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!!!

 

THE “WILD MAN”, “THE HEALER” AND THE STOLEN PAINTINGS

Twenty-four years ago I experienced the dubious complement of being burgled of three of my favourite paintings.

We’d more or less completed the construction of our house in Andalusia when all our household belongings arrived from England. I say more or less completed, because we had yet to make the house secure with things like window bars and securely locking doors. However, situated as we were, in the proverbial middle of nowhere and with only a handful of people knowing our house existed, we felt reasonably secure receiving our possessions. And looking back on it now, I don’t suppose that eight months of living on a building site devoid of all creature comforts and luxuries had done much for our sense of judgement when it came to matters of domestic security?

A perfect illustration of just how crazy we were is represented by what happened the very first night we got our stuff back.

After an entire day of frenzied unpacking I decided to reward us by rigging up our much-missed stereo. Our ghetto-blaster had broken halfway through the build and for the past four months the only music we had to listen to was whatever happened to be playing on our matchbox-sized radio. Now, at last we could hear our music, on our wonderful sound system and most importantly of all, at our volume.

And as it was the volume I craved as much as the music itself my choice of tune for this auspicious occasion was Led Zeppelin’s superlative “Trampled Underfoot” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ftknR1gf9qw). My first hearing of the number was as a wide-eyed 15-year-old in the fifth row at Earls Court in 1975, when it had changed my life, and so it seemed like an apt song with which to celebrate this new chapter.

I put it on at full volume and immediately went out onto our north terrace to enjoy it against the appropriately spectacular view of the crimson Sierra Tajeda bathed in flaming sunset. Soon I was gyrating away in a state of manic bliss; then joined by our Maremma Sheepdog Aura, who, teddy in mouth joined in the head-banging. Shortly Dido appeared on our little bedroom balcony, next to the terrace, fresh from the shower, stark-naked, executing a superb go-go-dance.

All-in-all, quite a party…except that during one of the brief inter-riff silences in the music I thought I heard goats! And again, in the next silence, I could hear an instant of goat bell mingled with goat bleat. Then to my horror, I peered down the slope beneath the terrace, to the dirt track beyond our little vineyard to find myself staring into the face of one of the local village goatherds! I don’t know how long he’d been watching us, but his amazed expression was clearly visible, even from fifty yards away…

To cut a long story short, for years afterwards we were known in the village by the sobriquets that title this post. To this day, we still get odd looks from some of the older villagers.

Sadly, it wasn’t just the goatherd who brought us down to earth with a bump. The next evening, when we returned from a visit to the coast we found that three of my paintings had been stolen, including one of my favourites of the ships in Arica Harbour in Chile. What made the pain of the robbery worse was that we knew exactly who the guilty party was (not the poor goatherd by the way!) but for reasons too sensitive to divulge here, we also understood that there wasn’t a damn thing we could do about it. Fortunately I did at least photograph the three pictures and have presented them here…

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?

JOHN’S SHOPPING, BUT NOT COPING…

If you ever wondered what all those dots and dashes are for on Scandinavian words then the name of the town in Sweden Dido and I are soon to move to might help.

Jönköping without its umlauts (or “umplaghs” as Dido refers to them) looks fairly straightforward to the English eye. Jonkoping instinctively, phonetically looks like it should be pronounced “John-coping”, but the presence of the umlauts immediately sets alarm bells ringing. You just know that “John-coping” is wrong with the result that you find yourself instinctively “accenting” the word. However, unless you are familiar with “Northern Germanic” languages the chances are that instinctive accenting will be wide of the mark.

In my case for instance, before I knew better, I found myself pronouncing it something like “Jern-kerping” whereas after being corrected by a helpful Swede I was told to pronounce it more like “John-shopping”. Of course, “John-shopping” is only an approximation of the correct Swedish pronunciation, but it does at least indicate the effect of the umlauts.  Moreover, since I’ve been using it, the constant stream of polite corrections from dismayed Swedes has ceased.

The one thing all our new Swedish acquaintances have told us is that our ability to pronounce Swedish words correctly, including Jönköping will improve over time.

Whether or not we have sufficient time in Sweden to master Swedish enunciation will depend upon how well Dido’s new tenure at Jönköping University works out. As things stand she’s planning on this being her professional swansong, but even at 57 this still leaves us with plenty of time – potentially…

Far more accessible than Jönköping’s correct pronunciation is its pleasant geography. The town is situated on the banks of Sweden’s second largest lake, Vättern (yes, another umlaut, and no, I haven’t been informed yet and all guidance welcome) and during our recent visit I manged to get some striking images of it, and the natives enjoying themselves along its beach.

One of the things that I’m falling in love with in Sweden, and something I already miss when I’m not there is the astonishing crystalline light and the startlingly vivid colours and tones it produces on everything it touches. These pictures illustrate this pretty well…

 

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

 

 

POINTS AND VIEWS

Standing a loved one or a friend, or even an animal before a fabulous vista is a cultural staple of the holiday snapper. For me, apart from the “I/we was/were there” element, the juxtaposing of a human and or animal before vastness simultaneously humanises and accentuates the majesty of the given panorama. Painters have been doing the same thing since the days of the great Dutch and British landscape painters of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, from Van Ruisdael to Caspar David Friedrich.

Presented here are sadly no Friedrich’s, but this set of enhanced-photos from all my years of travel do nevertheless express something of that dramatic relationship between “us” and the landscapes we move within…

Fellow Worker at Yiftach - Israel
In 1978 I was a volunteer for the summer on Kibbutz Yiftach on Israel’s northern border with Lebanon. This is the view from the north east corner of the kibbutz towards Mount Herman…

Simon at Slee Head - Kerry Coast - Ireland

This dates back to the late 70’s when my old mate Simon and I drove around Cork and Kerry in his old orange Datsun. This is Simon peering over the edge at Slea Head near Dingle on the Kerry coast (famous for being the location for the movie Ryan’s Daughter)…

On Gilboa - Israel

Taken around 1981, this is the summit of Mount Gilboa. The field of boulders could seem to bear witness to the power of David’s curse in his great lament for the fallen Saul and Jonathan that nothing should ever grow upon the mountain’s slopes again…

Friend above Ein-Kerem - Jerusalem
In 1980 I spent the summer with a friend in west Jerusalem. Every day for about a fortnight we walked into the forest above Ein Kerem to draw and paint. the scent of pine needles roasting on the ancient terraced slopes was intoxicating…
Les 2 Alps Bench
One my first trips abroad with my then-girlfriend Dido was a skiing trip to Les Deux Alpes. The skiing wasn’t up to all that much but the walk into the neighbouring valley was some compensation…
Dido by San Pedro River (Chile)
Walking back to San Pedro de Atacama after visiting the pre-Inca ruins of  Pukara de Quitor – the mighty Volcan Lincancabur stands proud in the distance…
Friend Marvelling at the Atacama in Bloom (Chile)
Later during the same 1991 trip we were privileged to witness the first serious rains over the the southern Atacama desert in 40 years. The subsequent desert blooming  was regarded by some Chileans as nature celebrating the beginning of the post-Pinochet era…
Dido and Friend on Road to Santiago (Chile).jpg
Santiago’s de Chile’s curse and glory are the walls of mountains which surround it; a pollution trap on the one hand and on the other – as can be seen from this picture taken on the road back from Valparaiso – beautiful on the eye…
Coursegoule - South of France
Coursegoules in southern France…
Dido at Point Sublime - Blue Mountains, NSW, Australia
We started travelling to Australia regularly from 2007 thanks to Dido’s work. Here she is at the aptly named “Point Sublime” at the edge of the Blue Mountains in New South Wales…
Dido at Cardona (Catalonia)
And here’s Dido at the castle of Cardona (now a delightful parador) in the Catalan countryside…
Dido Approaching the Small Crator
And, from some 30 years after my stay on Kibbutz Yiftach, a set of images from Israel taken in the early 2010’s. Here’s Dido again approaching the edge of one of the Negev craters…
Dido at the Great Crater - Negev
And sitting at the edge of that crater…
Timna - Negev Desert
The Wilderness of Zin…
Golan - Above the Yabock Valley
And finally, from the “biblical south” to the “biblical north” – Hereford cattle notwithstanding – looking down from the Golan Heights (biblical Bashan) towards the valley of the River Jabock, of Jacob and Esau fame.

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”…

 

NO RAW MINCE – PLEASE! Sorting out your cottage from your shepherd’s pie and how to make the genuine article/s…

hat many people beyond the shores of the British Isles may not know, is that the humble shepherd’s and cottage pies are directly linked to the British Sunday roast — roast lamb and roast beef respectively. For generations going back into the hazy past, Monday night evening meals (suppers, dinners, teas – depending upon what part of Britain one inhabited, geographically and / or socially) were typically made up of the scraps from the previous day’s lunch and more often than not the main constituent would be the leftover meat. And if this meat happened to be lamb or beef then normally it would be minced or finely chopped, mixed with cooked vegetables, roofed with a thick layer of mashed potato and ultimately emerge from the oven as either of the aforementioned pies.

Simple to make, thrifty on the wallet and tasty enough for even the fussiest eaters, shepherd’s pie has joined the “English breakfast”, fish and chips and bangers and mash as one of the few British dishes to gain global popularity. Over the past few decades it’s become a staple of the comfort food menu and an international culinary superstar.

But, at the risk of sounding like Sheldon Cooper pointing out what makes — and what doesn’t make — a true Texas Chilli (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=42NYgA85Wck), there’s a problem; a problem of misrepresentation:

I’ve eaten concoctions of meat and mashed potato, purporting to be shepherd’s pie everywhere from Perth in Australia, to Seattle in the USA, and at all stops in between, including places as diverse as Chennai, Stockholm and Tel Aviv. And, while several of these alleged shepherd’s pies have been very agreeable plates of food, they’ve no more been shepherd’s pie than a vegetarian sausage is an actual sausage or Greek chickpea puree is humus.

The first and most serious error that the cooks of all these dishes make is basing their recipes on raw beef mince and the second is to call the dish after the keeper of sheep. Shepherd’s pie (yes, the clue is in the name) is always made with lamb or mutton – leftover roast lamb or mutton if possible, but lamb mince at the very least. There’s nothing wrong with a minced beef and mashed potato pie, but compared to a true cottage pie (for it is in in fact cottage pie that theses ingenuous cooks are making) — made with leftover roast beef — it’s a sad imitation at best. Perhaps if we renamed Cottage Pie, Cowherd Pie (or Cowboy Pie in the States and Gaucho Pie in Argentina) it would clear up some of the apparent confusion. In fact, here in Spain when I’m lucky enough to have roast kid scraps I call the resulting dish Goatherd Pie – and very delicious it is to.

Unfortunately, the error has been exacerbated by a plethora of British cookbooks, often penned by famous British chefs, who for reasons to do with things like “convenience” and the pace of “modern life” disseminate shepherd’s pie recipes based upon raw beef mince.

The point is, as I hope the recipe below for Cottage Pie will demonstrate, the superiority in flavour, texture and sheer pleasure of eating a meat and mashed potato pie made from roast meat scraps, over one made from raw mince is worth the extra 10 minutes it takes to prepare.

Cottage Pie 1

COTTAGE PIE

(Serves 2 as a single dish meal or 4 as part of a three course dinner  / Preparation time: 1 hour 45 minutes / Cooking time 30 minutes)

Ingredients for mash

  1. 1½ lbs floury potatoes – peeled and cut up into medium dice for boiling
  2. 2 oz unsalted butter
  3. 5 fl oz single cream or full fat milk
  4. freshly ground black pepper
  5. 2 tbsp coarsely grated cheddar cheese

Ingredients for pie

  • 2 tbsp cooking oil (rapeseed, corn or nut but not olive or sunflower)
  • 12 – 14 oz of roast beef meat  –   finely chopped (not minced or blitzed!!)
  • 1 large carrot                            –   finely chopped
  • 1 stick of celery                        –   finely chopped
  • 1 brown onion                        –  finely chopped
  • 1 tbsp plain flour
  • 12 fl oz beef gravy or rich stock (a stock made from a cube will do)
  • 1 tbsp brown sauce (HP, OK or similar)
  • ½ tbsp Worcester Sauce
  • salt and ground white pepper

Method

  1. Preheat oven to 190° c (170° c fan)
  2. Make the mash potato, being sure to end up with a light and creamy texture – season to taste. Leave to cool.
  3. Heat the oil in a large skillet or frying pan over a medium/high heat.
  4. Sauté the vegetables until beginning to brown – about 10 minutes.
  5. Add the meat to the pan, mix thoroughly with the veg and cook for about 2 minutes.
  6. Add the flour and mix well, cooking for a further 2 minutes.
  7. Add the stock, brown sauce, Worcester Sauce and season well.
  8. Cook on a high heat until until the stock has reduced somewhat and the pan contents resemble a ragout.
  9. Check the seasoning and pour ingredients from the pan into a well buttered 2 pint oven dish.
  10. Leave to cool for about an hour, until a skin has formed on the surface of the ragout.
  11. Carefully spoon the mash onto the ragout – be careful not to push the potato into the ragout – then spread out with the back of a fork until the potato is level and neatly ridged.
  12. Sprinkle the grated cheese over the top.
  13. Place in the centre of the oven for 25 – 30 minutes until the pie is bubbling.
  14. Serve with a heap of fresh or frozen peas and wash down with a mug of strong English tea, a glass of good ale or a spicy Côtes du Rhône…

(For shepherd’s pie simply substitute the beef for lamb or mutton, use a lamb gravy or rich lamb stock, or a rich chicken stock, and omit the cheese topping.)