In the pecking order of maligned fats, the lowermost rung is reserved for schmaltz. In fact, you might say that schmaltz is the chopped liver of lipids. Whereas olive oil is the golden child, butter is wholesome goodness and even lard is making culinary inroads, rendered chicken fat will always be early-grave food destined for the dustbin of cookery.
Not if Michael Ruhlman has his way. The Cleveland-based author wants to resuscitate schmaltz from its regrettable reputation. His goal is not only to grant a guilt-free pass to Jewish home cooks who might have given it up for perceived health benefits, but also to share its charms with lovers of great food everywhere regardless their culinary culture.
His new book, The Book of Schmaltz: Love Song to a Forgotten Fat, aims to prevent schmaltz from going the way of the lowly knish. The book is Ruhlman's 20th and it began life as an e-book, gorgeously illustrated by his wife, Donna, and released as an iPad app.
On the electronic version, readers can click a link to hear the author's kindly Jewish neighbor, Lois Baron, say the word "schmaltz." Like all Yiddish words it sounds exactly like what it means: spreadable pleasure. It was Baron's frequent endorsements of the long-snubbed fat, in fact, that ultimately motivated Ruhlman to act.
"I've always been curious about schmaltz and fascinated with its Jewish history," Ruhlman explains. "That, combined with my love of fat in general, led to this book."
The author explains in the book that schmaltz came about in typical use-what-you-have manner. Owing to kosher dietary laws, Jews are precluded from using lard, which comes from pork. Even butter, being a dairy product, becomes treif (non-kosher) when a meal includes meat of any kind. And in early 20th-century Europe, you couldn't exactly walk to the nearest 7-Eleven to grab a tub of margarine. Hence schmaltz, which could be rendered down from the Shabbat roast chicken.
Like Ruhlman's Twenty, The Elements of Cooking and Ratio, this is no run-of-the-mill cookbook. There are just a handful of recipes, categorized as "traditional" and "contemporary." A good portion of the book is devoted to teaching about making, storing and cooking with schmaltz.
"I'm not interested in big cookbooks with hundreds of recipes," Ruhlman says. "I think there are too many recipes out there already. What we need more of is technique. I want to teach people how to cook."
Schmaltz is slow food. Home cooks can't just walk up to the local grocery and grab a pound of rendered poultry fat along with their quinoa and couscous. It must be made at home from the skin, scraps and trimmings from one or more chickens. The process is labor intensive, and the resulting liquid is particularly perishable—not exactly a compelling argument for its resurgence.
"What schmaltz has going against it is also what it has going for it," says Ruhlman in fine Jedi fashion. "You can't buy it in a grocery store, you can only make it at home, and it doesn't last forever."
He says that the practice fits right in with newly fashionable cooking trends like pickling, canning, smoking, fermenting and charcuterie. But above all else, making schmaltz simply is the sensible thing to do.
"We have this chicken, fat is useful and nutritious, and we're certainly not just going to throw it away," he says.
While schmaltz might not be convenience food, it ranks above all other fats in the most important categories. "Schmaltz has a flavor like no other fat," asserts Ruhlman. "It has a roasted flavor built right into it. It has much more flavor than pork fat, and it's remarkably versatile to cook with."
Latkes fried in schmaltz come out ridiculously crispy and delicious. Matzo balls made without schmaltz are substandard imposters, he says, and just try to whip up a respectable batch of chopped liver without a healthy dose of onion-infused chicken fat. Can't be done.
It's not just throat-clearing Jewish recipes like kreplach, kugel and kishke that benefit from schmaltz. It is equally delicious schmeared atop grilled bread, it turns humble spuds into the world's tastiest home fries and it transforms brioche from a cloyingly sweet treat into savory dinner rolls loaded with umami. Unbound by religious dietary restrictions, Ruhlman was free to uncover modern uses for the ancient fat.
"I wanted to be able to explore the uses of schmaltz and not be restricted by the way it was in the Old Country," he explains. "And let's face it: In the wrong hands, so much of Jewish cooking is terrible."
What made Schmaltz, the cookbook, so appealing a project for Ruhlman to tackle is that schmaltz, the ingredient, has become a useful, novel and appetizing new tool in his culinary tool belt. For a chef, can there be a better reward?
Traditional Chopped Liver
Recipe courtesy of Michael Ruhlman
Makes about 2 cups
Ruhlman says that good chopped liver is "every bit as fine as a French country pâté." If you are going to go to the trouble of making chopped liver, he adds, buy very fresh livers from a farmers market rather than the grocery store—it makes all the difference. Gribenes are the crispy bits of skin, meat and tissue that are the delicious byproduct of making schmaltz.—DT
Serve with toast or crackers along with some dill pickles or pickled red onions as a snack.
3 large eggs
¾ cup schmaltz, or more to taste
1 Spanish onion, thinly sliced
1 pound chicken livers
1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for sautéing the livers
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons red wine vinegar (optional)
In a small saucepan, cover the eggs with 1 inch of water and bring to a boil over high heat. When the water reaches a full boil cover the pan and remove from heat. Let the eggs sit in the covered pan for 12–15 minutes, then place in an ice bath to cool.
Meanwhile, in a large sauté pan over medium heat, melt a third of the schmaltz and cook the onions in it until they're completely tender and on the brink of browning, 10–15 minutes. Transfer the cooked onions to a plate.
Add a little more schmaltz to the pan, increase the heat to high, and sauté the livers, salting them as you do, until they are warm throughout with just some pinkness remaining, 7–10 minutes.
Peel the eggs. Run all the ingredients through a meat grinder fitted with a small die into a mixing bowl. Add 1 teaspoon salt, the pepper and the vinegar and stir to combine. Stir in ½ cup of schmaltz plus the gribenes, if using (you can also wait and sprinkle them on top as a garnish) and continue to stir until all the ingredients are well incorporated. (This can also be done using a food processor.)
Taste it and add more schmaltz, salt, vinegar, and pepper as you wish. Chill completely.
"I love lemons!" exclaims WOSU radio host and producer Ann Fisher with the same passion she brings to her daily public-affairs talk show, All Sides. "I always have lemons—and butter and cream—in my refrigerator."
"Cooking gives me a different kind of focus for my brain," says the former Dispatch journalist, who says that about 10 of her shows a year are food-related. "I like the independence of cooking, and the freshness of the food."
A tattered 1969 paperback Betty Crocker cookbook provides recipes for many of the "gazillion" Christmas cookies that Ann bakes annually. She cans from her garden: "I made green tomato relish, and the whole house smelled like vinegar for a week!"
A self-described "latchkey kid," Ann's first humble cooking task was "putting cream cheese on the celery." Her maternal grandmother, a gourmet cook, owned a SubZero refrigerator and freezer before it was trendy and did not hesitate to serve the grandkids Baked Alaska.
"Everything was beautiful," Ann remembers, "but she was not a fun entertainer."
Her dad liked to execute complicated meals, but "he was a pig in the kitchen." Ann decided early on that she would be a relaxed cook and hostess who always cleaned up as she worked.
Ann's current favorite dish shows her mother's influence, with an emphasis on fresh and simple: "I like to pound down a chicken breast, season and sauté it with a little wine. I like to make sauces, and improvise. There's always a bottle of wine near the stove."
Ann Fisher's Grilled Pork Tacos with Avocado and Toasted Pecans
3 tablespoons lightly packed achiote paste
1 tablespoon chipotle purée
1 teaspoon ground cumin
½ cup fresh lime juice (about 4 limes)
½ cup vegetable oil
2 pounds pork loin, sliced into rounds about ¼ inch thick
12 corn tortillas or small flour tortillas
2 ripe avocados, fruit crushed
1 cup toasted pecan pieces
Combine achiote paste, chipotle purée, cumin, lime juice and oil. Put pork in heavy-duty sealable plastic bag. Add marinade. Marinate for up to 24 hours. Keep chilled.
Divide tortillas into 2 piles. Sprinkle with water and wrap tightly in foil. Place on side of grill or campfire to warm for about 10 minutes.
Drain pork, then grill over medium-hot coals for 2–3 minutes per side. Stack pork and slice into strips.
Stuff pork in tortillas, then top with crushed avocado (salt and pepper to taste) and toasted pecan pieces.
Ask Van Creasap about his vineyard's Delaware wine, and you might think he'd tell you about its sprightly bouquet or delicate flavor. Well, think again. The owner of Shamrock Vineyards in Waldo would rather share the fascinating back story of this wine's legendary grape.
"Back in the late 1800s, this Delaware guy made a fortune selling grapevines," says Creasap.
The 31-year-old vintner first learned of the infamous grape as he worked as a teen for his grandfather, Thomas Quilter, the now-late founder of the 28-year-old Shamrock Vineyards and local physician who started growing the Delaware grape as another of his vineyard experiments.
Creasap recalls that Donna Meyer, a Master Gardener and local historian from Delaware County, came to visit Quilter and Shamrock Vineyards with a gardening group. Since she knew Quilter grew Delaware grapes, she shared her research on the grapes' history and their ties to her ancestors.
According to Meyer's records, Ben Heath moved from New Jersey to Ohio in 1837 and brought along his grapevines. Planted on his property in Delaware, the grapevines thrived in the area's clay soil, tolerated its late frosts and resisted the powdery mildew that plagues many grape varieties. Fast forward 12 years, and Heath had a chance to share his tasty grapes with the well-connected Abram Thomson, a fellow horticulturalist and publisher of the Delaware Gazette. Thomson became an immediate fan of the grapes and eagerly touted them to various horticulture groups, including the Massachusetts and American horticulture societies, which ended up naming them the "Delaware Grape" and awarded him a silver goblet, a medal and a life-size portrait painted in oils.
As the grapes gained worldwide fame, Thomson saw an opportunity to market them for Gold Rush–style profits. No doubt, grape growing was big business in Ohio in the late 1800s. The Commissioner of Agriculture's report for 1862 shows Ohio was the largest producer of wine in the U.S. with 563,000 gallons per year, followed by California at 343,000 gallons.
Thomson teamed with propagators George Campbell and Frederick Vergon to launch his scheme. Campbell used his homestead—now the Delaware Arts Castle—to serve as the major seller of Delaware Grapes worldwide, while Vergon assisted as a supplier for Campbell. The native grapes' versatility combined with the industry's rising "grape fever" led to the trio's wild success, selling enormous amounts of plants for as much as $5 each—or $360 each in today's market.
While it has now been more than a century since this grape fever gripped America, Creasap would love to see a revival of the Delaware grape today.
"I'd love to see the Ohio grape industry adopt the Delaware grape as a state grape and showcase its versatility with the many different kinds of wines that can be made from it," says Creasap. While Creasap makes a Pinot Grigio–style wine, others use it for ice wines, Riesling-style wine and sparkling wine.
Creasap's passion for the Delaware grape is just one example of his ardent support of the local community. His latest project is the regeneration of the century-old Concord grapevine planted by Florence Harding at President Warren G. Harding's Home in Marion. He's nurturing the original vine and plans to take cuttings to grow additional ones to eventually supply grapes for wine for Harding House fundraisers or grape juice for school group tours.
At Shamrock, Creasap hosts charitable fundraisers, organizes local tourism activities, opens the vineyard for pruning lessons and harvest days and partners with local businesses for popular vineyard events like Flatbread Fridays and Twilight Dinners. Flatbread Fridays are held on the fourth Friday of each month (April–November) and feature wood-fired pizza from Stix & Stones Mobile Wood-Fired Pizza, wine tastings and live music. The Twilight Dinners offer wine, sirloin steak dinners catered by All Occasions Catering and music by local dulcimer musicians.
"These are our friends, our neighbors and our community," says Creasap, "so the more I can help them, the more successful I can be."
Shamrock Vineyards 111 County Road 25 (Rengert Rd.)
Waldo, Ohio 43356
McDonald & Woodward Publishing Co. embodies a lot of what you think of as a small town business. Their offices are in the second floor of a beautiful old white house in Granville, Ohio, and the staff can probably be counted on one hand, maybe two. What this quaint exterior belies, though, is an internationally known company devoted to the dissemination of important information packaged in language accessible to the average reader.
One of their newest titles perfectly represents this: Groundwater for the 21st Century: A Primer for Citizens of Planet Earth, by John A. Conners. It's a comprehensive and accessible introduction to the science of and issues surrounding groundwater, which comprises 98% of liquid fresh water on the planet and is increasingly depleted year after year. Groundwater is incredibly important to agricultural systems, and many of the issues surrounding modern agricultural practices overlap with issues surrounding groundwater. Jerry McDonald, co-owner of the company, speaks about this book with quiet verve as we sit in the office, green summer light filtering through trees and windows. Talking to him, it is clear that he is very knowledgeable on many topics, and genuinely interested in every one of them. This breadth of interest is reflected in the topics published by the company.
Claire Paniccia: What makes you different from other publishers?
Jerry McDonald: Generally, we formed the company to focus on natural and cultural history, as broadly defined as possible. We've since expanded into natural resources and teaching resources. What makes it unique, other than breadth of interest and subject matter, is the fact that we have three criteria that we look for in every publication: material that is well organized, is written in accessible language and is substantive. So that's the philosophical framework for wrapping around the texts.
CP: You have a new title, Groundwater for the 21st Century. Can you talk about it? What's important about this book?
JM: Groundwater fits easily in our big picture. It's important to understand how resources are procured and manipulated. Think how rich that matrix is. It's mind boggling, if you get too close to it. It is appropriate as something we would consider, a part of a larger effort to create awareness of different kinds of people and ethnic groups, to encourage tolerance, not being closed to being aware of different things.
One reason I might have appeared not to show how broad and important the question of sustainability is is that it's infused in everything we do. That's why I'm so happy with Groundwater; it's probably the most inclusive book with respect to a critical resource that we have ever published. It's a big book. About 80% of it is devoted to the science of water, and is presented in language accessible to the general reading public. The other 20% is an overview of the global uses of groundwater and implications of those uses. It's a global view. I think it's just so valuable to have that kind of comprehensiveness packaged in such an accessible way. Anyone who wants to should have no problem getting the information. It has to be considered our most important book that we've ever published.
Water is important. That is the great purpose of the book—ready access for the big picture. The concept includes every water molecule in Ohio — and beyond. I've been doing a lot of face-to-face sales calls with Ohio public librarians. Ninety percent bought the book, no questions. They understood the importance of the book and its timeliness. I am amazed at how we have shown this book to a wide range of people, and how it has almost without exception been accepted as an important product.