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Thursday, May 17, 2007

Which came first, the gribenes or the schmaltz?

Many an attempt has been made to elevate some of the peasant fare we Jews call food to the level of haute cuisine.  I've personally heard some of my more uppity suburban friends trying to pass off chopped liver as pâté... kreplach as gnocchi... and mandelbread as biscotti.  But there are certain things that absolutely defy all efforts at gastronomic gentrification.  Among them are two lowly (and related) delicacies; gribenes and schmaltz.

Gribenes, which I'm told means 'scraps' in Yiddish, is simply fried chicken skin.  This is the Jewish equivalent (l'havdil) of that redneck staple; fried pork rinds. 

Gribenes is a crispy, salty treat that is prepared by simply taking the scraps of chicken skin that the butcher trims off when cutting up your whole fresh chicken (or when preparing chicken breasts for schnitzel), and cooking them up in a frying pan.  I usually call ahead and ask the butcher to start putting aside the chicken skin scraps for me since the few pieces from the one or two chickens I buy each week will not be nearly enough for a batch of gribenes.

Schmaltz, or chicken fat, is actually a byproduct of preparing gribenes.  You see, as you slowly heat the chicken skin in a nice big skillet, the schmaltz is released and begins to fill the pan.  The more hot schmaltz fills the pan, the faster the scraps of chicken skin turn into golden brown gribenes!

Late in the process some people like to toss in some onion and a pinch of salt.  I forgo the onion.

Once the gribenes is a deep golden brown, you fish it out of the hot schmaltz with a slotted spoon and place it on a dish that has been lined with a couple of paper towels.  Once all of the gribenes is on the plate, another couple of paper towels are placed on top and any excess schmaltz is blotted away.

In this day of 'lite' cooking, schmaltz has all but disappeared from the Jewish kitchen... but I always keep some on hand.  After the last of the gribenes has been removed from the skillet, I let the schmaltz cool a little bit and then pour it into a container that lives on the freezer door.  When the schmaltz freezes it turns a pure white and can be neatly spooned out whenever needed.

Now as a responsible host, I think a couple of warnings might be appropriate at this point:

First of all, while gribenes is a delicious treat, it is just that; a treat.  It is truly one of the most unhealthy snacks imaginable if consumed in large quantities or with any kind of regularity.  I cook up a batch maybe twice a year when my schmaltz supply runs low.  When I do, each member of the family gets a small handful of crispy gribenes to munch... and that's it until next time.  If you make a habit of eating these things you're likely to end up with a comma in your cholesterol count!  No joke!

Same goes for schmaltz.  Gone are the days when this delicious condiment was shmeared thickly on a thick deli sandwich (yes, my 'standing order' at Shmulke Bernstein's on Essex Street was Roast beef and chopped liver on club with onion, tomato, lettuce... with extra schmaltz!). 

Schmaltz should be used very sparingly as a soup-starter... to add flavor to couscous or rice... to enhance chopped liver... or to grease the skillet before frying up some onions or a batch of salami and eggs.  A tiny amount of schmaltz goes a very long way.

I've gotten to the age where I have to watch my cholesterol (my LDL is borderline, but luckily my HDL is in exceptionally good shape), so I indulge much less frequently than I used to.  But as much as we use a lot of the healthier oils in our day-to-day cooking, I honestly can't imagine a Jewish kitchen without schmaltz... or without the occasional treat of gribenes from which it was created.

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Posted by David Bogner on May 17, 2007 | Permalink

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Trep,

You brought back a memory. The first time I was ever in Israel, 1986, we went frequently to Yosil's deli in downtown Jerusalem (Yosil was my best friend's Uncle, and as we were poor college students, any free meal was welcomed). My memory isn't that good, but I seem to recall that it was located above the Carvel's Ice Cream. Neither one is still there (I believe it was where the Bank Hapoalim is now).

In any event, the deli sandwiches were phenomenal, because of how much schmaltz he used. To say that these sandwiches were unhealthy gives a bad name to sandwiches that are merely unhealthy.

Great post.

Posted by: dfb1968 | May 17, 2007 11:24:26 AM

Oh, my, what memories you bring back! When I was growing up, one of my jobs was to make the chopped liver. I used our wooden bowl and chopper, and of course generous helpings from our glass jar of schmaltz. Haven't had any in years, and though I miss the taste and the memories it brings, I'm sure my arteries are grateful.

Posted by: Rahel | May 17, 2007 12:35:03 PM

Bernstein's big deal was the goose fat they used for schmaltz.

Posted by: Bob Miller | May 17, 2007 4:13:27 PM

Remember that old Borscht Belt line - "Never eat gribbenes at a mohel's house"? ;-)

Posted by: psachya | May 17, 2007 4:15:00 PM

So which is healthier (or less unhealthy)... seasoning with schmaltz, or seasoning with those parva MSG fake chicken soup powders?

Posted by: Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) | May 17, 2007 4:52:59 PM

Thanks for triggering a great memory - My Uncle shmeared shmaltz on everything he ate, all the time. He said he'd been doing that since he was a kid, and paid no attention to the pundits who said it was not healthy. He passed away recently, was almost 90 years old, so it seems his genetics were very shmaltz-friendly.

By the way, you can add another "delicacy" to this list - P'tsha. I never tried it, but I am told it is made from chicken feet and some folks swear by it.

Posted by: yonah | May 17, 2007 5:32:39 PM

Boy, would I like to be your internist!! I can pay for my vacation already with all those visits to control the cholesterol.
Speaking of cholesterol,I was recently thinking of you when I was grilling. You probably don't remember, but you changed forever the way I eat meat. I think it was the time you walked on the Sukkah.

Posted by: Mottel | May 17, 2007 5:39:34 PM

Boy, would I like to be your internist!! I can pay for my vacation already with all those visits to control the cholesterol.
Speaking of cholesterol,I was recently thinking of you when I was grilling. You probably don't remember, but you changed forever the way I eat meat. I think it was the time you walked on the Sukkah.

Posted by: Mottel | May 17, 2007 5:39:53 PM

but I seem to recall that it was located above the Carvel's Ice Cream.

I remember that place.

Posted by: Jack | May 17, 2007 5:51:55 PM

I honestly can't imagine a Jewish kitchen without schmaltz... or without the occasional treat of gribenes from which it was created.

My Jewish kitchen does just fine without schmaltz. I think I feel my arteries clogging just by reading this post!

Posted by: SaraK | May 17, 2007 6:22:11 PM

I just love the name of it.. schmaltz, schmaltz, schmaltz.
I am saying outloud in my best jewish accent.

Posted by: weese | May 17, 2007 7:12:26 PM

Psachya - don't know if it was a borscht-belt line, but Robin Williams says a variant in "Mrs. Doubtfire" (I still wonder what percentage of the movie audience caught the reference)

Yonah - Sorry, but Ptcha is simply the most vile material ever created. I eat sushi, steak tartare, and sweetbreads with gusto, but keep that gelatinous grey stuff on your side of the table, thank you!

On to the topic at hand: believe it or not, you can probably use schmaltz a lot more than you think... although my stomach heaves at the "shmeared on sandwich" imagery*, its not a whole lot more caloric than margarine or butter. There's no reason to deny an occasional indulgence.

Small quantities of gribenes as a mashed potato topping or once-in-a-while munch are fine; just balance out with healthful stuff the rest of the time. I can't imagine that gribines are any worse than potato chips or bamba, or most of the other junk food that we scarf down.

As for trying to gentrify gribenes: hmm... confit de peau au poulet?

*actually, the schmaltz isn't even so bad, but chopped liver and roast beef on the same sandwich?! Feh, I say!

Posted by: efrex | May 17, 2007 7:24:09 PM

There's a chicken-and-egg problem here. In my mother's kitchen, the goal was schmaltz. The by-product was gribenes (which she pronounced with more of a v sound than a b sound).

When she rendered schmaltz, the treat afterwards was rye bread with schmaltz and grivenes. Yum! (and listen to your arteries clog)

Somebody above referred to p'tcha - or however you want to write it. I remember it being made from veal bones, resulting in a gelatin layer over a small bottom layer of itsy bitsy meat particles. And lots of garlic. My parents liked it, but it was never high on my list.

Posted by: Chaya | May 17, 2007 8:36:56 PM

Ptcha, made well, is neither fatty nor grey. It is the rich brown color of a good stock, and is equally good hot or cold.

The Head of Cardiology at a New York hospital ate at my house many years ago on Rosh Hashanna. He was in the community to take care of the Rosh Yeshiva over the holidays. He espied the plate of gribbenes, and, shocked, asked "are those gribbenes?! Do you realize how unhealthy they are? The whole chicken has one layer of cholesterol, and you concentrate it into those gribbenes. I didn't think anyone ate them anymore. I haven't had any since my grandmother passed away...I rememer how they tasted...I think I'll take just one..."
Bottom line, he ate all the gribbenes, just one by just one.

Posted by: Barzilai | May 17, 2007 8:52:54 PM

It is high time for the self righteous among us to forgo snide comments about Schmaltz and Gribenes. No one is suggesting eating Corn Flakes with Schmaltz every morning, so just chill out.
At the Amsels, Gribenes were served on top of the chopped liver, until my wife espied Mrs. Amsel assembling my plate in the kitchen. Duly admonished to watch out for my health, Mrs. Amsel then placed the Gribenes under the chopped liver, hence the mysterious crunchy chopped liver.
Mr. Amel was fond of saying "Kid Schmaltz, I'm griven for you."
I too took schmaltz with my chopped liver and onion appetizer at Schmulke Bernsteins, until the fateful day when Murray refused to serve it to me, being mindful of my cardiac health. So I had to eat my Chopped Liver, Kishka, Pastrami-Turkey- Corned Beef Sandwich, Cole Slaw, Hot Dog with Cole Slaw and Mustard, Cel Ray, and Chocolate Cream pie without it. Oh, and the after dinner stogie.

Posted by: Jordan Hirsch | May 17, 2007 9:51:50 PM

This sounds like when my father gets to talking about his food memories from growing up (and they also called it grivenes). But he's convinced that none of the unhealthy food they ate could have been all that unhealthy, seeing as they always had a spoonful of cod liver oil.

Speaking of ptcha/galerete though, my husband and father could finish off a batch together. After shul, RaggedyDad likes to herring-it with the best of 'em and comes home smelling about 75 years old. Sigh!

Posted by: RaggedyMom | May 18, 2007 2:57:28 AM

Living within walking distance of the Mexican border gave my family ample supply of food that defies gentrification. Even when voiced in the most lilting Spanish, "frijoles refitos" are ... well ... beans. And that's the most genteel of our southwestern cuisine. Menudo (that universal cure for Sunday morning hang-overs) is one of those don't-ask-don't-tell dishes. It has a delightful taste right up to the moment you figured out why the noodles are so chewy.

Posted by: Bob | May 18, 2007 6:41:43 AM

What is Peking Duck but a whole mess of duck gribenes rolled up in pancakes?

Gribenes and chicken schmaltz is good...but Duck Schmaltz is heavenly. When I roast a duck, I usually end up with over a cup of beautiful, pure, golden duck schmaltz. Perfect for greasing up the roasted potatoes I serve alongside the duck.

Don't forget the Lipitor!

Posted by: Elisson | May 18, 2007 7:43:16 AM

I have to make sure no one is home in order to be "allowed" to make gribenes.

Well, not "allowed", as there is a standing order forbidding me to eat it whether or not anyone might catch me or not.

Posted by: JoeSettler | May 18, 2007 8:47:11 AM

I have to make sure no one is home in order to be "allowed" to make gribenes.

Well, not "allowed", as there is a standing order forbidding me to eat it whether or not anyone might catch me or not.

Posted by: JoeSettler | May 18, 2007 8:47:27 AM

I have to make sure no one is home in order to be "allowed" to make gribenes.

Well, not "allowed", as there is a standing order forbidding me to eat it whether or not anyone might catch me or not.

Posted by: JoeSettler | May 18, 2007 8:47:28 AM

Dang. Please erase 2 of those.

Posted by: JoeSettler | May 18, 2007 8:48:54 AM

Joe, does the mere thought of getting caught make you stutter?

:)

Posted by: K Newman | May 18, 2007 10:24:19 AM

btw -- kreplach wanting to be fancy would be called tortellini, while shlishkes would be gnocchi. italians and jews have so much in common!

Posted by: nikki | May 18, 2007 4:42:15 PM

A friend of mine used to keep several pints of chicken schmaltz in his freezer, but he kept no butter and no cooking oils. He used schmaltz in every dish he cooked. His motto (I'm guessing) was "Schmaltz! Don't leave your kitchen without it!"

To Elisson
Try scrambling eggs in duck schmaltz.

Posted by: antares | May 18, 2007 8:19:31 PM

Funny, I grew up with both but never knew the yiddish words for them. I just thought shmaltz was simply chicken fat that one would use for flavoring in chicken soup or other dishes. Though probably somewhere deep in my memory, I am sure my father must of dipped his toast into it.

So now that I know a name for the fried chicken skin, I am proud to say I LOVE Gribenes (and the schmaltz leftovers) and I'm Proud to admit I make it anytime I can to the dismay of my husband and other heart healhy conscious family members. I also, love taking a slotted spoon, and eating the trimmings left in the pan. YUMMY.

One of my pure joys of previous living in Queens was a visit to a Kosher meat counter and taking home the yummy "fried chicken skins." It always reminded me of my childhood.

Mmm Mmm Delicious!

Posted by: jaime | May 19, 2007 6:52:55 AM

P’tsha is far from vile. It’s made from calf’s foot and can be eaten hot or cold. We always ate it hot. The feet along with any variety of root vegetables and loads of garlic are boiled for many hours. We always had it served with fresh out-of-the-oven challahs. One of the highlights was to eat meat off the bones and suck the marrow. Not the greatest for our arteries, it is wonderful, and I miss it,

Posted by: Mickysolo | May 20, 2007 2:18:27 AM

A critical mass of schmaltz has such a gravitational pull that no light beams can leave it, sorta like a black hole. This has remained a secret either (A) because people keep eating the schmaltz, so it hasn't yet built up to the critical mass, or (B) because, when the critical mass is reached, all nearby people are pulled into its vortex and never get out.

Posted by: Bob Miller | May 21, 2007 1:00:28 AM

Okay I'm sitting here laughing at the conversations and memories of other but only because they so closely align with mine. I'm not Jewish BUT my Grands have all these recipes with their own variation: P'tsha on here is "Chicken Jelly" in my Grands kitchen. Chicken feet used instead of lamb or calves feet. Grivenes on here is "Chicken Pop-corn" in my Grands kitchen! Challah here is peasant bread in my memories! Schmaltz would be "chicken drippings!" Oh my goodness! It makes me wonder if the Heisler's (first generation in the US from Germany) may have a Jewish influence? Thanks so much for the smiles and fond remembrances!

Posted by: Meggin Berry | Jul 5, 2012 3:12:20 AM

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