EDITOR’S NOTE: Green Plate Special columnist Christine Burns Rudalevige will return next week.

I’d like to think that my Jewish grandmothers could have told me how to use chicken skins with their eyes closed and one hand tied behind their backs. After phoning my parents, I’m not so sure.

“Did your mom make schmaltz?” I asked my 91-year-old dad. That’s Yiddish for chicken fat.

“I haven’t the slightest idea,” he said. “You know how I eat. I eat what is put in front of me.”

He put my 89-year-old mother on the phone.

“Schmaltz?” she repeated back at me. “I don’t know what it is. Is it chicken fat? No. No. We didn’t eat like that.”

“How about griebenes?” I pushed on, the Yiddish name for the crispy bits of chicken skin that are a byproduct of rendering the fat.

“No. I never heard of it,” she said. “No, I’m sorry, dear. We didn’t do any of that. My father was a butcher. We ate the best meat.”

It was happy hour at Atria, a retirement community outside New York City where my parents live. I could hear another resident correcting my Yiddish pronunciation as he listened to my mom and me. “Would you hand him the phone?” I asked my mom.

“Yeah, sure. We ate griebenes. Definitely. My mother used to make them,” Kurt Rothschild told me, speaking with a slight German accent (he fled, all alone, when he was 14, on a ship to America; it was November 1937. Does Jewish food always comes with a side of melancholy?). “It’s from the skin, small pieces, and you fry it in fat.”

Griebenes (fried bits of skin) remain after the rendering process. Photo by Peggy Grodinsky

Did he like it?

“Absolutely. Skin and fat, what’s not to like?” he said. “It’s not very good for you. But people didn’t know that. It didn’t hurt me, and I’m 94.”

HERITAGE

“The best meat” when my mother was growing up was most definitely not schmaltz or griebenes. Rendering every drop of fat from a chicken, eating every bit of skin is poverty cuisine. It’s making the most from what (very) little you’ve got. By the time my parents were growing up, their families no longer had to scrimp. By the time I was growing up, we were busy assimilating. I did not know schmaltz or griebenes from Adam. Or Abraham, Isaac, Jacob or Moses either.

Today, though, making schmaltz and griebenes aligns precisely with a number of the food world’s most hyped trends: wasting less, using more, celebrating (rather than fearing) fat, and elevating ingredients that were once dismissed as poor man’s food – oxtail, brisket, seaweed and the oddments of chicken skin.

I called around seeking a larger supply. Many phone calls and many chats with butchers later, I’d managed to gather an additional 11/2 pounds of chicken skin – thank you, kind butchers at Rosemont Market ($1.49) and Whole Foods ($1.11). It may not be easy to source, I discovered, but chicken skins are unquestionably a bargain. (If you don’t want to go the DIY route, Rosemont sells schmaltz for $4.99 per pint.)

An egg salad sandwich made with schmaltz. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

Rosemont also lent me a cookbook it had hanging around, Michael Ruhlman’s “The Book of Schmaltz: Love Song to a Forgotten Fat.”

“Because the fact is this: nothing tastes like schmaltz,” he writes. “It’s utterly unique, with an aromatic savoriness as distinctive as a great olive oil.”

RENDERING PLANT

I can attest to that aromatic savoriness. For days after I rendered the chicken skins, my house smelled like a big, enveloping hug. Another bonus – after handling all that grease, my hands felt soft as a newborn’s.

Peggy Grodinsky chops eggs for an egg salad sandwich made with schmaltz. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

Rendering chicken fat requires some time, but not much work. I chopped the skins into small bits and put them in a cast-iron skillet over very low heat. After 10 minutes, they’d released a little fat, and I stirred in a chopped onion. I left the pan at the lowest possible simmer for an hour or two, stirring whenever I happened by; the recipes I consulted said one hour; in my own experience, it was more like two. I strained the fat, which was now plentiful and a satisfying golden color, into a jar. Following Mitchell Davis’ nontraditional advice in “The Mensch Chef,” I then baked the skins until crunchy and a nice deep brown. (Disclosure: Mitchell is a friend, and I’d follow his cooking advice to the ends of the earth.) Tossed with salt, they make griebenes, a sort of Jewish pork rind, and they are addictive.

TO-DO LIST

I now had a jar of schmaltz, a pile of griebenes and a good conscience, as I’d practiced what on-trend chefs call “total utilization.” How to use these old-fashioned riches? It was almost noon. The answer was staring me in the face: lunch. I made myself an egg salad sandwich on rye toast, using the cooled schmaltz in place of mayonnaise along with some chopped fresh dill. I folded in a handful of griebenes and topped my creamy-crunchy open-faced sandwich with pickled onions. Meanwhile, I “buttered” a baked potato with schmaltz and piled on more griebenes. Heaven.

I needed a nap.

What else? Hanukkah starts on Tuesday. I’ll be the one frying latkes (potato pancakes) in schmaltz. I intend to try it in a savory pie crust in place of lard, too. Any leftovers I’ll freeze – as a hedge against future hunger and as assurance of future solace. Visions of matzoh balls and kreplach dance in my head. These meals – and many others – could only benefit from a handful of griebenes.

Schmaltz can be used where otherwise another fat might be chosen.

CHICKEN SCHMALTZ

From Mitchell Davis’ “The Mensch Chef” (with a note or two of my own).

2 pounds chicken fat, skin and scraps, cut up

1 large onion (about 8 ounces), cut into eighths

Place the chicken fat and skin in a small, heavy saucepan, and set over very low heat. After about 10 minutes, when about 1/2 inch of fat has rendered on the bottom of the pan, add the onion and stir. Continue cooking over low heat for another 45 minutes to 1 hour, until all of the fat has rendered from the skin. As the process proceeds, the chicken skins will decrease greatly in volume and the onions soften and turn translucent. Do not allow the onion or the chicken skin to color – the liquid fat should be golden yellow, no darker. Strain through a fine sieve into a container with a tight-fitting lid. Cool, cover, and refrigerate or freeze until needed. There may be some dark liquid on the bottom of the container. This is the juice from the onion and chicken scraps, not fat, and should be ignored.

GRIEBENES

From Mitchell Davis’ “The Mensch Chef.” I’d cut my chicken pieces quite small, so they took less time than Mitchell calls for here; keep your eye on them. They can be spelled either griebenes or gribenes, as Mitchell does.

Strained chicken skin left over after rendering schmaltz

1 teaspoon kosher salt (or to taste)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Using tongs, remove any pieces of onion mixed in with the skin. lay the skin on a baking sheet; make sure the pieces aren’t touching. Set in the middle of the oven for 30 to 45 minutes, until the skin is dark brown and crisp. Turn two or three times. If the pieces begin to burn, remove them from the oven. Remove the browned gribenes from the oven, lay on a paper bag or paper towel to drain, and toss with salt.