Thursday, January 28, 2010

Chicken Fat and Coping with Citizen's United vs FEC

In last night's State of the Union message, as a scowling Justice Alito mouthed "not true," President Obama called on legislators of both parties to take action in response to the Supreme Court's overturning of a century of precedent and legislation in Citizen's United vs the FEC, but was not specific as to what response was necessary. This atrocious decision, based ultimately in the long Anglo-American legal doctrine treating corporations, in matters if business and commerce, as "fictive people" (note however business, commerce, and "fictive") will have ramifications for our political system that we cannot even imagine. In aiming a nuclear weapon at a case the called for a scalpel, the Roberts' court proved themselves to be true judicial activists, and gave lie to any claim to judicial restraint or respect for the original intent.

There are a number of movements beginning, such as Free Speech for People whose proposed solutions I find as vague as that of the president's in last night's address, i.e. a constitutional amendment to "restore the first amendment and fair elections to the people," whatever that means. It will take time for the political system to absorb this decision, which strikes down many state and federal laws. It may have unintended and unforeseen consequences. Will some be positive? Will nonprofits and foundations, also corporations, be allowed to spend money for candidates and engage in lobbying? Both kinds of organizations are corporations. Most I fear will be negative, but it will take a a while to sort this out and longer to formulate an effective response. Given that no one has shown much specificity or direction in how to respond to Citizen's United, I don't think that anyone will be surprised or find it objectionable that my own personal response to this travesty of justice was to make myself a dish a broccoli with schmaltz (rendered chicken fat).

I have been hearing about this recipe for years. It is made regularly by the father of one of Harry's friends. Once I almost tasted it. They had come to our house for Pesach to make it thinking we had schmaltz on hand (doesn't everybody?) and since we didn't we had to have plain old broccoli with olive oil. But this time I was prepared. Having made some schmaltz earlier in the week (to make hubagrits soup for the comfort that I needed after the Massachusetts senatorial election) I was ready when the Supreme Court handed down its decision with both broccoli and schmaltz. Here is how you do it:

Broccoli with schmaltz and garlic in the style of John Pittman

  • 2 tablespoons schmaltz
  • 1 tablespoon or less of olive or vegetable oil
  • 3 cups broccoli florets (from about one bunch)
  • 4-6 cloves of garlic, smashed, peeled and chopped or thinly sliced
  • a tablespoon or so of water
  • salt and pepper

  1. Heat schmaltz and oil on medium high-heat in a non-stick or impeccably seasoned cast iron skillet just large enough to hold the broccoli.
  2. Add broccoli and cook 2-3 minutes, tossing or stirring, until it starts to glisten. Add salt and pepper.
  3. Push the broccoli aside a bit and add the garlic, making sure that it gets into the fat in the bottom of the pan. Cook this for a minute or two, to take away the raw flavor of the garlic, and the mix it in well with the broccoli, cook, stirring or tossing, for another minute.
  4. Add the water -- I just wet my hands and sprinkle it over the skillet. Cover and steam for another 1-3 minutes until the broccoli is done to your taste. The stems should be crunchy, the flower part a bit softer, neither raw or overdone. Add more salt and pepper if you want.
  5. This would make a nice side for 4, but I had it by myself for lunch. I felt that I, and the rest of us, deserved it.

Schmaltz: is both Yiddish and German for any rendered fat. I was shocked that in Germany, it just means lard, which they even spread of bread. For Jews in Eastern Europe (and possibly in Israel today in part as a bi-product of their foie gras industry) it generally meant goose fat. But the US when used without modifiers it generally means rendered chicken fat. You can buy it kosher markets and many supermarkets, at least in the NY area (Empire may be the most common brand) , but if you can't, or if you want its main by product (gribenes, aka chicken cracklings aka brown gold) make it yourself. which is not all that hard. Whenever you make chicken or skin a chicken, save the fat or skin in a container in the freezer. The fat that you pull out of a chicken before roasting it is ideal, but kosher chickens don't always have this because they have already pulled it out to make schmaltz. I make a lot of stewed chicken thighs Indian-style and it is very easy to pull off their skin which adds nothing to the stew in any case. Chop up the skin and fat, which is easier if it is frozen, put it in a pot, and barely cover it with water. Boil it on high heat to get the rendering going. When most of the water has cooked away, add one small sliced quartered onion for every two cups of fat and skin. Turn the heat down to very low, and cook until the cracklings and onions are browned but not burned, stirring the pan from the bottom so they don't stick and burn. Strain out the fat and store in the fridge. (Barbara Kafka also suggests rendering 2.5 cups of fat in a 2 1/2 quart microwave safe casserole, covered with papers towel, for 25 minutes. Given today's more powerful microwaves, I would check after 15 minutes and continue in 2-5 minute increments if it needs more time. ) Don't worry too much about the health consequences. You won't consume all that much schmaltz, and in The Cooking of South-West France, Paula Wolfert assures us that rendered poultry fat has less than half the saturated fat of butter. It doesn't burn as easily, either, especially when mixed with a bit of oil. How do you use it? Spread it on bread, salt it and top with gribenes, especially the sour-rye known as "corn bread." In Pruzhane, they used to eat this bread topped with goose schmaltz, fresh sauerkraut, gribenes and sugar! Make chopped liver with it and you may never use oil again. Use it in mashed potatoes or a baked potato instead of butter. Drizzle it on steamed vegetables like spinach or cabbage. Best of all, use it for frying chicken cutlets or especially veal shoulder chops breaded with matzo meal. I have a friend who has never had a good word for his mother, but who gets all misty eyed when he talks about her veal chops.

Gribenes: Salt the cracklings, better known as gribenes, and eat like popcorn but be prepared for the consequences. They are better warmed up a bit. They also go well in mashed potatoes, baked potatoes, chopped liver, in salad instead of croutons (use some warmed schmaltz and gribenes instead of bacon in a wilted spinach salad) and best of all, to stuff chremslach (mashed potato fritters fried in schmaltz) a Pesach specialty of my grandmother's).

The skillet: I made the broccoli in a nonstick skillet, which was good, thought it probably would have been even better in cast iron. The problem is maintaining an impeccably seasoned cast iron skillet. Last night we had steak and mushrooms, pan broiled in cast iron, the only real option in most city kitchens. Halfway through dinner, Harry was complaining about how smokey the house was, and opened the windows. A few minutes later, we went into the kitchen and saw that the heat was still on high under the skillet, which was no longer impeccably seasoned. I am not looking forward the the scouring and seasoning that awaits me today, nor to the weeks it will take to restore the skillet's patina. So I tend not to use my cast iron's unless I really have to.

The broccoli: John's recipe called for florets only, and this is a lot easier. However, the stems would be good as well. They just need to be peeled, and added to the skillet for about two minutes before the florets. There was a time when Harry would only eat the broccoli stems, but we are fortunately beyond that. He will now eat the florets, provided they are piping hot.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Comfort food: Hubagrits suppe, in the style of Pruzhane

I was really bummed by the election in Massachusetts last night. It was like a mini-1994. Tomorrow is the time for action, whatever that might be. Today called for comfort food so I tried to reconstruct my grandmother's recipe for hubagrits suppe, or soup made with steel cut oats. It is similar to a beef barley soup, but steel cut oats (NOT rolled oats, the conventional oatmeal) are used as the grain and thickener. I haven't had it for about 30 years, but for me, it was comfort food par excellence.

There was a very lengthy discussion about the use of steel-cut oats in savory dishes on Elisheva Urbas' facebook page a few weeks ago, and I posted a suggested method for this soup. I couldn't find a recipe but one Anglo-Jewish cookbook had something that provided a starting point, and my father and others in his generation (70s-80s, sorry dad) described it to me in more detail than I remembered. Cooking, smelling and eating it, I felt myself back in my grandmother's immaculate (as in "Since I turned 85 I can't clean like I used to. I only pull out the stove to clean behind it once a week.") kitchen on Barnes Ave. in the Bronx, eating hot soup at her table with its plastic tablecloth. Just what the doctor ordered. Unfortunately, Amy is on a low-carb regime, Maya is a vegetarian and Harry seems to think that soup violates the inherent order of the cosmos (it is sort of his "tohu v'vohu") so I was the only who ate it. Their loss, but I think our guests on Friday evening will enjoy it.

My father's side of the family came from Pruzhane (we are of course Litvaks) in Belarus, and the other relatives remembered it in a similar manner, so here is:

Hubagrits suppe, Pruzhane-style

  • 1/2 pound small dried white lima beans
  • 1 pound beef soup meat (I used kalechel, which is boneless chuck meat, which I cut into 1 inch slices)
  • 1 pound beef soup bones with some meat on them
  • 2 quarts water
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1-3 tablespoons schmaltz, or if you must, oil
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 3 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 6 tablespoons steel cut oats (like McCann's not quick cooking kind)
  • 1 carrot, finely diced
  • 1 parsnip, finely diced
  • 2 stalks celery, stringed and finely diced
  • 5 sprigs parsley
  • 1 large russet potato, like an Idaho
  • Salt and pepper
  1. The night before, pick over the limas for stones, rinse them, and soak overnight. (As I think Barbara Kafka points out, beans are legumes and not phantoms. It doesn't have to be overnight, just 6 to 8 hours depending on their age. You can also use the quick-soak method. Cover the beans with water in a pot and bring to the boil. Boil vigorously for a minute, cover tightly and then leave to soak for an hour.) Drain and rinse before using.
  2. Put the meat and bones in a medium pot with the water and bay leaf and bring to the boil.
  3. Turn heat down and skim off the scum as it rises.
  4. Meanwhile saute the onion in the schmaltz in a skillet until soft but not brown. Add garlic and saute a few minutes more, and add to the pot. (Swish around some of the broth in the skillet and add liquid to the pot to get all the flavor.)
  5. Simmer slowly for one hour.
  6. Add 4 tablespoons of the oats, and simmer slowly for another hour.
  7. Add the lima beans, carrot, parsnip and celery and the remaining two tablespoons of oats and simmer slowly for about 45 minutes.
  8. Peel the potato and cut into medium chunks, about half an inch. Taste the soup for salt and add salt and pepper to taste. (Be careful if you are using kosher meat since it is often already quite salty.) Simmer slowly 45 minutes more until creamy and delicious.
  9. If you wish, remove the meat from the bones, cut the large chunks of meat into bite size pieces, return to the soup, heat through and serve.

The meat: Since Jews were not peasants (my family lived in a shtetl, or small city), this is not peasant food. But it is the food of the poor, or at least the very frugal. Who else would make a soup out of a grain used primarily as animal feed? My grandmother made this with flanken which is the logical choice for any dish like this. But at $14 a pound minimum for kosher flanken (boneless -- with the bones it was $15 -- figure that one out!) there was no way I could derive the comfort that I needed from making the soup with it. So I used kalechel (about $9 boneless) and meaty soup bones (about $3 per pound). The ideal cut would be shank if you can find it. The results were great and I felt duly comforted. The important thing is to use a tough meat with lots of gelatin that will dissolve in the long slow cooking along with some bones. If I made the soup with flanken, I would probably leave the pieces whole, use 3 pounds, and serve it as a separate course afterward with horseradish, which is often what my grandmother often did. But not at these prices. Flanken has become so expensive in the past few years as chefs have discovered short ribs which is the same meat, just cut differently.

Making it in advance: Your mother should have taught you never to freeze cooked potatoes, especially when they are boiled. Their texture will be ruined completely. If you want to make a larger quantity of the soup, set aside some and freeze it before adding the potatoes, and then add them and cook until tender the day you serve. You can refrigerate this soup for a few days, but add a little boiling water and reheat it very slowly or it may scorch.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A very easy vegetable: zucchini and red peppers

I believe in eating with the seasons, but I also believe in eating things other than cruciferous (cabbage family) and root vegetables in the winter. So, as a special reward for those who put up with my blog and read through the excessively long (but also excessively good) recipe for vegetarian chili, here is a very easy vegetable dish. We actually had it for Shabbat dinner on Christmas day, and with its red and green colors, those of you who swing that way could serve it for a Christmas meal.

Zucchini with red peppers and mustard seeds:
  1. Soak 2 or 3 medium zucchini squash in water for about 10 minutes while you prepare the peppers.
  2. Clean 2 large or 4 small sweet red peppers and cut into batons about 2 inches long and 1/2 inch wide. (I used 4 small sweet peppers in a bag imported from G-d knows where -- talk about not eating locally.)
  3. Rinse the zucchini and check for sand. Scrape or peel off all the sandy parts, and cut into similar size pieces as the peppers.
  4. Heat oil (mustard, light sesame, peanut or canola will all be good, and will give slightly different results) on high in a medium skillet. If you use non stick, 1 tablespoon is more than enough. Otherwise, use about 3 tablespoons.
  5. Heat 1 tablespoon brown mustard seeds in the oil. After they start to pop (they will go all over the place) turn the heat down, and when they have all popped and turned gray, add the peppers.
  6. Stir fry the peppers about 3-5 minutes.
  7. Add zucchini, salt well, and saute, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes until brown in spots and done to your taste.
  8. This is good hot or at room temperature.
Variation: Add about 15 curry leaves after the mustard seeds pop, and before the peppers. After the curry leaves, you could also add a pinch of asafoetida (hing), a bit of turmeric and some chili pepper, but this seemed far too complicated for the occasion, and the flavors would have clashed with the Greek chicken with pasta we were having. Although popped mustard seeds are distinctly Indian, their nutty flavor fits well with many cuisines in ways that more complicated spice combinations might not. A squeeze of lemon would never hurt, though.