JEWISH ALCHEMY – or how to make schmaltz and grieven…

Many posts ago 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 poultry fats are once again in vogue, and have even been declared healthy 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 Pepé, 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!!!

AN ILLUSTRATED GUIDE TO MAKING – OXTAIL CHOLENT

This is presented with the presumption that people looking in are familiar with the concept of cholent. For those of you who may not know anything about this Sabbath staple of Ashkenazi Jewish winter cuisine (not to be confused with the Sephardic chamin) I would direct you to here, for a fairly concise explanation of its history and development.

In common with most traditional “family dishes” there are as many nuances of the basic recipe as there are people who cook it. The one I present here is based on the very plain cholent recipe my booba (my grandmother) used to cook and which we all loved, but with several embellishments which I’ll explain as we go along.

By using oxtail, rather than one of the normal cuts of beef – typically from the forequarters of the animal – I am going against all tradition, even my own! My reason for using oxtail though, was purely pragmatic in that I wanted to make a cholent, and oxtail was the only thing I had in the freezer. And although not traditional, oxtail has all the basic qualities required for this long, slow cooking process, in that it is a fat and sinuous meat.

Sadly, for most observant Jewish readers of this post – unless you reside in Israel and perhaps certain parts of the States, you probably won’t be able to get your hands on kosher oxtail. If that is the case, use a cut of fat beef on the bone; a meaty piece of shin would work well or a large top rib.

It also helps to have a wood burning stove such as I have here in Spain – perfect for slow cooking at low temperatures – but any real oven will do. Avoid however, electric slow cookers and dutch ovens (so sadly prevalent now in Israel) as you’ll end up with all the flavour escaping from the ingredients into the liquid: Fantastic if you want a brilliant soup, but not if you want a rich, unctuous hotpot where each component is packed with flavour.

Anyhow, the proof of the cholent is in the cooking, and this turned out the best cholent I have tasted in years. Whether or not my booba would have approved of my embellishments is open to question…

INGREDIENTS (serves 4)

2 cups – butter (Lima) beans – soaked overnight in several changes of spring water (or filter water – chlorinated tap water tends to toughen beans and impairs their flavour)

1 cup – pearl barley – rinsed thoroughly and soaked for 1 hour (again, in spring water)

4 – large carrots – pealed and left whole

1 – large onion – pealed and sliced thickly

1 – large oxtail – cut into 6 or 7 pieces

2 – bay leaves

12 – white and black pepper corns

4 – large potatoes – pealed and cut in half

1 – large head of garlic – with the outer “paper” removed

16 – small kneidlach (matzo meal dumplings) – with their cooking stock reserved

salt to taste

(Optional additions include a large stuffed chicken neck (helzel) and / or 4 shelled hard boiled eggs)

METHOD

Preheat the oven to  200°c (220° fan / 400° f)

1) Choose a large deep cooking pot or casserole with a tight fitting lid (any cast-iron or heavy enamelled pot will do)…

This is my grandmother's old cholent pot - and probably her grandmother's before her -perfect for the task.
This is my grandmother’s old cholent pot – and probably her grandmother’s before her -perfect for the task.

2) Place the butter (Lima) beans at the base of the pot…

Spanish butter beans are wonderful - plump and sweet
Spanish butter beans are wonderful – plump and sweet

3) Place the pearl barley on the beans (my grandmother only used the beans)…

Always rinse barley thoroughly before using it
Always rinse barley thoroughly before using it

4) Next, put in the carrots and onion…

The larger the carrots the better and whole small onions can be substituted
The larger the carrots the better and whole small onions can be substituted

5) Place the meat on the “bed” of vegetables and pulses…

Oxtail (rabo de toro) is a big deal here in the south of Spain and is generally excellent quality. The darker and more aged the meat the better
Oxtail (rabo de toro) is a big deal here in the south of Spain and is generally of excellent quality. The darker and more aged the meat the better it will cook

6) Add the spices (Booba never used bay leaves – just salt and ground white pepper)…

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7) Place the potatoes around the meat (remember – large pieces)…

It's essential to use waxy spuds which won't disintegrate during the long cooking
It’s essential to use waxy spuds which won’t disintegrate during the long cooking

8) Scorch the garlic and then place it on the meat (yup! You guessed it – Booba would never have used garlic!)…

This is a trick I learnt from the local cooks - only they would drop it into a white chicken broth - it adds a subtle smokey taste to the garlic.
This is a trick I learnt from the local cooks here in Spain – only they would drop it into a white chicken broth – it adds a subtle smokey taste to the garlic
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9) Remove the kneidlach from their cooking stock and place around the meat and potatoes (no – Booba didn’t put kneidlach in her cholent either)

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10) Pour a pint (or more if required) of the kneidlach cooking stock over the cholent (Booba used water – but whichever liquid you use, the more you use the wetter the cholent will be. I prefer it drier with all the juices absorbed into the ingredients)…

11) Finally, seal the lid of the pot with a piece of baking parchment or tinfoil….

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12) Put the pot into the preheated oven and cook at 200°c (180° fan / 400°f) for two hours, then turn the heat down to about 110°c (90° fan / 230°f) and cook for a further 6 hours – or longer if preferred.

At no time during the cooking be tempted to lift off the lid.

When you do finally open the pot you want to be confronted by something like this (note how the kneidlach and edges of the potatoes have become slightly caramelised …

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And finally you want to serve it with a good heavyweight red with plenty of complementary  “beef” of its own – betey avon!!

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