Passover is a special holiday for me and brings back many wonderful food memories. One of my favorites occurred many years ago, when I was invited to a Passover seder at the home of my husband-to-be. I still remember that evening, and especially the taste of the gefilte fish my future mother-in-law had made.
The next year, a few days before Passover, I found myself walking with her on Fairfax Avenue. We were on our way to the fish market to purchase the ingredients necessary to make her famous gefilte fish. We waited in line for about 45 minutes -- it was crowded and seemed like everyone in the neighborhood was there to buy fish.
The women were gossiping and discussing their family recipes and the way they make gefilte fish. When it was finally our turn, Gramma Gene picked out four or five different kinds of whole fish: one she used for its fatty quality, one gave it more flavor, one was for color and another for texture. Everything was fresh except the turbo, which at that time was only available frozen. She instructed the fish store owner to remove the skin, head, and bones of all the fish and wrap them separately.
We returned to Gramma Gene's house to begin the process of making gefilte fish.
First a large white pot was filled with water, vegetables, the fishskin, heads and bones and brought to a boil. It then was simmered for about one hour. Then we strained the liquid and added onion skins, which give the fish a golden color. In the meantime, using a hand grinder, we ground the eight to 10 pounds of fish fillets along with onions, carrots and celery, and then added eggs and matzah meal.
The ground mixture was then transferred to a wooden bowl and the chopping began, adding water, salt and pepper in small amounts as we worked. I loved watching her chopping technique, which continued until the mixture reached a magical consistency. "Is it ready to shape into balls?" I asked. "Not yet," she answered, "First we must taste it for the proper seasoning." Finally she approved. We moistened our hands with cold water so the ground fish would not stick to them, shaped the mixture into balls and placed the fish into the simmering broth. The pot was covered with aluminum foil, and in less than one hour, we had made the most delicious gefilte fish I had ever tasted.
Over the years, as we cooked together, I learned to take notes. I recorded the different kinds of fish we bought -- it changed from year to year -- the measurements for the matzah meal, the amount of water and eggs used and how long to simmer the fish broth. I was almost prepared several years later, when she and I made the gefilte fish in my home for the first time.
I especially remember that Passover, because Gramma Gene had broken her arm and was unable to cook. She sat on a high-stool overseeing everything and gave me instructions, while my husband, Marvin, helped. I thought it was a success, but unfortunately we oversalted the fish and had to add potatoes to the pot to help take away some of the salty taste. At the seder that night, no one knew of my near-disaster. They all complimented me on how delicious the fish was -- and my mother-in-law never revealed our secret.
She is no longer alive, but when I make gefilte fish, she is always in my thoughts. It is almost as though she is sitting there beside me encouraging me to continue the tradition she taught me. With all the modern kitchen conveniences available now, she would be surprised at how much easier it is to make. I now use the grinder attachment to my electric mixer, but I still chop the fish mixture in her wooden bowl, using the same method she did when adding the water, salt and pepper.
I love teaching Passover cooking classes and find it very rewarding, especially as I relate my food experiences to the students and show them how to make Gramma Gene's gefilte fish. At the end of the class, they always comment that they are anxious to go home so they can make it themselves and begin their own Passover family tradition.
Gramma Gene's Gefilte Fish
3 yellow onions, coarsely diced (reserve skins)
2 carrots, peeled and thinly sliced
1 cup sliced celery tops
2 pounds fish bones, heads and skin from filleted white fish
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
In a large pot, place the onions, carrots, celery tops, fish bones, heads and skin, and salt and pepper. Add water to cover and bring to a boil. Simmer for one hour, adding additional water if needed. When the broth is very flavorful, strain out the fish bones and vegetables and discard. Keep the broth warm. Prepare the fish broth and keep warm.
7 pounds white fish and pike, filleted (bones, heads and skin reserved)*
2 yellow onions, peeled and thinly sliced
4 carrots, peeled and thinly sliced
4 celery stalks, sliced
1/2 cup matzah meal
1 cup cold water
Freshly ground black pepper
Fish roe (optional)
Garnish with lettuce, sliced cucumber, sliced beets and horseradish sauce
*If possible, buy whole white fish. Have it boned and wrap the bones, heads and skin separately. If you're lucky, you may find roe inside the fish, so you can poach it with the fish balls.
In a food grinder, grind the fish with the onions, carrots and celery stalks. Put through the grinder again. Place the ground mixture in a large mixing bowl and blend with the eggs and matzah meal.
Transfer the mixture to a large wooden chopping bowl and, using a hand chopper, chop the fish mixture, adding the water gradually with 1 tablespoon kosher salt and 2 teaspoons pepper as you chop. (Mixture should be soft and light to the touch.) Wet your hands with cold water and shape the fish mixture into oval balls.
Bring the broth to a boil over high heat, add reserved onion skins and place the fish balls in the broth. Cover, reduce the heat to medium high, and cook for one hour, or until fish is tender; do not overcook.
Cool, transfer to a shallow glass bowl, cover with plastic wrap and foil, and refrigerate until ready to serve. Fish can stored for up to three days and can be frozen.
To serve, arrange a lettuce leaf on each plate; top with fish and garnish with cucumber and beets. Serve with horseradish sauce. Makes about 50 fish balls.