Depending on your experience with it, the words “gefilte fish” will have one of three effects on you:
- You might say “What’s a gefilte fish? Is it like a salmon?”
- You might involuntarily gag a little bit
- You might start salivating, and say to your self “Get the chrain!”
You’re most likely to have the first response if you’re not Jewish (or if your not an Ashkenazi Jew). The second response most often comes from those who’ve only ever eaten the supermarket version of this delicacy, which I think is abominable. The third is what the children of Jewish mothers who were good balabustas are likely to say. Because homemade gefilte fish is amazing.
Gefilte is Yiddish for “stuffed”. So gefilte fish means, literally, “stuffed fish”. The original, medieval version of this dish was quite elaborate: a whole freshwater fish was deboned, with the head and tail left intact, and stuffed with the ground fish fillets mixed with onions, eggs, matzoh meal, and seasonings. These days, the fish mixture is most often formed into oblong patties, and poached, similar to the quenelles de poisson of French cuisine.
If you like fish, you will love good home-made gefilte fish. If you’ve only ever had the ghastly version that comes from a jar, and shudder at the mention of it, you will probably will like the home-made version. If you don’t like fish, well, too bad for you. Good gefilte fish is delicious, and practically addictive. One piece of it is never enough. Oliver Sacks, the neurologist, wrote a piece in the New Yorker about gefilte fish just before his recent death. It’s a touching story, written by a man who knew his end was near. In it he talks about how he loved the dish, and how it was one of the only things he was actually able to eat during his last days.
Gefilte fish is a standard at many Ashkenazi Jewish holiday meals; indeed, there was a time where many observant families had this dish as part of the weekly Sabbath dinner. I expect many still do. It is a time-consuming, and at least here in Toronto, costly dish to prepare, though, so my guess is that it doesn’t appear weekly as often as it used to.
There are two basic styles of gefilte fish: sweet and not sweet. Jews from Galitzia (a part of Eastern Europe that includes much of Poland and western Ukraine), tended to make the sweet variety; those from around Lithuania and the rest of Ukraine, and pretty much everywhere else tended to go for the non sweet version. I’ve never actually had sweet gefilte fish; my experience is strictly with the more savoury variety.
Gefilte fish is made from freshwater fish. A traditional combination is two parts ground carp to one part each of pike and whitefish. Outside of Chinatown, carp is not easy to find, and my understanding is that it’s not a great-tasting fish anyway. We make ours from equal parts of pickerel and whitefish, which are both fairly mild. Most fish mongers will skin, debone and grind the fish for you; if yours won’t grind it, at least get them to give you deboned fillets so you can grind it yourself. Make sure you ask for the fish bones, heads and tails. You need these to make the fish stock for poaching the fish patties.
Note: Make sure your fish is as fresh as possible. Older fish is will stink to high heavens during the long poaching time. Many people hate making gefilte fish because of the smell. I’ve found that impeccably fresh fish smells delicious when it’s being cooked; old fish is just nasty.
Maxine’s Gefilte Fish
This is an adapted version of my late mother-in-law’s recipe. The only changes I made to this were to the fish stock. I added some fennel, a parsnip and some herbs to the onions, carrots, salt and pepper that were in her recipe.
- 1.5 pounds each of boneless, skinned whitefish and pickerel. If your fishmonger will grind it for you, have him do so.
- 1 onion, grated
- 1 carrot, peeled and grated
- 3 eggs, slightly beaten
- 1 tablespoon matzoh meal
- 1 cup of ice water
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- Salt and Pepper
- ¼ cup vegetable oil
- 3 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
- 1 carrot, peeled and cut into ⅛” slices
- The heads, tails and bones from the whitefish and pickerel, plus more bones if you can get them from your fishmonger. The more the better. Make sure they’re bones from lean fish, though. Bones from fish like mackerel or salmon will give your stock a strong, overly-fishy flavour.
- Three onions, sliced
- 1 stalk each of celery and carrot, roughly chopped
- 12 black peppercorns
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 12-15 sprigs of parsley
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 sprig thyme
I threw in half a fennel bulb and a chopped parsnip, just because I had them, and they were in need of being used.
- Start with your fish stock. Put the fish carcasses into a stock pot, and cover with water by about 2-3 inches.
Turn the heat on to high.
- When the water comes to the boil, skim off any foam or scum that rises to the top. There won’t be that much, but if you don’t skim it off, it will coagulate, and stick the fish patties later.
- Add the rest of the ingredients for the stock. When it returns to the boil, turn the heat down to medium or medium-low, just high enough to maintain a lively simmer with the pan partially covered.
- After 45 minutes, it will look something like this:
Strain the stock through a fine sieve or chinois. Discard the bones and vegetables, and return the stock to the stockpot. Taste for salt; it should be mildly salty, and have a delicate, fresh, fish flavour. Put if over a low heat, to keep it warm without it boiling.
- Now, to the fish patties themselves. If your fish is already ground, proceed to the next step. Otherwise, put the fish through your food grinder using the fine die. If you don’t have a food grinder, you can use a food processor. If you use a food processor, cut the fish into 1-2″ chunks and pulse the machine a few times, only until the fish looks finely chopped, sort of like ground chicken. Do not overprocess the fish, otherwise you’ll end up with a puree, which is not what you want.
- Put the fish along with all of the rest of the ingredients into a large mixing bowl. If you have a stand mixer, by all means, use it with the flat beater. Mix the ingredients until thoroughly combined, and then keep mixing until the mixture starts to get sticky. If you are doing this by hand, it will take a couple of minutes; in a mixer, maybe about 1 minute. The key thing is that the fish needs to change from a loose, slack mixture that doesn’t really hold together to a sticky, dough-like mass.
- Bring the stock back to the boil.
- Now, you’re going to shape and poach the fish patties. Set your bowl of fish mixture close to your pot of boiling stock. Fill a large bowl of cool water, and set it next to the bowl of fish, and set your sliced carrots nearby.
- You will need to keep your hands wet when working with the fish, otherwise it will stick like crazy. Wet your hands, and then take a handful of the fish mixture about the size of a tennis ball (roughly 4-½ ounces). Shape the mixture into a tight, round ball, and then toss it quickly back and forth between your hands several times. The mixture will form itself into an oblong shape. Next, take a slice of carrot, and press it gently into the top of the patty. Then, slide the patty gently into the boiling stock.
- Repeat step 9 until you have used up all of the fish mixture. Some people like to do all of the patties at once, and put them onto a plate or cookie sheet, then add them to the broth. I prefer the approach I’ve just outlined above, because by the time you add a patty to the put, the previously-added patty has firmed up enough that the new patty won’t stick to it. If you dump all of our fish patties in at once, you’ll have an unholy mess on your hands, and you’ll have to cut the patties apart.
- Cover partially, and regulate the heat so that the stock stays at a lively simmer.
- Cook for two (!) hours. This sounds like a long time, but with the raw onion and carrot in the patties, it takes this long for the vegetables to cook and the flavours to mellow.
- When two hours is up, carefully remove the patties from the stock, and place them on a serving platter. If any of the carrot slices have floated off, retrieve them from the stockpot, and set them back in place on the fish patties. Cover loosely with wax paper or plastic wrap.
- Turn the heat up to high, and reduce the fish stock until there’s only about an inch of it left in the bottom of the pot. Strain the stock with a fine sieve, and then ladle it over the fish patties, then refrigerate the whole thing overnight. The stock will gel to become an aspic in the fridge.
Copyright (C) 2015, Allan Risk. All rights reserved.
- To serve the gefilte fish, place one patty on a leaf of lettuce, along with some of the aspic and add a spoonful of chrain (horseradish with beet juice) on the side. Or you can put all of the pieces of fish onto a platter, along with some chopped aspic, and let people serve themselves.