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Sunday, 18 March 2012

Fat is Phat!

 Another cooking “first” at the weekend, and this time it wasn’t an exotic Asian ingredient or a weird spice, but cooking with lard.
 Which brought up a few issues.
 Firstly – what exactly is it? I knew it belonged to the Olden Days Cooking Ingredients group, with things like dripping and suet. So I called my grandmother who, apart from being a fantastic cook in the CWA vein (she taught me how to make a fabulous lemon meringue pie, and her Yo Yo’s and apple slice are family get-together staples), always regaled me with stories of Sunday night supper of “bread and dripping”; very weird and exotic sounding to a 6 year old, and I could never shake off the image that they were eating candle wax drippings….

 However she was unsure, as she hadn’t cooked with it either. She knew that Dripping was animal fat but didn’t know what made it different from lard. So off to the other receptacle of culinary wisdom – Wikipedia. Apparently, dripping is traditionally beef fat, while lard is pork fat.
 Good to know.

 The second issue was getting my head around cooking with Lard. Brought up as I have been in a health and diet conscious time, the idea of using LARD!! did worry me a little. Wasn’t there a low-fat –low-cholesterol-healthier-alternative available? Was I going to end up looking like the Stay Pufft Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters? Was I condemning us to early-age bypass surgery?

 However as I had cooked gnocchi carbonara the week before, with fried pancetta, a cup of cream and gnocchi fried in butter, I put it in the same “it’s not an everyday meal” category.

 Third was where to source it. I knew from the yearly articles on How to Make the Best Plum Pudding, that suet was the way to go and it usually had to be ordered specially from a butcher. Luckily for me, Lard can be found at your local Coles fridge section, right next to dripping and duck fat.
 Which did get me thinking about all of the different fats and oils that are around I n these health conscious times. Growing up, there was always a large bottle of Crisco vegetable oil in the cupboard which was used for everything (except roast potatoes, for which mum used a lard/dripping/meat fat combo that had been poured off from previous roast dinners and left t o solidify in a special crockery pot in the fridge). However as I went to put my packet of lard in the butter conditioner of the fridge, I had to move aside the copha (for chocolate crackles), the butter (for one of life’s simple pleasures;  fresh white bread sandwiches ) and put it in top of the ghee (for certain Asian dishes). Thankfully the duck fat sits on the top shelf or we would have been in real trouble.  And that’s without even looking at my Oils and Sauces shelf, which is comparatively simple at the moment with just olive oil (lite and spray versions), sesame oil (again with the asian cooking) and chilli oil (for dumplings). But it has been host in the recent past to macadamia and grapeseed oil (great for salad dressings) as well as peanut and sunflower oil (for frying). All this from a group that is technically not considered a Food. They sit up there at the top of the food pyramid thinking they’re important when actually its just because they don’t fit in anywhere else. They must have a great time in their therapy group.

 And speaking of therapy – what is with “Extra Virgin” olive oil, or EVOO as some (annoying) foodies call it. Isn’t being extra virgin like being extra pregnant – you either are or you aren’t? Sol was right – oils ain’t oils.

 But back to Lard. Why was I starting down this shadowy path which could end in deep fried Mars bars and Elvis style cooking?  Because of a new cookbook (why else?!?).
 Lonely Planet’s “The Best Street Food – where to find it and how to make it” had arrived in Husband’s store and make a very quick trip to my kitchen. It’s  great fun read with entries from all around the world: churros from Spain, Brik from Tunsia and breakfast burritos from USA (Australia’s contribution was  meat pie) as well as more exotic entries such as ‘walkie talkies” from Africa – which are boiled chicken heads and feet (geddit?)

 My first recipe tried was for choripans from Argentina, which were a chorizo sausage hot dog with a tabouleh-like topping. Delicious! But I had my eye on the Baozi from China, which are the steamed pork buns that were always my favourite at yum cha. So I took out my lard (“for perfect pastry and baking”) and set to it.

 It’s a weird substance; almost pure white, very soft and almost fluffy like. Not surprisingly, it reminded me of an episode of The Goodies where Tim ate scoops of this weird looking white stuff and subsequently got very fat. It had to be melted before mixing with the flour and yeast, and did take a bit of heating to melt. It didn’t seem to have any distinct flavour either way, and although my pastry wasn’t the “ fluffy white cumulus” that the book described, I think that was more due to there not being a step to activate the yeast (which I will try the next time I make them). However they still were delicious – the pork filling was sweet and savoury at the same time. Not exactly as I remember from the Tai Pan in Doncaster, but I think it is one of those recipes that the filling ingredients will vary from place to place and are passed on only to a Sacred Few. But I can add baozi to my praw and shitake dumplings and fresh spring rolls for the makings of a delightful asian banquet.
Pastry "circles" ready for their filling
Crimped and ready for rising

 And as I had the book out (and a public holiday with not much else to do), I thoughts I’d give pretzels a go!

 Growing up, pretzels were the small chip-style things that were always “making me thirsty!” A few years ago the large baked pretzel stands started popping up, giving us a whole new take on The Pretzel. These were what I was hoping to make with the entry from USA. Their fat of choice was Butter, which was rubbed into the flour to make the dough, and then followed the usual rise, shape, rise, cook process of many baked goods; so deceptively easy to perform but very difficult to master! Being my first time I experimented a bit with the thickness of the dough rolls to work out what would hold their shape the best through the double rise-boil-bake process. They didn’t seem to be as elastic as I liked (but then I probably didn’t knead them for long enough) and I tried a few ways to flip the risen bagels over in the pot of boiling water with limited success. I remember visiting a 24hr bagel baker y in London many years ago and I recalled massive vats of simmering liquid with long wooden staff like utensils; much like the wash women of old used. But I could be remembering something completely different….

 However I did manage to get a few out of the pot and onto the cooking tray all in one piece; the thicker pretzels seemed to fare better but they all were a bit weak at the ‘twist points’.  A smattering of parmesan or Murray River salt for variety, and then baked in a super-hot oven. As you can see, mine didn’t have the smooth sheen of the ones in the shops, but they still managed to have the “crunchy on the outside, chewy on the inside “ quality that the book extolled. Taking their advice, I ate mine with mustard on the side for dipping, as well as aioli, which I’m discovering goes pretty well with everything savoury!
Thick versus thin
boiling ... and falling apart
Pretzel flipping utensils - none passed the test
Post-boil prezel pieces, glazed and ready to bake
Out of the oven, looking vaguely pretzel-ish

 So now I’m off to decide where in the world I will send my tastebuds travelling next…..

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