The first thing you need to know about gefilte fish is that it’s nothing like the water-logged fish balls that come out of a Manischewitz jar. Nothing. Not even close.
The gefilte fish my grandmother used to make was a taste of heaven (as in, Oy! G-d in heaven forbid that I shouldn’t make The Fish this year. )
I remember The Fish: tender little oval mounds, mild in flavor, with sweet overtones of carrot and onion, a Jewish holiday delicacy served on fine china with a beet-red blast of horseradish. The combination would seem an incongruous affront to the palate, but the full effect shot through the nose straight to the brain, inducing tears and awakening every nerve in the body.
Eat gefilte fish made in the tradition of Jewish grandmothers, and you know you’re alive.
So what can I bring for dinner?
Last Sunday my nephew, D, in Chicago calls. He’s hosting 18 for dinner on Rosh Hashanah and wants the recipe for gefilte fish. . . . just like my grandmother used to make. I describe in excruciating detail how I make gefilte fish, "just like mama's." Ten minutes later I get a call from my son’s fiance, J, who’s coming to dinner at D’s. In good guest mode, she asks D what to bring, and instead of honey cake or kugel, he reasons it’s time to initiate her into the compulsion of our family-style cooking and suggests, “How ‘bout The Fish?”
Wow, how bout that Fish?
With half the kitchen tools she needs still in her Bridal Registry, J takes on The Fish with high heart. Jumping all too eagerly into the role of mom-in-law, I “kvell” at her initiative. Thrilled to engage her in Talmudic-length discussions of All Things Fish, we cover the history and significance of the dish, the wisdom of using pike over pickerel, and the various idiosyncrasies of preparation.
“Avoid all recipes that begin with the biblical words, like On the First Day, I advise, “And don’t forget the paprika.” Yadda, yadda, Jerry-Seinfeld-style, what a fuss we make. When it’s all said and done, gefilte fish is a basic dumpling.
Here's what you do:
You go to a fish market.
You order white fish, whole.
You ask the fishmonger to gut, clean, grind, etc.
You take the heads and tails to make the stock or
You leave the mess of ‘em at the store and use chicken stock.
You take onions and carrots.
You chop ‘em fine for the fish mixture.
You slice ‘em nice for the stock.
You simmer the stock.
You mix eggs into the fish, don’t ask me how many.
You add matzoh meal, don’t ask me how much.
You salt and pepper to taste (who tastes raw fish??)
You add a little sugar (who measures?)
You put your hands into the bowl, pat and shape the mixture into ovals the size of your palms.
You plop them into the stock.
You cover and simmer until ...
That’s it. I didn’t learn this “recipe” at my grandmother’s knee. I know it by heart. Once a year, only on Passover, I call upon the spirit of Sarah Kaplan Tract, of blessed memory. I make gefilte fish, by texture, taste and feel, by tradition and ritual, by mixing ingredients that evoke the delicious magic of her kitchen.
For those who insist on cooking with recipes, may I suggest a few higher authorities:
- Joan Nathan: Jewish Cooking in America Classic Gefilte Fish Recipe at Epicurious.com
- Claudia Roden, The Book of Jewish Food Salon Taste