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I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter

October 7, 2009

On Monday I mentioned that these are Deli Days at the FLB.  And in that initial post, I listed a few of my favorite deli items, which included both creamed herring and corned beef.

In his comment NY Deli Man reminded me:
As a true NY Deli guy, that is someone who worked at a handful of real KOSHER (not Kosher Style), you would not have creamed herring in the same place where meat is also served.
My old NYC neighborhood had a kosher dairy shop. They had creamed herring and lox.

For those who are not well versed in the kosher laws, what NY Deli Man is referring to is the prohibition of eating milk and meat together.  For those who observe, the two foods cannot be on the same plates.  Really, they shouldn’t even be in the same kitchen.  Thus historically, there would be kosher meat stores and separate kosher dairy stores.

Personally, I do not put a lot of stock into dietary laws.  The quick summary is that the milk and meat separation as it exists today didn’t come directly from the Torah but rather rabbinic commentary.  And regardless of the source of the law, I’m thinking that the Supreme Being has much greater concerns than what I put in my pie hole.  This is one reason I generally find myself identifying with Reform Judaism.

I’m loathe to admit that any good could come from these prohibitions (except for spiritual fulfillment for those who are into that kind of thing).  But I’d be wrong on many counts.

Yesterday’s post was all about how the deli is perfectly equipped to provide an amazingly wonderful beef fat experience.  But beef fat isn’t the only fat to rule the roost.

You see, a deli that serves meat will also have bread.  They may even serve you some onion rolls or sliced bread while you are waiting for your sandwich.  But a true kosher deli can’t give you butter to go with your bread.

So the obvious answer is chicken fat.  Golden rendered chicken fat on every table that you can use in the place of butter.  Or just sprinkle it on anything as a glistening condiment.

It’s called schmaltz.  You’ve probably heard the name, but perhaps never knew exactly what it was, or what role it served.

Schmaltz plays a greater role in the deli than just being a kosher butter substitute.  It is the critical ingredient for making matzoh balls light and fluffy.  Sure, there will be those people who will insist that the best balls are hard and dense sinkers.  I have found that if you probe those people further, their preference is based on the fact that this is how their mother made matzoh balls when they were growing up.

Which just emphasizes how important it is to cook well for your kids.  If you don’t, they will grow up to like bad food.

A light and fluffy matzoh ball is a thing of beauty.  Mrs. Fussy makes them very well.  The outside edges are so delicate that one wonders what force is compelling this orb to stay intact.  How come it isn’t disintegrating into my soup?  How can a solid ball of matzoh meal feel almost lacey in my mouth?  And how on earth could someone prefer dense chunks of sandy dough over this ethereal morsel?

But my absolute favorite chicken fat deli treat is gribenes. And I do not think I can do them justice.  Which is fine, because it means more gribenes for me.

Really, they are just the byproduct of making schmaltz.  The chicken skin and fat is put into a pan with onions (for flavor and sweetness) and slowly rendered until it melts.  It just so happens that the skin pieces and onions fry up into a nice golden brown treat that can be strained out, salted, and consumed by ravenous diners who have no regard for their cardiovascular health.  Or diners whose regard for their own longevity is briefly eclipsed by the delicious pile of crispy, salty, meaty, sweet and savory snacks before them.

Ultimately I’d rather have all of the amazing culinary experiences that kosher law specifically prohibits.  But it is good to take a moment and remember that these dietary laws didn’t take all the pleasure out of food, and in fact increased our pleasure by creating some truly wonderful dishes.

I hope you all can come and hear an actual professor speak on these matters for free next week at SUNY Albany.  I’ll be there.  And it will be interesting to see how he views the impact of Jewish dietary laws on the creation of the deli.  Then you can decide who is more erudite: The professor or the profussor.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. October 7, 2009 11:37 am

    http://ridiculousfoodsociety.blogspot.com/2008/10/schmaltz-i-bringing-it-back.html

    I bumbled through the schmaltz making process in my own misguided way some time back. I have a thing for poultry fat.

  2. NY Deli Man permalink
    October 7, 2009 1:17 pm

    My Mom and Grandmother would make stewed onions with salt and pepper in a pot with chicken fat until they were brown and sweet. They would then schmear the onion goop on rye bread.

    I have a vague memory of putting chopped liver on that also, but I could be mistaken.

    I could really go for that now, but it might take 2 hours on the gym to work it off.

  3. Raf permalink
    October 7, 2009 1:19 pm

    I like the hard dense sinkers. That’s how my grandmother makes them and that’s how I like them. They’re actually rather difficult to replicate – they were light on the outside with a denser nugget of matzoh-mealy flavor in the middle. I like the more intense matzoh meal flavor that comes with the density.

    Re fat, grandma has also come up with an unsaturated fat shmaltz. (grandpa has heart problems from a lifetime of shmaltz and cigarettes) She cooks onions and carrot slowly until they’re all carmalized in canola oil, strains out the veg (to be eaten separately), and saves the mock-schmaltz in the fridge. It’s actually quite good. No gribene by-products though. They use it to make a radish (retach) salad (grated radishes or turnips, dressed with salt, pepper and schmaltz). Generally served with boiled beef. Those eastern europeans sure knew how to cook.

    Also – pastrami – jewish barbeque?

  4. October 7, 2009 6:11 pm

    Nice post – very interesting and that talk of chicken fat is making me hungry!

  5. Kerosena permalink
    October 7, 2009 8:13 pm

    In my experience, light matzoh balls happen when you let the mixed dough rest in the refrigerator for at least an hour. I think it helps to fully saturate the matzoh meal. I rushed the process once and ended up with sinkers. What a disappointment that was!

  6. CAP permalink
    October 15, 2009 11:51 am

    Gribenes! What a treat. It’s amazing our granparents lived as long as they did! My grandmother used to leave a bowl of these especially for me. Wow did I love them. Even as quite a young child. Unfortunately, my mother can’t bring herself to make them anymore. She does, though, still make everything for a holiday meal from scratch. Gefilte fish, chopped liver, chicken soup and challah. All from her own kitchen. Quite a treat. Oh but the gribenes…how I miss them. Almost as much as I miss my grandmother.

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