Michael Ruhlman has worked on cookbooks with famed chefs such as Michael Symon and Eric Ripert. But for The Book of Schmaltz: Love Song to a Forgotten Fat (Little, Brown and Co., $25), he partnered with his Cleveland Heights neighbor of 12 years, Lois Baron. Released last year as an iPad app and just last month as a print book, the collection of recipes uses schmaltz — made from rendering chicken fat and skin, and flavored with onions — to make traditional dishes such as chopped liver and matzo ball soup or contemporary fare such as gnocchi and brioche. Just in time for Rosh Hashana (the Jewish new year starts Sept. 4), we sat down with the two-time James Beard Foundation Book Award winner about why he wrote the cookbook, bubbies and his vegan challenge.
Q. You're not Jewish. What made you want to get into cooking with schmaltz?
A. I'm interested in fat generally because fat is such a great component of the foods that we eat. It's the most fun to work with. ... When my neighbor, Lois Baron, said that she was leaving from a pizza party across the street to go home to make schmaltz because the High Holy Days were upon us, I thought, Oh, OK, it's about time to address my curiosity about schmaltz, and here's the person who can lead the way. That's how it started.
Q. Why is schmaltz so ingrained in Jewish cooking?
A. It was the only cooking fat available to Jews in Eastern Europe. It's a spiritual identifier for a really important segment of our culture. Schmaltz, in addition to being an amazing fat to cook potatoes in, is a great symbol of these immigrants who brought it to America.
Q. Why was it important to work with Baron?
A. I needed a sounding board to say, "Is this right? Does this work? Is this good?" ... There are some traditional dishes that I adapted for the book and she was able to say, "Yeah, that tastes great." Or she was able to say, "Vinegar in your chopped liver, are you crazy?!" She still can't get over that, but she did taste it and said it was very good.
Q. Why did you want to release it as a hardcover?
A. I'm really excited to bring it out in a book form. So many bubbies [Yiddish for grandmother] don't have iPads, and I see that they are going to want to buy it for their grandkids and say, "This is how we grew up eating, and this is important to keep the tradition alive."
Q. In early July you challenged yourself to eat vegan. How did that go?
A. I was successful for less than 24 hours. I find it very difficult to cook without animal products. We need to appreciate and care for our animals because they are so much fun to eat.