Channeling Safta — Schmaltz and All
I’ve always been fascinated by the nature-versus-nurture debate. How many of our personality traits are we born with and how many are learned?
When it comes to cooking, my family tells me that I am the clone of my paternal grandmother, Safta Ernestina. Although I loved her and well remember her legendary warmth, I was quite young when my parents immigrated to America, and I never had the opportunity to spend time with her in the kitchen.
Yet, on a recent trip home to Israel for my aunt’s funeral, I found a photograph of my grandmother that made a strong case for the nature side of the debate. There she was, behind the counter of a café, wearing an apron. Although we didn’t have much of a physical resemblance, I recognized myself immediately in her eyes and in her informal chef’s attire. Like her, I have always shunned the chef’s white coat, opting instead for a short-sleeved shirt and white apron.
Since I run an American embassy cafeteria, imagine my surprise at finding out that my safta ran a cafeteria on the first floor of an office building on Pinsker and Allenby streets in Tel Aviv.
After grilling my family about the photo, I found out that, after my grandparents left Bulgaria for Israel shortly after the end of World War II, they opened a business selling soups, sandwiches and coffee. When my grandfather died a few years later, my grandmother continued to run the small cafeteria to support my father, who was then a young high school student. She had an incredibly close relationship with her sister — Tante Becca, as she’s known in our family — who lived in the adjoining flat. My father describes coming home from school while his mother was at work, cleaning up and doing his homework. When he got hungry, he would call out and Tante Becca would reach down from the window above and hand him a plate of food.
Life was tough in Israel in those days, and my grandmother didn’t have it easy, but she was fun-loving all the same. She loved to cook and entertain, even though her little apartment had a tiny kitchen. Rumor had it that even if the pantry at her house looked bare as could be, she could whip out a feast in no time.
On the other hand, my maternal grandmother, Safta Jana, was the butt of many of my father’s jokes over the years. According to him, since he came from a family full of great cooks, it was agony to eat in a house where you couldn’t tell the difference between the mashed potatoes and the rice.
Much like Safta Ernestina, I work hard for a living. Working in a professional kitchen every day is a thrill, but the stress can be crippling. That’s why you may think I’m crazy for cooking on my days off when it seems that I should want to put my feet up and relax. But chefs and their families have to eat, too, and while it’s a privilege to cook and nourish others for a living, we are regularly advised to put on our own oxygen masks first.
On Sundays, when I’m not working, I tend to raid the freezer for little packages of things I’ve stashed away at some time when I was coherent enough to think ahead. This food needs to be fast, and it needs to be comforting.
Inevitably, this is when I make ktzitzot, an Israeli Sephardic meat patty made with or without vegetables. They are great eaten hot or cold with ketchup in a sandwich — hey, I’m an American, too — or with some tahini and a fresh green salad or cut-up vegetables. It’s the Jewish version of meatballs, but unlike the Italian version, ktzitzot usually are flat instead of round. This is straightforward family cooking, the kind that is restful and easy and produces great leftovers for future meals.
Usually, I have a bit of ground beef in the fridge and some lonely and sad looking leftover vegetables in the rotter, I mean, crisper. Rather than using bread, I’ve found that a carrot, zucchini and onion grated on a cheese grater makes a perfect substitute and makes ktzitzot soft and fluffy. Make note, gluten-free folks.
I then take a page out of my family ktzitza playbook and throw the meat, seasoning and vegetables into a Ziploc bag, remove air from the bag (trust me), and then throw it onto my kitchen counter about 10 times. This incredible trick magically mixes all your ingredients evenly, as well as tenderizes the meat. I then let the bag sit in the fridge for a bit to marry the flavors.
When I’m ready to fry the meat patties, I let the bag sit on the counter for an hour or so to take the chill off. I like to fry my ktzitzot in chicken fat that I keep in the fridge in a jar. Chicken fat (or schmaltz, as it’s called in Yiddish) is one of the culinary wonders of the world. It has a high smoke point, a savory flavor, and anything you fry in it automatically becomes more delicious. I don’t use much, only a tablespoon or two, but that’s usually enough to fry up about 20 small ktzitzot.
If you don’t feel good about frying in chicken fat, use some avocado oil, refined coconut oil, or any other oil with a high smoke point.
What’s best is that, right now, on top of my stove, is a loosely covered bowl of leftover ktzitzot waiting for someone to walk by, grab one, and eat it standing up over the sink like my father probably used to do at my safta’s house.
1/2 large carrot
1 medium-size zucchini
1 medium-size yellow onion
1 pound ground beef (or whatever
meat you like)
1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
1/8 cup olive oil (more if your meat is lean)
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon stock powder or 1 stock cube
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 pinch sugar
Oil or schmaltz for frying
Grate carrot, zucchini and onion on a cheese grater and place pulp in a colander with a few pinches of salt to remove the water. After 15 minutes, put vegetables in a clean tea towel and squeeze out all the excess water. Add to a Ziploc bag with remaining ingredients and remove air before sealing bag. Throw bag on the counter about 10 times to mix ingredients and put in the fridge to marry flavors for at least an hour or overnight.
When you are ready to fry your ktzitzot, heat a tablespoon of oil or schmaltz in a large pan and make one tiny meat patty so you can taste it. Cook until dark brown on both sides and taste. Adjust your seasonings to your liking by adding salt or pepper to the mix. When your patties taste good to you, fry them up in batches — about 3 inches in diameter each — turning them over until they are evenly browned on both sides, about 5 minutes on each side. They will puff up a little from the eggs and baking soda. Don’t overcrowd the pan so that they can brown without sweating. Eat hot, warm or cold.
Makes about 20 patties.