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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.

How the Grinch Stole Thanksgivukkah

Am I the only one who isn’t stoked about the 70,000 year coincidence of Thanksgiving occurring during Hanukkah? With all of the hubbub this year surrounding the convergence of the two holidays, it has my feathers in a bunch. Because of the Jewish leap year, Hanukkah is early. Of course,  those of us who are privy to these things know that the Jewish holidays are either early or late, never on-time. Apparently, Thanksgiving is late this year; meaning that secular holidays are also too early or too late.

The reality is that I am a holiday purist. I need to celebrate each holiday on it’s own, without integration. No mash-ups for me…just mashed potatoes. No latkes…

I want Turkey Day to be about the bird and in my house, the vast amounts of butter used in preparation of the sagey stuffing, sweet potato soufflé (yes, to the marshmallows) curried broccoli casserole and the milk gravy ( subject for another discussion). Not to mention, the additional globs of butter baked into my myriad of pie crusts. My Thanksgiving is about butter( and Lipitor), not about the miracle of oil!

Before you call me Scrooge, I will have my menorah lit, but it will not be a menurkey. That’s just malarkey! But, give me a day or two to finish up the T-Day leftovers and I’ll be all over the potato pancakes, especially topped off with my home made cranberry sauce.

Cheese

Truth be told, I envy Wisconsinites. They are the privileged few who can don triangular foam headpieces showing support for their beloved dairy products. Someone, I believe in error, once told me that Cheese hats were worn in support of a football team. That’s silly, of course. Wisconsinites are paying homage to one of man’s greatest culinary achievements, cheese.

Being from Maryland, I can’t get away with wearing a cheese chapeau. Besides the fact that I have a small head, which poses a problem for me wearing most hats, wearing an orange, triangular wedge just doesn’t cut the mustard, here on the East Coast. (Even if orange is the new black). And, if you will please indulge my intentional pun, I wouldn’t want to look cheesy, so to speak.

My fascination with all things cheese began as a child. I never minded the small inconvenience involved with unwrapping the plastic sheath that protected the Kraft Singles. After all that work, a bright yellow square of American cheese appeared. I knew that soon its melty goodness would be sandwiched between two toasty slices of buttered white bread (Please, do not mention tomato soup. I didn’t like it then)

What fun it was to slice into a round of Gouda! Not only was the semi-soft, salty wedge of cheese a treat, but also like Cracker Jacks, it came with a toy. One had a hunk of red wax that could be molded into a ball and played with for hours.

While I wasn’t enamored with the nutty, tanginess of Swiss, who could resist sticking their fingers in the holes? It wasn’t until I was older that I discovered the majesty of melted Swiss, creating the perfect Rueben or atop a steaming bowl of French onion soup.

I believe it was right after college, when my friends and I began our obsession with Brie. Who knew such lusciousness existed in the cheese kingdom? We learned patience as the Brie rose to room temperature, awaiting perfect texture. I felt very sophisticated as I chewed the rind, though secretly wishing for a napkin to dispose of its paper like crust. We thought we had reached cheese Nirvana, but then discovered Brie en Croute. Now, we had a crunchy, buttery layer of crust surrounding the creamy gooeyness with a bit of fruit preserves to sweeten the pot. Life could not get any better in the 80’s.

Now, with much fanfare, I’m here to share another mind-blowing cheese. For those who have not yet had the pleasure, I introduce you to Burrata. Burrata is similar to fresh Italian Mozzarella but tastes like it has been injected with cream. Though made from buffalo milk, it is not Mozzarella, as often reported. In this case, the Burrata stands alone, in its own category.

First tasting Burrata in a Caprese salad was love at first bite. The poor tomatoes and basil leaves didn’t stand a chance once paired with the elegance of the cheese. After returning home from Los Angeles, where I had had the dining experience, I was on the hunt for Burrata. The purveyors at the local Italian markets had no clue as to what I was asking for. Eventually, I heard through the grapevine, that Trader Joes brought it in in small batches. And, when Wegman’s appeared on the Baltimore scene, I could find it with a bit more regularity. Though not as good as house made, I was happy to find a pre-packaged version.

I am thrilled to report that local restaurants have begun to offer fresh Burrata on their menus and I’m starting to see more recipes featuring Burrata. Hopefully, this regal cheese will soon find the recognition it deserves.

Being a person whose professional purpose is to channel heat and use it wisely, I spend hours bent over a hot stove, frying, boiling, stewing and grilling. When I can find a near perfect product that is plate-worthy straight out of it’s packaging, I’m all over it! Just add several ultra thin slices of Prosciutto d’ Parma and a schmear of fig jam. Here we have the perfect trifecta of salty, creamy and sweet. Add a crusty baguette and basil leaf. Heaven on a plate.