Well the heathen chicken wagon rolls forward with entry number two. Sumac berries are the red ripe berries of the the non-poisonous variety of the sumac tree found in the Middle East. Not to be confused with its North American relative. It is widely used in Jewish and Arab cooking and almost any Arab restaurant worth its salt (from the old Roman custom of paying soldiers in salt) will have a sumac rubbed chicken on the menu. The presence of it in a Jewish establishment marks the menu as coming from the Syrian, Lebanese or Land of Israel Jewish communities. The flavor is bright, tart and reminiscent of cranberry or currant.
I found mine in a middle eastern market here in Berkeley. I am always of two minds when shopping in these places. On one hand I lived for several years in Israel, have an array of Arab friends and even spent a week eating my way through Amman. So I am tempted to ask for things with a degree of comfort and even engage with the staff about whether the Za’atar is fresh and the pita local. On the other hand by doing so I know that sooner or later I will be asked where my knowledge comes from (I do not look in any way Middle Eastern). That is usually a relationship killer. But not always, I recall the owner of a Kebab place in Kansas City who was from the West Bank. He told me he loved American Jews- they were his best customers. In the end I kept my mouth shut and bought some ground sumac, some za’atar and some fava beans. The za’atar and the fava beans are for another day of cooking however.
The other thing I should point out is that I roast my chicken butterflied. This is a technique that I use to allow for a more even cooking time (the breasts and thighs cook at the same speed) and you get a nice expanse of crisp skin as a bonus. Also it should go without saying that you should brine your chicken. I added a tsp of sumac and a tsp of smoked paprika to the brine.
Recipe after the jump
According to Claudia Roden in her masterwork The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York cheese cake was one of the first foods that Jews assimilated from their central European neighbors. And if we stop to consider the way in which we think of cheesecake in America (leaving the eponymous factory out of it) then we see those Jewish roots. New York cheesecake is almost the textbook definition of what a cheesecake is expected to be. Dense, rich, with a hint of citrus or vanilla and able to support a topping of fresh fruit with aplomb. The Jewish origins of the “New York” cheesecake are outlined by Joan Nathan in Jewish Cooking in America there she posits that the best known of the original deli cheesecakes was made by Lindy’s on Broadway. Later the recipe was included by Kraft (another Jewish business) in a promotion for their Philadelphia brand cream cheese. Of course it goes without saying that up to perhaps 20 years ago the best known cheesecake in the country was made by Sara Lee- originally named for the daughter of its baker, Charley Lubin.
My own pivotal cheesecake experience came not in New York, but rather within the confines of my humble little apartment on Milwaukee’s fashionable east side (as we said to ourselves). My parents honored the occasion of the anniversary of my birth with about half a cheesecake from Regina’s. Now you might say to yourself “what, only half!” but it was a fair judgment given the weight and girth of the thing. The cheesecake stood roughly 4-5 in tall, was topped with apricot jam and then covered in a rich dark chocolate shell. Even with the aid of my roommate (a man who regularly ate two meals in a sitting) it took us the better part of a month to polish it off. Thank god for the freezer.
Since then I have been on a quest to create a rich, dense cheesecake without all the frou-frou and additions that pass for sophistication at the shopping center. I tried a number of recipes including the rather interesting process that Alton Brown uses in I’m Just Here for More Food. I had a number of nice cheesecakes but not the white whale I sought. Then I found a new recipe in of course Cook’s Illustrated and tried that.
Recipe after the break
Ok, for anyone who followed my last post and now has a small container of chicken fat in the fridge- here is a use that will let you die happy. You may note that I am a fan of the Cook’s Illustrated cook book (see my last post). That is because they happily test 15-20 ways of cooking something before putting into the book. As an extra bonus, you get the back story of how they developed the technique which allows a tinkerer like my self to tweak it slightly (in this case replacing the vegetable oil with chicken fat).
The full details after the break. Continue reading
Schmaltz, or rendered chicken fat is an Ashkanazi comfort food. My mother told me that when she was a child she would eat it smeared on bread as a snack after school. Like most of the food that came with the Jews from Eastern Europe, schmaltz is a food of poverty. Meat was very expensive for most and a real luxury (why do think that Shabbat dinners only rated chicken, and only around big holidays like Passover they splurged for brisket- a really lousy cut of meat?). The result of this condition is that no part of the bird was wasted. This is often referred to as the “snout to tail” approach to food as championed by Anthony Bourdain and others. Since I had just purchased two whole chickens and broken them down into parts for other meals I was faced with the question of what to do with the carcasses. Continue reading