The approach of the High Holy Days always puts a spotlight on traditional Jewish cooking, a cuisine that gets a lot of affection, but not much respect. And among its most disreputable elements is schmaltz, the fragrant, golden chicken fat that is so far out of favor that many Jews have never tasted it.
Cookbook author Michael Ruhlman is on a mission to save schmaltz from oblivion. He already has established his pro-fat bona fides, having written two books celebrating pork fat and salt ("Charcuterie" and "Salumi," both with Brian Polcyn). In his newest volume, "The Book of Schmaltz: Love Song to a Forgotten Fat" (Little Brown, $25), he writes, "I am here to say Schmaltz is Good, and Schmaltz is Great."
Ruhlman, who identifies himself as "100 percent goy," was introduced to schmaltz by his neighbor in Cleveland Heights, Lois Baron, an accomplished Jewish cook. "It has a flavor that isn't like anything else," he said. "It tastes of browning and of chicken, roasted and oniony. It's softer than any other animal fat and it needs to be appreciated for the wonder that it is."
Once, schmaltz was the staple fat for Eastern European Jews. Commercial vegetable oil was unknown before the 20th century. Mediterranean cooks -- including Sephardic Jews -- used olive oil, but in northern latitudes, animal fat was dominant. Jews, who didn't eat pork, relied on chicken fat.
Ruhlman doesn't see schmaltz replacing bacon fat, butter or olive oil any time soon. "It's not nearly as accessible," he said, "because you really can't buy it. If you want to use schmaltz, you have to make it." The process is simple -- chop up a quantity of chicken skin and fat, cook it slowly to melt out the fat, add chopped onions and continue cooking until everything is nicely browned -- but it can take a few hours.
In his book, he offers a few strategies for gathering enough chicken fat to make a batch of schmaltz: Whenever you make chicken, you can save scraps of skin and fat in the freezer. Or, kosher butchers often sell the skin and fat they trim from boneless breasts and thighs. The easiest way, he says, is to buy packaged chicken thighs, trim off the copious skin and fat and reserve the skinless thighs for another purpose.
This recipe, adapted from Michael Ruhlman's "The Book of Schmaltz," produces both schmaltz and gribenes, "marvelously flavorful browned bits of crispy skin interspersed with caramelized onion."
Skin and fat from 8 chicken thighs (or 2 cups miscellaneous reserved chicken skin and fat), frozen
1 Spanish onion, cut into medium dice
1. Chop skin and fat well. (The finer the chop, the more efficiently it will render.)
2. Put skin and fat in a medium saucepan (preferably nonstick) with 1/4 cup water and bring to a simmer over high heat. Turn burner to low and allow fat to render. This will take anywhere from 90 minutes to several hours. The lower the heat, the more gentle the simmer and the better the schmaltz. Give skin a stir now and then so it doesn't stick to the bottom and burn.
3. When the skin is golden brown, add onion. Continue to cook until both are well browned. The gribenes (crackling) should be crisp-chewy.
4. Pour finished schmaltz fat through a fine-mesh strainer lined with cheesecloth. Store gribenes in a paper towel-lined bowl, covered. Refrigerate schmaltz and gribenes, and freeze if you're not using within a few days.
Makes 1/2 cup schmaltz and 1/2 cup gribenes.
1 large Spanish onion
3 large russet potatoes, peeled and submerged in cold water
1/2 cup schmaltz
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 1/2 teaspoons black pepper
2 large eggs, beaten
2 tablespoons matzo meal
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Grate onion on medium holes of a box grater. With your hands, squeeze out as much liquid as possible and put onion in a large bowl. Grate the potatoes. After each potato, put shreds in a kitchen towel and squeeze out as much liquid as possible, then toss with the onion to prevent from turning brown.
2. Grease a large ovenproof skillet or baking dish with a little schmaltz. Add the remaining schmaltz to the potato mixture and toss well.
3. Add the salt and pepper to the eggs and beat. Add the eggs to the potatoes and onion and toss to thoroughly mix everything. Add the matzo meal and mix to incorporate. Transfer the mixture to the skillet or baking dish and smooth out the surface to make it level.
4. Bake the kugel until it's cooked through and golden brown and crisp on top, about 1 hour. This can be completed a half hour before you want to serve it and then reheated in the oven for 10 minutes before serving.
Makes 6 to 8 servings.