Whatever happened to gribenes?
I still make them every time I roast a chicken or make chicken soup; couldn’t be more simple.
Gribenes are the golden brown, curled up bits of chicken skin made by rendering the fat, or schmaltz. They are the Jewish equivalent of pork cracklings. The French and Chinese make them from duck. A good gribene is both dry and fatty, crispy and chewy. The word in Yiddish means “scrap.” It’s much better than it sounds.
I make them at home every time I roast a chicken or make chicken soup. I serve them tossed about in a small bowl with onions fried just as crisp in the same schmaltz. Sometimes I toss them in a green salad, the way the French do with theirs. And once in a while I set them on a plate beside thin shot glasses of frozen vodka. These I call Gribenes Shooters.
Outside my kitchen, I don’t come across gribenes.
I know in New York City, the Second Avenue Deli will put a little dish of them on your table when you sit down. Sammy’s Roumanian off Delancy Street does the same, along with a saucer of chicken fat to spread on your rye bread.
But gribenes in a restaurant or deli relegates them to nostalgia, which is a big mistake. Gribenes deserve a place in the home. They taste good. They make good use of excess skin and fat that you’d otherwise toss. And, most importantly, they make people happy.
For some, gribenes instantly recall grandparents. It was my mother’s mother, Bertha Vogel, who taught me to make them. She made and served them whenever she made Friday night dinner. She ate fried chicken skin every week and drank a glass of bourbon every evening. She died in her sleep at age 96.
But even people without a gribenes-eating Jewish grandparent get a kick out of them. They hint at newly hip animal parts like trotters, head cheese and jowls, yet are hardly exotic: people who eat chicken tend to like the crunchy skin the best, anyway. Gribenes just distill that pleasure to its bite-sized essence. I have yet to put out a plate to anything but smiles. Gribenes make people inevitably, assuredly happy. Is that why we’ve stopped eating them?
More likely, gribenes fell out of fashion because of health concerns. In the age of Lipitor and white meat, deliberately tossing back fried chicken skin may seem like the equivalent of a death wish. A friend of mine calls gribenes “chicken crack” — both addictive and dangerous.
My answer is: don’t eat too much. Save them for Shabbat, a special meal; they’re not movie popcorn (which, by the way, is no health picnic either).
Meanwhile, I choose to believe that something that brings people such momentary joy and pleasure cannot do much harm. Especially when chased by a shot of vodka.
Gribenes and Onions
There’s no point in going into proportions here. When you trim a chicken before roasting or stewing, save the excess skin and fat. Two roasting chickens will give you enough for a small dish of gribenes. Plan accordingly.
Chicken with fat attached
Onions, halved and sliced thin
Cut large pieces of skin into smaller pieces, around 1 or 2 inches.
Heat a skillet and add all the chicken skin and fat. Cook over low to moderate heat until the fat is rendered from the skin and the skin begins to turn golden brown. Toward the end of the cooking, turn down the heat to avoid burning and watch carefully. When the bits of skin are the color of an autumn leaf, remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and place on a paper towel to drain.
Add enough thinly sliced onion to cover bottom of pan but still stay submerged in the schmaltz. Fry over moderate heat until very crispy and brown. Drain separately on paper towels.
Just before serving, toss gribenes with onion in a small dish, sprinkle with salt, and serve.
See more recipes and videos at jewishjournal.com/foodaism.
To see a quick How To Make Gribenes Video, click here.
Gribenes and onions.