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« Wombs-R-Us: the Ultimate in Outsourcing? (Sujatha) | Main | R.I.P., Political Web Log (Joe) »

December 30, 2007

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The choice of cooking fat does make a huge difference to the authenticity of the taste-had you substituted olive oil for the schmaltz when you made the recipes, it wouldn't have been as flavorful.
I'm discovering the same with my typical S.Indian recipes- the taste is authentic when I used gingelly (or unfiltered sesame) oil. My kids didn't notice the difference from the olive oil, but my husband gobbled more of the food than he normally does for the olive oil version.

I want to point out first that Ed Levine's website "Serious Eats" is on our blog roll.

Some of the foods Anna describes here remind me of the North German, Polish fare I tasted in Germany some twenty five years ago. But I was new in Germany, unfamiliar with anything so Mittel European and didn't really know what I was eating.

In her book, Hooghly Tales, Sally Solomon, a Baghdadi Jew from Calcutta, described lovingly the potatoes that were prepared in her father's home every Shabbat evening. They were not shredded or mashed. Whole skinned potatoes were put in very hot oil and turned repeatedly. The result was a crispy exterior and a moist inside.

I said to Anna in my email that I haven't really ever eaten a full fledged Jewish meal. A very good Jewish owned kosher restaurant in Houston serves mediterranean food. Olive oil, garbanzo feature prominently. Nothing schmaltzy, I am sure. (The other well known kosher eatery in Houston is a South Indian, dosa/idly place.) Next time I am in Los Angeles, Anna you know what to do. You don't have to bother with anything so elaborate as roast goose or corned beef for me. A simple, light menu with a touch of schmaltz if possible, will do nicely :-) In the meanwhile I will try Ed's latke recipe at home.

What a great thread! Heavens, I love this blog. It's always like dropping in on exactly the conversation you were hoping to find, whether about evolutionary biology or schmaltz -- assuming there's any difference.

I read on Chez Pim that there's nothing like horse fat for making French fries, but I'm not going to try it. My friend Lakshmi says not to use olive oil in South Asian cooking because the Mediterranean note is confusing to people, even if they don't cite it without prompting. I have never actually made a point of making schmaltz, but the chickens I've seen almost tempt me, so great is their quantity...

I am almost evangelical on one point of cooking with fat, which is: know the burning point of the fat you're using. If it smokes, it is chemically altered from what you intend, and processed differently by your system. As in, if it burns -- which you will know by its smoking -- throw it out. Read Rebecca Wood on cooking fat -- a guru with much to teach everyone.

After reading this post I was reminded of the process of making ghee from sweet cream butter which is exactly similar. So, ghee is the Indian schmaltz that is used in both vegetarian and non-vegetarian cooking, including Indian sweets.

Occasionally my father who was a great cook, would take the time to oversee the preparation of pure ghee in our kitchen. The result was delicious and aromatic. This too left behind a crunchy residue of slightly charred milk solids similar to gribenes (vegetarian, though) which was delicious on hot fluffy rice with a pinch of salt and a side order of hot green chili pepper.

Sujatha:
My kids didn't notice the difference from the olive oil, but my husband gobbled more of the food than he normally does for the olive oil version.
I don't know whether I've had food prepared with gingelly, but I adore the flavor of sesame, and can imagine that substituting olive oil would result in a less compelling dish. (Tangentially, on the subject of nostalgic food, sesame halvah sold under the New York based Joyva brand at delis, or in big wheels at "appetizing" stores selling lox and herring, is another flavor of my youth. How and why Eastern European Jews came to eat this sweet with an obvious Middle Eastern derivation is a question for the historians. I'm guessing an Ottoman connection.) In terms of your children's lesser sensitivity to the difference, imagine now that your children's children or grandchildren, still in the United States, are preparing the same dish. Given the general blandness of American cooking, they might even prefer the milder taste of the olive oil. Since the Eastern European Jewish community is mostly third or fourth generation at this point, and except in self-segregated Orthodox communities, largely assimilated, those adaptations of food preferances have long since occurred. In every group, though, I suspect there are those like me with a particular interest in food and history who try to hold onto that depth of flavor, the things that are not only traditional but "good and delicious" as Ed simply put it, while abandoning things that may have a nostalgic value for some but are of questionable appeal to most (a line I draw somewhere around p'tcha...blech).

Ruchira:

Like Yiddish, which is basically medieval German with Hebrew mixed in, Ashkenazi food is basically Mittel European or Slavic cuisine, altered to meet the dictates of kashrut, such as through the development of separate dairy and meat cuisines and the use of poultry or beef instead of the unavoidable Teutonic pork products (having lived in Germany, you'll appreciate how isolating simply avoiding pork would be). Other differences are due to traditions to celebrate holidays: honey cake and round foods like mehren tzimmes, honey glazed medalions of carrots, on Rosh Hashanh for a sweet new year; stuffed cabbage and other vegetable dishes to celebrate the harvest festival of Sukkoth; fried latkes to commemorate the oil lasting 8 days at Hanukkah; hammentashen on Purim to let us symbolically eat our enemies; dairy dishes like lokshen kugel on Shavuot, for complicated biblical reasons , and so on.

The cuisine, in my mind, suffers the same limitations as the neighboring cuisine of the area: bland, heavy, designed to fill starving people's bellies through cold winters, and thus tending to produce paunches and heart disease in those of us living cushier lives in more gentle climes. My pet theory is that like the enthusiastic English adoption of South Asian cuisine, the old saw about American Jews and Chinese food is due to Ashkenazim eagerly embracing the more flavorful food of our urban neighbors as soon as the opportunity presented itself. Still, well prepared, heavy, unspiced food (predominant flavoring agents: brined salty, carrots, ginger, cinnamon, horseradish, dill, parsley) has its place, as well.

I did a quick search on chowhound's Houston site, but didn't see anything promising in the area of Ashkenazi cooking. The "best" Jewish deli was praised for its corned beef served with with muenster cheese. Egads. The mediterranean place is probably Israeli.

Those Baghdadi Indian potatoes sound like aloo makallah-- I have a recipe for them in a Claudia Roden cookbook, but haven't dared try it. There's a Baghdadi Jewish community in Los Angeles: the grandparents of a friend of mine belong to a synagogue not far from me in which the entire congregation are Baghdadi Jews from India. I visited their house with the friend and her one year old last summer. The grandmother was quite proud that her grandson prefered his chicken babyfood spiced with tumeric and chili. In any event, I wonder whether we can't find Aloo Makallah on a menu somewhere in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood. Another project for next time you visit, to balance out my bland but tasty matzoh ball soup, sweet-sour cabbage salad, poppy-seed cookies, etc.

Ghee gribines sounds awesome. I've clarified butter before, but since I was only preparing a small amount, didn't think to preserve the solids. Notwithstanding my apologia for schmaltz, dairy fat, when all's said and done, is probably my favorite, purely from a taste standpoint. I also like-- a healthier alternative-- fresh olive oil with a strong olive-fruit flavor.

Elatia:

Thanks for your interesting comment. Horse fat would be pretty difficult for me, psychologically (I did once try horse meat in Switzerland; the memory makes me grimace involuntarily a bit), though I don't have sound reasons for not eating it when I eat pigs, which are just as bright, and cows, which are just as sweet-tempered. Geese, on the other hand, are nasty beasts. It's nice when mother nature works out that way.

I wouldn't use scmaltz all the time. I try to listen to my body, and when I eat food cooked with schmaltz, my body says-- that was some heavy food you just ate, please have a salad for dinner. Still, it is satisfying on both economical and environmental grounds to render and reserve the fat for use over time rather than just thrown those parts away. You should try it.

Anna:

The Middle eastern Halvah is very different from what I got used to in India ( a classic sweet for which Tirunelveli (or Tinnevelly) is famous for- made from oodles of ghee, wheat flour and sugar, cashews and red coloring, all cooked up to a fairly cohesive but not hard paste.)- I was surprised when my husband brought back some halvah from Tel Aviv. It reminded us of balls of sesame seeds in caramelized sugar, another sweet that we used to gorge on.

I've definitely toned down the spice level of my cooking for the kids, but fortunately my older one has developed a taste for spicier stuff and is starting to insist that I move back to the original spiciness. The little one is yet to follow suit, but I imagine she will be there in a matter of a couple of years or so.

Ruchira:

Regarding making ghee, I remember my mom always sprinkled in a few drumstick leaves which I and my sister used to fight over once the top of the ghee had been poured off into another container. Probably, very similar to the gribenes, but with some extra medicinal properties, if the wiki-entry is to be believed.

I came across this article on Coturnix's blog (he has also linked to Anna's article) about Indian vegetarian Jain cooking which too is severely restricted by religious dietary laws and must rely upon innovations using available resources. Author Vikram Doctor draws a corollary between the religious considerations that gave rise to the distinctive Jain and orthodox Jewish cuisines. He also observes that the isolating effects of the respective dietary curbs on the two communities have helped bring them together in the another milieu that some of them have in common - the diamond business!

....But perhaps the two best examples of how bans have resulted in delicious and fascinating food are Jain cooking, with its ban on anything that remotely involves taking life, like root vegetables (little critters might get killed while you dig them up) or yoghurt left overnight (too alive), and Jewish cooking, with its complex set of Torah derived rules including bans on pork, on fish without scales (shark, shellfish) and on cooking milk and meat together. I’m not concerned at the moment with the logic of these bans, just their results......

In fact, Jains and Jews do interact in interesting ways. In Antwerp, for example, where ultra-orthodox Hassidic Jews deal with Palanpuri Jains in the diamond district, I’m told that the understanding of the principle of dietary rules is one thing that helps the communities understand each other, even if the actual rules differ. I doubt the communities eat each other’s food, but apparently Jewish functions all feature separate buffets entirely for the Jains.

Meanwhile in India even the crossover to eating happens: Sharon Galsurkar who runs the Jewish community centre in Mumbai , told me that if the young Israeli tourists ask him how to keep kosher rules while travelling, he tells them to look for Jain restaurants since they can be sure food will all be broadly within kosher rules.

I stopped eating schmaltz long ago but I tried making kasha varnishkas tonight and I think it would have helped to have some schmaltz(if from an organic free range chicken). Probably, in ten or twenty years, the medical profession will suddenly proclaim that olive oil is unhealthy and that schmaltz is king. Just like on the news tonight when they said that getting out in the sun is good for you because of the vitamin d.

i found this post looking for a traditional schmaltz recipe. do you have one? thanks.

Dean:

I have, in fact, enjoyed He'Brew beer in the past. Andrew, our beer purchaser, would no better whether any was on hand for the December event: I try not to drink and fry (I'll make an exception for a glass of champagne, and maybe just a taste of the Calvados that went into the apples).

Richard: I love kasha varnishkas! That would be a good one to make for Ruchira if she comes for a visit. Definitely a classic, and definitely needs a touch of schmaltz, as well as an egg, for the barley (As an eleven year old wiseacker, I once asked my rabbi why you could eat an egg in chicken broth, but not a lamb seethed in its mother's milk. I don't remember the rabbi's response).

Sal:

Here's a recipe for schmaltz with photo instruction:
http://www.girlsaresmarter.com/tammy/schmaltz.html

A single roasting chicken won't give you much schmaltz, as this woman says. A goose, on the other hand, will give you more fat-- both in trimmings beforehand, and as it roasts-- than you'll ever know what to do with.

If you meant, a traditional recipe incorporating schmaltz, you could try matzoh balls. This recipe looks pretty good:

http://www.bigoven.com/163754-Matzoh-Balls-recipe.html

As the author notes, grated onion isn't necessarily traditional, but would be good (I also like grated carrot, and chopped dill). Chopped gribbenes is also good. Seltzer makes them fluffy; separating and folding the eggs also works.

For something more modern, I can vouch for Nigella Lawson's Perfect Roast Potatoes, which are, indeed, delicious little heart-cloggers:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/food/recipes/database/perfectroastpotatoes_84759.shtml

great, thanks. i am looking for the recipe to make schmaltz itself. we have chickens and occasionally need to butcher. many thanks again.

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