February 25, 2013
Elizabeth wasn’t her real name. The daughter of Lithuanian immigrants, her Hebrew name was Hasia Leah. Her “greener” parents called her, “Lizzie.”
When it came time for Grandma to go to school, the teacher took the roll. When she came to “Lizzie Schaffer,” she told my grandma, “From now on, your name is Elizabeth.”
And so it was.
I didn’t have Grandma for very long. Grandma died when I was five. She had rheumatic fever as a child, and only later on did they discover that it had affected her heart.
She was always frail and spent a great deal of time in the hospital. One night, she told my mother, “I’ve had enough,” and in the morning, she was gone.
But I still managed to store up some treasured memories of Grandma. I remember how I used to love to ride around her apartment in her wheelchair (by that time, she was too weak to walk) and how she always had a china dish of nonpareils on a corner table in her living room. This was the only place I ever saw those chocolate discs adorned with the little white candy shots. Nonpareils are indelibly linked for me with my Grandma, she of the careworn face and hair that was whiter than snow. Only much later did I see nonpareils at a shop in Israel, where I now live, and immediately thought, “Grandma!”
Grandma used to save ribbons from gifts in a heart-shaped candy box, from some Valentine’s Day long ago. These, she took out whenever I came for a visit, and I would play with them. Today, the thought seems so odd and out of place to me, that a collection of ribbons could hold my interest. My children play with iPads and iPods. If I gave them a box of ribbons, they would be bemused, to say the least.
But for me, this was something so special, this box of ribbons. It was sheer luxury to run my hands through the satiny ribbons, to note the details that made one ribbon different from another, this one shot through with silver, that one silky, another one stiff and gauzy. And the colors! Every color a girl could love: orchid, candy pink, fuchsia.
I wish I knew more about my Grandma, but I don’t. So I filled in the blanks by asking my mother. “Did you learn to cook from Grandma?” I asked her. My mother laughed.
“Grandma gave us pasta with ketchup and never heard of garlic. But she made three things well: fudge, sugar cookies, and chopped liver. No one could make them like Grandma. And no one ever will. She never wrote her recipes down.”
“Grandma cooked the way people did in the old days. She put in half an eggshell of this, and a handful of that. That’s why no one will ever be able to duplicate those recipes. I miss her fudge!” my mother exclaimed.
I never got a chance to taste my grandmother’s cooking because she was already so fragile when I knew her. But at least my mother was able to preserve the simple Jewish recipes that my Grandma used to make for the holidays. I learned to make chopped liver just as my Grandma did, just as my mother did and does. Everyone who tastes it says it’s the best chopped liver they ever had. Even those who don’t like chopped liver love mine.
I once had a family over for Shabbos. The wife said she was on a diet, so she’d only have a taste of the chopped liver, liver is so fattening. She took a smidgen on her plate, declared it delicious and said, “Just another little taste.”
I discreetly watched as she slowly carved away a sliver at a time until there was a small neat square of liver in the center of the serving plate. It was now time to clear this course and bring out the next, the main course. But something told me to leave the liver on the table.
By the end of the meal, sure enough, she had polished off the entire plate of chopped liver. Well, we had helped. But most of it went to my lady guest, who talked the good talk about diet, but simply couldn’t resist my Grandma’s chopped liver. No one could.
It begins with schmaltz. You simply cannot make real chopped liver without a generous amount of schmaltz. Is it healthy? Of course not.
Do I have time to make schmaltz, with its necessity for long, slow simmering? Of course not—I’m a working mother, a communications writer at http://www.kars4kids.org
But personally, I wouldn’t want to die without having tasted chopped liver with real schmaltz and so I do from time to time, at least on holidays and special occasions. It’s well worth those extra minutes off my life. What would I do with them anyway? What’s an extra minute without having tasted chopped liver??
Fat and skin (the choicest selection for this purpose is on either side of the chicken breast), about half a cup (I save it up as I cook chickens, freezing in plastic wrapped bundles until I have an amount sufficient to make schmaltz)
1 small onion, thinly sliced
1 small bay leaf
3 whole peppercorns
Pinch of salt
1 lb. kashered* calves liver
2 hardboiled eggs
1 small onion
Salt and pepper to taste
For the schmaltz, cut up the fat and skin into postage stamp-sized pieces. Place in small saucepan. Add rest of ingredients. Cook on very low heat, carefully swirling pan every so often to prevent the cracklings (griebnes) from sticking to the bottom of the pot.
Schmaltz takes long, careful cooking. It is done when the griebnes are almost brown. Pour the contents of the pot into a strainer over a heat-resistant bowl. Leave the pot inverted over the strainer to capture every last drop. Discard bay leaf and peppercorns from griebnes in strainer. Cool and then store schmaltz and griebnes separately in refrigerator while making the liver.
For the chopped liver, put the liver, eggs, and onion through a meat grinder. Grind twice. Add enough schmaltz to pleasantly moisten the mixture and make it spreadable. Add salt and pepper to taste (you won’t need much as the liver and schmaltz are already salty). Chill. Spread on a flat plate. Score with a knife into serving-sized squares. Sprinkle griebnes over the top and serve
Note: Griebnes are also delicious sprinkled over a bowl of chicken soup.
*Consult a rabbi on how to Kasher liver, if you cannot purchase liver already kashered. The kashering process involves broiling, so the liver is already fully-cooked after kashering and may be used in any recipe requiring cooked livers.
Varda Epstein is the mother of 12 children, a blogger at The Times of Israel and Judean Rose, and a Communications Writer for Kars4Kids http://www.kars4kids.org, the car donation charity.