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April 1, 2004

Zen and the Art of Homemade Gefilte Fish

http://www.jewishjournal.com/celebrations_simchas/article/zen_and_the_art_of_homemade_gefilte_fish_20040402

I added a new experience to my Passover preparation last year. In addition to counting the haggadahs, practicing the Four Questions with my daughter, inviting guests, shopping and cleaning the house, I made gefilte fish from scratch for the first time ever.

Neither my mother nor any of my grandmothers had felt the need to initiate me into the gefilte fish sorority, even though I know they all had this experience. After trying it myself for the first time, I think I may have a good idea why they decided not to pass on this tradition. I went in with blind and irrational optimism after watching the instructor at a cooking class make it look so easy. Here's what I learned.

Don't bother to clean your kitchen before you make gefilte fish. The same goes for cleaning your wedding rings. You will have to do the job all over again as soon as you are finished. Unless my foremothers were much neater than I am, cleaning the kitchen from top to bottom is a necessity after chopping five pounds of fish, onions and carrots and then mixing them up with your hands. OK, I admit, the recipe said to use a chopping blade and a wooden bowl, but in the end, the only way I could mix in all the required ingredients was with my (very clean) hands and since the meat grinder was not cooperating, I ended up using my food processor. If you don't feel motivated to make your kitchen sparkle the way any fine Jewish housekeeper would do before Passover, make gefilte fish. You will have no choice in the matter.

I now know why gefilte fish costs $5 a jar. It costs a fortune to make it from scratch. The recipe I followed, which created two nice serving platters of fish, required 5 pounds of salmon, cod and other assorted, expensive filets. That's at least $20 worth of fish. Surely the fish factory doesn't use the fancy kinds of fish I used, but fish is expensive and they pass the cost on to you. It may a little cheaper to make it yourself if you stick to the cheaper fillets, but that's probably not a good enough reason to do it. The beauty and taste of salmon gefilte fish may convince you, however, if you have access to that Northwest specialty.

Homemade does taste better. Homemade is about five times better tasting than fish in the jars. But frozen gefilte fish isn't a bad second choice and having a friend make it in his or her kitchen is an even better alternative. I know why grandma made it from scratch in the past (she didn't really have a choice). I also know why in later years, the jars seemed fine to her. Who wants to spend that much time preparing one small part of the seder?

You'll impress your mother (and your grandmother). I called my mom the next day to complain that she hadn't discouraged me enough from attempting the gefilte fish experience. She told me she was impressed that I made the effort and was sure it was delicious. I wish she could have had a taste, but I wasn't going to mail any fish to Florida. Unfortunately, my last grandma died a few years ago. I'm not absolutely sure she would have been impressed with my efforts, but at least she would have been amused by my stories about the experience.

Your guests will love to bring home leftovers. Don't worry, you'll have plenty to share. I gave away about half of what was left after the first seder and had plenty remaining in my fridge. My friends said it would make a great lunch during the week. I hope they enjoyed it. Every time I tried to eat some more, I remembered the experience of making it and lost my appetite. Usually it's my favorite leftover for Passover lunches.

There's an easier way that's still authentic. If you ask around, you can probably find a good grocery store or fish shop where they'll grind the fish for you. You may even get to pick out your filets first. Some places take orders every year before Passover, like the Albertsons in my community. The finished product will probably taste just as good, but you won't have to do the most difficult and messy part of the process. What you'll miss out on is the opportunity to complain about how hard you worked and to tell funny stories about the mess you made.

Your friends will tell you their funny gefilte fish stories. When I told my friend, Anne, that I made my own gefilte fish this year, she wrinkled up her nose and asked if I wanted to hear her gefilte fish story. Before going through the conversion process, Anne had asked our rabbi a very serious question (I am not making this up). She wanted to know if she would be required to eat gefilte fish when she became a Jew. The rabbi assured her that consumption of any particular food (except for one bite of matzah) is not required of Jews. She was relieved. I'm not positive the rabbi gave her the correct answer, but Anne has never been concerned about passing as a "culinary Jew." I forgot to ask if her husband and daughter eat gefilte fish. This year, I'll send them over some leftovers, if they want.

You'll really enjoy this movie now. If you haven't seen the short film "Gefilte Fish" directed by Karen Silverstein, check it out of your favorite film library. It's a hilarious documentary in which three generations of women talk about making gefilte fish. I don't want to ruin it by telling you any more. It's 15 minutes long and distributed by Ergo Media. If you have trouble finding it, contact the distributor at ergo@jewishvideo.com or (201) 692-0404.

Zen and the art of gefilte fish making. OK, I admit, I never did finish that book ("Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance"), but I think I got the gist. There was something about my gefilte fish experience that made me feel I had really found my place in the chain of Jewish motherhood. It's similar to the experience of making challah with my daughter -- like time has stopped and we have truly stepped away from the everyday world. It's something I do not feel in my women's study group or at temple. Even though I am a modern Jewish woman, and even though I lead the seder as well as prepare the food, it is the rituals of the kitchen that connect me to the Jewish universe and my ancestral foremothers.

Eileen Mintz's Gefilte Fish

Fish Mixture:

5 pounds assorted fillets of fresh fish

Sample assortment, but you can be creative:

1 1/2 pounds salmon

1 1/2 pounds snapper

1 pound black cod

1 pound ling cod or true cod

1 1/2 large sweet onions

4 large carrots

5 large eggs

1 1/2 tablespoons sugar (or a little more)

4 teaspoons salt

4 teaspoons pepper (white)

Paprika

3/4 cup matzah meal (or up to a cup) for binding

3/4 cup ice water

Stock:

2 carrots

3 onions

4 shakes paprika

4 shakes of black pepper

4 tablespoons sugar

To prepare stock, fill two large heavy stock pots full of water. Slice three onions and carrots, divide equally between pots. Add fish skins, and heads if so desired. Sprinkle in paprika, salt and pepper and two tablespoons of sugar. Boil this stock to a medium boil for 10 minutes.

Wash fish and pat dry. Grind the fish, onions and carrots together, using a meat grinder, food processor or chopping bowl. If you use a food processor or meat grinder, chop the fish again in the wooden bowl.

Add eggs one at a time. Add sugar, salt and pepper and continue to chop until very well blended and into very small pieces. Add water a little at a time throughout this process. Add matzah meal and chop again. Check to see if mixture is thick enough to bind together and to make an oval gefilte fish ball. If not, add more matzah meal.

With wet hands, shape the fish balls and carefully drop into boiling stock. Cover slightly and cook on medium-low heat on the stove for two hours. When done, let the fish sit in the pot for 10 minutes and then remove pieces carefully to container. Strain the remaining stock over fish balls, just barely covering them.

Chill and serve. These will keep in the refrigerator for up to six days. This is enough fish to serve a large group for the seder and can easily be doubled to make sure there are leftovers.  

Donna Gordon Blankinship is a freelance writer living in Seattle.

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