Author Interview: Michael Ruhlman

Michael Ruhlman

This may be one of the few occasions where an author’s book subject matter needs more introduction than the author. Michael Ruhlman’s first book was the ground-breaking “The Making of a Chef” about his experience as a reporter at the Culinary Institute of America, which was followed by a similar journalistic endeavor, The Soul of a Chef. Since then, besides non culinary books, he has written numerous cookbooks both with some of the most famous chefs in the world (Thomas Keller, Eric Ripert, Brian Polcyn, among others) and by himself. It is not an understatement to say that Ruhlman is one of today’s most famous food writers.

His latest cookbook, co-produced with his wife, is The Book of Schmaltz and is subtitled “Love song to a forgotten fat” – which may just about explain it all. In this short essay written for EYB, he explains why we need to embrace schmaltz. And, he’s offered three free copies to EYB writers, just enter a quick answer to this blog question to win one.

Schmaltz, rendered chicken fat flavored with onion, is one of the great flavors and fats to use in cooking. It’s too good to be relegated to Jewish cuisine alone.

I have for years been a pro-fat proselytizer in a fat-phobic land, singing the glories of pig fat, working assiduously to encourage America to make sausage in the book Charcuterie, and to dry-cure salami and prosciutto in the book Salumi. And I rail against America’s knee-jerk vilifying of fat generally. Fat doesn’t make us fat-eating too much makes us fat. Eating all that processed crap, and cleaning our overfilled plates at chain restaurants makes us fat. Lack of vigorous daily exercise makes us fat.

            The truth is, our bodies need fat. Fat is stored energy. Fat allows our bodies to absorb fat-soluble vitamins as well as fatty acids that our bodies don’t produce. Eating calorie-dense meat and fat is likely the reason the brains of our early ancestors grew huge and our bodies became healthy and our genes spread.

            Fat-in the form of back fat from well-raised pigs, rendered fat from pasture-raised chickens, butter, small-batch olive oil from a good Californian or Italian orchard-is good. Fat in its many forms adds extraordinary flavor and succulence to our food.

            Fat is not something to fear. It’s all about balance: a diet comprising lots and lots of vegetables along with moderate amounts of grains and meats and dairy products, combined with plenty of exercise. But you already know this. You know how you feel when you live that way: good. You know how you feel when you don’t, when you polish off a heaping dinner plate at the Cheesecake Factory followed by its namesake dessert: stuffed, uncomfortable. Listen to your body and use your common sense.

            Never in my experience, though, is this railing against fat more forcefully voiced than when Jews talk about schmaltz. Schmaltz cannot be uttered without someone talking about clogged arteries and an early grave. Jewish guilt is such a powerful emotion that even a goy such as myself is afflicted, and then right behind Guilt is Fear of Schmaltz.

            The word itself even sounds bad. Moreover, it has entered our language as a derogatory term for a creative work that is overly sentimental. My Webster’s New World Dictionary gives this definition only. The schmaltz we cook with doesn’t even existin the English language, according to this source.

            To focus my pro-fat proselytizing, I am here to say: Schmaltz Is Good, and Schmaltz Is Great. You really haven’t experienced a potato pancake until you’ve had one sautéed in schmaltz. Onions sautéed in schmaltz are a powerful flavoring tool. Chopped liver, a Jewish classic, is enriched and magically flavored with schmaltz. Schmaltz can replace butter in baked goods for extraordinary effects. Swap out the butter for schmaltz in pate a choux dough and make fabulous savory gougeres or Parisienne gnocchi. Some enterprising restaurant folks in England have even come up with a cocktail using schmaltz infused rye whiskey.

            There’s no end to the fun to be done when you embrace schmaltz.


Post a comment

One Comment

  •  on  September 20, 2013

    My grandma Ida Garfinkel was feared by every kid in the neighborhood. This was in Brooklyn in about 1947. This Ukrainian Jew was not your standard touchy feely grandma. She was NOT warm and cuddly. For absolutely no reason that I could ever discern, she used to come outside wielding a broom, shouting, "gey avek (I am killing the Yiddush spelling!), "gey avek from here.!" She also used to chase me around the kitchen table until she caught me, dragged me to the kitchen sink where I had to breathe in the salt water in her hand and then spit it out of my mouth. Charming. But it worked. This little exercise cleaned out my sinuses like no anti-congestant ever could.

    BUt I always knew she loved me, never more than when I scarfed down her chopped chicken liver. SHe always had a jar of schmaltz in the refrigerator, rendered from the gallons of chicken soup she made. After the cooked chicken livers were chopped into a lumpy paste, she would dip a soup spoon into the schmaltz, slather a dollop on top of the livers and, adding salt and pepper to the mixture, would incorporate the shmaltz into the liver. OMG. To die for. You want to try a real taste sensation? slather a tablespoon onto some matzoh, and then quvell!

Seen anything interesting? Let us know & we'll share it!