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Gefilte Fish: Jewish Soul Food

The Jewish holiday of Passover, which celebrates the Jewish people’s exodus from Egypt, began on Monday night. As the story goes, after Charlton Heston dropped serious plagues on Rameses & Co., the Jews had to flee Egypt so fast they didn’t have time to let their daily bread dough rise.

In commemoration of this, during Passover, we don’t eat anything made with “chometz” — wheat, rye, barley, oats, or spelt that has not been completely cooked within 18 minutes of touching water. Essentially nothing where one of the five grains might ferment, that could even possibly, theoretically, maybe, kinda sorta lead to leavening. Leavening is a no-no. Instead, we eat special ceremonial cardboard called matzah.

Salmon gefilte fish with beet horseradish.

Salmon gefilte fish with beet horseradish.

Ashkenazi Jews, those of eastern European descent, which includes the vast majority of Jews in America, pile on a slew of other dietary restsrictions during Passover. No corn, rice, lentils, or beans. No products made with any of those things. No corn syrup. No tofu. No soy sauce (triple whammy… soy beans, wheat, and fermentation. You’ll get kicked right out of Hebrew school for that).

Oddly enough, despite all these limitations, Passover is the source of some incredibly rich culinary traditions, and some of the foods most strongly identified with Jewish culture in America.

High on that list is gefilte fish. And by request.

“Gefilte” means stuffed or filled. In its earliest form, gefilte fish was made by removing all of the meat and bones from a fish through a single incision in the belly, grinding the meat and mixing it with vegetables and seasoning, and then stuffing it back into the fish to cook. I’ve never actually seen this version. Usually, the ground fish is mixed with onions, carrots, eggs, and matzah meal, then shaped into balls or patties and boiled in fish stock made with the bones and head of the fish the meat came from. My aunt (and her aunt before that), has always made them two ways — the traditional boiled version and another version where the balls of fish are baked. I always preferred the slightly dry, non-slimy baked version.

Sadly, most people only ever see the gefilte fish that come in a jar or can these days. And fewer still try them. Not that I blame you if you’ve passed up the slimy balls of fish dripping with fish jelly. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

This recipe replaces the traditional carp, pike, and whitefish with salmon. And instead of using all fresh fish, it mixes fresh salmon with smoked salmon, at a 5:1 ratio. After either boiling or baking, there’s just a mild hit of smoke and salt from the smoked salmon. Perfect with a squeeze of lemon and some homemade horseradish.*

Salmon Gefilte Fish
Adapted from The City Cook
- serves 8 -

1/3 C water
3 Tbsp. olive oil
1/3 C Passover matzah cake meal (flour would work if you’re not concerned about keeping kosher for Passover, but would be less authentic)
2 large eggs
1 tsp kosher salt
1 medium onion, cut into large pieces
1 carrot, peeled, cut into large pieces
1 1/4 lbs fresh salmon, diced
1/4 lb smoked salmon, diced
1 tsp fresh dill
1 1/2 Tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 Tbsp prepared white horseradish

8 C fish stock or water for boiling (you can substitute 1 C white wine)

1. Bring the 1/3 C water and 2 Tbsp of olive oil to a boil in a small sauce pan. Remove from heat and whisk in the matzah cake meal or flour.

2. Return the pan to medium heat and cook for 1 minute, then beat in the eggs one at a time. (This is kind of like making pate a choux, or choux pastry, the delicious and clearly not Passover-friendly pastry in eclairs and gougeres). Add in 1/2 tsp of salt, then remove from heat.

3. Add the remaining 1 Tbsp of olive oil to a skillet and saute the onion and carrot over low heat until tender but not brown.

4. Put the onion and carrot into your food processor, and pulse a few times, until they’re cut into small pieces, but not quite pureed. Then add the fresh and smoked salmon, and pulse a few more times. Then add the egg/matzah cake meal mixture from step 1 and pulse a few more times again. You’re looking for a coarse paste consistency, and it’s definitely better to have some lumps or chunks of fish still than to have a liquid. Think tuna salad consistency, not hummus.

5. Move the whole mixture to a separate mixing bowl and stir in the lemon juice, horseradish, dill, and a half tsp of salt. Just like when you’re making meatballs, this is a good time to form a small patty and cook, either in the oven at 350 or in the stock/water if you’re boiling, to test for seasoning. If you want to add salt, this is the time to do it. The original recipe was fairly low on salt, and I know we added some, but I didn’t measure, so you’ll have to taste. It may depend on how smoky your salmon is.

6a. If baking, line a tray with parchment paper, and scoop out small balls of the fish “dough” like you were making cookies. Using a fork, flatten them a little bit, so they’re more like thick patties than mounds of dough. You can pack a bunch on the tray, since they won’t expand too much. Bake at 350 for about 20-25 minutes. They should look dry, but not brown more than a little on the edge, if at all.

6b. If boiling, bring the stock or water to a simmer in a wide pan, so that the liquid is about 2 1/2″ deep. You can try to shape fancy quenelles using two spoons, or you can use your cookie dough scoop to make balls of dough that are about an inch and a half around. Simmer for about 20 minutes, then remove to a wire rack or a plate or pan lined with paper towels to drain.

7. Either serve warm or store in the refrigerator to serve chilled.

* (Try this simple recipe for bicolor horseradish from Firefly in San Francisco).

    7 Comments

    1. JL McNamara says:

      Hm. I’ve never had gefilte fish, but this vaguely reminds me of the fish balls you can get in noodle soup at chinese noodle shops. Have you ever had fish balls before and if you have, how do they compare?

    2. Jessica says:

      I have eaten quite a bit of both asian fish balls and gefilte fish. The biggest difference is in the texture. The asian ones i have had have a smooth, firm, and, for lack of a better term, rubbery texture. Gefilte fish is softer – it’s crumbly and you can mush it with a fork. It’s more like a chunky fish pate formed into a ball. There is a taste difference – generally asian ones are sweeter and less “fishy” but that could be because of fish used, recipe (there are sweet gefilte fish recipes), and whether you eat it in broth or with matzah. The gefilte fish that comes in a jar is generally considered an aquired taste, but the home made ones are fantastic.

    3. JL McNamara says:

      I’ll have to give this a try. Based on your description of the texture I’m thinking that baked would be the way to go :)

    4. dan says:

      I actually had some of each for breakfast this morning, and with this recipe, I might like the boiled better.

      I used to hate the boiled ones, but they’ve grown on me a lot over time. I still don’t understand the canned/jarred ones stored in weird jelly goop though.

      Side note re: fish stock. The fish dude at Whole Foods gave us three pounds of halibut spine free of charge. We added a carrot, celery, onion, a few cloves, and the skin from the smoked salmon. Cover with water in a large stock pot, boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook for an hour, adding water as necessary to keep everything submerged. Be sure to add salt before boiling the gefilte fish.

      But plain water will work fine, so that step shouldn’t be what stops you from trying the recipe.

    5. FKK says:

      Thanks for making this Dan, it looked awesome. The DVR recorded the Dinner Impossible episode with Michael Symon where he did a Ceder and had to make gefilte fish. I was hoping you’d actually go to an asian grocery store and get a live carp to start, but salmon probably tastes a whole lot better. We’ll have to do this with carp sometime when I make it up there. Congrats, though. It looks awesome!

    6. dan says:

      Never even occurred to me to get a live carp. Maybe next year?

      For what it’s worth, I’m thinking of trying to replicate these jalapeno gefilte fish I just read about:
      http://www.slashfood.com/2010/03/29/houston-cafe-spices-up-gefilte-fish/

    7. Dan says:

      I like the home-made gefilte as much as the next guy (maybe more), but I still put the jarred and jellied Manichevitz at the top of the list. Cold out of the fridge with some burn-your-sinuses horseraddish – perfect. And the jelly is part of the goodness!!!

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