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.

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