In praise of fabulous fat

After a half-century of listening to nutritional advice that made us fatter, it’s time to reassess our attitude to red meat

Irish cows are grass-fed which means their beef is as lean as a skinless chicken breast. Photograph: Joanne Murphy

Irish cows are grass-fed which means their beef is as lean as a skinless chicken breast. Photograph: Joanne Murphy


Any good butcher in Ireland will tell you a simple secret about the meat that you buy from them: the flavour is in the fat.

And if your butcher is a well-read bloke who likes to research health issues, or if he has just picked up a copy of Pat Whelan and Katy McGuinness’s new book, The Irish Beef Book, he might trundle out a few other facts and figures about fat that would have you wide-eyed with amazement.

For example, did you know that:

Beef fat chips are better for you than chips made with polyunsaturated vegetable oils;

Fats are the chief constituent of the human brain;

Fats carry with them the four fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K;

The belief that a low-fat diet will protect you against cancer and coronary heart disease is not true;

But we now know that Omega 3 fats help prevent obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

Fat removal
When you consider that an entire generation has been reared believing that fat is bad for you and, as a consequence, eats meat from which the fat has largely been removed, it seems clear that we need to work hard to get our heads around the seemingly unlikely fact that fat is fabulous.

But your butcher isn’t finished with you yet. Because Irish butchers have another trump card up their sleeves, and it is this: Irish beef (and lamb) is grass-fed, and grass-fed beef and lamb actually has all the really sexy fats, the ones that really maintain optimum health:

The beta-carotene, vitamin E and folic acid in grass finds its way into the flesh of the animals that eat that grass (and into good eggs; if you take this as a prescription to have steak and eggs for breakfast, then please be my guest);

Grass-fed animals give us CLAs (Conjugated Linoleic Acids) and these CLAs aid weight loss, reduce body fat and increase lean muscle (which is why athletes eat steak and eggs);

CLA helps to prevent cancer and can slow the growth of tumours of the skin, breast, prostate and colon;

Grass-fed beef is as lean as a skinless chicken breast.

So far, so utterly astonishing. But actually it’s not so astonishing: more than five years go, author and activist Michael Pollan pointed out that “most of the nutritional advice we’ve received over the last half century [and in particular the advice to replace the fats in our diets with carbohydrates] has actually made us less healthy and considerably fatter”.

As The Irish Beef Book, makes clear, our simple and affordable access to grass-fed meats is a blessing for our health. I’m off to make Beef Cheeks and White Turnips in Beer with a Parsley dressing. Or this:

Braised Beef with Five Spice, Ginger and Highbank Apple Syrup

Serves 4
1kg braising beef, in large cubes
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil or Irish rapeseed oil
3 onions, peeled and finely sliced
2.4cm piece of root ginger, peeled and finely chopped
2 red chillies, deseeded and finely chopped
3 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
Small bunch coriander
1 tbsp Chinese five spice powder
2 x 400g tins chopped tomatoes
1 litre chicken stock
50ml fish sauce
50ml soy sauce
5 tbsp Highbank apple syrup (or honey or maple syrup)

Heat a couple of tablespoons of oil in a large, heavy flameproof casserole over a medium heat and cook the beef in batches until nicely browned.

Do not overcrowd the pan, as the meat will steam instead and the final dish will not be as flavoursome.

Set the browned meat to one side, add another tablespoon of oil to the casserole and add the onions, ginger, chillies and garlic. Turn down the heat and cook gently until soft but not browned.

Separate the coriander leaves from the stems, and chop the stems finely. Add these to the casserole, along with the five spice powder. Cook for a couple of minutes, stirring a few times.

Return the beef to the dish, add the tomatoes and chicken stock and bring to a gentle simmer. Cook very slowly for a couple of hours until the meat is very tender. Add the fish sauce, soy sauce and syrup and cook for another 20 minutes. Season to taste.

Garnish with the coriander leaves and serve with rice.

The Irish Beef Book by Pat Whelan and Katy McGuinness (Gill & Macmillan) costs €22.99 and is in shops now.

John McKenna is author of The Irish Food Guide;

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