Saturday, September 27, 2008

Chicken Fat Rules

Originally written April, 2005, published in Strut Magazine (a Detroit women's magazine that published its last issue in September of 2008)

Chicken Fat Rules!

With all due respect to Mr. Legasse, pork fat may rule in the world of Creole cooking, but among aficionados of traditional Jewish home cooking, chicken fat rules the roost.

Rendered, seasoned chicken fat, known in Yiddish as “schmaltz” has its roots in Eastern European Jewish cooking.  Sometimes goose-fat would be used, but as Ashkenazic (eastern European) Jews emigrated to America, chicken fat became the far more common choice.

So, why schmaltz, you ask? First of all, it keeps longer than butter, and chicken fat was often discarded, making it an economical alternative to more expensive dairy fat. Most importantly, it is an acceptable (and surprisingly delicious) substitute for butter in Kosher households, where meat and dairy cannot be combined in the same meal. Before margarine was readily available, chicken fat was used for cooking and even as a dressing for noodles or a spread for warm bread. In many Jewish kitchens today, chopped liver and matzo balls just aren’t the same without it.

As a young girl, I remember my father giving my sister and me $10 and sending us to the deli on Sunday mornings. We walked 10 city blocks for lox, smoked sable and bagels. Yes, in the late 1960s it was still safe for two young girls to walk to the store unaccompanied, and $10 could, indeed, buy plenty of lox, bagels and smoked fish. And we usually had enough change left over for something sweet at the bakery next door. Ah, the good old days!

The deli always smelled of warm rye bread, hot corned beef and barrels of old and new dill pickles, a familiar combination of smells that still transports me back to northwest Philadelphia. On the way home, I carried the bag of fish and cream cheese. Carrying the warm, fragrant bag of bagels was 10 blocks of sheer torture that I delegated to my sister. I was, after all, older.

My first experience with schmaltz came on one such Sunday morning. I must have been about 10 and our table had been set with the usual trappings of a Jewish brunch. Lox, smoked fish, cream cheese, bagels, onions, sliced tomatoes and cucumbers. And set among this colorful spread was a small dish of what appeared to be…well…fat. My father took a small amount of this glossy, creamy stuff and spread it on a slice of cucumber and sprinkled it with salt, as my sister and I (and my gentile mother) watched in a combination of curiosity and mild disgust.

Dad, in his typical fashion, said nothing, knowing our gastronomical curiosity would soon get the best of us…and he was right. Since we were all adventurous eaters, we immediately followed suit, taking a slice of cucumber, applying a light slick of the “schmaltz”, as he told us it was called, a sprinkle of salt…delicious.

Several weeks later, dad showed us how to render the chicken fat; slowly (and with a little chopped onion for flavor and a little water to allow the onions to cook without burning) over low to medium heat until the fat was liquefied and a few solid, crispy-browned pieces remained in the pan. He called these “cracklin’s” but I later learned that the Yiddish term for them was grebenes, and if the schmaltz is a delicacy, then these are manna from heaven. Drained on a paper towel and sprinkled with salt, they're the Kosher version of pork rinds…only way better, and far more precious--because a full pound of un-rendered chicken fat may only yield a few tablespoons of grebenes.

It was a rare treat when dad made "schmaltz and grebenes". I'm not sure which I enjoyed more. The cracklin's or the aroma --the very essence of chicken--that filled the kitchen.

What made me think of chicken fat today, ironically, was the gumbo I had planned for dinner this evening. The recipe calls for 1 cup of lard to start the roux. Since my husband doesn’t eat pork or any other red meat, I’m using shrimp and andouille sausage made from turkey for my gumbo, but wanted to replace the lard with something more flavorful than vegetable oil. I immediately thought of schmaltz. A bit of a twist, I thought, putting something so traditionally Jewish in a dish that calls for pork sausage AND shellfish, two foods that are decidedly NOT kosher!!!

So I’m off to the store. The Hiller’s markets in the West Bloomfield area sell little tubs of schmaltz in their Kosher poultry section. And it’s fine, it really is.

But I’m going to ask the butcher for some chicken fat, and I'm going to render it myself. Why? Because it's Sunday. Because it reminds me of my father. And because I can already smell the sweet onions gently caramelizing and taste the salty crunch of the crackly little grebenes. And if my kids clean their rooms, I might even let them have a few.

And if there’s any schmaltz left over after I make my roux, I'll smear a litle bit on a slice of cucumber and make a little toast to dad.

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