Gefilte Fish: A Modern Day Fish Story

The other day I posted a picture of my home made gefilte fish on Face Book and you would have thought I posted a current day shot of Elvis. Not only was I surprised and flattered by the many “likes” and comments, but I received several messages from friends asking for the recipe and advice on how to achieve gefilte fish success. It appears that fish making is shrouded in a mystique that only “The Wise Ones” can interpret. I have to laugh because, in actuality, nothing could be easier. You can make a meatball? You can make fish!

My theory is that Bubbie (that’s a rhetorical Bubbie) helped perpetuate the myth that “making fish” was a G-D given talent, which could only be passed from one generation to the next in the deepest cover of secrecy. To give her the benefit, it was a schlep (pain in the ass) to venture out to the fish market when one had to trudge through six feet of snow in the shetle (village), wearing worn out shoes (no Uggs). Bubs would choose from an assortment of freshwater fish, such as carp, whitefish, pike, or mullet. Back at home, the still “happy to be alive” fish was put in the bathtub to live out his/her remaining hours. I digress here to tell you, that a dear friend of mine still has vivid memories of seeing a huge carp swimming in Grandma’s tub and has made a life long decision to avoid gefilte fish, at all costs. Luckily, she doesn’t avoid bathtubs.

The next part of the story, I choose not to think about. (Did Grams sit on the toilet seat with a fishing pole?) Somehow, the fish went from alive to not. The newly deceased fish was skinned, boned and be-headed. The trash (bones and head) was placed in a huge kettle filled with cold water, carrots, onions and salt. Using a hand grinder, the fillets were ground with sautéed onion. Added were the eggs, matzo meal, a bissel (lil bit) of oil, along with tons of salt and pepper/sugar.

There were two schools of thought when it came to the seasonings. There was the Pepper Team and there was the Sugar Team. Seems it depended on your geographical demarcation, whether you went for the savory or sweet. The other rules concerning the fish were shape related. The fish ball was a misnomer because the acceptable shape has always been oval, never round. These rules also govern the garnishing carrot: always a huge diagonal slice that would sit lovingly on top of the finished product.

Bubbie was not only proud of the beautiful fish, but she kvelled (blushed with joy) over the resulting gel that formed once the fish stock chilled. I understand why Jell-O became an instant hit with the youth of past generations. If you had a choice between fish gel and cherry flavored Jell-O, which would you choose?
As a side note, Bubbie boiled the hell out of her gefilte fish, usually about three hours. I can’t think of any modern day fish recipe that requires three hours of cooking time. No wonder, the process was so laborious.

The term “gefilte” is translated from the Yiddish word for “stuffed”. Originally, the ground mixture was stuffed into fish skins. Can’t say I’m sorry that the practice of “ fish skin stuffing” was abandoned somewhere down the pike. (fish pun intended). Now, gefilte fish is stuffed into jars with labels like Rokeach and Manischewitz. Passable in a pinch, the jarred variety is far more filler than fish.

In this modern day of cars and supermarkets, it is possible to decide on a whim and have freshly made fish within an hour or so. You can also go the old fashioned route (forgoing bringing home a live fish) and have a fishmonger grind the fish for you, but you often pay a steep price. In fact, I’ve heard folks one-upping each other as to the exorbitant prices they have paid. If I’m going to dish out $125, it’s going to be for a pair of shoes, not raw fish and a bag of bones.

So, my friends, I have created a new fangled, lessor expensive and super fast method to make damned good fish. I’m hoping my Grandmas would be proud!

4 pounds, non-oily white fish fillets…let’s mix a few (snapper, haddock, cod) preferably on sale.
2 cartons fish stock, available next to the boxed chicken stock
3 large carrots, plus 2 additional large carrots, cut into diagonal slices for garnish
A bunch of celery
One large onion
3 large eggs, beaten
¼ cup matzo meal
Several cups of water
A little bit of bland veggie oil
About 1 ½ – 2T salt
Freshly ground pepper
1T sugar, optional

In a large stockpot, empty the contents of both cartons of fish stock. Add 1 roughly chopped carrot, a stick of celery, and ¼ of the onion. Bring to a gentle simmer while preparing the fish mixture.
In your food processor, grind about 2 carrots, 3 sticks of celery and ¾ large onion. Scrape the bowl and place the ground veggies in a large prep bowl. Cut the fish fillets into large chunks and add to the food processor. Give a few good swirls in the processor until the fish is nicely ground. Add the ground fish to the veggies and mix well. Add the matzo meal, eggs, and about one tablespoon of oil. Mix well. Add freshly ground pepper and salt (sugar, if using)
Chill the fish mixture for a few minutes in the fridge to make handling easier.
Remove veggies from the stock and discard. Shape the fish into ovals and gently place into the simmering stock. Once all of the fish ovals have been placed in the pot, add enough water to cover the fish. Cover with a lid and keep at a simmer for about an hour.
Towards the last 20 minutes, add the carrot slices to the stock. Strain the fish pieces and top with a carrot slice. Pour a little stock over the fish and allow to cool. Serve with horseradish
Recipe yields about 12-13 good size pieces.

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