Chatting with The Little Beet’s Franklin Becker, Author of Good Fat Cooking
"The question isn’t whether or not you need to eat fat; it’s ‘What kind of fat are you eating?’" says chef Franklin Becker, owner of The Little Beet and The Little Beet Table in New York City. Becker got a wake-up call in 1993 when, at age 27, he was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. It forced him to change both how he ate and how he cooked. Now, he’s set out to change everyone else's habits too. He started by revolutionizing the way New Yorkers eat on the run. His quick-service spot, The Little Beet, opened in midtown Manhattan in January 2014. With lines out the door at lunchtime, it's not surprising that another New York location is set to open soon and more units are being planned. He also just opened a full-service fine dining version, called The Little Beet Table. And now he's out with a new cookbook that captures his eating philosophy. Good Fat Cooking (Rodale, 2014) is filled with recipes that utilize healthy unsaturated fats to produce incredibly flavorful dishes.
I honestly felt it was long overdue. I was diagnosed with diabetes 20 years ago, and since then the rates of the disease have become epidemic in our society. As a nation, we’re unhealthy and too many people are obese. But I also feel like more and more people are interested in eating well — they just need to be given the knowledge and the opportunity to do it.
First, I had to change the way I ate. I cut down on full-fat dairy, meat, pizza and pasta, decreased my portion sizes and increased my intake of fresh vegetables. Within two months I’d lost almost 30 pounds. But what really changed my cooking was traveling, eating and cooking in the Mediterranean. They simply eat better than we do — more balanced and healthier. Especially in southern Italy, Spain, Greece and Portugal. The meals focus on lots of vegetables and healthy fats.
People think they need to eliminate fat in order to lose weight and be healthy. But the body needs fat. You just need to eat the right kind. Good fats act like a thoroughfare — they take all the nutrients from your food and help them get where they need to go in your body to nourish all of your organs. And fats serve as a vehicle for flavor. They enhance flavor and create textural contrasts that make dishes more interesting.
When you talk about cooking with healthy fats, butter probably isn’t on that list.
Butter is a saturated fat. And saturated fats can affect cholesterol levels and increase your HDL. That said, I do use butter in moderation. A little of it here and there isn’t going to kill you. But I do try to use smaller amounts of butter when I cook, and substitute olive oil or another healthy fat for some of it. And cooking with clarified butter lets you get more flavor while using less. For spreading on bread, I’ll make a puree of cashews with a little garlic added to it, or puree avocado with olive oil, lemon and sea salt. Both are rich and creamy, and do everything butter is supposed to do.
Avocados, olives, nuts, fish (like salmon, mackerel or tuna) and olive oil. You’ll find these used over and over again in my recipes. They all provide healthy mono- and polyunsaturated fats, and in the case of the fish, omega-3s. I use olive oil more than any other fat, because it’s so versatile and flavorful. And avocados are the star ingredient in many of my recipes, often as a substitute for unhealthy fats like butter or mayonnaise, because of their rich, creamy texture.
Again, I think that in moderation, almost everything can fit into a healthy diet. No one needs to eat a 16-ounce steak with fried potatoes and a bowl of creamed spinach. But a responsible portion of red meat is OK once in a while. I even have a lamb dish (recipe below) in the cookbook — yes, lamb has saturated fat, but the recipe makes just a 4-ounce serving per person. I do always try to eat meat from free-ranging, grass-fed animals, because their diet and lifestyle makes the meat richer in nutrients.
Lamb shoulder is a great cut of meat, too often overlooked in favor of more costly lamb chops and leg of lamb. When cooked properly, it is succulent and tender. Yes, it has saturated fat, but at 4 ounces of lamb per serving, it's not going to hurt and it will more than satisfy a meat craving. The spices and flavorings I use here are inspired by Portugal, where they use garlic, oregano, and piri piri peppers for a terrific chicken dish. Lemon-infused olive oil and fresh lemon juice cut through the fattiness for a sprightly flavor.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F. Using a paring knife, make thirty 1-inch-deep, narrow slits all over the lamb. Rub the lamb all over with the lemon agrumato. Place the garlic, oregano, and piri piri chiles in the slits randomly. Rub the lamb liberally with the salt, black pepper, and paprika. Place the lamb in a roasting pan fitted with a rack. Roast until the lamb is crusty on the outside and a thermometer inserted in the center registers 160°F for medium, about 4 hours. Drizzle the lemon juice over the lamb. To serve, thinly slice the lamb across the grain. Serve with some good crusty bread and some onions and peppers.
Sally Wadyka is a Boulder, Colorado-based journalist who writes about nutrition, health and wellness.