Apr 5, 2013

“O Que Nao Mata Engorda”

“O Que Nao Mata Engorda”

The Portuguese language, whether that spoken in Portugal or the slightly different version spoken in Brazil, is replete with sayings. One of my favorites is the one above, which translates to “that which does not kill you will fatten you.” It came to mind when speaking with Linda Kusel, director of CKC about the menu for St. Patrick’s day, discussed in the previous blog. Linda was wondering if corned beef—that is, beef preserved through brining and the addition of nitrates, falls within our “Cooking For Life” healthy foods philosophy.

For sure preserved meats have been under largely unfavorable scrutiny for some time.  Salt is a concern for many, smoking is linked to carcinogens, and nitrates, the salt that makes processed meat red (instead of gray,) are  viewed as inherently bad.  And yet without preservation through one or all of these methods it’s almost certain that mankind would not have survived.  Who does not remember the opening chapters of “Little House on the Prairie” which describes the Ingalls family busily preparing hams and other cuts of meat for the long Winter, not to mention the pickling of vegetables (also out of favor these days), the making of preserves, canning, etc.

The fact is, before refrigeration there was preservation, and salt was the key component in that enterprise.  For over 100 years Portuguese fishermen would fish the Grand Banks for cod, which would be salted in the holds of the schooners and thus preserved for months. Once salted and dried it would remain edible almost indefinitely and remains the center of the national dish of Portugal, “bacalao”. Of course it is not eaten in its dried, salted state: it is rinsed in many changes of water over two or so days and reconstituted. The dried slabs of “bacalao” which look like wood when you buy them plump up and most, but not all, the salt is washed away. “Bacalao” is also very popular in Italy (“baccala”), Spain, and in Scandinavian countries where it is known as “stokafissa”.

So what about the corned beef? It’s usually quite lean (that’s good), and is served with lots of vegetables (also good).  It’s a bit high in salt but not more than many other foods we don’t worry about and we can control total salt intake by not adding any more than is already there.  I don’t know for a fact but I’m willing to bet that an average bag of movie popcorn has more salt that the biggest corned beef or pastrami sandwich from Manny’s in downtown Chicago. And when one adds that “erzats” (fake) butter topping the popcorn has to go right to the top of the list of foods not good for you.

The point is, most of us don’t go to the movies all that often and so we don’t eat that many bags of salty, fat-laden popcorn. In like manner, few of us make a steady diet of corned beef or other preserved meats.  In my opinion once in awhile it’s ok, in fact it’s more than ok. It’s great.

PS: The same logic has to apply to that food that so many people would put on their list of favorites: bacon. I remember a memorable episode of the wonderful BBC English cooking program, “The Two Fat Ladies” that was all about bacon. These two large, chain-smoking, and motorcycle -riding hostesses ended up at the end of the episode at a small stand that sold English bacon sandwiches. They were chatting with the counter person and asked her how she kept herself from eating the wonderful bacon sandwiches all day long working at the stand. The young attendant replied that she didn’t eat bacon at all since she was a vegetarian.  The final comment delivered in a wonderful British accent from one of the Fat Ladies to the other as they were leaving the bacon stand was, “You know, Clarissa, more vegetarians relapse because of bacon than for any other reason.” Somehow I just know that’s true.

“O que nao mata engorda” indeed.