Photograph by Dave Carlson
Fish has always been a primary ingredient in Jewish cookery because it was plentiful, easy to prepare, and symbolized fertility and prosperity. And gefilte fish has long been the most iconic fish dish in Jewish homes.
The creation of gefilte fish—“gefullte” in German means stuffed—can be traced to Franco-German kitchens in the late 14th century. Serving deboned and ground fish, stuffed into fish skin and then baked, made it possible to place fish on the Shabbat menu. Removing the bones ahead of time eliminated the problem of working on the Sabbath. Any available fish that had fins and scales could be used, but when carp was introduced to Western Europe from China in the 15th century, Jews readily adapted this fish to their cuisine. Raised easily in freshwater tanks, carp was plentiful and very inexpensive. Though popular among all classes, carp became associated with the poor. In time, flavorful, readily available, and easily deboned carp became the Jewish community’s fish of choice for making gefilte fish.
We don’t know when cooks shifted from baked or poached ground fish stuffed in skin to oval balls of ground fish poached in a seasoned fish stock, but the reason for these modifications likely had to do with ease of preparation. And although the stuffing technique has long been abandoned, the name, gefilte fish, lives on.
Shortly after World War II, gefilte fish was processed in jars and sold in supermarkets. Manischewitz opened its first factory in 1954 for this purpose. Many cooks resisted this new product and continued to make their fish balls from scratch. Some cooks preferred to use pre-ground, frozen fish to make loaves of gefilte fish; others cooked fresh carrots and onions with the fish jelly from the jar to mimic homemade.
One gefilte fish tradition has survived the centuries: seasoning preference. Jews from Western Europe, Southeastern Poland, and Western Ukraine tend to prefer a sweetened gefilte fish, whereas for most Lithuanian and Russian Jews, pepper is the seasoning of choice.
However, and whenever, you choose to enjoy this iconic dish—baked, poached, or packaged—know that you are keeping alive a centuries-old tradition.
Eat in good health!
Traditional Gefilte Fish
When making traditional gefilte fish, if you don’t like the jelled broth, you can skip using the bones and skin; it is the collagen in the bones that jells the liquid when chilled. Follow the directions below using only the water, vegetables, and seasonings to make your poaching broth and you will avoid having to handle all the fish heads and bones!
To avoid lingering odors in your kitchen, make the fish “soup” a day or two before you plan to serve it. Refrigerate the broth until you are ready to make the fish balls.
4 pounds whole fish (a combination of carp, whitefish, pike, snapper, or sea trout) or 2 pounds assorted fish fillets if not making jellied broth
2 carrots, cut into 1-inch lengths on a diagonal
2 stalks of celery cut into
1 bay leaf
1⁄4 teaspoon dried thyme or 1 sprig fresh thyme
Pinch of marjoram
1 sprig fresh parsley
1 large yellow onion, thinly sliced
3 quarts water
2 medium yellow onions
1⁄4 cup fresh parsley,
very loosely packed
1⁄3 cup water
1⁄2 cup matzo meal
Salt and pepper to taste
Garlic, ginger, dill, or whatever your Bubbe used to use
- Fillet the fish or have the store do it for you.
- Thoroughly rinse out the fish head. Cover all of the bones and head in cold salted water at least 15 minutes. Drain and discard the water.
- Place the bones and head on the bottom of an 8- to 10-quart covered pot and cover with carrots, celery, and onion. Add the herbs and the 3 quarts of water to cover. Simmer for 1 to 11⁄2 hours until the vegetables are tender and the water has reduced by a third.Strain the liquid, reserve the carrots, and set aside. Discard the bones, etc.
- Grind the fish fillets twice in a grinder fitted with a fine blade or process in a food processor until the texture is the consistency of ground hamburger meat. Transfer the fish to a large bowl.
- Grind or pulse the onions, carrot, and parsley until the mixture has the consistency of ground nuts. Add to the fish.
- Mix in the eggs, water, matzo meal, salt, and pepper, stirring well with a fork until the consistency is light and fluffy.
- Cook 1 teaspoon of the fish mixture in salted water for 10 minutes, taste, and then adjust seasonings as necessary. Never taste fresh water fish raw.
- Shape about 1⁄3-1⁄2 cup of the fish mixture in your hands to form approximately 31⁄2-inch ovals. Gently place in a 10- to12-inchfrying pan containing 1 inch of prepared fish stock. Poach the fish balls, covered, for 25 minutes over low heat or until the center of one fish ball appears white and opaque.
- Drain on a cloth towel. Cool in the previously made fish broth. Serve with horseradish. Serves 8-10.
- Whenever you’re grinding fish in a processor, never use more than one pound of fish at a time and always pulse the machine, turning it on and off rapidly. This way you won’t over grind the fish, which makes it tough.
- Protein foods also get tough when exposed to high temperatures, so when cooking fish balls, keep the fish stock at a simmer.
- To make jarred gefilte fish taste more like homemade, remove the liquid from the jar and reheat it with a fresh onion and cut-up carrot. When the liquid has cooled down, strain it into the jars with the gefilte fish. Add the carrot slices to the jar. This will make the broth, and subsequently the fish, taste more like homemade.
Gefilte Fish and Horseradish Mold
2 jars (24 ounce each) prepared gefilte fish balls
3-ounce box of lemon gelatin
1 cup boiling water
1 cup jarred fish broth, heated in a microwave for 1 minute
6-ounce jar of red horseradish, drained of excess liquid
1 carrot, sliced and cooked for garnish (optional)
2 scallions or chives for garnish (optional)
- Place the gefilte fish (sans liquid) in a large, shallow casserole or rimmedserving dish.
- Put the lemon gelatin in a medium sized bowl. Add boiling water and stir for about 2 minutes, until it has dissolved. Add the fish broth and horseradish. Stir until well blended.
- Pour the liquid mixture around the gefilte fish pieces, reserving 1⁄4 cup if you are garnishing the gefilte fish.
- To garnish the fish with a decorative flower,slice the carrot into 1⁄8-inch circles and use a tiny flower-shaped cutter or a knife to shape each circle. If you wish to create a stem for your carrot flower, cut 1⁄8 inch wide x 2 inch long, slightly curved strips from the green part of a scallion or fresh chive. Set aside.
- Cook the carrots in boiling salted water for 10 minutes until tender. Drain.
- Lightly dip the bottoms of the carrot flowers in the reserved horseradish mixtureand place atop the gefilte fish. Do the same with the scallion or chive stripsso that they resemble leaves. Chill. Serve when firm. Serves 12.
- When using gelatin, avoid introducing very acidic foods, as they can impede the gelatin from firming. This is why recipes calling for pineapple never tell you to use fresh. The vinegar in the horseradish can have the same effect.
Tri-colored Gefilte Loaf, Spanish Style
You can eliminate most of the tedious aspects of classic gefilte fish production by making loaves of gefilte fish mixture. The following recipe, which melds the flavors of a 500-year-old Spanish Jewish cuisine, was inspired by the time I recently spent in Spain with members of Barcelona’s Jewish community.
1 onion, cut into 4 pieces
1 garlic clove, cut in half
2 packages of 22 ounce frozen gefilte fish loaves, thawed
3⁄4 cup matzo meal
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
20 fine grindings of pepper
4 ounces of carrots (about 2 medium), sliced and cooked
1 Tablespoon chopped fresh dill
1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger
10 ounce package of frozen spinach, thawed
1⁄4 cup pine nuts or whole almonds, toasted
1⁄4 cup dark or golden raisins
1 tomato, roasted and skin removed
1⁄2 large red bell pepper, roasted and skin removed
1⁄2 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon Pimenton de la Vera (smoked) or sweet paprika
Vegetable spray or oil
- Grease two 9" x 5" loaf pans with vegetable spray or vegetable oil. Fit an 8" x 12" sheet of parchment in each pan widthwise so that approximately 3 inches of paper hang over the long sides of the pan. Preheat the oven to 350° F.
- Place the onion and the garlic in a processor workbowl, pulsing on and off until fairly pureed. (Alternatively, grate the onion and garlic into a bowl.)
- Add the next five ingredients, pulsing about 5-10 timesor stirring until the mixture is well combined.
- Either divide the mixture evenly into three bowls or measure out approximately 11⁄2 cups of mixture when you make each of the following layers.
- For the carrot layer, mash by hand or puree the carrots in a small processor workbowl. Add the dill and ginger and 1⁄3 of the gefilte fish mixture. Spread the ingredients evenly into the two prepared pans. Rinse out the workbowl and blade.
- For the spinach mixture, squeeze the chopped spinach until it is fully drained of liquid. Add the spinach, pine nuts or almonds,and raisins to the rinsed workbowl, pulsing about 15 times until finely chopped, or chopping by hand with a large chef’s knife.Add half of the remaining fish mixture, pulsing or stirring to combine. Spread the ingredients evenly into the two pans and rinse out the workbowl and blade if using.
- For the tomato/pepper layer, place the tomato and pepper in the processor workbowl and pulse until pureed. Alternatively, chop the peeled tomato and pepper until a smooth paste is formed. Add this and the rest of theseasonings to the remaining fish mixture,stirring well to combine.Spread the ingredients evenly into the two pans.
- Cover each pan loosely with foil, its shiny side facing up. Bake for 30 minutes,then remove the foil and bake for about another 20 minutes, or until the loaf feels firm.
- Cool the loaves at room temperature for at least 15 minutes before removing them from the pans. Wait until the loaves are fully cooled before covering them with plastic wrap (otherwise they will sweat and get sticky).
- Chill in the refrigerator until needed. Cut into slices or wedges and serve. Yield: 16-24 wedges or slices.
- For any recipe using a mixture of spinach and other ingredients, save yourself the work of deveining, chopping, and then cooking fresh spinach by substituting frozen chopped spinach. A 10-ounce package of frozen equals 1 pound of fresh spinach. However, make sure that you’ve squeezed the defrosted spinach in multiple handfuls until it is very dry.
- For an added Spanish touch to your fish loaf, or any recipe for that matter, create a simple tomato salsa with freshly diced tomatoes plus a teaspoon or more of horseradish—and enjoy the kick.
Tina D. Wasserman, a member of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, is the author of the URJ Press book, Entree to Judaism. She also teaches at her own cooking school, writes a kosher cooking newsletter on the Internet, and serves as a culinary scholar-in-residence throughout the U.S. and Europe.