icon-smalecFew thing smell as good to me as onions frying in butter or especially bacon fat. It's always a good start to any tasty sauce or meal. In the Polish village tradition it can be a dish all onto itself. The poor man's answer to the rich man's butter - smalec.

In the pre-industrialized food production days butter was sold at the market and ended up on the tables of the bourgeoisie and put on their fluffy white buns. The peasants used rendered pork fat, smalec, to moisten their dark rye loaves. Now, like many simple peasant foods, smalec has gone up in the world and gets served in many a fine restaurant in Poland. Where as in Tuscany you might get olive oil and balsamic vinegar, in Provence - tapenade, in Derbyshire - butter, in Mazowsze it could be rendered pork fat and onions to go with your bread. Hey, it's colder up here - we need the calories.

Traditionally and in keeping with the poor peasant image it was just fat with a few bacon bits. It was made by rendering some pork back, not pork bellies where bacon comes from, and maybe adding an onion to the mix. When I was growing up, for the longest time, there used to always be a jar of this stuff in the kitchen ready for an impromptu snack of smalec, salt and crusty rye bread. Maybe not the healthiest thing in the world but at least it wasn't margarine.

These days, not bound by the restrictions of poverty, smalec has grown up and developed a lot of sophistication. One of the best examples I've had was served at the restaurant u Kucharzy in Warsaw. This recipe is loosely based on that fine dish.

Just to dispel all the moaning about how bad it must be for you I built a nutrition label for my recipe at NutritionData.com so that you can compare it to butter and margarine.

Szmalec nutritional data Butter nutritional data Margerine nutritional data
Smalec Butter Margerine

Not bad, right? And it tastes sooo good.

You will need:

  • 1 pound of bacon (fatty bacon is good)
  • 1 pound of onions
  • ½ pound of apples
  • A few sprigs of marjoram, although very Polish, it's optional

There are many variations you can do with the last two items on this list. For example you can substitute pears for the apples or caraway seeds for the marjoram. Even  the kind of apple you use will make a difference and we all know differences are good.

ingredience Bacon choped and in the pot. Rendered bacon ready for the onions.
Bacon, onions and apples - smalec. Bacon choped and in the pot. Rendered and ready for the onions.

Start of by dicing your bacon - just chop it up and put it into a small pot. Make sure your burner is set to the smallest flame setting possible. You want to slowly render the bacon. Too much heat will burn it and give it a very bitter and nasty taste. This will take a while and you will need to stir it from time to time to prevent stray bits from sticking to the bottom and sides of the pot and burning. It can take up to 2 hours so patience is of the essence and I usually undertake this process when I know I will have other things to do in the kitchen.

Once the bacon is all rendered, just the liquid fat and bacon bits, chop up your onions and put them in the pot. At first it will seem like there is way too much onions. They will quickly melt down and disappear into the bacon fat. Cook the onions and bacon for another 45 minutes till the onions have browned slightly and all but melted into the bacon fat. Make sure you stop to smell the bacon and onion aroma - one of the best kitchen smells there is.

The onions will quickly melt into the bacon. Onions are reduced and we are ready for the apples. Put the apples and majoram in the pot.
The onions will quickly melt into the bacon. Onions are reduced and we are ready for the apples. Put the apples and majoram in the pot.

Now it's time for the apple and marjoram. Dice your apple and chop the herb and put it in the pot. Another 45 minutes and you should be done. Depending on the apples you used you might have to help the process along by mushing them up with the back of a wooden spoon against the sides of your pot.

You might end up mushing up the apples with a spoon. We now almost have szmalec. Ready to go into the fridge in my Chinese jar.
You might end up mushing up the apples with a spoon. We now almost have smalec. Ready to go into the fridge in my Chinese jar.

The end result will be a pot of chunky, oniony, porky goodness. Let it cool and transfer to a container of your choice. I keep my smalec in an old Chinese, ceramic pot that I kept after I used up the original contents - preserved cabbage. It was quite the deal considering that I paid under $5 for it. Some of that old world packaging is often worth more than the product it is used to hold. In Poland, back in the old days, we used to keep our smalec out on the kitchen counter but now I keep it in the fridge.

A nice piece of crusty home made bread, some smalec, a little salt and a shot of my home made Serrano Sun Nalewka makes a great mid afternoon pick-me-up snack - smacznego (good appetite)!

crusty home made bread, some szmalec, a little salt


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