Monday, April 02, 2007

Grandma's gefilte fish for Pesach

"It's Passover. Time to make gefilte fish!" I announce to my long-suffering Omnivore.

It might strike you as odd, that I'm so excited about gefilte fish-making, seeing as I am not -- as it were --Jewish. But I'm not French either, and I make a mean Tarte Tatin.

Seriously, though. There's a longer story here, so in the grand tradition of storytelling, pull up a chair, and I'll tell you the tale of why this fish-making process is different from any of my other fish-making processes of the year.

Growing up in New York, I never knew either of my grandmothers and, as astute readers have doubtless surmised, neither one was Jewish. Around this time of year in New York, though, you can't mistake the smells that waft through the apartment building. The potatoes, the green beans, the matzoh ball soup and the fish...Okay, maybe you had to be there, but even the thought of cooking carrots evokes those memories for me.

Gefilte fish is a traditional Jewish dish often served, not just for Passover, but all year round. They are medium sized-- and hopefully light-- sort of "fish balls" -- or if you like, in the parlance of the upscale menu, "poached quenelles of fish pate." In New York, you can find them in any good deli, or, as is often the case, you can find them being fashioned from scratch in the kitchen of your aforementioned Jewish Grandma.

A few years ago, the Pajama Queen asked me out of the blue where she could get good gefilte fish in San Francisco. By the way, that's a joke really. In New York, practically any Jewish food-related question begins with, "Where can I find the best...?" You can fill in the blank with any number of items: "kosher pickles" (Izzy Guss' Pickles in the Village at 85 Orchard), "gefilte fish" (Citarella, on Broadway and 75th), "bagels" (H&H at 80th and Broadway) , "pastrami" (the 2nd Ave. Deli, which is tragically, now New York history.) If you're a true New Yorker, you always have "the right" (hah!) answer to "where can I get the best...?"

But back to my friend and the gefilte fish.

"I'm invited to Passover dinner at a friend's house, and she told me to bring the gefilte fish."

Well, oddly enough, for being such a foodie place to live in, San Francisco has only a scant handful of kosher delis, so I was at a loss for the "right answer."

"You could make it yourself," I suggested.

The look she returned spoke clearly, "Oh, uh-huh. And are YOU going to make it for me?"

I would have if I could, but I didn't know how. And yet, how could I, an intrepid New Yorker, not know how to make gefilte fish? If I didn't know where to get it, shouldn't I at least be able to cook it?

The question lurked in the back of my mind for years. But who would teach me? I have no Jewish grandmother to pass on the lore to me -- and this was just not the sort of thing I wanted to learn from a website -- as great as the recipes might be. I learn plenty of techniques and tips culled from the internet and from books, but for some reason, I just wanted somebody to teach it to me, person-to-person. I wanted to be given a handed-down family version. To this day I couldn't tell you why this particular item needed to be different, but in my mind it did.

Fast forward to about a year ago, when a rabbi of my acquaintance and I got into a conversation about cooking specialties, and I said, almost half-jokingly, "But what I really wish I knew how to make is gefilte fish..."

"Gefilte fish," says he, "So you'll call my wife, she makes the best -- you'll learn everything you need to know."

Well, it took a year for us to finally schedule the great Gefilte Fish Making, but last Sunday, she and the Rabbi cleaned for Pesach, brushed away all the chametz (crumbs) from their cupboards, pulled out the special Passover cooking equipment and had us over to their place in Tiburon for the lesson.

We were greeted at the door, not only by the good Rabbi and Madame Rabbi, but also by the scent of Major Cooking In Progress-- matzoh ball soup, artichokes, kugel-- just like home. Mme. Rabbi was wearing an apron that proclaimed "Miracle of Miracles-- my matzoh balls have risen!" Absolutely true, that.

Ever the good sport Eric tied on a Zabar's apron, and we got down to business -- after sampling some of the kugel for sustenance, of course!

(Next year, we'll move onto kugel recipes....)

But I digress.

Gefilte Fish

Mme. Rabbi tells us that this was always the dish that her grandmother made. Over the years, she kept asking her to teach how to make it, and finally, near the end of her life, Grandmother got up, and passed on the knowledge to Mme. Rabbi. It was, sadly, to be the last thing she was able to do, but Mme. Rabbi still makes it in Grandma's very own cast iron pot.

We begin with making the simple stock, in which the fish balls will poach.

2 carrots, sliced

2 onions, diced
1/2 a bunch of celery, sliced

Kosher salt

and fish bones, heads and tails-- a few pounds of them, not cut up

Bring about 2-3 quarts of water to a boil on the stove. And add in the vegetables and fish bones. (Pointless aside-- It makes me think of the song Eric likes to sing, "Fish heads! Fish heads! Roly-poly fish heads! Fish heads! Fish heads! Eat them up-- YUM!")

How much water? How much salt? Well, as in many of your (or my, or anyone's) Grandma's recipes, "It's about this much" -- pours out into hand -- "You know, until it feels right."

Let that continue to simmer while you make the gefilte fish.

For the fish

3-4 pounds of ground fish (whitefish, carp and pike are traditional, and you can mix them up. Mme. Rabbi noted that it would be nice to go with the local fish from California because you know they're fresh, rather than trying to get the varieties that are more usual on the East Coast, but it's often hard to find local fish that are kosher and appropriate to this dish.)

3-4 eggs (1 egg for every pound of fish) FYI, for kosher gefilte fish, you must eliminate any eggs with a blood spot.
1 onion cut into pieces
3 carrots, peeled and cut into chunks
1/2 cup of ice water
"this much" kosher salt
1/2 cup matzoh meal

In a blender or Cuisinart, blend together the eggs, onion, carrots, water and salt until pureed. Place the fish in a large clean bowl and add the egg mixture.

Using a folding motion, incorporate the egg mixture into the fish -- the idea here is to mix, but not over mix, and also to help make the whole thing a little lighter.
The mix will be cold -- REALLY cold. Brr....

Next, sprinkle in 1/2 cup of matzoh meal to help bind the whole thing together.

We used Manischewitz matzo meal, which, the rabbi tells me with a laugh, is made by a company now owned by two Christian brothers.

Go figure. Look it up while your stock simmers -- it needs about half an hour to draw out the flavors anyway.

Once the stock is flavored nicely, remove the fish bones, but leave in the vegetables for more flavor. We're ready to slip in the gefilte fish for poaching.

To form the fish balls, or quenelles if you will, put some water into a dish (to keep the fish from sticking to your hands) and then take a good meatball sized chunk and flip it gently back and forth between your palms until it forms into a nice round shape.

Once formed, slide the fish gently into the simmering fish stock. Try not to let them drop from too high, or they'll deform.

It will take some time for the water to come back up to a boil, but bring it back to a simmer and then let it continue to cook.
[Note: Mme. Rabbi also added that you must give the pot a bit of a shimmy and shake after the balls are all in the water, so that they don't stick together.)

Many recipes suggest simmering the gefilte fish for two to three hours, which seems to me to be cooking the heck right out of it.

We didn't stay to find out how long Mme Rabbi allowed, but let's just say this qualifies as "Slow Food.."

Chrein recipe
While you're waiting, you can make the chrein, or prepared horseradish garnish which typically goes with the gefilte fish to give it some zing.

Although you can buy this in a jar, it's definitely a lot better made with fresh horseradish root.

On the Seder plate (the beautiful silver antique plate the rabbi has on his wall is shown at the top of this post) horseradish or maror ("bitter herb") is eaten as part of the Seder ritual -- its taste as a reminder of the bitterness of slavery. But for the Seder plate, it cannot be cooked or pickled, so we left this root raw.

My intrepid Omnivore peels the root enthusiastically, and then takes to it with a microplaner to get a good, fine grate.

Would he like to try some straight up?
This is Eric making the "horseradish face."

With the gefilte fish, you usually have the grated horseradish, simply mixed with a few drops of vinegar.

Eric's face, not pictured....

The words on the Seder plate, incidentally, give you a clue to the various symbolic foods eaten during the meal: chazeret (bitter herbs to recall the bitterness of slavery in Egypt), z'roa (roasted lamb bone, representing the sacrifice of the lamb in the Temple), charoset (a sweet mixture of chopped walnuts, apples, cinnamon and wine whose consistency recalls the mortar used by the Jews to build for the Egyptians while enslaved), maror (more bitter herbs, usually the chrein), karpas (a green vegetable which you dip in salt water to recall the tears shed), and beitzah (a roasted egg, which also represents a Pesach sacrifice).

To the left is another of the rabbi's seder plates, this one more modern.

L'shanah haba'ah b'Yerushalayim!

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