One day this summer when I was supposed to be writing my dissertation, I decided to make an Indian feast. After pulling the skin and fat from a mountain of chicken thighs for a recipe that called for them to be free of such obvious goodness, I found myself with an unappealing pile of slippery, yellowish chickenness. Not being one to waste anything when it comes to food, I asked myself, “what does one do with an unappealing pile of slippery, yellowish chickenness?” My good friend google was quick with the answer: make schmaltz. And thus began a week of adventures in Jewish cooking.
Hanukkah began at sundown last Friday, Dec 11th this year, so I thought this post was appropriate for the season. I’ve had some great Jewish friends over the years and while reading a book on the history of gastronomy in grad school realized that I knew very little about the often complex culinary rituals and traditions associated with the religion. It’s all still very new to me but I definitely related to the dishes I made as having the potential to be the ultimate comfort foods.
Schmaltz is animal fat rendered over low heat. There’s a comprehensive, illustrated recipe here. Because I also had a pile of chicken skin, gribenes were the tasty byproduct of my rendered chicken fat. I cut the chicken skin into small pieces and tossed it, along with a sliced onion and some salt and pepper, into the pan with my fat. Turned the fire on low, stirred occasionally, and about twenty minutes later had a pan of crispy chicken cracklings and fried onions. Here’s a recipes for gribenes on Epicurious.
The gribenes were good by themselves (who doesn’t like fried chicken skin?!) and I stirred them into a warm German potato salad later in the week. Not something I’m going to make every week, as I’d like to live past the age of 30, but I thoroughly enjoyed the crispy crunchy little cracklins.
With the cup of clear yellow schmaltz sitting in my fridge, I elevated one of my favorite recipes to new heights. I have loved Martha Stewart’s mom’s potato latkes (crisp potato pancakes) recipe since I saw her prepare it on her show years ago. There's an excellent illustrated, step-by-step version of Martha’s recipe here. Instead of simply frying the latkes in vegetable oil, I fried mine in half vegetable oil and half schmaltz in a well-seasoned cast iron skillet.
What to do with the remaining schmaltz? I remembered an article I’d read in Mark Bittman’s New York Times column about a dish he grew up with called kasha varnishkes. I loved the way the dish sounded and repeated the name over and over when I read the article – must be why it stuck in my brain. Bittman waxes on about the combination of kasha (toasted hulled buckwheat groats), bow tie noodles, and onions slow-cooked in schmaltz. I’d never even heard of buckwheat groats before, but I easily found kasha in my grocery store in the “ethnic” foods section near the matzo.