I have a secret to share with you: I generally avoid using any refined fat in my food. It’s a secret that the cook part of me is ashamed to admit, because it goes against one of the most trusted restaurant-isms that fat = flavor. The health-fanatic part of me, on the other hand, abhors the nutrient dead zone of calorie-dense, artery-clogging oil or butter. Meanwhile, the liberal arts college student part of me recognizes that I have placed a health halo over low and even “no-fat” foods and that our culture has absolutely no clue what is actually healthy or not.
Still, I feel like I’m living a double life, a culinary Hannah Montana, if you will. For the purpose of this blog, I develop recipes sparing no real expense – if a dish necessitates an oil-based vinaigrette or some fat to keep a baked good moist, I’ll go for it. If a soup needs a drizzle of olive oil to make it more photogenic, by all means I’ll drizzle that oil (and after, to be candid, I will scoop off that small layer of oil before digging in).
While I 100% stand behind my content, it would be unrealistic to pretend that I eat like that every day, or that I have the time/energy to make the “healthier” recipes every day. My day-to-day diet consists of toast or cereal for breakfast, and various permutations of rice and beans (literally rice and a can of beans cooked together with spices), frozen vegetables heated up in a dry pan to top. I’m still hoping that this is just a temporary college thing.
Daily life me is perfectly content eating the food equivalent of wallpaper paste, as long as there is no oil and a reasonable assortment of veggies and other foods with the nutrients my non-qualified self thinks I need. Cook me cries at every episode of Chef’s Table and dreams about culinary gastronomy, even though that’s not at all my cooking style.
This dissonance becomes exhausting after a while, yet somehow I’m naturally drawn to these extremes. What makes the middle ground so difficult to occupy?
I decided to try and bridge that gap through one of the simplest foods that I somehow never managed to get right: granola.
I’ve made traditional granola, with all the oil and brown sugar and such, and it was alright – not quite clumpy enough for my taste. I’ve made the health-nut version of granola, with no added fat, just water and syrup holding everything together. While this version had some good clumpage, it had a perpetual staleness to it that was evident even straight out of the oven.
Finally, through research and my own little bit of crazy, I thought up this chocolate tahini version. It’s refined oil-free but most definitely not low-fat, unassuming in appearance but unexpectedly complex in flavor. There are perfectly sized clumps, and I ate the whole batch in a matter of days.
Tahini has this acerbic note that makes it difficult to palate without something sweet or a little earthy to counteract it. Insert: chocolate (because most people love chocolate), two types of sweetness from maple syrup and coconut sugar, and just a touch of cinnamon to make the chocolate flavor shine even more. The tahini serves two purposes: it binds everything together and helps the granola bake up to the most delightful crunch in the oven and it also lends a nutty undertone, the sesame playing with the cocoa reminiscent of how hazelnuts do in Nutella. And what better way to celebrate that nuttiness than to add a generous serving of chopped nuts to the granola as well?
Photo time came and the styling was all well and good, but there just seemed to be an element missing – a drizzle of something, maybe (one of my most common styling techniques). Clearly the layout needed splatters of more tahini dotting every surface of the shot. And you know what? I didn’t even wipe the extra tahini off the granola before digging in, because it tasted good.
I like to let myself believe that tahini is healthy, maybe a bit better to use than more refined fats. At the very least, it certainly has more flavor than plain oil. Through this supposed virtue and its simplicity, this granola has made its way into my breakfast repertoire, an unusually “elaborate” break from my usual contents-of-a-cardboard-box with almond milk.
This granola is the most wonderful medium between my health halo and my love for decadence and exciting flavors.
I think I might like to occupy this middle ground more often.
Chocolate Tahini Granola
2 cups oats
¼ cup tahini
¼ cup cocoa powder
2 tablespoons coconut sugar
½ teaspoon sea salt
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ cup maple syrup
2 tablespoons water
1 cup mixed nuts, chopped (I used a blend of hazelnuts, almonds, brazil nuts, macadamias, and pecans)
1/3 cup cocoa nibs (to mix at end)
¼ cup hemp seeds (to mix at end)
Preheat oven to 300 degrees.
In a large bowl, mix together all of the ingredients except for the cocoa nibs and hemp seeds. Lay out the granola on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper, making sure that it’s in a single layer to ensure even baking.
Bake for 15 minutes, then rotate the pan in the oven. Bake for another 15 minutes and take the granola out of the oven (it’ll continue to crisp up as it cools). Mix in the cocoa nibs and hemp seeds, breaking up the granola a bit as you do so.
Note: many granola recipes call for you to stir the granola before you put it in for the second baking. I prefer not to touch it so that it bakes up into a large granola cookie of sorts. This allows me to break it up into nice clumps later.
Serve the granola with fresh fruit, [non-dairy] milk of your choice, and maybe some more tahini, if you’re feeling wild.