Chosen Bites: Schmaltz, the forgotten fat

There is something magical about the golden pools of chicken fat.

Schmaltz (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The 12th-century rabbi and physician Maimonides touted the benefits of chicken soup to one's health. Many other cultures also believe in the restorative properties of chicken soup and it turns out that it indeed may be good for you. Poultry fat has monounsaturated fatty acid palmitoleic acid which boosts our immune system.
Chicken fat has the most of this healthy fat and what has instinctively been understood by many cultures around the world can now be backed up by science. There is something magical about the golden pools of chicken fat.
Animal fats contain fatty acids with help our bodies fight disease; help absorb vitamins and lower cholesterol. The human body can burn the short-chained fatty acids found in animal fats and will simply store the long-chained ones found in polyunsaturated fat. When I teach and lecture, I talk about how the human body can process natural fats but cannot tolerate hydrogenated and processed fats. Some states outlaw the use of trans fats and many companies have voluntarily stopped using them in production of their products.
I have often said that margarine will be the dietary ruin of the Jewish people. Once touted as a healthier fat and as a substitute for butter, margarine and other processed fats are known to be unhealthy. It is a myth that eating animal fat makes you fat.
The French Paradox
In the United States, 315 of every 100,000 middle-aged men die of heart attacks each year. In France the rate is 145 per 100,000. However, In the Gascony region, where goose and duck liver form a staple of the diet, this rate is only 80 per 100,000. This phenomenon has recently gained international attention as the French Paradox --They eat more poultry fat in Gascony than anyplace else, but they live the longest.
Using the Whole Bird
The average American cook purchases their poultry pre-cut on Styrofoam boards wrapped in plastic. We are out of touch with our food. We do not know how to cut it and we pay more than twice as much as we should.
Think about it. The butcher/producer bought the whole chicken and paid for it by the pound. You purchase pieces of the bird (boneless, skinless breasts, thighs, legs or wings) but pay based on the weight of the entire bird. You might as well buy the entire bird and learn to use it from top to bottom.
As a consumer you will come out ahead when you learn to utilize the entire bird. In my home and professional kitchens, I use the pieces of chicken for meals, the carcass for stocks and the fat for EVERYTHING!
Ashkenazi Jews have a long history with schmaltz. Instead of butter and in the absence of olive oil, European Jews turned to schmaltz as their cooking fat.
In America when in 1933, Procter and Gamble published “Crisco Recipes for the Jewish Housewife,” a promotional cookbook available in English and Yiddish, animal fats lost favor as immigrants strove to assimilate.
Jewish households never looked back as medical journals wrongly accused animal fats as being unhealthy and touted hydrogenated fats such as Crisco and margarine.

To Render the Fat:

Place the fat in a saucepan. Add about 1/3 cup water for 1 pound of fat/skin. Place the pan on very low heat and let the fat melt very gently.
The water will evaporate and pieces of skin will start to turn golden brown. This process can take several hours. You can do this in a very low oven at 275 F.
When the skin turns golden brown, pour the fat and skin through a strainer. Press on the skin to get every last drop of fat.
Cool the fat before storing. And see below for Gribenes/Cracklings
Return the skin to the pan and turn the heat to medium. Add one medium white onion that has been diced. Continue cooking, occasionally pouring off the fat and saving it, until the skin turns a deep brown and is very crispy.
Parsnip and Roasted Garlic Soup with Gribenes
I have never really liked the standard potato-leek soup so popular in the late winter and early spring. The soup just doesn’t have any PIZZAZZ!
My roasted version with the addition of parsnips, roasted garlic and generous sprinkle of gribenes with the caramelized potatoes and leeks has punch and flavor. The soup is addicting with a decadent creamy consistency.

Serves 6+
1 small medium white onion, diced
1 medium leek, white part only, sliced
2 large Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and diced
6 medium parsnips
Several tablespoons of chicken or duck fat
Several springs of thyme
1 bulb of roasted garlic, squeezed so all the flesh has been removed
10 cups of chicken stock
Suggested garnishes: chives, gribenes
Preheat oven to 350
1. Place the onion, leek, potatoes and parsnips on a parchment lined sheet pan. Toss the vegetables with the poultry fat and roast in the preheated oven until they are medium brown and caramelized (about 20-30 minutes).
2. Transfer the vegetables to a saucepan with the garlic and remaining ingredients. Simmer over low heat until the vegetables are very soft (about 20 minutes).
3. Puree with soup with an immersion blender. Adjust seasoning with kosher salt and freshly cracked pepper.
4. Serve the soup garnished with fresh chives and gribenes.

Confit Garlic
I confit garlic in chicken fat all the time. It is my secret for creamy-flavorful mashed potatoes, soup bases and vinaigrettes.
2-3 bulbs garlic, separate the unpeeled cloves from the bulb
Several thyme sprigs
1 rosemary sprig
1 cup melted poultry fat
1. Put all of the ingredients in a narrow pan so that the garlic can be covered by the fat.
2. Cook over very low heat for 30 minutes or until the garlic is soft.
3. Save the fat and use it for sautéing. Store the garlic in the refrigerator and squeeze cloves from their skin before using.
Chef Laura Frankel is Executive Chef for Spertus Kosher Catering and author of Jewish Cooking for All Seasons, and Jewish Slow Cooker Recipes.