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which is ushered in next Monday evening with Rosh Hashanah (New Year) and ends more than two weeks later at Simhat Torah -- offers many reasons to celebrate. The first fruits of autumn are served with ceremony: apples and honey, symbols of the hope for sweetness in the year ahead, are baked in sweet cakes. Round hallah, with its promise of long life, recalls the image of prayer rising heavenward. But because the harvest festival centers around mammoth meals, it is also a time of rejoicing for those who love the culinary side of the Jewish religion. It heralds a winter of hearty meals that tax the inventiveness of Jewish cooks and bear the responsibility for the cuisine's "heavy" reputation.
Central to this winter fare, particularly for generations of Central and Eastern European cooks, has been the fatted goose. More than any other food, it has been cooked to its gastronomic limits at their hands. Called the "Jews' fowl" since l5th-century Germany, it can be simply roasted, or it might show up in the cholent, a stew left to simmer until the Sabbath midday meal, which is often fortified, especially by Hungarians, with a goose neck or leg. Its neck skin can be stuffed with onions, flour and goose fat, making a sort of kosher sausage called a helzel. The force-fed goose's abundant schmaltz or rendered fat adds class and cholesterol to chopped chicken liver, kasha varnishkes (buckwheat groats with bow-tie noodles) and potato pancakes. And then, of course, there is the liver itself -- foie gras to the French and ambrosia to any gastronome, Jewish or not.
Grandmother Lina always served a fresh young goose at Sukkot. Later, the fatter geese would provide her with goose fat throughout the long winter in Germany. Grandpa Rudolph looked forward most of all to this time of year. After eating lightly during the summer months, he could once again grow fat, snacking on griebenes, or goose cracklings, which Grandma Lina always kept in a jar next to his chair.
Jews, of course, have had no monopoly on this multipurpose fowl. The practice of force-feeding geese dates back to the ancient Egyptians. In Armenian folk tales, the nobility feasted on goose while the poor made do with the lowly chicken. In Germany, the Kermesse, or a consecration of the parish church, is celebrated each October by eating at least one roast goose. And throughout Central Europe, roast goose has always been the festive centerpiece of the Christmas meal.
But somehow, in Central Europe, goose has always been considered a Jewish meat, although a whole roast bird was reserved for only special occasions. In fact, the Budapest soccer team MTK, which at one time included many Jewish players, is still called "libasva," Hungarian for goose. Hungarians also know that stuffed goose neck is a Jewish dish and that schmaltz smeared on pumpernickel and topped with a black radish is a Jewish delicacy.
Historically, this association seems logical. For many centuries, pork was the everyday meat of the Christian poor, while wild game and roast goose were eaten by the rich. Since Jews are not traditionally hunters and neither pork nor most wild game was kosher, they sought out meat that conformed to their religious beliefs. Chicken and geese were the most appropriate, within easy reach of a shohet or ritual slaughterer.
Geese were by far the most cost-effective animals to raise within the strained economy of poor Central and Eastern European Jews. Although one goose eats four times as much as a chicken and takes up the same amount of space in a back yard, the bird's yield to its owner is much greater. Its feathers can be used in pillows, its quills for pens, its meat roasted or smoked and eaten, its liver turned into foie gras, its griebenes or cracklings eaten as a snack and its schmaltz or rendered fat used for cooking and for medicinal purposes. Country people beat schmaltz to a cream and combined it with vinegar, lemon juice, finely chopped onion and chopped parsley to create a sandwich filling. Goose grease was used to prevent chapping in winter, and was often placed on the udders of cows before milking and on women's breasts to adapt them for nursing.
Surprisingly enough, modern Israeli cooks seem to have broken down this gastronomic stereotype. When the early pioneers emigrated to that hot country, they shunned heavy meat, possibly rejecting goose as a reminder of the table-centered shtetl (village) existence which they so gladly left behind. And instead of goose fat, they discovered, local olive and vegetable oils were just as useful in cooking.
Despite this change in tastes, geese are currently raised in Israel and have been since ancient times. Today the birds are primarily cultivated for export to the French goose liver industry. (Don't be surprised if it's Israeli goose liver that you find in your favorite Washington French restaurant.) Even the geese growers rarely eat the geese themselves on their moshavim, or collective (cooperative) settlements. Instead, goose breasts are smoked and reserved for export, or they are occasionally served in fancy kosher hotels and restaurants over melon, just as others might serve prosciutto and melon. The priciest Israeli restaurants now serve goose liver as a standard item, an offering unheard of even 10 years ago. But the majority of younger Israelis have never tasted goose and are unaware of such "American" Jewish delicacies as helzel, schmaltz or griebenes.
And in the United States, roast goose appears on the holiday table less and less. Except for very special occasions, chicken and turkey are substituted. How my grandfather would have moaned over all this! From Sukkot to Passover, Grandpa's winter snacks consisted of munching on griebenes while sipping beer in between puffs on his ever-present cigar.
GRANDMA LINA'S ROAST GOOSE STUFFED WITH CHESTNUTS AND APPLES (8 servings) 8-to 10-pound goose 2 cups cooked, peeled chestnuts, quartered 6 cups peeled, cored and quartered apples 1/2 cup raisins 1 cup prunes Salt to taste
Remove the excess fat from the cavity and giblets. Render the fat (see following recipe) and use in cooking.
Combine the chestnuts, apples, raisins and prunes, and stuff the cavity about 3/4 full. After stuffing the goose, truss it and place the bird, breast side up, on a rack in a roasting pan. Rub with salt.
Roast for 1 hour in a 400-degree oven. Prick the skin with a fork at 1/2-inch intervals to let the fat escape. Reduce the temperature to 350 degrees and roast for another hour. As the fat accumulates, remove it with a bulb baster. To test for doneness, prick the thigh with a fork; the juices should be yellowish. If further cooking is necessary, reduce the oven to 325 degrees and continue cooking.
Let the bird sit 15 minutes while you make a gravy from the pan juices. Serve with a light salad.
Note: This stuffing can also be used for holiday turkey.
IRENE ROBINSON'S SCHMALTZ (RENDERED POULTRY FAT) WITH GRIEBENES (CRACKLINGS) (Makes about 1 cup) 1 cup goose or chicken fat 1/4 cup sliced onion Salt (optional) Water (optional)
Remove the fat and the fatty skin from a chicken or a goose. Wash and dry well.
Place in a heavy skillet, adding about 1/4 cup sliced onion per cup of fat and sprinkling with salt if desired. Heat, uncovered, over a very low heat, letting the fat melt slowly, until it is completely melted. (If using goose fat, you might want to add about 1/4 cup or so of water.) Remove the skin and onions (griebenes) with a slotted spoon. Cover and refrigerate or freeze the fat. In a separate container, refrigerate the griebenes.
Use the griebenes for snacks or cook along with your kasha varnishkes, noodle pudding or chicken livers over potatoes. The fat is especially good for making chopped liver, potato pancakes and matzoh brei (fried matzoh).
KASHA VARNISHKES (6 to 8 servings) 2 cups kasha (buckwheat groats) 4 tablespoons goose or chicken fat 4 cups water Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste 2 cups varnishkes (bow tie-shaped noodles) 2 large onions
Saute' the kasha in 2 tablespoons of fat until the grains become dry and crunchy. Then add the water and salt and pepper to taste, and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer for about 20 minutes.
Cook the varnishkes according to the directions on the package and drain.
Saute' the onions in the remaining fat until golden.
When the kasha is ready, combine with the onions and noodles. Adjust seasoning and serve, alone or with a pot roast.
PAULA GERSON'S CHICKEN LIVER WITH GRIEBEN AND POTATOES (1 serving) 1 boiled sliced potato 2 teaspoons goose or chicken fat 1 tablespoon grieben 1 goose or chicken liver*
Slice the potato. In a small skillet heat the fat with the grieben.
Add the potato and saute' until golden. Add the liver* and cook through.
*For those observing the laws of kashrut, the liver must be cut open across its length and width and placed with the cut part facing downward over the fire, so that the fire will draw out all of the blood. Before broiling, it is washed and lightly salted. It must be broiled until it is edible, using a forked utensil or grate so that the blood is consumed by the fire or drained off. Finally, the broiled liver must be washed three times to remove any blood. After it is koshered, the liver can be saute'ed.
HELZEL (Roasted Stuffed Poultry Neck) (3 to 4 servings) 1 neck skin of a large chicken, duck, goose or turkey (from at least a 6-pound bird), including the triangular skin of the crop 2/3 cup flour 2 1/2 tablespoons diced, unrendered poultry fat 1 1/2 tablespoons finely minced onion 1 clove garlic, peeled and finely minced 1 1/2 teaspoons sweet paprika 1/2 teaspoon salt Black pepper to taste Chicken stock or water Fat, for roasting
If possible, buy poultry with a neck skin that is not split. That is probably possible only if you shop at a live-poultry market where the bird can be handled to your order. If only a slit neck skin is available, then work with it as directed, cutting down to include the crop skin.
In either case, singe the neck skin and pull out all feathers. Turn inside out, or open skin side down and clean off all tubes, bits of meat or sinews, and large lumps of fat from around the edge, but do not remove the fat lining the inside of the skin. If the skin is slit open, fold to form a tube, skin side out, and sew the bottom edge and three-quarters of one long side so you have a pocket that can be stuffed.
Place the flour in a mound on a wooden board or in a wide wooden chopping bowl. Chop the unrendered poultry fat into the flour in very fine bits, using a French chef's knife or a hand chopper. The result should be a coarse meal, such as you would have when making pastry. A pastry blender will not work for this procedure because it is not sharp enough to cut the fat. When you have a coarse meal, and when all the flour has been absorbed by the clumps of fat, blend in the onion, garlic, paprika, salt and pepper.
Fill the skin, being sure not to pack it too tightly. The amount here will be just about right for the neck of a 6- to 7-pound bird. Sew the neck skin completely closed.
Poach in simmering stock, or water to which you have added a pinch of salt and a little fat of some kind, for about 8 to 10 minutes, or until the helzel stiffens and becomes firm. Place in a roasting pan with the bird. Bake in a 350-degree oven for about 45 minutes, basting with fat several times and turning the helzel so it becomes crisp and golden brown on all sides. Serve a small slice or two as a garnish or appetizer.
If you roast the helzel with poultry that will produce gravy, spoon some gravy over the slices before serving.
Taken from "From My Mother's Kitchen, Recipes and Reminiscences," by Mimi Sheraton (Harper and Row).