JEWISH ALCHEMY – or how to make schmaltz and grieven…

Many posts ago (in https://adamhalevi777.com/2015/01/08/an-illustrated-guide-to-making-gedempte-chicken/) I promised to do a piece on schmaltz (rendered chicken fat) and its delicious byproduct, grieven (or gribenes), and at last, a couple of years late, here it is.

I should point out that now that poultry fats are once again in vogue, and have even been declared healthy (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/judith-j-wurtman-phd/saturated-fat_b_5107298.html ) one can purchase ready-rendered duck and goose fat in most supermarkets and grocery stores. But unless one has access to a kosher butcher, rendered chicken fat remains mysteriously elusive. This is a shame, for when made properly it is not only lighter and every bit as useful and tasty as its “posher” cousins, but also indispensable to genuine Ashkenazi (central and eastern European Jewish) cookery.

Fortunately, making schmaltz is as simple as it is rewarding. Turning a heap of chicken fat and skin into a refined golden liquid is as close as a cook can come to culinary alchemy.

When we’re in Spain, our market butcher Pepe, gives me bags full of skin and fat which would otherwise end up in the stomachs of the local pigs. This saves me the work of butchering a chicken myself and means that I can make months worth of schmaltz at a time. When in the UK however I normally do everything myself from scratch.

The kind of schmaltz one ends up with depends entirely on the type of chicken the skin and the fat originates from. The best quality schmaltz comes from old boiling hens, but these days, in Spain and England at least, these are hard to get hold of, and extortionately expensive when available. The rendered fat they yield has a mildly gamey quality, ideal for cooking things like gedempte beef, while the grieven (resultant pieces of fried chicken skin) is slightly chewy. The next best choice would be any kind of free range chicken, and corn-fed birds produce an especially golden schmaltz. But, if one is economising, then a large, fat supermarket broiler will do the job just fine, with the added bonus of a light grieven that melts in the mouth.

The illustrated recipe below was made using the latter variety of bird, but is applicable to all types of chicken – although with an old hen you will need a cleaver in addition to a very sharp knife. If shopping from a proper butcher, one could of course ask him/her to prepare the bird for you and proceed with the rest of the process from there.

The small amount of effort required to make schmaltz is more than worth it, and its uses are almost limitless. From humble egg and onion, to chopped liver, to kneidlach, to chicken blintzers, to latkes and potato kugel and all kinds of ein-gedempte meats and fowl, or just scraped on your breakfast toast with a little salt, schmaltz is to Ashkanazi cuisine what butter is to Belgian and olive oil is to Spanish. It is the essential  flavour constant that gives Yiddisher cooking its distinct, and moor-ish character.

My mother and grandmother only used koshered chickens and would drop finely sliced onion into the grieven for the last few minutes of the rendering. While this resulted in a salty and rich flavoured grieven, it also made the grieven slightly soft and greasy and in addition gave the schmaltz a salty, oniony taste. I, on the other hand use non-koshered chickens and omit the onion, giving a more neutral tasting schmaltz (similar to unsalted versus salted butter) and a lighter, dryer and crispier grieven. It’s all a matter of taste, and completely dependent upon the whim of the cook, though I would suggest, if using a koshered chicken do be careful about adding extra salt.

Finally, once made, one can store the schmaltz for months, either in the fridge (where it will become opaque and solidify) or in a cool, dark pantry.

ILLUSTRATED RECIPE:

Schmaltz 1
1) Make sure to buy a large chicken, at least 4 lbs (about 2 kilos) in weight, to be certain of having sufficient fat and skin for a decent amount of schmaltz…
Schmaltz 2
2) Retrieve every last piece of skin (even from the wings) and every trace of fat from the bird. Skinned chicken is brilliant for things like schnitzel (in the case of the breasts), southern fried chicken, and Indian dishes, such as tandoori, tikka and lime and lemon chicken curries. The bones make an excellent stock or broth…
Schmaltz 3
3) Roughly chop up the fat and the skin…
Schmaltz 5
3) Put the chopped fat and skin into a heavy based (preferably non-stick) saucepan and cover with water. Put over a medium-high heat and bring to the boil, then turn the heat to medium-low…
Schmaltz 6
4) Boil gently until all the water has evaporated from the pan and the skin is crisp and golden. Some sticking is inevitable but stirring towards the end of the cooking keeps most of the skin free. Once the skin is golden and crisp remove the pan from the heat. It’s important not to overcook the skin as this will ruin the grieven and give the schmaltz a burnt taint…
Schmaltz 7
5) Strain the fat thoroughly into a heatproof bowl…
Schmaltz 9
6) Allow the fat – the schmaltz – and the skin – the grieven – to cool. Once cooled, refrigerate the schmaltz and enjoy the grieven with a cold beer or a glass of scotch. For non-Jewish people and non-observant Jews reading this who have never tasted grieven, you’ll wonder why grieven has never become a beer snack staple like pork scratchings (rinds). They’re twice as delicious and so much easier on the teeth…
Schmaltz 10
7) Once fully chilled, the schmaltz solidifies like lard and takes on an ivory opacity. Before you use it in cooking, as a first taste, try it for breakfast, scraped on toast, with a light sprinkling of salt.

BETAYAVON!!!

 

Hell! Is that Elle?

Essentially, photography is a form of visual, space-time distillation and isolation, especially when the subject matter is a person and / or people.

Painters such as Vermeer and Hopper achieved a similar effect in paint; that magical isolation of an instant and framing it for posterity.

Here is a small selection of my enhanced photographic examples of the “effect” from all over the place – but mainly Australia. And talking of Oz, is that Elle Macpherson, or her doppelganger I caught having a sneaky ciggy in Melbourne?

MASTERPIECE – or merely a collection of successful daubs?

Occasionally; very occasionally I miss painting huge canvases.

Not drawing – I really don’t miss drawing at all – nor watercolouring, or working with gouache or pen and ink, or even small and regular size oil painting. But once in a while I miss the thrill of that rarest of moments, when I almost felt like a genius, and for some reason this only happened to me when I was working on an epic scale.

I experienced the feeling just a handful of times in the thirty years of painting big canvases. It was normally sparked off by a single brushstroke when, just for a millisecond the brain achieved total control over the brush with the resulting daub a near-perfect expression of the thought behind the action.

Normally, these experiences and daubs occurred toward the completion of a painting, and were all the more satisfying for underlying the fact of conclusion – something rarely guaranteed when making any work of art.

I remember one such daub being a fleck of white light on the shoulder of a girl walking into a heat-hazed distance, and another being a splash of red, of a Coke can littering a pavement.

But of all the special daubs I ever applied to canvas, only one painting contained more than one, and this is that picture below, called Bormio 3000.

It’s particularly remarkable because unlike all the others which were “free works”, Bormio 3000 was a commission, and because of who it was for, and what they were paying me, it was painted under considerable pressure.

The patrons were a married couple who owned a successful commercial art gallery in London, and they wanted an extremely large skiing – themed oil painting to decorate the main room of their new chalet in Verbier. Moreover, they were paying me the largest sum of money I had ever been paid for my work – several thousands of pounds.

Somehow, and for whatever reason, the painting was a huge success, pleasing both the patrons and for once, the artist too.

Even more unusually, I like the painting as much now as I did then, when “special daub” after “special daub” seemed to flow from the brush as easily as breathing.

Bormio (unlike Swiss Alpine Verbier) is  in the Italian Alps, and “3000” refers to altitude (in meters) at the top of the run, pictured in the foreground. The painting was about 5 by 7 feet and when I look at it now, especially the portrayal of the far mountains and clouds I have not the faintest idea how I achieved it.

The term “masterpiece” is obviously a relative one and normally, highly subjective. However, based purely on Adam Green terms, so far as I am concerned, both in the summer of 1983 when I completed Bormio 3000, and now, 34 years later it remains the work of which I am most proud. It hits the mark in every department; tone and colour control; composition; light; drama; and near-perfect brush-work. All-in-all, not a bad conglomeration of “special daubs”…

(Bormio 3000 is available as a signed limited edition print – limited to 25 prints – about 32cm x 48cm / 13″ x 19″ size – at £150 each. See the purchasing and ordering artwork link above.)

Bormio 3000

 

 

WATER – Nature’s finest sculptor, colourist and impressionist

Wherever water merges with solid objects, either through light or physical interaction, or both, visual magic usually results. Without too much further ado, here is a series of images which reflect this fact perfectly (pun intended).

BEAUTY IN BLACK AND WHITE

I think the photographs shown here speak for themselves (they date from the 1980’s).

But for those of you interested in such things, they were shot originally on colour slide film (high-speed Ektachrome) on my trusty old Nikon FE, using the standard Nikor 50 mm lens. They were taken in a bedroom somewhere in Israel using the available electric side-lights for mood. I digitalised them about fifteen years ago (hence the slightly crude contrasts) and turned them into black and white images for this post.

The girl was a natural model and as you can see, the camera – if not the photographer (long painful story) – loved her.

“MARS ON EARTH” – Chile’s Incredible Desert

Of all the photos in my extensive archive of old camera film, there few that still excite me as much as those I took in the Atacama Desert in 1991. Regular visitors to this site will know that I have something of a passion for deserts and wildernesses.

Rather than try explain in words what it is exactly that gets my juices going (and to be honest, I’m not even sure I fully understand myself) here are a set of images from that trip. I made a series of mostly huge canvases together with a complementary set of small gouaches from these pictures, and they were the basis of two of my last one-man shows as a fine artist – one held at the Chilean Embassy in 1992. The first picture presented here (91 Chile Atacama) was the basis of the super-large canvas that eventually found it’s way to an architect’s studio in Seattle, as payment for the designs for our house in Spain.

The original images were taken on my then-antique Nikon FE using Agfa chrome slide film, and one day I hope to have a scanner with sufficient power to faithfully reproduce the pictures digitally — or better still, pay the Atacama a return visit with my current camera. Nevertheless, I think that with these pictures I’ve managed to reproduce some of the magic of Chile’s genuinely awesome “Mars on Earth”…

 

BOULOGNE BLUES – The story of how we became stranded for six months in the famous French Channel port

For reasons which will no doubt form the basis of a separate post, about six months after completing our house in southern Spain (https://adamhalevi777.com/2017/03/01/the-folks-who-would-live-on-the-hill-the-story-of-the-building-of-our-home-in-southern-spain-in-pictures/) we found ourselves living in a shabby rented apartment in a rundown part of Boulogne sur Mer on the north eastern tip of France.

Virtually penniless, we could not afford nor did we wish, to place our Maremma Sheepdog, Aura into the-then obligatory six-months of quarantine in Britain. We were in a pretty desperate situation, and if desperate situations require desperate measures, then the one we came up with was a genuine peach, although it did not seem so at the moment we conceived it.

Firstly, Dido took a job managing a paediatric occupational therapy department in Folkestone on the Kent coast, just a 40 minute Seacat (hydrofoil ferry) hop across the English Channel from Boulogne. Traveling as a foot passenger was cheap, and with a health-authority car provided at the English end, the daily journey would be both inexpensive and quicker than most commutes from the London suburbs into the City. It appeared to be totally reasonable solution to a tough problem; six months living frugally in a tatty loft then once we were more comfortably off, moving into a nicer flat in the charming old citadel above the port. Aura our dog was already 11 years old and towards the latter end of her life expectancy, and who was to know? Two or three years living in the charming quarter of an historic French town might actually be rather pleasant. The plan even seemed sufficiently fool proof that Dido need not disclose to her new bosses the fact she was living in France and risk their disapproval(the requirements for the post were that she lived within 30 miles of work… there were no stipulation as to whether the miles were measured across dry land or water).  But then, to paraphrase a famous remark of a late British prime minister, “events” intervened to devastate our plans.

Having committed ourselves to the minimum six-month rental contract, we moved into our dingy lodgings the week before Dido was to start her new job. The flat was unfurnished, without even a kitchen, and so we spent the whole of the first few days madly rushing around in a rented van, using our credit cards to purchase the basic essentials to make the place habitable. Amongst other things, we got a type of sofa-bed (known as a clic-clac in France) and a tiny Baby Belling oven with a double hob. We couldn’t afford luxuries like refrigerators then, and still couldn’t afford one by the time we eventually left the flat at the end of the six months. Nevertheless, after we had scrubbed the flat half-a-dozen times and got our few pieces of furniture set up (including a table improvised from a lacquered MDF board) the place seemed habitable. That, in addition to the fact it was only a five minute walk from the Seacat dock gave us reason to think the next six months would be reasonably tolerable. However, it must have been the Thursday or the Friday when we made that walk down to the port for the first time since settling in that the bottom fell out of our world.

Without notice of any kind the Seacat company had cancelled all runs to Folkestone with immediate effect. Dido had talked to the ferry people just a week earlier—days before we had signed the contract on the flat—and they had made no mention of their plans to cut back their service. It seemed like a sick joke. We were now tied into living in Boulogne for six months, and the only morning and evening transport across the Channel anywhere near practicable for Dido’s requirements was a 40 minute drive up the coast at Calais. Moreover, the only affordable foot passenger service was on the regular ferry boats, which took-one-and-a-half- hours to Dover. Suddenly, Dido’s easy two-hour daily return journey, now with the commute to Calais and the 20-minute drive from Dover to Folkestone added to the mix, had mutated horribly into a return journey taking five hours—on a good day.

But, with no money, and Dido’s job  starting on Monday she had no alternative but to do the Calais crossing.

As it happened, the commute turned out to be just one of the many grim and farcical components of what was to prove the most miserable period of our marriage—the details of which will be the subject of another future blog. Enough to say for now, that the France most people experience as tourists has little in common with the dingy, rough, criminal-infested street we inhabited during our sojourn in Boulogne sur Mer.

The origins of the pictures below lie in my numerous walks on Boulogne beach with Aura and apart from being a modest nod to great Dutch painters like Jacob van Ruisdael, express both the blueness of my mood in Boulogne, and my ever-growing yearning to cross that 20-mile strip of water back to England…

Boulogne Beach 1Boulogne Beach 2Boulogne Beach 3Boulogne Beach 4Boulogne Beach 5Boulogne beach 6Boulogne beach 7Boulogne beach 8

PORTRAITS – and my thank you to Chaim Beckman – and Kevin

I was only five years old when my first headmaster, Chaim Beckman, described me as “the complete illustrator and cartoonist”. However accurate he was in that appraisal there was no doubt that I was certainly able to capture a person’s likeness – in comic or serious form – from a precocious age. And, although I never made much money from portraits it was nevertheless a skill which served me well in some quite surprising ways.

Because I’d been living abroad for most of the previous year I missed being streamed in that first fateful year of English and Welsh comprehensive education in 1971 and so found myself “defaulted” into class “G” at my local ex-grammar school in Edgware (north London). Nearly all my friends from primary school had been streamed into classes “A” and “B”, with the few  relatively “dumb” ones ending up in “C” – so you can only imagine how isolated and strange I felt finding myself cast five rungs further down the intellectual ladder. The  fact that all of my new classmates were from the other side of the north London social and cultural tracks, and that I was the only Jewish kid in the group made for a potentially dangerous educational experiment – dangerous for me that was. But fortunately, my drawing (and my portrait skills in particular) was to prove to be my guardian angel.

On my very first day in class, the alpha male of stream”G”, a boy mountain  called Kevin approached me menacingly. Towering over my desk – and in what was my first personal experience of antisemitism directed at me – he  said, ‘Oi you – Jew boy!’ But before I had time to feel fear or shock, he continued; ‘I ‘ear you’re-a-bit-of-a-fucking artist’ (he used that expletive or worse in every utterance he made), to which I mumbled back something like; ‘er…yes…I guess so…”

‘Well fucking are-ya-or fucking arnt-ya?’ he demanded.

‘Yes’ I replied, perplexed and intimidated in equal measure, ‘I’m quite good at drawing’

‘Fucking draw me then!’

‘What?’

‘Are ya fucking deaf? I said draw me ya little Jew bastard!’

‘Er…draw you? When?’

‘Fucking now!’

It’s never ceased to amaze me, the things we can achieve whilst in a state of abject fear.

Somehow or other, I remained composed enough to invite Kevin to take a seat at the vacant desk next to my own, remove a new pad of lined paper from my brief case, take a felt tipped pen from my inside school blazer pocket and even to ask Kevin if he wanted me to do a caricature or something more serious.

‘A carick-what?’ he asked me.

‘Like a cartoon…like in the comics’

At this he smiled for the first time and said ‘Yeh! Make me into a cartoon, and put me in an Arsenal strip!’

Fortunately Kevin didn’t yet know that I was a Spurs fan. That heinous fact on top of everything else might have pushed him into doing something rash before I got a chance to win his favours with my drawing. But, to cut a short story even shorter, and spare you all from more of his expletives, my drawing of Kevin’s head on George Graham’s body, doing amazing things with a football impressed him so much that from that moment on, apart from having the honour of being “Kevin’s Jew” I was also designated by Kevin to be stream “G”s official artist. “Working for Kevin” (that was the way he termed it) was a bit like being the court artist to Henry VIII (they even looked a bit alike), with all the pressures and stresses that particular job must have entailed – only it was more the threat of having my head “beaten to a pulp” than having it removed which kept me on my toes.

As things turned out I only had to survive two terms at that school, but by the end of my time there, Kevin had – albeit somewhat inadvertently – helped me hone my drawing skills to a whole new level.

This selection of portraits (including sketches of one or two quite well-known people), covering about two decades and done in a variety of media, formal and rough, is dedicated to the late Chaim Beckman (one of the subjects presented here) for believing in me from such an early age, and also to Kevin, for teaching me to work well under pressure. Sadly, I don’t have any of the dozens of drawings I made of Kevin as he kept them all…

LOVE AND MARRIAGE – and a few laughs

With Valentine’s Day less than a month away and in light of the favourable response to my two recent greetings cards posts, here are some of the more successful designs I made back in the 1990’s with a romantic theme. While some were done specifically for the feast of said Valentinus, most were commissioned to cover the themes of wedding and / or non-specific anniversaries of a romantic nature.

The more conventional designs were for the UK market with the more quirky, and risqué images proving popular with Scandinavian, Dutch and German clients — although how they translated the captions, I have no idea.

My particular favourite — albeit retrospectively — is “You’re Just My Skype”, which originally bore the caption “Think of Me Always”. Given that the card was published in 1998, a full five years before Skype was launched I’m struggling to remember what influenced the design? Maybe it was just my “Jules Verne” moment…

POULET BASQUAISE – IN A TAGINE

2016-jan-basque-chicken-1

When I get a new kitchen implement or gadget I’m like a kid with new toy. I tend to use it at every possible opportunity until I get bored with it, or until something better comes along. And this recently happened to me when we purchased a tagine.

The reason I’ve resisted getting a tagine for the past thirty years or so is that I’ve generally found North African cuisine to be disappointing, underwhelming and wildly overrated — a classic example of the whole being less than the sum of its parts. Rose and orange blossom waters, couscous and preserved lemons all have their charms and can, in the right hands, be used to make acceptable dishes, but those hands rarely belong to the chefs who work in the Moroccan or Tunisian restaurants currently spreading exponentially throughout western Europe. I’ve suffered regular disappointment eating my way through dozens of apparently exotic dishes, constantly amazed by their sameness and blandness. Even the impeccably crafted Maghrebi recipes in Claudia Roden’s 2005 magnum opus “Arabesque” (Michael Joseph / 2005) — for all their promise of delivering aromatic taste-bud rapture — mostly produce mysteriously bland and monotonous results, leaving one hankering for more “Arab” flavour and far less of the oh-so-scented “esque”…

As with the equally overrated Greek diaspora cuisine, I strongly suspect that one needs to go to the countries themselves to taste the real deal. Some cuisines are so grounded in their host environments and atmospheres that they lose their essence in transit, and this is unfortunately the case with the cuisine of the Maghreb, though fortunately not with its most utilitarian cooking vessel — the aforementioned tagine.

One of our staple winter dishes when we’re at our home in southern Spain is poulet Basquaise. The reason is simple, in that the three main ingredients (chicken, tomatoes and peppers) are excellent and cheap, and the dish is simple to make. I can quickly prepare it in the morning then heat it up in the evening after a long, hard day picking olives or pruning olive trees. I use the recipe from Gerald Hirigoyen’s fabulous book, “The Basque Kitchen” (HarperCollins / 1999) with only minor adaptations due mostly to expedience (I’ve never been able to get hold of piment d’Espelette for example and use spicy paprika instead). I had also always used the conventional skillets and saucepans Hirigoyen recommends for cooking the stew until the other day, when, at the very last minute, I decided to do the actual stewing in my new tagine.

2016-jan-basque-chicken-2
Another tip for making this dish extra special is to use dark red peppers, roast on charcoal, skinned and seeded. Regular chopped peppers are fine too, but lack the natural richness and touch of smoke.

The results were excellent. Whereas formerly the dish was reliable and very tasty, the simple act of using a tagine instead of a saucepan hugely intensified the flavour, turning it from a good dish into something truly special.

Here is the recipe with a grateful nod to Gerald Hirigoyen (and whoever it was who invented the tagine!):

Serves 4

Ingredients:

  • One 4lb free-range chicken (or the best you can afford)
  • Flour for dredging
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • 3 oz. diced pancetta or streaky bacon (unsmoked)
  • 1 medium yellow onion thinly sliced
  • 2 dark red bell peppers (preferably roast, peeled and seeded)
  • 6 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 4 medium very ripe tomatoes, cored and coarsely chopped
  • 1 bouquet garni (of fresh herbs – I use, bay, rosemary, thyme, oregano and parsley)
  • coarse sea salt
  • ¼ tsp. freshly ground white pepper
  • ¼ tsp. piment d’Espelette (or hot paprika)

Method: 

  1. Cut up the chicken into 12 pieces: Quarter the bird then cut the wings from the breasts and the legs from the thighs; cut the wings in two discarding the tips; cut the breasts across into two pieces (reserve the carcass, offcuts and wingtips for stock).
  2. Dredge the chicken thoroughly in the flour.
  3. Heat the olive oil in a heavy skillet, on a medium-high heat and sauté the diced pancetta until the crisp and the fat has run, then set aside on a plate.
  4. Add the chicken to the skillet in batches (don’t crowd the pan!!) and brown thoroughly on all sides (about 5 minutes per batch), then remove to the plate with the pancetta.
  5. Add the onions and peppers to the skillet and sauté for at least five minutes, deglazing the pan as they cook — after about five minutes they should be soft and beginning to brown at the edges.
  6. Add the garlic to the skillet and sauté for a further two minutes.
  7. Return the pancetta to the skillet together with the tomatoes, bouquet garni, salt, pepper and piment d’Espelette (or hot paprika) and mix well.
  8. Turn this sauce mixture into the bowl of a large tagine.
  9. Lay the chicken on the sauce mixture, cover with the tagine lid and place on a medium flame.
  10. Once the lid of the tagine is too hot to touch (normally around 15 minutes) turn the heat right down to minimum and simmer for 20 minutes.
  11. Remove the breast pieces of chicken and keep warm — continue cooking for about another 20 minutes then, when sure the remaining chicken is cooked return the breasts to the tagine.
  12. Cook for a further five minutes, until the breast pieces are thoroughly re-heated.
  13. Discard the bouquet garni and serve with chunks of crusty, rustic, white sourdough bread.
  14. Wash down with a big Pyrenean red…2016-jan-basque-chicken-3