Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The many benefits of Coconut Oil

For decades, health care officials and the media have been telling us that saturated fats are bad for our health and that they lead to a host of negative consequences, including high cholesterol, obesity, heart disease and Alzheimer’s. Amazingly, during this same time, the levels of serum cholesterol, obesity, heart disease and Alzheimer’s have increased. Coincidence? Not likely.

Maybe it’s the type of saturated fat that needs to be looked at, and not just all saturated fats, because studies done on Pacific Island populations have shown that although their diets contain a 30-60% caloric intake from saturated fat, they have virtually non-existent rates of cardiovascular disease. The thing is, it seems, that not all saturated fats are created equal. The difference, it seems, lies in the fact that some are “created”, or artificially made, while others are natural. There is nothing natural about hydrogenated fats, which appear in just about everything processed these days, but what are they exactly?

Hydrogenation means that we’ve manipulated vegetable and seed oils by adding hydrogen atoms while heating the oil, producing a thickened substance that increases shelf life, but does nothing for our health. These hydrogenated fats are also called trans fats and although they have been banned in the United States, food manufacturers can get away with labeling their products trans-fat fee as long as a serving contains “less than 0.5g of total fataccording to the FDA (ever wonder why servings seem so small? It’s not because you’re a pig and like to eat a lot. It’s how these food manufacturers get away with adding trans fats into their food but stay under the radar). I often wondered about this: how could there be a listing of 0 trans fats on the nutrition label but yet on the ingredient list, there were still hydrogenated fats listed?

The good news is that for most of us with heart and/or weight problems, fat is not the enemy. Many leading nutrition experts tell us that fat is very much needed, to nourish not only our immune system, nervous system, hormonal system and skin, but to also control the inflammatory process in the body and be burned for energy. Our health is suffering as a result from not eating enough of the right kinds of fat! The body does a lot better burning fat for fuel than burning carbohydrates. It’s much more efficient. The thing is to give it “good fats” while avoiding “bad fats”. Good fats include avocados, raw nuts  like almonds, walnuts, pecans, and macadamias, and seeds like sunflower, pepita and flax seeds, olives and olive oil, organic butter and ghee, and fish, cod liver and flax oils.

But one other fat to add to the “good” list is coconut oil. Although it often gets a bad rap for its high saturated fat content, we know that coconut oil offers many health benefits. For example, it has been found to help normalize blood lipids and protect against damage to the liver by alcohol and other toxins, can play a role in preventing kidney and gall bladder diseases, and is associated with improved blood sugar and insulin control and therefore the prevention and management of diabetes. In addition, coconut oil has antiviral, antibacterial and anti-fungal properties. It is also thought to help strengthen mineral absorption, which is important for healthy teeth and bones, and can also help improve the condition and appearance of the scalp, hair and skin when ingested or applied topically.

If Nature hadn't wanted us to eat coconuts, then why do they exist?

If you’re still not convinced, then read on: coconut oil is nature’s richest source of medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs). By contrast, most common vegetable or seed oils are comprised of long-chain fatty acids (LCFAs).  LCFAs are large molecules, so they are difficult for the body to break down and are predominantly stored as fat. But MCFAs, being smaller, are easily digested and immediately burned by your liver for energy – like carbohydrates but without the insulin spike. MCFAs actually boost your metabolism and help the body use fat for energy, as opposed to storing it, so it can help us become leaner.

So how do we get more coconut in our diet? You can start by using coconut oil. It's less sensitive to heat than other oils so it’s great for stir-frys and sautéing. Apparently, it’s better to use coconut oil than olive oil when heating. Some health professionals recommend not heating olive oil because of how it oxidizes when heated. They say it’s best to use it cold, drizzling it on food or using it in salad dressings. This is new to me. All these years of cooking and always using olive oil. Perhaps I'll do less of it now.

So what’s wrong with using regular oils like corn, canola, safflower, or sunflower? These polyunsaturated fats are omega-6 oils and they produce a variety of toxic chemicals as well as trans fats, especially when heated. Plus, most of these vegetable oils are genetically-modified, including more than 90% of soy, corn and canola oils on the market. But even if you buy these organic or from reputable sources, the use of vegetable oils contributes to the overabundance of damaging omega-6 fats in our diet. This heavy emphasis on omega-6’s throws off our omega-6 to omega-3 ratio, and as we’ve heard, insufficient omega-3’s contribute to numerous chronic degenerative diseases. Another reason to give up those oils or drastically reduce using them.

Coconut oil can be substituted for other fats when baking and in recipes that call for butter, lard, shortening or any other saturated fat. I haven’t tried that yet, but I will. The oil is hard in its jar, so it’s fairly similar in consistency to butter. You could probably spread it on toast. I also recently tried it in my smoothie. I used a dark chocolate organic whey protein powder, added some unsweetened shredded coconut and a small teaspoon of coconut oil (totally delicious). Some people use coconut oil as a creamer substitute for coffee or tea. I don’t think I’d go that far, but if you like it, why not?

When looking for the product in your store, make sure to select organic virgin coconut oil. Anything labeled extra virgin is just marketing hype and offers nothing “extra”. Coconut oil is now readily available everywhere. Even Trader Joe’s has it.

I bought a jar of it recently and had only used it so far for sautéing tilapia. I used a spoon to scoop it out and what initially looked like Crisco quickly melted into a glossy clear oil in the pan. I didn’t really notice a coconut-y flavor to the fish, although it smelled wonderfully coconut-y when I opened the jar.

Last night, I used it for a recipe my sister emailed me. Delicious over jasmine rice, or in my case, I had some cooked quinoa to use up. It was the perfect dish to add a slight coconut flavor to because it went well with the green curry and Thai flavors. I wanted some protein in the dish so I decided to dice up some firm tofu which I added during the last 5 minutes just to heat it through. Really good and super healthy.

Green Curry Vegetables with Sweet Potato and Eggplant

1 Tbsp. coconut oil
1 onion, chopped
1 Tbsp. green curry paste
1 sweet potato, diced
1 cup coconut milk
1 jalapeno chili, diced (optional. Use only if your curry is mild and you like a little bit of heat)
1 eggplant, diced
Lemon or lime juice
Cilantro or green onion for garnish
Cooked jasmine rice, brown rice, or quinoa

In a medium sized sauté pan, heat coconut oil until melted. Add onion and fry until slightly browned. Add green curry paste. Cook for another minute.
Add coconut milk, sweet potato and jalapeno, cook 10 minutes.
Add eggplant, cook 15 minutes (might take 20 minutes if your chunks aren’t that small). Remove from heat.

Sprinkle with lemon or lime juice, then either chopped cilantro or green onion and serve over your grain of choice.

Optional: add diced tofu or cooked chunks of chicken breast for the last 5 minutes of cooking to just heat through.

Next, I’m tempted to slather some coconut oil on my dry skin. Should make me smell very tropical and summery. 

Friday, June 8, 2012

Bacon-wrapped Asparagus

Who would have ever thought that Disneyland could be the inspiration for a dish we’ve been making ever since we discovered it?

It was during a trip to the Magic Kingdom about 10-15 years ago that my husband and I discovered bacon-wrapped asparagus. We were in Adventureland and wanted to board the Jungle Cruise. (Side note: ever since I was little, we always started the park on the left and went around it in clock-wise fashion. The first “land” is Adventureland and it’s always been my favorite. It's tradition to go to the Tiki Room first and listen to the birds sing (my husband rolls his eyes every time. Well, I'm sorry - this is just the way it has to be!). Anyway, I digress. 

The line for the Jungle Cruise was (surprise, surprise) a mile long. But before entering the queue, since we were a bit hungry, we decided to eat first, then get in line. We turned around and there it was: the Bengal Barbeque - a casual counter type of eating place.

On the menu (and according to this link it’s still there): bacon-wrapped asparagus. Intrigued, we ordered it. It was incredible, and you can’t say that about much of the food at Disneyland (another side note: this reminds me of another visit to the Park when we contracted food poisoning and threw up all night long – good times).  This was an interesting combination of vegetable and bacon. It made such an impact on my husband, that he offers to make it for nearly every occasion when friends come over. It’s super easy, and though it does take a little time to prepare, it’s well worth the effort. We just made it again over Memorial Day.

All you need are: wooden skewers, bacon, and asparagus. That’s it. Not even seasoning. It can’t get any simpler. Here’s how to make them at home.

Bacon-wrapped Asparagus

Serves 2.

Wooden skewers
Bacon (1/2 package is enough for 2 people), I like the applewood smoked variety, but any kind will do
½ bunch of thick-stalked asparagus

Break the skewers in half, and soak them in water if you wish. Some people claim this prevents them from burning on the grill, but we don’t bother. Take your long bacon strips and cut them into 3” long pieces. Wash your asparagus, trim off the very ends (about ½” from the bottom), and peel the lower third. The asparagus should be the thicker variety – none of those skinny asparagus. You need these to hold up on the grill, so the thicker, the better.  

Cut your asparagus stalks into thirds. Take a piece of bacon and wrap it around an asparagus stalk. Once you have 4 of them wrapped, skewer them as indicated in the photo. Make sure to slide them close together; you don’t want any gaps between stalks. Continue until all your asparagus is wrapped.

Grill for about 7-8 minutes per side on medium-low. It’s important to keep an eye on them while they grill because it’s easy to get a flare up when the bacon fat starts dripping into the flames. You don’t want to end up burning your bacon to smithereens. Move them around on the grill as needed to avoid the flames. Asparagus should still have a little crunch while bacon should be thoroughly cooked.

These make an excellent appetizer or first course. I’d bet your dad would love them on Father’s Day.

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