BY BETH KAISERMAN
Michael Ruhlman loves fat.
Particularly, he is passionate about schmaltz, or rendered chicken fat. Though he’s “100% goy,” Ruhlman’s affection led him to write, The Book of Schmaltz: Love Song to a Forgotten Fat. He talked about this venture Monday at 92Y.
Ruhlman discussed how the fat was used for survival amongst Eastern European Jews, since oil was unavailable and lard was not Kosher. Schmaltz is essentially chicken fat and onion browned together. Ducks or geese were also used to create schmaltz.
It’s a rare gem, since it’s not something you can go grab from a store. Though you may be able to find it at a deli counter, it really should be made from scratch. It was an important staple in traditional Jewish cuisine, an essential ingredient used to hold together meals.
“We’ve lost sight of how fundamental [food] is,” he said.
The tradition of creating and utilizing schmaltz was almost lost once people started thinking it was unhealthy, Ruhlman said. He wants to keep the tradition alive, and believes it’s healthier than butter. He suggests using schmaltz to make latkes, kugel and fried potatoes.
The first time I had schmaltz was life-changing. I may have tried it as a kid, but I don’t remember. The moment I recall was at Sammy’s Roumanian Steakhouse in the Lower East Side. A classic old-school New York City establishment, this place gave me a glimpse of how my grandparents used to cook. (My dad’s mother was Roumanian.) Though my dad stared in fake horror as I drenched my bread in schmaltz, I’m sure he did the same thing when he was younger, and probably was probably jealous as I let the chicken fat and fresh bread melt together in my mouth.
Ruhlman is a huge advocate of cooking at home, and the idea of schmaltz represents something special to him.
I agree with his food ideology. Cooking at home implies that you know what’s in your food, as you’ve sourced the ingredients and created the results yourself. If you’re going to cook a chicken, you should use all the parts. Using the fat to make schmaltz is a fantastic way of utilizing the entire chicken, as is using the bones for stock. The point is not to waste things that can be used to create more food. After all, who doesn’t like more food? Don’t forget the gribenes, which are crispy chicken or goose cracklings. These are incredible and can be eaten as a snack or used to make chopped liver.
In moderation, fat really isn’t all that bad for us, even though many food companies and diet books have led us to believe it’s the enemy. We just have to remain aware of what we are putting into our bodies, and cooking for yourself is the best way to do that.