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This is why we pig out

by Ari LeVaux

The urge to feast during wintertime is in our DNA. Long before your office holiday shindig was called a Christmas party, people were getting merry during the cold, dark days. Before the first Jews lit their first Hanukkah candles, before the first pagan decorated the first evergreen, before the old Norse began celebrating yule-beings feast with mead, the solstice has been a time to eat, party and set stuff on fire.

And while the solstice gives us cause to crave light and warmth, the holiday season also arrives at a time when the harvest is in and the hunt is done. In other words: a lot of food to eat, and nothing much else to do. Plus, people get a bit lonely, spending less social time outside and more time huddled privately around heaters. Tis the season to break cabin fever before it sets in, as we pack on insulation to keep winter’s bite at bay.

This is the one time of year when you can make an evolutionary argument for the consumption of massive amounts of fat. Perhaps for the same reasons, this is the time of year we crave fat most.

Under extreme conditions like winter or pregnancy, the body craves specific nutrients. Arctic explorers report that a stick of butter rolled in sugar is the

tastiest thing ever when you’re pushing a sled across ice. In the middle of the Arctic, your body is a delicate fire that needs to be fed and protected, and every calorie counts. Wracked with exertion and cold, the body knows it needs sugar for immediate use and fat to break down into energy and heat. In the desert, on the other hand, electrolytes will be your nutritional priority, since you’re constantly losing them through sweat. Survivors of dehydration have reported salt tasting like sugar. Apparently the body “knows” that salty flavors are a tough sell to thirsty tongues, and tricks you into thinking salt is sweet just to get you to eat it.   

Little has changed, metabolically speaking, since ancient times. During summer we don’t need as much antifreeze in our pipes, and we can survive on a leafier, leaner diet. As the days cool, we need more insulation than salad can provide. It’s time to bring on the fat.

It’s a culinary cliché that “fat is flavor,” and as with many clichés, there’s some truth to it. But too many restaurants interpret the relationship as a directive to “add butter and serve.” There is great skill involved in the proper application of fat.

Fat is often paired with some kind of acid. Steak and wine, catsup and French fries, and bacon and coffee are all examples of happy mouthfuls built on the acid-fat dance. Spice can be involved as well.  

I cook steak simply, so as not to bury its flavor. That said, I often add sauce, which gives me control of how much extra flavor I want to add. If it’s a fat, juicy steak, like from a cow or certain cuts of pig, the sauce can focus on the acidic side of the flavor equation: applesauce on the pork chop, steak sauce on the T-bone. But with wild game like deer or elk, which tends to be lean, the sauce can stand a little fat.

Lately I’ve been enjoying salmoriglio, an oily, lemony, oregano and garlic sauce that’s related, and similar, to Argentine chimichurri. The lemon mixes with the olive oil to create a context in which the oregano can permeate each mouthful with herby volatility. The fat coats the taste buds, and the acid cuts the fat to stimulate them.

While the tension between acid and fat can facilitate great flavor, the two substances don’t mix easily. Forced to commingle, they move apart as quickly as possible, causing many a sauce or dressing to separate.

It is, however, possible to convince an acid and a fat to stay mixed. It’s a state called emulsion, and emulsions include many of the world’s best sauces, like mayonnaise, hollandaise, béarnaise and even some sauces that don’t end in “aise,” like ranch dressing.

Today’s recipe, salmoriglio, is not an emulsion. Like an oil and vinegar dressing, it needs to be shaken or stirred before use.

While your steak is cooking, ideally over glowing coals, quickly whisk or beat half a cup of olive oil in a small bowl or food processor. Add half a cup of hot water, poured slowly into the oil in a thin stream, while constantly beating the oil. Continue beating as you add the juice of a lemon, also in a thin stream. Finally, stir in a clove of minced garlic, a few sprigs of minced parsley and minced oregano, and a teaspoon of dried oregano. Adjust seasoning with salt, and serve the salmoriglio alongside your steak, to be applied as needed.

You can also sprinkle some pomegranate seeds on top. Pomegranates are in season during the holidays, and the occasional seed will explode in your mouth, a tart bite of sweet acid cutting through the richness of the salmoriglio-drenched meat like a sip of wine.

Don’t let the cold, dark, empty days of winter swallow you whole. Swallow back. Thicken your sauce with warm camaraderie. Chew the fat while working in the kitchen. Continue chewing, with your mouth full of fat, until the sun comes back. It won’t be long.