“Following the Jewish tradition, a dispenser of schmaltz (liquid chicken fat) is kept on the table to give the vampires heartburn if they get through the garlic defense.”
- Calvin Trillin, American Writer (1935 - )
Schmaltz. Who knew it would cause so much confusion? The best comment has been, “You mean Schmaltz malt liquor?” (As far as I know, there are no kosher forties on the market.) Although it is used frequently in Eastern and Central European cooking, there really isn’t a reliable market for the stuff, beyond kosher specialty grocers. So, for today, we are going back to basics – a le poulet.
Rendering chicken fat is crucial techniques/recipe in any cooks’ arsenal. The technique for rendering chicken fat is the same regardless of the type of animal fat used. Thus to make your own lard, use pork skin (found at butchers); duck fat, use duck skin; so on and so forth. While chicken fat is great for Ashkenazi recipes (it is essential in making chopped liver), it can also be eaten on its own, with the cracklings, or gribenes, on a piece of dark bread (sounds gross, but tastes fantastic). Lard – essential for a flaky crusts (any pastry chef will swear to this). Lard is also critical in many Latin American dishes (ask any abuela who makes her own tamales – Lard or Bust). Duck fat – well, I will use it for anything. (It also makes crazy good French Fries – future post!) You get the idea. Once you have rendered fat in your home, you can’t go back. It’s too late.
For all of your adiposphobics (I just made this one up), this blog is not going to be helpful. While I don’t suggest that anyone should be lapping up cholesterol shakes, I don’t think that being preachy about fat consumption should be the answer either (if any of you have talked to mothers on the Upper East Side, you will know what I mean). There is no doubt that obesity is a serious problem in the US, and across the industrial world. At last count – 2007 – the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia estimated that 74% of the US adult population is overweight or obese, and 25% of children, age 2-19, are overweight or obese.
These are no joke numbers. By now, we all know the risks and the consequences of obesity – cardiovascular risks (high blood pressure, high cholesterol), risk for Type 2 diabetes, cancer, and stroke. The list is endless. But if the health risks didn’t convince you, examine the economic consequences. According to one study cited by the CDC, by 1998, the medical expenses due to obesity and overweight persons was about, oh, $78.5 BILLION ($92.6 billion in 2002 dollars if you’re counting). Over half of those dollars come from state and federal coffers, in the form of Medicare and Medicaid.
I’m not citing these numbers to be the fat or health police. Anyone reading this blog knows that I don’t skimp on fat. But I am all for public health measures. As obesity increasingly takes a toll on our nation’s welfare (literally and figuratively), we must examine food as a life choice as much as an aesthetic or gustatory one. As I have asked before in this blog, the question comes down to, how does one eat well?
I don’t really have all the answers, but I do suggest you look at those skinny, techno-bopping, pastry-munching Euro-trash. They always seem to be eating well, drinking fabulous wine and still looking like last month’s issue of Vogue. How do they do that? In my brief, highly unscientific overview, it boils all down to life-style. The lessons, in a nutshell, are:
1. Small portions of really high quality food. If you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it. (This does not include the butchering of Rhône varietals or single-malt scotch.)
2. Eat s-l-o-w-l-y.
3. Eat with no distractions. No paper, no television, no e-mail - just food.
4. Eat with people. Food is a social event. Be social. And Facebooking doesn’t count.
5. Move. Bike, walk, hop, skip – whatever. Just as long as it isn’t sitting.
6. Fresh food – if you can grow it, pick it, fish or hunt it, you are in the right direction.
7. Snacks – in small healthy doses, if you must. (If you have kids, this is difficult. But don’t cave into so-called convenience. Peeled apples or ants on a log are as easy to make as opening a bag of pretzels.)
8. Cook. Cook. Cook. If you know how your food was made, you can control what goes in it. I know it’s difficult to find time, but you will be running out of it if you eat processed food.
It is not so much a matter of what we eat, but a matter of how we eat. Eating well is not mutually exclusive with eating healthily, eating environmentally or eating deliciously. No one can or should take away your right to eat well. Only you can do that.
Schmaltz and Gribenes (Rendered chicken fat and cracklings)
The recipe here is for a bulk amount. I find that it is easier just to make a whole bunch at a time, so I don’t have to do it for a long while. But if you have a smaller amount, that’s OK. The technique is the same (remember to reduce the amount of onions). The fat will keep in an airtight refrigerated container for about a month. It will keep in the freezer indefinitely. As for the onions and cracklings, they will keep in the fridge for a week - if they last that long. Also, this is the same exact technique for making lard or rendered duck fat. Just replace chicken skin and fat for whatever animal you choose to render.
4 c. chicken fat and skin, cut into 1/2 in. pieces (see note)
5-6 garlic cloves, peeled (optional)
salt (sea salt or kosher)
freshly ground pepper
1 c. onion rings, thinly sliced
1. Wash fat and skin well and pat dry. Place in a heavy skillet and sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Add about 1/2 inch of water to the pan.
2. Simmer uncovered over medium-low heat (if you are a bit impatient, you can turn up the heat to medium-low once the fat starts melting). Once the steam evaporates, watch the pan to make sure that the fat does not cook too quickly (it will burn). When the fat starts to melt and starts to brown, add onions and garlic (if using), and continue cooking until the onions, garlic and cracklings are golden brown and crunchy. Depending on the amount of chicken skin you have, this could take 30 minutes to 2 hours. (If you are in doubt, low and slow is the way to go.)
3. Take off heat and cool partially. Strain fat over another bowl to remove onions, garlic and cracklings. Pour schmaltz in a glass jar, cover and refrigerate. In a different glass container, do the same for the onions, garlic and cracklings. (see note)
Note: You can get plain chicken fat at your butcher. Just ask ahead of time so they can either order it for you. Cracklings will not stay crispy if stored. But fear not, dear reader, because it is really easy to resuscitate them. Just place the cracklings in a pre-heated 425º F oven for a couple minutes, until crispy.
 The generally recognized standard for obesity is defined as having a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 30 or greater. Overweight is defined at a BMI between 25 and 30.
To calculate your BMI, click here.
 For the full study cited, see Finkelstein, EA, Fiebelkorn, IC, Wang, G. “National medical spending attributable to overweight and obesity: How much, and who's paying?” Health Affairs 2003;W3; 219–226.