Thursday, April 1, 2010

Emily's Kitchen in Seattle: Adventures in Gefilte Fish

Gefilte fish. Does anyone know what those gray lumps suspended in gelatinous brine even are? They hit the "kosher for Passover" shelves each spring, along with other strange Jewish foods - syrupy wine, dry matzah, potato starch - I cringe to walk around the supermarket with these embarrassing older relatives of mine. And yet, I love them. They are the key to my existence.

The funny thing is that all these old-world foods, which were probably fashioned out of few resources and convenience, are now dehydrated, salted, preserved and boxed to make our lives "easy." This is more than a story about how to make gefilte fish. It is a story about getting back to roots.

I got this idea into my head that I would make gefilte fish from scratch. My wonderful fiancé caved to my persistence and begrudgingly drove me in a rainstorm, 30 minutes before close, to the local fishmonger. The fishmongers are all Asian, so I didn't know how to broach the subject of gefilte. My attendant returned my skeptical gaze with a knowing smile: "I grew up in LA and was bussed to a mostly Jewish school. I spent the first few years of my life thinking I was Jewish," he confessed.

I asked for carp, pike and whitefish, but they were out of pike and ground whitefish was $18 per pound - and my recipe called for 7 pounds! My fiance shook his head at me and questioned my sense of adventure. I told him that at least this is adventurous as I get - making traditional Jewish fish balls at all costs.

In the end, my fishmonger, my kindred gefilte fish spirit, geared me toward some alternatives and even threw in some of the whitefish for free. Here is the recipe I ended up creating based on a recipe from the Atlantic and My Jewish Learning. After all was said and done, I reduced the recipe down to 4 pounds of fish, substituted snapper for pike, and paid a reasonable $40 (including $2 per pound to grind the fish). And it made at least two dozen fish balls - more than enough for our little seder.

You will need:
approx. 2 lb snapper
approx. 2 lb carp
approx .5 lb whitefish
2.5 medium sized onions
3 medium sized carrots
3 tsp. salt (or to taste)
2 tbs. sugar (or to taste)
2 eggs
1/3 c. matzah meal
1/4 c. cold water
pepper (to taste)
dill, fresh or dried (optional)

Any assortment of mild, white fish (carp, pike, white, even snapper or halibut) equaling about 4 pounds after grinding will do. Ask the fish people for advice and don't fear innovation. You will need at least a couple of whole fish, but it's cheaper to buy some fillets because they get priced by meat alone (I never considered that the poundage would drop once the fish was dismembered!). Ask the fishmonger to grind the fish and to reserve the heads, fins, tails and bones, or to let you take home whatever he's got lying around.

-If you have the time, add a couple teaspoons of salt the ground fish and let it stand refrigerated overnight to release water.

-To prepare broth, place fish heads, etc. into a large pot and add water to cover. A less-mess way to do this is to wrap up the fish carcasses in cheesecloth. Add 2 tsp. salt and the sugar and bring to a boil, scooping off foam.
-Slice one onion into rounds and add it to the stock.
-Peel two carrots and add them (whole) as well, along with the dill.
-Let the stock simmer for about an hour - the longer it simmers the more flavorful it will be.

-Meanwhile, pulverize the remaining 1.5 onions and 1 carrot in the food processor, or grate by hand.
-Add onion and carrot to the ground fish and mix.
-Add eggs and mix.
-Add 1 tsp. salt, pepper, matzah meal and water and mix.

-Remove the fish remains and the vegetables from the stock - reserve them.
-Make a small ball with a pinch of the ground fish mixture and drop it into the simmering stock. Once it turns white and floats to the surface, remove it and taste it. Adjust seasonings. If it's not sweet enough, add a tad more sugar to the broth.
-Once satisfied with the sample, wet hands and mold the ground fish mixture into lumps about three inches long and two inches wide. You are, of course, free to make them bigger or smaller according to your own desire.
-In order to avoid sticking, wait a moment after placing each fish lump in the simmering broth before adding another. Stack them in layers until the mixture is gone. You can do this in batches if they don't fit the first time around.
-Let the gefilte fish simmer for about 20 minutes. Check one to make sure it is cooked through before removing. Gently remove each "fish" with a slotted spoon and place on a plate. Slice the carrots that simmered in the stock and place a disc on each fish like a little orange halo. If you have the stomach for it, place a fish head in the center of the plate.
-Serve cold with horseradish.

Gefilte fish is labor intensive, but it is a labor of love. Don't let anyone nay say your efforts or try to convince you it's not worth it. It is. You'll never go back to the jar again. Even someone like me, who gets squeamish around fish heads, found a peaceful reverence for the cycle of life by making this "mystery meat" from scratch. Once I tasted that first cooked fish ball, I knew I had reached a new level in my cooking. It was transcendent.

For a complete meal, serve gefilte fish as a first course before matzo ball soup. Better yet, simmer your matzo balls in the leftover fish broth! Add a little of the fish stock and the matzo balls to a new veggie broth for super flavor. Stay tuned for some amazing Passover (and all-year-round) desserts - that happen to be vegan, raw, and incomprehensibly delicious.

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