"This part of Fifth Avenue always seemed fat to him, fat and prosperous: like chicken schmaltz."--Henry Roth, Mercy of a Rude Stream
"They had a silver Hanukkah menorah full of the finest oil with a largeshamash candle ready to kindle the other wicks. Nothing but the best. From the kitchen one could smell the heavenly aroma of freshly rendered goose fat.
"We're having latkes tonight," Benny told me as we stood at the door, and my stomach rumbled with hunger!"--Sholom Aleichem, "Benny's Luck"
At a time when potatoes fried in duck fat elicit gushing oohs and aahs from today's foodies, it should come as no surprise that "schmaltz-glazed chicken" makes frequent appearances at Tocqueville in Manhattan's Union Square neighborhood.
How did schmaltz find its way onto the tony restaurant's menu? As Jo-Ann Makovitzky explains, her husband (and along with her, co-owner of the restaurant), Marco Moreira, was excited about a new technique he had devised: rendering chicken fat and brushing the breast with it to keep it moist. "Marco," she laughed, "that's schmaltz! You're glazing it with schmaltz."
Schmaltz is used to getting chuckles: according to Oded Schwartz, author of In Search of Plenty: A History of Jewish Food, schmaltz "is one of the cornerstones of Jewish humor." Although, like "chutzpah," "schmaltz" long ago made it into the American mainstream, the word, when used by non-Yiddish speakers had all but lost its food meaning and come to signify the overly sentimental, mawkish, and corny-especially in literature and the performing arts.
But schmaltz is making a comeback-not only in the kitchen, but even in the food lover's dictionary. In the December 2012 issue of Food and Wine magazine, a recipe for crispy potato and sauerkraut cakes (yes, reminiscent of latkes, but Northern Italian by way of Cleveland) calls for schmaltz-no italics and as the preferred term for the rendered chicken fat listed as an ingredient.
Jews have been rendering schmaltz at least since the Middle Ages. European Jews became proficient at breeding geese, often force-feeding them to produce exceptional foie gras and prodigious quantities of fat. The birds provided rich, savory meat; feathers and down to stuff pillows and mattresses; and many less obvious services, as Schwartz points out, including softening chapped hands, "as a chest rub against colds, for heartburn, as a base for cosmetic preparations, and as a marital aid." But by far, its most important use was as a delicious fat for frying, baking, and enriching foods at meat meals.
With the onset of cold weather, Jews slaughtered their geese for Hanukkah. Those who could afford to would relish goose meat on the Sabbath that fell during the holiday. And with no olive oil and other oils like peanut and corn not widely available until the 20th century, schmaltz became the "ritual oil" used to fry latkes and other Hanukkah specialties. Some schmaltz would be set aside and stored in special clean vessels for Passover use: the rendered fat kept well for long periods, even without refrigeration. In their kitchens, Jews used whatever schmaltz remained for everything from sautéing onions to enriching kasha and kugels, chopped liver and cholent.
Later, chicken--and sometimes ducks-both easier and cheaper to raise or buy at the butcher shop, replaced geese as the primary source of poultry fat.
Along with sautéing onions, frying in schmaltz is for many the Proustian aroma of bubbe cooking. My grandmother's matzoh balls were never the same when she began substituting corn oil for schmaltz, despite her attempts to flavor the oil with fried onions. Schmaltz has not just a unique taste, but a special texture too, like butter or lard, that combines with food in a particular way. It took me quite a while to realize this, of course. She had been dead for over twenty years before I ever made matzoh balls with real schmaltz-actually, a jar of goose fat purchased at a little Jewish épicerie in Paris's Marais.
Before that-and when I don't want to overindulge in high-cholesterol treats these days-I make a creditable substitute by very, very slowly sautéing salted onions in mild olive oil and emulsifying the mixture in a blender. It's very good for flavoring and enriching dishes, but it contains too much water to properly fry foods.
Onions do form part of the flavor profile of true schmaltz. After poultry fat and a little skin are slowly simmered, removing all the moisture and concentrating the schmaltz, onions (and sometimes garlic) is added and the mixture is further cooked down. The result is umami-rich: meaty from the skin and fat, savory from the aromatics.
So when someone tells you to just use the grey-tinged fat that congeals on top of chilled chicken soup as a stand-in for schmaltz when making matzoh balls, don't be fooled. That is coarse and unrefined, not pure fat but a greasy mix of muddy-tasting extraneous ingredients.
Schmaltz adds flavor to a slew of dishes: practically anything made with potatoes, from mashed to kugels, fillings for knishes and kreplach, not to mention heavenly sizzling latkes. Stir schmaltz into starchy foods, like farfel, kasha, and stuffings, salads like chopped eggs and onions, grated black radish...everything goes better with schmaltz. For Passover, it's not only wonderful in matzoh kugels and savory matzoh brie, or simply spread on matzoh, then topped with grated onions and toasted until its aroma fills the kitchen. But it's essential to many Passover desserts as well, such as fruit-and-nut filled chremslach and matzoh schalets. Meat fat in desserts? Well, think of how many non-kosher cooks swear by lard for their best pie crusts.
These days, it's not hard to find schmaltz at well-stocked supermarkets or specialty stores. In addition to the kosher ones, duck and goose fats are made by other producers too. Two different purveyors at my local greenmarket sell duck fat.
But it's very easy-and better-tasting-to make your own. Save up scraps of fat and some skin (trim away and discard any meat) from ducks, chickens, and geese, and store well-wrapped in the freezer until you are ready to prepare it. I usually make it when I am already in the kitchen, performing other slow-moving chores like making soup or baking.
And no storebought schmaltz comes with the griebenes that are its by-product: the little bits of well-browned cracklings formed from the fried onions and skin. Just as connoisseurs from Modena, Italy carry along their personal bottles of fine balsamic vinegar to season foods, so did Jewish becs fins during the seventeenth century bring their own jars filled with griebenes. You never know when the need arises for an unexpected condiment or nosh.
Leah Leonard, a beloved mid-twentieth century Jewish cookbook author, referred to griebenes as "Jewish popcorn." I prefer them in a GLT-the Jewish version of a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich.
But please-instead of white toast, spread the mayo on toasted challah or old-fashioned corn-rye bread. And be generous with the griebenes.