Mama Deb (mamadeb) wrote,
Mama Deb

In Defense of Margarine

I can hear the gasps now, you know. A food porn post defending that great evil, that great scourge *margarine*? Wouldn't the Great Julia be rolling in her grave? Have I just gone against the wisdom of Alton?

Yes, probably. They do have points, after all. Butter does taste better, there are things butter can do that margarine can't, such as make abuerre blanc, and the health benefits in terms of fat and cholesterol, other than from a true specialty brand, are negligible at best. So, all things being equal, butter is the better choice, and if you're that worried about health, olive oil is probably a better substitute for most things, plus a tiny bit on a baked potato won't hurt you.

It doesn't help those of us who have other reasons to not want to use butter. Nor does the fact that lard probably makes better pie crusts help much, either - sorry, Pierre and Julia, who once said that if you're not going to use the real thing, you shouldn't bother at all. Because, yes, you guys have made the decision that nothing matters so much as what the food tastes like, you have no drastic food sensitivities (such as the young man I know who is truly allergic to milk, not just lactose intolerant) and you've made no commitment, religious or otherwise, to diets that would limit or eliminate those items. And it's that that bothers me.

Because, see, I took their advice for years - cooking only with olive oil and not doing things that seem to call for butter to avoid using the dreaded margarine. I don't make pies, so the lard thing wasn't a problem for me. And my cooking suffered a bit - olive oil is too heavy for some dishes where plain vegetable oil works better, such as stir-fries or curries, and eggs needed extra spices and tasted wrong, and I still wanted margarine for my baked potatoes and corn on the cob if I ate them with meat meals.

And most of my meals are meat meals because that's the default state of my kitchen, even if they're vegetarian or fish. It's too much trouble to change things over just for dinner (put away the fleishig dishes and utensils and change the dishdrainer and sink rack and then change it back because most of what I cook is dinner and that does tend to be truly fleish.) Perhaps if I had two sinks, I might cook more dairy, but I'm somewhat lactose intolerant, I'd rather not deal with all the dairy fat and there are all the memories of the diet from hell, where for one summer, pretty much all I cooked was dairy because we thought my husband had gout, and eggs, dairy and flounder were pretty much all the protein sources he was permitted. I was dreaming of tofu.

A couple of years ago, though, I went to a kosher steakhouse called Prime Grill (I recommend it to anyone who has access to Manhattan.) and I noticed that the sauce not only tasted good, it felt rich on my tongue. It tasted, in fact, as I'd imagined pan sauces would taste if they were finished with butter and it looked the way the sauces did in the Great Chef series. So, I asked how the chef finished the sauce.

When the server came back, she told me that the chef finished it with margarine. I was completely surprised - I'd thought it was the cream in the butter that thickened the sauces when added at the end. That's what Alton said, after all. I know margarine is fat, but the fat is vegetable oil and that doesn't thicken anything. I filed that away and did nothing with it until recently.

Then I made veal piccata. (Again, kosher veal is free range by necessity.) And when I finished off the wine/lemon pan sauce, I decided to swirl in a bit of margarine. And it did thicken the sauce a bit, and add complexity to the taste. Maybe not the way butter would have, but you know, I wouldn’t know the difference anyway and it worked just fine. More than that - it was yummy.

Last week, in the process of using stuff up before Passover, I made linguine in improvised sauce to go with pan-fried trout and frozen spinach. The sauce was, well - I had a spare Spanish onion and Jonathan was picking up lemons. I diced the onion and saute'd it in, yes, margarine (could have used butter but see "changing the kitchen" - not something I want to do on a Thursday) until the onion was soft, and added some fresh-ground pepper and a little salt. When Jonathan came home, I squeezed in the juice of one of the lemons. When I cooked the trout, I put a sliver of margarine in with the olive oil, and more ground pepper. The sauce was bright and worked well with the trout and the pasta, although I wouldn't use it by itself. And olive oil wouldn't have worked half so well.

I use a good quality pareve margarine, one of the Jewish brands and I don't over use it. And it makes food that tastes *good*. Maybe not great, but nothing I'd be embarrassed about serving company. There are simply times when I want a room temperature solid fat in my cooking, and the people making the pronouncements don't seem to understand that sometimes you *do* have to compromise because you might have other priorities, whether it's religious or because you simply don't want animal products in your diet.

This doesn't mean, btw, that I understand why the kosher dairy diner I went to last night only gave us butter when we specifically asked for it.

So, this is sort of a rant and sort of food porn.
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