One rule of etiquette advises never to discuss politics or religion in “general” company. This is because, without some familiarity, lively debate can devolve into heated arguments and hurt feelings. Today, a number of inflammatory topics could be added to the list. Sex, for instance, has graduated from taboo topic to “something” one should be mindful to discuss in polite company.
However, people tend to speak passionately on subjects about which they are passionate. So, with the fairly recent diversification of North American food culture, food tends to be a favourite usual suspect conversation starter. But, add nutrition to the mix and watch tempers flare.
So, let’s start a conversation about canola oil.
“Doesn’t rapeseed oil have a history of industrial uses?”
Indeed, rapeseed was first grown in Canadian soil during World War II for industrial applications. Back then, rapeseed oil was largely inedible. But, it was essential as a lubricant for steam engines. Trains and naval ships were predominantly steam-powered. Because the war cut off the supply of rapeseed oil from Europe and Asia, Canada had to undertake domestic production. Thus, seeds from Argentine and Polish varietals were planted, producing war-time emergency measures crops, only a few acres’ worth.
Since 1942, growers and agricultural scientists (including some innovative researchers at the Saskatoon branch of the National Research Council and University of Manitoba) worked to adapt rapeseed to produce an edible oil, “canola” (Canada’s “oil”). Its introduction addressed two needs. Before canola’s advent, the majority of our country’s edible oil was imported. And, with the widespread replacement of steam engines with diesel, demand for rapeseed oil fell sharply.
“Isn’t rapeseed oil toxic?”
Canola is the result of selectively breeding rapeseed varietals together, favouring specific seed traits like higher protein content and increased oil yield (approximately 45% by mass). Despite its shared lineage with turnips (Latin “rapum” meaning turnip), mustard, cabbage, and radishes, canola produces only trace amounts of undesirable compounds like erucic and eicosenoic acids or glucosinolates.
“I thought canola, a processed oil, was a GMO crop!”
Traditional canola, first introduced in the 1970s, was created through decades of conventional plant breeding. Modern canola crops have been genetically engineered to be tolerant to herbicides like Roundup (glyphosate). However, organic canola crops cannot include transgenic varietals. Moreover, canola seeds can be cold-pressed (neither heated nor treated with substances like hexane) to produce “virgin” oil similar to prized olive oil.
[Note: Whereas more refined canola oil can have a shelf life of a year (if stored in a cool and dark place), cold-pressed has a shelf life of 9 months (if refrigerated).]
Clearly, there is a plethora of information and misinformation about canola, one of Canada’s important economic crops. Even on the World Wide Web, Snopes, the debunker of Internet-born myths, published a piece on canola.
Canola at Home
Having been born after 1974, my wife and I weren’t familiar with canola’s history. Growing up, canola oil was already pervasive. My parents used it. Our family doctor recommended it. It was and continues to be marketed, touting its nutritional value. Accordingly, canola oil is made up of mono- and poly-unsaturated fats, some of which include omega-3 (linoleic), omega-6 (alpha-linoleic), and omega-9 (oleic) fatty acids. It is also low in saturated fats.
At home, canola is a staple. We exploit the cooking oil’s temperature tolerance, never heating it above 205°C (400°F). We’ve found most refined canola oil available on the market breaks down above this temperature. Though, even when shallow- or deep-frying, there is no reason to bring any oils to the published smoking point of canola, 242°C (468°F). In fact, lately, we have been using canola oil to “slow poach” meats and fish in a water bath with our Anova immersion circulator, but more on that later.
Present-day research disputes whether consuming saturated fats contributes to cardiovascular disease. Nutritionists now vilify trans fats and question the benefits of consuming heavily processed unsaturated fats, especially when hydrogenated.
As such, when Toronto-based Branding and Buzzing invited us to participate in an event hosted by the Manitoba Canola Growers and Alberta Canola, we readily accepted to continue the conversation. And, we invited a number of friends to join us: Paula Roy, food editor of Ottawa At Home Magazine; Nick Bachusky, host of Ottawa’s Lunch Out Loud podcast; Andrea Tomkins, freelance writer and family blogger behind A Peek Inside the Fishbowl, and Amy Karlin, freelance writer and lifestyle blogger behind Amy in 613: Ottawa, etc.. We were joined by Jenny Ryan and Judy Hum-Delaney, two of the Ottawa Foodie Girlz.
The Canola Eat Well Culinary Workshop was held at the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum, which is located at the Central Experimental Farm (861 Prince of Wales Drive), one of Ottawa’s almost 1100 working farms. Part of a series of #farmtofood experiences, the event was intended to connect attendees with farmers and demonstrate the versatility of canola in food preparation. Guests partook of an opportunity to “Learn. Create. Make. and Take.”
The Canada Agriculture and Food Museum was a well-chosen event space. The museum is dedicated to showcasing Canada’s agricultural history. As we learned during our tour of the facility, one of the current exhibits highlights the role science plays in delaying food decay. Methods like pasteurization, refrigeration, and canning (water and pressure) help preserve nutrition and contribute to food security.
Then, Simone Demers-Collins of Alberta Canola lead us on a hands-on demonstration of how farmers determine if a crop of canola seed is ready to harvest.
The process of sampling, crushing, counting green seeds (too many can make a batch of oil rancid), and determining how much oil can be released is critical as there is a narrow window within which to harvest a mature crop before frost sets in.
Create and Make with Chef Rene Rodriguez of Navarra Restaurant
Much of the creation component was accomplished by talented chef Rene Rodriguez who happens to be the reigning Top Chef of Canada. His celebrated Navarra Restaurant is a must-visit for both locals and visitors to Ottawa. There, Rodriguez has been known to serve contemporary takes on Latin cuisine.
At the event, Rodriguez was challenged to prepare Spanish food, swapping out olive oil for canola. First, he demoed a classic pintxo, patatas bravas. Then, he treated us to a family-style meal of pintxos, featuring canola.
Explained Rodriguez, “My favourite oil is a specialty olive oil from Spain, ‘arbequina.'”
“But, I use Canola for frying.”
[“Arbequina” is a cultivar of olive that is mostly grown in Catalonia, Spain. It produces a very high yield of subtle-flavoured oil.]
[Photography by Nick Ghattas courtesy of Eat Well Canola Oil]
[Potatoes were fried in refined canola oil. The aioli component was made with the Pristine Gourmet’s cold-pressed canola oil.]
Rodriguez later elaborated that refined canola oil has a neutral flavour, so does not overpower ingredients.
But, he highly recommends Pristine Gourmet’s cold-pressed canola oil, which he employed as a finishing ingredient in his dishes.
[Photography by Nick Ghattas courtesy of Eat Well Canola Oil]
After we tucked into our meal, we were introduced to Tanya Pidsadowski who works a third-generation farm in Alberta. The 4000 acres of land she shares with her husband grows a variety of rotational crops, including canola. This year’s crop, which her husband was harvesting while she was in Ottawa, is estimated to yield enough canola seed to produce 929,000 1L bottles of canola oil. Their crop of barley is estimated to yield enough grain to produce 15 million bottles of beer. Their crop of wheat is estimated to yield enough flour to produce 3 million loaves of bread.
From Pidsadowski’s informal presentation, I came to the following realizations: even medium-scale intensive farms are family-run (sometimes by several generations); a lot of science (chemistry and biology) goes into growing the crops that contribute to the Canadian food supply; because labour is so expensive, farmers employ technology to successfully grow and harvest their crops; farmers are very mechanically-inclined and resourceful, repairing and patching very expensive equipment; and farmers are very well educated, many earning undergraduate and graduate degrees.
Finally, Canadian farmers choose to farm, a tradition they often want to pass down from one generation to another.
With some food for thought, the conversation about canola continues.
As promised, here is how we cook with canola oil.
[Charcoal grilled spicy cumin lamb; apple wood smoked pork and shrimp mini-egg rolls (shallow fried in canola); canola oil-poached grouper (sous-vide at 117°F for 35 minutes); stir fried watercress; Israeli cous cous seasoned with furikake]
Last words? Canadians should take some pride in our canola.
Disclaimer: We are being sponsored by Branding and Buzzing for participating in the Eat Well Culinary Workshop. However, the experiences and opinions are our own.