I do not know much about my maternal grandfather except for a few stories. I know that he passed away not long before my parents’ wedding, he was mistakenly captured as an Italian spy during the war, and his favorite snack was a piece of rye toast, a slice of raw onion, and a schmear of schmaltz. Schmaltz is in my history, it’s in my family’s traditions, and it’s in my blood (hopefully not literally, but you know what I mean). So when I picked up The Book of Schmaltz: Love Song to a Forgotten Fat, by Michael Ruhlman, I knew immediately that I would enjoy this short collection of recipes all featuring this most fowl of lipids.
The Book of Schmaltz is more than a cookbook; Ruhlman has set out, with this book, a series of applications as an argument for the use of a once very popular ingredient in Jewish cooking. As described by his neighbor and inspiration to the book, Lois Waxman, schmaltz is looked at as a “heart attack food,” and has been phased out in many of the traditional Jewish and Eastern European dishes which once featured it. He notes in his introduction that schmaltz is so unused today that his dictionary does not even define the word as a food product, but instead as something which is overly sentimental. So why would we ever want to bring back the use of such a product?
Ruhlman begins his argument by noting that schmaltz, like many delicious things in life, is not something that should be eaten on an everyday basis. All animal fats, he explains, should be consumed in moderation, and schmaltz can be incorporated as a “special treat” into a healthy diet. By its nature schmaltz is a sustainable way to use a commonly disposed of by-product, and was developed as a necessity by the Jews of Eastern Europe. To cook down the fat from the skin of old hens was the only way to obtain fat for cooking, in those cold climates, before the wonders of American vegetable oil came around. Oh, and it’s also delicious. There is nothing like the oniony, velvety, rich taste of schmaltz, which brings a unique flavor to dishes. As a culinary traditionalist, Ruhlman (a self-described goy) set out to introduce schmaltz through both traditional recipes and contemporary twists to a guilt ridden Jewish people along with the rest of America.
Of course, the first recipe given is for creating schmaltz itself. The pages walk the reader, step by step, through instruction using the gorgeous photography of the author’s wife, Donna Turner Ruhlman. Each image draws the reader to almost hear the sizzling of the onions and the chicken skin, until finally the golden schmaltz is separated from the crispy gribenes (pronounced grih-beh-nehs). Before each recipe, Ruhlman gives a story or two regarding the creation of the recipe, and sometimes even a few shortcuts to make things easier for the new-to-schmaltz. With only 25 recipes to get through in 150 pages, Ruhlman makes sure that the readers can take their time and really get to know each application.
At times, I got an uncomforting feeling being relayed traditional Jewish recipes from this goyisha-chef, who has also written on traditional French and Italian fare. As he notes, a few of his contemporary recipes do contain dairy, which he recommends not making if one keeps a kosher home. Moreover, some updates to traditional dishes surprised me. Ruhlman uses baking soda in his matzo balls to give them a bit more fluffiness, but this is not so different than the often-used seltzer. The recipe for potato knishes gives huge respect for an often-disgraced street food, giving it a double whammy of schmaltz both in the pastry as well as the filling. In that same section, on the other hand, he gives a slap in the face to kasha, saying that he refuses to cook with it and finds it appalling. When making kreplach, there are two recipes given, repurposing a traditional soup filler to stand alone, fried in more schmaltz, served over cabbage. The traditional recipes also contain kishka, the most beautiful potato kugel I have ever seen, and of course chopped liver. His only instance of Jewish culinary blasphemy is his suggestion that a recipe for cholent would work great as a great weeknight dish, instead of exclusively for Shabbat.
The second half of the book contains contemporary applications, including updates of traditional recipes, such as paté de foie gras (using chicken liver), another matzo ball soup, and schmaltz roasted potatoes. But he goes on to create a chicken confit, the American classic: chicken and dumplings, and even chicken sausages. Ruhlman’s goal in this last half of the book is to bring schmaltz to the rest of the world, showing that it can be the star in anything from vichyssoise to oatmeal cookies. These recipes are his strongest argument for showing how schmaltz can be used in a diverse array of recipes, even for the home cook who has no interest in the traditional Jewish recipes, which once exclusively featured it. I, however, will probably stay away from his savory brioche, but only because I have no need for fleishig bread. Michael Ruhlman’s The Book of Schmaltz has inspired me to render down some chicken fat and start cooking with some schmaltz.
David Chudnow is an up-and-coming film/video professional and self proclaimed foodie who always figuratively and literally eats his mistakes. He currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his lovely wife, Heather, and two cats, Lando and Wedge. David is always looking for more work, so if you know of any job opportunities, please contact him.