Plenty of formerly maligned foods have been catapulted into the culinary spotlight. Just look at the makeover Brussels sprouts have received in recent years, or the heftier price tag that anything fried in duck fat can demand. But schmaltz just can’t seem to get a break. James Beard Award-winning food writer and cookbook author Michael Ruhlman latest volume, “The Book of Schmaltz: A Love Song to a Forgotten Fat” is trying to change that.
“It’s this wonderful cooking fat that needs to be better used,” said Ruhlman in a phone interview. “I mean, if you have had potatoes fried in schmaltz — they rock!” And so he turned to his neighbor Lois — an Ashkenazi Jewish woman in her 70s — to teach him the magic of rendered chicken fat.
The result is a self-published iPad app (hardcover and ebook formats will be published by Little Brown in the fall, 2013) with one basic schmaltz recipe with step-by-step photos (both Lois and Ruhlman insist on the addition of onion), plus nine traditional uses and 15 contemporary recipes.
Theodore Bikel’s 1998 album “A Taste of Passover” gets a little peculiar on the ninth track. Rather than music, it features Yiddishist Chasia Segal teaching a live audience how to prepare kneydlakh, or matzo balls. After combining matzo meal, eggs, salt and chicken broth, she announces, “And now I have a problem!” In an ideal world the next ingredient would be schmaltz, or rendered chicken fat, but Segal observes that “We’re not supposed to have any more schmaltz” and uses vegetable oil instead.
How did this come to be? In 1978 the USDA began telling Americans to consume less saturated fat. By the ’90s the conventional wisdom was that animal-derived fats, which tend to me more saturated, were dangerous, and plant-derived fats were somewhat less so. Hydrogenated vegetable oils and margarine, originally introduced as cheap substitutes for butter and animal fats like lard, came to be preferred not only for their price but for the damage they would supposedly spare consumers’ arteries. (Kashrut-observant Jews were among the first to jump on the bandwagon. Crisco targeted the Jewish market with community-specific ads as early as 1913.) Butter became an immoral condiment, and conscientious eaters began to cut the fat off their steaks and peel away the skin from chicken breasts.