MADISON — Passover is my favorite holiday, both in terms of the ritual, and the food. Matzah ball soup, brisket, fresh grated horseradish, fried matzah, matzah kugel, charroset, the list goes on, and it’s all wonderful. Except for this one thing.
The most polarizing food item in the Jewish culture (except perhaps tchollent, but since I wasn’t raised Orthodox I never ate tchollent).
I live in Madison, where there aren’t a huge number of Jews. I’ve been holding Seders for many years for friends and occasional visiting family, and if none of my family is in town, I’m often the only Jew present. If I’m not going to make gefilte fish, I’m stuck with the jarred stuff that I can find (if I’m lucky) in one of the grocery stores in town that has a kosher foods section.
I’ve always wondered about the “Jellied Broth.”
How does it get jellied?
Was it jellied when the stuff went in the jar? Or did it get that way over time?
On the upside, it was subjected to rabbinical oversight.
This stuff is truly nasty. It tastes like what I imagine fish-flavored Friskies cat food would taste like.
I can confirm that it smells like canned cat food. The canned cat food that my cat gets has no fish in it, but it smells like this stuff. Best of my knowledge the only difference is that the cat food was not subjected to rabbinical oversight. As a kid I ate homemade gefilte fish. Homemade gefilte fish is truly wonderful. My next-door neighbor, who was my surrogate grandma (I had both my actual grandmas growing up, but they lived in Florida), made it. It was amazing.
Gefilte fish from scratch has a lot of lore surrounding it.
It’s Jewish lore, so there’s a lot of suffering involved.
Also a lot of guilt. Also a lot of effort. Way too much effort.
All us Jewish kids are indoctrinated into that stuff early. It starts with the book “The Carp in the Bathtub.” I’ve yet to meet a Jewish kid that grew up in the United States that doesn’t know this book.
Then there’s the digital “Jewish Grandmother’s 21 Steps To the Proper Preparation of Gefilte Fish.”
Consider Step 8: “Lugging three heavy shopping bags filled with fish, take three buses home, unless someone has told you about a way of taking four.” Step 9: “Call your daughter and tell her that you felt a little bit better and decided to go to your special fish store to pick up the carp. You know how busy she is right before the holidays so you didn’t want to ask her to drive all the way out there.”
And here’s Step 13: “Eye your daughter’s food processor with suspicion. Ask her to help you operate it. Chop the carp in it for 15 seconds, then move all the ingredients into your ancient wooden chopping bowl.”
This is actually pretty accurate when it comes to Jewish grandmas and their recipes.
Needless to say, I’ve been pretty intimidated at the notion of making my own gefilte fish. But I was at our farmers’ market looking at some beautiful purple carrots, and it occurred to me that they would go nicely in homemade gefilte fish.
And here we are, with a bit of effort, and only a tiny bit of suffering:
WHAT YOU’LL NEED:
• 2 lbs fish fillets, boned and skinned (I used halibut and salmon after seeing that in an article while I was researching the recipe).
• 1 sweet onion
• 1 good size carrot (it doesn’t have to be purple, but if you can find one…)
• 1 cup matzah meal (look in the kosher section of your grocery store – or use bread crumbs. Matzah meal is essentially impatient breadcrumbs)
• 2 eggs beaten
• 96 oz store bought vegetable stock (I used the Whole Foods store brand; or make your own, but that involves more suffering)
• Salt and pepper
WHAT TO DO:
• Put the stock in a large pot, bring it to a boil and then down to a simmer.
• Grate the onion into a nonreactive bowl (this is going to make your eyes sting and water – now you’re suffering), and then drain off as much of the liquid as you can.
• Grate your carrot into bowl with the onion.
• Cut the fish into chunks and pulse them in a food processor for about 20 seconds.
• Scrape your fish into your bowl.
• Add in the eggs, matzah meal, salt and pepper.
• Get your hands in there and combine everything. It should feel like a meatball mixture (’cause it is).
• Try to make a ball. If it’s not holding together it’s either too wet or too dry. If it’s too wet add some more matzah meal. If it’s too dry add another egg.
• When it holds together mold it into small football shaped quenelles and drop them in your simmering vegetable stock. Poach for 40 minutes, remove and chill.
• Serve cold with grated horseradish.
That’s it. Forty-plus years of anxiety was completely unnecessary.
Note that this is simpler than it will probably end up in future iterations. When I’m doing something new I tend to start simple because it’s easier to tell what’s missing than it is to tell what’s unnecessary. I’ll likely build it up a bit next year.
Also, I feel compelled to add that what makes Jewish cooking great is the same as what makes French and Chinese cooking great – it’s making the low-end ingredients yummy. Halibut and salmon are not low end, I get that. I love the nasty bits – tongue, organ meats, tripe and trash fish. But carp is pretty nasty and I don’t know a place in town that sells it.