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 GEDEMPTE CHICKEN

As with most Yiddish words and, or phrases, gedempte does not translate easily into English. The most literal meaning could be steeped, but as this sounds so unlike an actual cooking term most cookbooks go with braised. And I suppose that in a purely technical sense the chicken (or the beef in the case of gedempte fleisch) is braised, in that it is first sealed in hot fat before being cooked slowly in a covered pot. But a Jewish cook would no more refer to her / his gedempte chicken as Braised Chicken than a French chef would call her / his  Boeuf Bourguignon a beef casserole. 

In any event, this is my recipe for Gedempte Chicken, or more properly, my recipe based closely on my late Great Auntie Ray’s recipe…

As with cholent (see my earlier post) there are many subtly different recipes for Gedempte Chicken, mostly influenced by from which part of the old Ashkenazi world the given recipe originated. For example, Jews of Hungarian decent always add large amounts of sweet paprika, whereas Yekkes (Jews hailing from the German-speaking lands) tend to use celery and tomato puree. However, my maternal great aunt’s grandparents (she was third generation British) were from Lithuania, and her cooking, although always excellent and delicious was highly minimalist. She considered vegetables/fruits/herbs such as celery, tomatoes and even paprika as exotic and unnecessary and thus her Gedempte Chicken was incredibly simple. Nevertheless, the handful of times I was privileged to sample it remain some of the most precious culinary memories from my childhood.

But whatever its embellishments, the template for all Gedempte Chicken is the same: Chicken, onions, garlic and heaps of schmaltz (rendered chicken fat which, as my auntie always knew, is very good for you!).*

The recipe presented here uses that template, with those basic ingredients processed as closely as possible to Ray’s recipe – with just a few tiny embellishments of my own…

INGREDIENTS (serves 4)

1 Main Ingredients

2 generous tablespoons  – schmaltz (rendered chicken fat – now available ready-made)

4 – large chicken thighs (skin-on)

2 – large cooking onions – halved and finely sliced

1 – large carrot – roughly sliced

1 – medium-sized head of garlic – peeled and finely chopped

1 cup – chicken or meat stock

salt and ground white pepper to taste

(Optional additions include either; a large stick of celery – thinly sliced –  or 2 tablespoons of Hungarian “Noble” sweet paprika, or 1 tablespoon of tomato puree, or any combination of the three)

2 Prepared Vegitables

METHOD

1) Choose a wide heavy pot and melt the schmaltz over a medium heat…

I make my own schmaltz but these days most good supermarkets have it as do most kosher butchers
I make my own schmaltz but these days most good supermarkets have it, as do most kosher butchers

2) Brown the chicken pieces in two or three batches – don’t crowd the pan…

Ray used the whole bird quartered, but I find that the breast meat tends to be a little dry from the cooking process. The dark meat works best
Ray used the whole bird quartered, but I find that the breast meat tends to be a little dry from the cooking process. The dark meat works best

3) Once browned and sealed, set the chicken pieces aside…

Make sure you really brown the chicken well. This ensures a lovely caramelized skin at the finish
Make sure you really brown the chicken well. This ensures a lovely caramelized skin at the finish

4) Add the onions and carrots to the same pan and saute until well browned, stirring every-so-often – about 10 minutes…

Here, I've used a blend of white ("Spanish"), baby and red onions to get a richer onion flavour. However, if you can get your hands on Roscoff onions, they work best of all
Here, I’ve used a blend of white (“Spanish”), baby white, and red onions to get a richer onion flavour. However, if you can get your hands on Roscoff Onions (the kind that Frenchmen with berets dressed in hooped shirts sell on strings dangling from their bicycles) , they work best of all

5) When the vegetables are well browned add the chopped garlic, and cook stirring for a further 2 minutes…

As always - the fresher garlic the better
As always – the fresher the garlic the better

6) Return the chicken to the pan, placing the pieces on top of the vegetables…

It's vital that the chicken sits on top of the veg
It’s vital that the chicken sits on top of the veg

7) Add enough stock to just cover the vegetables and bring to the boil – then add the seasoning and cover the pot with a tight fitting lid. Finally turn down the heat to very low and simmer for about 80 minutes…

Remember - use the bare minimum of stock. This is not a stew. Rather the chicken steams/roasts in the vapour from the stock
Remember – use the bare minimum of stock…
It's vital that the chicken sits on top of the veg
It’s vital that the chicken sits on top of the veg. This isn’t a stew, and the chicken steams/roasts in the vapour from the stock

8) Ready to serve!

10 Ready to Serve

(At this stage, if you are making the dish for a dinner party and you want to impress, you can make a thickening einbren – a kind of Jewish beurre manie, only made with schmaltz, not butter. Firstly remove the chicken and all the solids from the pot and place neatly onto 4 heated plates. Then, simply melt another 2 tablespoons of schmaltz in a small saute pan before adding two tablespoons of plain white flour. Cook until the flour goes brown and just begins to burn. Then, a small ladle at a time, add the liquid from the chicken pot until it is all incorporated and you have a rich, emulsified sauce. Finally, spoon a portion of the “einbren” over the chicken on the plates.)

9) Plate up and serve…

11 On the Plate

Here, I served the chicken with a tzimus of carrots and beans and mashed potato. Mash is fine but this works best with potato latkes.

Make sure you have a hearty red wine to wash it down and enjoy.

Betay avon!!