftover sourdough or multigrain croutons – Croutons are great for soup or salad or even on pasta.
- Roasted garlic should be stored in the fridge once cooled. Squeeze out and use in pasta, to spread on toast or to mix into a salad dressing.
Use the oven efficiently to prepare a batch:
Use the fan setting at about 175c and simultaneously:
- Roast nuts & seeds like pumpkin and sunflower
- Make some roasted garlic (wrap a whole head of garlic in foil and bake until tender, about 30 -40 minutes).
- Make croutons
- Roast some veggies while you are it!
- Fried shallots, which I buy from Oriental stores is perfect for finishing off stir-fries and adds that restaurant-quality touch.
In my Freezer
- Cooked chickpeas or beans
- Frozen spinach
- Frozen green peas
- Edamame (green soya beans)
- Any leftover meat, chopped up, so easy to mix into a salad or convert into a sandwich
- Whole-wheat tortillas, perfect for a quick quesadilla to feed hungry children or adults
This week’s recipes:
I often take dessert to a friend’s as my contribution to a dinner invite. After a few precarious occasions where the dessert has been nearly destroyed en-route, I now have a few favourites that are portable and indestructible in the face of bad driving. A cake imbued with fruit is light and easy to convert into a dessert by serving it with some whipped cream or ice cream. Leftovers normally don’t need refrigeration and the host can happily have some for tea the next day. For one such dinner last week, I decided to make a German apple cake, which I had been eyeing, from Rick Stein’s “Long Weekends”
There’s nothing like a good steak to shake of Monday blues, so that’s what we had for dinner on Monday night – an easy weeknight version served with roast potatoes and greens.
For the quickest possible dinner for the kids, nothing beats quesadillas. Quick to make, they can be kept ready and assembled and the kids can just brown and eat them with a salad. This week’s version was with tuna and spinach, so a nutritious duo.
I am always looking for an excuse to bake bread, and recently made Challah, for a small dinner party at home. I have to share the recipe, as it was so simple to make and so delightful to eat. I urge you to try it out; you will be making it over and over. The leftovers make fabulous French toast.
Lastly, in response to one of the questions, here’s a recipe for a simple but delicious Chinese soup, using homemade stock.
In the papers this week
When I ran the bakery, we found that there was growing demand for gluten-free products. We reluctantly introduced a few, but we never really believed in the concept (except of course if you have coeliac disease or a gluten allergy). Humans have eaten wheat for 10,000+ years and eaten right how could it morph to be enemy number 1?
So it’s with some sense of relief that I read this article last week suggesting that a gluten-free diet boosts the risk of diabetes. At last the world is sitting up and taking notice and people will be more thoughtful before they carelessly cut out big food groups from their diet.
Show your family you love them and bake fabulous bread for them!