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How to turn fast food into good food

The human desire for sweet, salty and fatty foods has spawned a whole industry that prefers to be called “convenience” than “fast” or “junk” food, but the effects are usually the same: eat too much of it and you will end up fat, unhappy and sick.

During the years of economic growth and profitability at all costs, scientists took the reins from chefs in fast-food menu development. Questionable ingredients, factory farming of animal products, unethical supply-chain and manufacturing practices, increased use of additives and processing agents (that are numbered for easy identification because they really cannot be recognised as food) were all initiatives of the industry.

No doubt, “fast food” is often bad food but do you have to avoid the lure of fast-food-style meals altogether? Is it possible to occasionally enjoy a nutritious and sustainable version of fast-food favourites without blowing a commitment to health and wellbeing?

Of course it is — it’s possible to have your fish and chips and eat it, too!

Slowing down fast food

Take away the shortcuts and processing tricks designed to speed delivery, reduce costs and increase profit margin and the dishes that have been criticised for their destruction of healthy diets around the world can be wholesome, nutritious and satisfying. Choose the best ingredients and fish and chips, for example, will certainly not be junk.

In the past few years, leading chefs in refined restaurants around the world have explored the concept of gastro-junk. They’ve taken the benchmarks of the junk food industry, such as burgers, pizza, fish and chips and hot dogs, and applied fresh, healthy, whole ingredients and some skill to put up vastly improved versions of the artery-clogging MSG, trans-fat, chemical- and sugar-laden fast-food varieties. The thoughtful approach of these chefs has proved that the meals preferred by the fast food industry do not have to be nutritional calamities.

Meanwhile, mad cow disease and a few unexpectedly popular films, Fast Food Nation and Morgan Spurlock’s Supersize Me, led to considerable changes in the way the fast-food industry Deals with ingredient selection and even the biggest operators sacrificed some of their profits to modify production techniques. Suddenly, “no added hormones”, “free range” and “no trans fats” became more important to marketing strategies than the plastic toy offered with the children’s meals. Salads and low-fat, low-salt and low-sugar options were all added to the fast-food offerings. Sadly, the marketing was a success and customers have returned to fast food with vigour, feeling less guilty about entering the premises of outlets providing “healthy” options … and end up buying the fat, fried, salty and sugar-laden options when they order.

The salt, fat and sugar in fast food are a constant lure for those who don’t have the time or knowledge to eat better. So the actions of chefs to overhaul the popular junk dishes are magnificent — and a reminder that we can reclaim some classic dishes for the home, too.

Ultimate fish and chips

In the wrong hands, fish and chips can be lumped together with other junk foods. However, seasonality does not affect this nostalgic dish that brings together the two simple yet nutritious and enormously satisfying ingredients you can enjoy at any time of the year in a healthy way!

Packed with omega-3s, vitamin B12, iron and protein, fish crumbed and fried with a big bowl of crunchy hot chips is arguably the tastiest way to eat this all-time favourite, though it’s not a dish that should be consumed too regularly. Read on to discover why this combination doesn’t have to be all bad.

Selecting the right fish is actually not that hard and perhaps the most important job when producing the ultimate fish and chips. Of course, flavour and preference are the keys, but just as important is the responsibility of sustainability and protection of the ocean. The fish farming industry was initially applauded as the hero of sustainability by reducing reliance on destructive trawling and decreasing the potential for overfishing the wild stocks, but the reality is not always so positive.

In Australia, there are about 40 marine species under cultivation. Some of the most popular, including salmon, barramundi, trout and prawn, are carnivorous or omnivorous and this is probably the biggest issue with fish farming. The fishmeal and oil that are fed to captive stock are sourced from the wild ocean fisheries and many varieties use up more feed than they produce, which is exacerbating the problem with overfished oceans. Atlantic salmon, for example, requires three times its farmed weight in fish feed, sourced from Peruvian anchovy fisheries.

The best choice of fish will differ according to where you live and the Australian Marine Conservation Society offers the Sustainable Seafood Guide, which will rank fish species as “better” if it is a good choice, “think” if doubtful and “no” if there is no question, bluefin tuna and most imported and farmed fish species sitting in the “no” category. Your fishmonger will also provide great local knowledge of the fish and will be a real help in thinking about your choice.

So when you do understand the options that will satisfy you that you have chosen sustainably, you should look for a vibrant, attractive-looking fish. If it is whole, the eyes should be clear and shiny, the flesh should spring back when you poke it, the gills should be bright (not dull and grey) and the fish should smell of the ocean, not “fishy”. Try to buy your fish on the day you intend to cook and eat it and, if you have chosen a whole fish, you can take it home and tackle the filleting (so you can ensure it is not rinsed in running water, which will dilute much of the good oils) or take the work out of it and ask the fishmonger to fillet it for you, ready for crumbing.

Potato preferences

Potatoes have had a bad reputation for some years now, sitting right up there with pasta and bread at the top of the unpopular-with-dieters carbohydrates list. It seems to be forgotten that carbohydrates are crucial for fuelling essential body systems, including the brain, central nervous system and kidneys. Potatoes have also been treated terribly at the mercy of the fast-food movement, along with trans fats, preservatives, anti-foaming agents, beef tallow and, more recently, the uncertainty of the use of GMO canola oil for frying.

However, turning humble potatoes into the ultimate accompaniment to fish is easy. Choosing the right ingredients from the vast array of potatoes and fats and cooking them in a pan to avoid losing all the vitamin C in the potatoes are the secrets to successful fries.

Potato varieties

For great roasting/frying potatoes, choose Sebago, Bintje, Red Rascal or Royal Blue. New potatoes are too high in water content for this dish. Your next decision is what to cook them in.

Fats you might consider

The number and types of fats to choose for your home cooking is huge. It’s an important consideration because you can provide excellent nutrition and flavour, while others might deliver empty calories that are stored as fat in the body. In a space where manufacturing and refining processes can vary enormously, you shouldn’t assume that all oils are equal.

Olive oil

The history of olive oil is glorious, featuring Athena and providing nutrition for humankind since she planted the first olive tree outside the Acropolis. Homer called it “liquid gold” and it is the number one choice for flavour and nutrition.

Olives provide a mono-unsaturated oil, stable at higher temperatures and which does not deliver the same dose of free radicals into the body as do polyunsaturated oils when heated to high temperatures.

An additional benefit of olive oil is a molecular reaction within the body that can behave like ibuprofen to protect blood vessels. A Mediterranean diet has long been analysed for its role in cardiovascular support and it is increasingly evident that the phytochemicals in olive oil deliver the antioxidant, anti-clotting and anti-inflammatory effect in the body that increases heart and cellular health.

As with any food, look for olive oil that has been minimally processed. Extra virgin, cold-pressed olive oil should have had minimal heat or chemicals used in pressing and bottling. If you can find a grower who can ensure that the olive oil is fresh, it is definitely worth the effort.

Clarified butter and ghee

Removing the milk solids and water from fresh organic butter will provide you with the ultimate roasting fat. Of course, there will be opposition to the use of animal/saturated fats, but butter has excellent nutritional properties and if you’re after the ultimate flavour you can’t go past it.

Organic butter will ensure that you will avoid artificial hormones and antibiotics while supporting a part of the industry that proudly considers the welfare of the animals that produce the dairy products. Minimally processed organic butter is rich in vitamin A, contains lauric acid, lecethin, antioxidants, vitamins E, K and D and several minerals.

Coconut oil

You may be surprised to learn that coconut oil is on the good list after many years of being considered a bad fat due to its very high saturated fat content. It’s ironic that trans fats were chosen to replace coconut oil in food production from the 1970s due to fear of the saturated fat.

However, as a medium-chain fat, coconut oil is quickly converted inside the body and used as energy, while long-chain fats (typically found in other plant-based oils) are stored as fat. Recent research points to increased metabolism and coconut oil is abundant in lauric acid, facilitating brain function and boosting the immune system. There is a long list of other health benefits, including for skin conditions (eczema, psoriasis, dermatitis), heart disease, stroke, diabetes and many more, even jock itch.

Unlike other vegetable oils, coconut oil is not greatly affected by cooking at high temperatures (which our recipe needs). Keep in mind that you should reduce the volume of coconut oil called for in any recipe because of the reduced water content.

Unrefined (virgin) organic coconut oil should smell like the tropics and is the only healthy coconut oil choice. It will not have been treated with chemicals such as bleach and hexane. Be certain that you do not purchase partially hydrogenated coconut oil, as this contains trans fats and does not offer any of the benefits mentioned above.

Canola/corn/grapeseed oils and margarine

Don’t let conventional versions of these oils into your home — they are typically over-processed with chemicals (though some of these oils are available as organic, so potentially will not contain some of the chemicals used in manufacturing of the regular supermarket varieties) and it is increasingly obvious that polyunsaturated fats can have a negative impact on your health. Where polyunsaturated fats occur naturally, including in leafy greens, fish (omega-3), nuts or flaxseed oils, they are a wonderful source of nutrition, however the manufactured polyunsaturated oils are less stable, so cooking at higher temperatures, for example, may lower your stores of good cholesterol, so keep them well away from your Ultimate Fish and Chips.

Genetically modified from the rapeseed plant that is purported to have been the key ingredient in the devastating mustard gas used in World War I, the name canola was created when combining the founder country name, Canada, and oil. Promoted as low in saturated fats, the canola commonly available is always highly processed using chemicals and very high heat, destroying the linoleic acid and other nutrients available in a “virgin” canola oil.

Canola is an important crop to Monsanto, globally known for its other chemical success, the herbicide Roundup (glyphosate). Unlike ancient oils, such as olive or flaxseed, canola is a recent manmade invention and the long-term effect of its consumption on humans is unknown.

Your gourmet fish and chips

Here is your recipe for some luscious, healthy and sustainable fish and chips.

Fish

4 sustainably sourced fish fillets (or 8 smaller/2 each)

150g plain flour

1 egg, beaten

1 cup milk

2½ cups fresh breadcrumbs (think about sourdough and spelt)

Your choice of oil to fry

Sea salt

Ground pepper

Lemon wedges

Chips

6 potatoes

Your choice of oil to fry

Sea salt

Peas

2½ cups freshly shelled peas

1½ tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

30g butter

6–10 anchovies (depending on how much you like them), chopped

Sea salt

Pepper

½ lemon, juiced

Handful parsley, chopped

Method

1. Preheat the oven to 120ºC to keep elements of your meal warm while cooking.

2. Peel and cut potatoes to your favourite chip shape, rinse (to wash away the white starch) and dry thoroughly.

3. Get organised for crumbing the fish. Place the flour, beaten and combined egg and milk and breadcrumbs into shallow plates. Fillets should be coated in flour, next dipped in egg wash, rolled generously in breadcrumbs then laid on a clean plate, ready for cooking. Remove the crumbing mess to create plenty of space.

4. Heat oil for peas in a pan, cook anchovies and a pinch of salt until they are dissolved. Add the peas, toss around and add 2 cups of water. Cook until liquid reduces and peas are soft, around 18 minutes (set a timer to remind you). Set aside.

5. Meanwhile, heat the oil to 170ºC (use a thermometer). Add potatoes in 2–4 batches (depending on the size of your pot) and cook for 5 minutes. Drain. Set aside while you cook the fish, then finish them as the last step.

6. Increase the oil temperature to 180ºC and cook the fish in batches until golden brown, being careful not to add too much at the same time, thereby affecting the temperature of the oil too dramatically. Place in the warm oven. Add 4 plates to the oven to warm.

7. Increase the oil temperature for a final time to 190ºC, return the potatoes and cook until golden brown. While the chips are finishing, bring your peas back up to temperature, remove plates and fish from the oven and arrange ready to serve. Add peas to the side and then the well-drained chips. Finally, sprinkle with sea salt and garnish with lemon wedges.

The first crunch … amazing!

 

Nici Andronicus is Managing Director of Organicus Kitchen and Pantry. www.organicus.com.au

How to turn fast food into good food

By: The WellBeing Team

Some sustainable and gourmet twists can make fast-food classics into healthy dishes you can enjoy in good conscience.


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The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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