Chopped liver is one of the greatest of culinary joys. I remember buying a container a number of years back from a gourmet supermarket.
I thought it was quite good, but when I brought a container to my parents, my mother commented that it was goyisher chopped liver. Indeed, as usual, she was right, for this chopped liver was made with – gasp! – olive oil! As any liver aficionado knows, real Jewish chopped liver must be made with that golden goddess of fat – schmaltz!
A new digital book by food writer Michael Ruhlman celebrates this quintessential Jewish artery-clogger. The Book of Schmaltz: A Love Song to a Forgotten Fat tells the history of using chicken fat in traditional Jewish cuisine. Ruhlman is not Jewish, admitting that it took a certain amount of chutzpah for a Gentile to take on such a Jewish subject. In these fat-phobic, health conscious times, Ruhlman is an unabashed advocate of fat, citing both its flavor and health benefits, the latter which was championed by the late Dr. Robert Atkins.
Last summer, when his neighbor Lois Baron announced she was leaving a party early to go render some schmaltz in advance of the High Holidays, he seized the opportunity to get to know this new-to-him tribal fat which he said was “unrivaled in flavor.” Inspired, he set out to share his newfound passion for schmaltz with the wider world.
Classic dishes like kishke, matzo balls, and, of course, chopped liver are in the book, along with 17 other recipes, such as fluffy Parisienne gnocchi and extra-crispy roasted potatoes.
The English term schmaltz is derived from German and refers to “rendered animal fat,” regardless of source – both tallow and lard are considered forms of schmaltz in German, as is clarified butter.
Schmaltz rendered from a chicken or goose was used by Northwestern and Eastern European Jews who were forbidden by kashrut to fry their meats in butter or lard, the common forms of cooking fat in Europe, as butter, being derived from milk, cannot be used with meat, and lard is derived from pork, a non-kosher meat. Furthermore, tallow derived from beef or mutton would have been uneconomical, particularly given that virtually all suet (the raw material for tallow) is chelev and forbidden from consumption. Northwestern and Eastern European Jews also could not obtain the kinds of vegetable-derived cooking oils, such as olive oil and sesame oil, that they had used in the Middle East and around the Mediterranean (as in Spain and Italy).
The manufacture of schmaltz involves cutting the fatty tissues of a bird (chicken or goose) into small pieces, melting the fat, and collecting the drippings. Schmaltz may be prepared by a dry process where the pieces are cooked under low heat and stirred, gradually yielding their fat. A wet process also exists whereby the fat is melted by direct steam injection. The rendered schmaltz is then filtered and clarified.
In American English, schmaltz (or schmaltzy) has come to mean “excessively sentimental or florid music or art” or “maudlin sentimentality,” similar to one of the uses of the words “corn” or “corny.” Its earliest usage in this sense dates to the mid-1930s. In German, schmalzig is also used in the same sense.
The 83-year-old Sammy’s Roumanian Steak House (which does not adhere to the laws of kashrut) on Manhattan’s Lower East Side still plunks a syrup dispenser filled with schmaltz on every table to be used as a condiment. And it’s schmaltz that helps make the matzo balls at the Second Avenue Deli so moist, fluffy, and comforting.
The Book of Schmaltz: A Love Song to a Forgotten Fat, which is filled with mouthwatering photographs by Ruhlman’s wife, Donna Turner Ruhlman, is available for $7.99 on the iPad.