14 - 2009

Waste not: Soup, schmaltz and chicken “chicharron”

This week I decided to try my hand at one of my daughter’s favorite foods, chicken noodle soup.The ultimate goal is to find a healthier, homemade, more organic, less wasteful alternative to the Campbell’s that she eats day in, day out for lunch. It’s a daunting challenge, but I decided I was up to it.

Although I am growing more confident in the kitchen through trial and error, I am usually a by-the-book cook, and I don’t consider myself an expert soup-maker by any stretch of the imagination. Somehow soups tend to come out too strong, too watery, too bland, too something when I make them. Sometimes I think they all taste like vegetable stock, with some other stuff in them. On the other hand, sometimes others like them, so maybe it’s just my taste buds.

Anyway, I thought this recipe from A Year of Crockpotting sounded pretty good, and pretty easy. However, she calls for a rotisserie chicken carcass (for ease, I assume) or 1.5 cups of cooked chicken meat, which I didn’t have on hand. I was shopping for some other ingredients, so I picked up a couple of packages of naturally raised, free-range chicken thighs. They were bone-in, skin-on, as chicken thighs often are. As I was preparing to prep the meat for cooking, I looked a the pile of fatty skin I was amassing and wondered what I could do with it.

The answer: Schmaltz.

Schmaltz (or schmalz), of course, is the Yiddish word for rendered chicken fat. Some of you, or your mothers or grandmothers, are laughing your heads off that it would just now occur to me to use chicken skin for something instead of throwing it out, but keep those giggles quiet while the rest of us are thinking about this.

To figure out how to make schmaltz, I turned to Mark Bittman’s book, How to Cook Everything: Simple Recipes for Great Food. Sure enough, he has a paragraph of explanation. Essentially, cut the chicken fat (I went with fat and skin-with-fat-on-the-back-of-it) into small pieces and cook it on low in a heavy pan for “at least half an hour.” Here’s how mine started out:

Am I lazy, so that I did not cut the chicken skin very small? Yes, I am. Our knives are sharp, but my hands were slimy and the skin was slippery, so I hacked it up roughly and threw it in the pan.

I followed Bittman’s suggestion and added some diced onion halfway through (actually, dehydrated onion). Mmm, the smell! At the end (an hour after starting), the skin looked like this:

I strained it and got 1/3 cup of clear golden liquid fat. Not bad for the skin and fat off of about a dozen chicken thighs.

I poured the schmaltz into a jar, and once it cooled it looked like this — the yellow fat looks a little green because the glass on this jar is bluish:


The finished, post-rendering chicken skin (fo-sizzle!) looked like this:

Hmmm, I thought, almost like chicharrones, right? Well, yes and no. Chicharrones vary in their makeup and how they are served depending where you are from. Around here, we are familiar with the Mexican variety (“pork rinds”). In the Caribbean (Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic), chicharron de pollo is a full-on, fried chicken dish, skin, meat and all (and it sounds pretty tasty).

But never mind that: I turned our chicken chicharrones — or “chick-arrones” — into dinner. To offset the lack of good health of the fried chicken skin (although critics must concede that though these are deep-fried, much of the fat was in the jar as noted above), I served them over salad greens, lightly dressed with a sesame vinaigrette. On the side, we had crisp organic Fuji apples and goat cheese on slabs of still-warm, crusty, homemade bread torn from a flat round loaf that baked on the stone in the oven, with a nice glass of boxed red wine. It was delicious.

What of the schmaltz and soup?

I’m not sure yet how we’ll use the schmaltz. We might simply use it for cooking. I think it would be delicious as the fat to fry up some latkes, and I even happen to have both applesauce and sour cream in the refrigerator right now. Fortunately, grease keeps for a very long time in a clean, sealed container, so we have time to think it over.

And about that soup? It was pretty good. Mlle. Cheap and I enjoyed it with a piece of homemade bread and butter. Mr. Cheap reported that it was very good with Ethiopian berbere powder in it. We agreed that the broccoli in the stock might have made it a little more cabbage-y than we like, but the sweet potatoes were PERFECT in the soup. Next time, I’ll use a little more water and a little less stock, celery instead of broccoli, and try to make it not too salty (I think our organic better-than-bouillon was pretty salty, because I barely salted it at all).

Before I made the soup, I divvied up the cooked thigh meat. I had enough for this batch of soup, enough to put in the freezer for a future batch of soup, and enough to puree with a little stock in lieu of the baby food for my next batch of dog biscuits — saving a few cents and the waste of the jar.

Best of all, I was very pleased that all I threw away were some boiled-down bones.

Feel free to add your schmaltzy tips, chicken-soup secrets or other wisdom garnered from chicken frugality experts!

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