Zen and the Art of Homemade Gefilte Fish


I added a new experience to my Passover preparation last
year. In addition to counting the haggadahs, practicing the Four Questions with
my daughter, inviting guests, shopping and cleaning the house, I made gefilte
fish from scratch for the first time ever.

Neither my mother nor any of my grandmothers had felt the
need to initiate me into the gefilte fish sorority, even though I know they all
had this experience. After trying it myself for the first time, I think I may
have a good idea why they decided not to pass on this tradition. I went in with
blind and irrational optimism after watching the instructor at a cooking class
make it look so easy. Here’s what I learned.

Don’t bother to clean your kitchen before you make gefilte
fish. The same goes for cleaning your wedding rings. You will have to do the
job all over again as soon as you are finished. Unless my foremothers were much
neater than I am, cleaning the kitchen from top to bottom is a necessity after
chopping five pounds of fish, onions and carrots and then mixing them up with
your hands. OK, I admit, the recipe said to use a chopping blade and a wooden
bowl, but in the end, the only way I could mix in all the required ingredients
was with my (very clean) hands and since the meat grinder was not cooperating,
I ended up using my food processor. If you don’t feel motivated to make your
kitchen sparkle the way any fine Jewish housekeeper would do before Passover,
make gefilte fish. You will have no choice in the matter.

I now know why gefilte fish costs $5 a jar. It costs a
fortune to make it from scratch. The recipe I followed, which created two nice
serving platters of fish, required 5 pounds of salmon, cod and other assorted,
expensive filets. That’s at least $20 worth of fish. Surely the fish factory
doesn’t use the fancy kinds of fish I used, but fish is expensive and they pass
the cost on to you. It may a little cheaper to make it yourself if you stick to
the cheaper fillets, but that’s probably not a good enough reason to do it. The
beauty and taste of salmon gefilte fish may convince you, however, if you have
access to that Northwest specialty.

Homemade does taste better. Homemade is about five times
better tasting than fish in the jars. But frozen gefilte fish isn’t a bad
second choice and having a friend make it in his or her kitchen is an even
better alternative. I know why grandma made it from scratch in the past (she
didn’t really have a choice). I also know why in later years, the jars seemed
fine to her. Who wants to spend that much time preparing one small part of the
seder?

You’ll impress your mother (and your grandmother). I
called my mom the next day to complain that she hadn’t discouraged me enough
from attempting the gefilte fish experience. She told me she was impressed that
I made the effort and was sure it was delicious. I wish she could have had a
taste, but I wasn’t going to mail any fish to Florida. Unfortunately, my last
grandma died a few years ago. I’m not absolutely sure she would have been
impressed with my efforts, but at least she would have been amused by my
stories about the experience.

Your guests will love to bring home leftovers. Don’t
worry, you’ll have plenty to share. I gave away about half of what was left
after the first seder and had plenty remaining in my fridge. My friends said it
would make a great lunch during the week. I hope they enjoyed it. Every time I
tried to eat some more, I remembered the experience of making it and lost my
appetite. Usually it’s my favorite leftover for Passover lunches.

There’s an easier way that’s still authentic. If you ask
around, you can probably find a good grocery store or fish shop where they’ll
grind the fish for you. You may even get to pick out your filets first. Some
places take orders every year before Passover, like the Albertsons in my
community. The finished product will probably taste just as good, but you won’t
have to do the most difficult and messy part of the process. What you’ll miss
out on is the opportunity to complain about how hard you worked and to tell
funny stories about the mess you made.

Your friends will tell you their funny gefilte fish
stories. When I told my friend, Anne, that I made my own gefilte fish this
year, she wrinkled up her nose and asked if I wanted to hear her gefilte fish
story. Before going through the conversion process, Anne had asked our rabbi a
very serious question (I am not making this up). She wanted to know if she
would be required to eat gefilte fish when she became a Jew. The rabbi assured
her that consumption of any particular food (except for one bite of matzah) is
not required of Jews. She was relieved. I’m not positive the rabbi gave her the
correct answer, but Anne has never been concerned about passing as a “culinary
Jew.” I forgot to ask if her husband and daughter eat gefilte fish. This year,
I’ll send them over some leftovers, if they want.

You’ll really enjoy this movie now. If you haven’t seen
the short film “Gefilte Fish” directed by Karen Silverstein, check it out of
your favorite film library. It’s a hilarious documentary in which three
generations of women talk about making gefilte fish. I don’t want to ruin it by
telling you any more. It’s 15 minutes long and distributed by Ergo Media. If
you have trouble finding it, contact the distributor at ergo@jewishvideo.com or
(201) 692-0404.

Zen and the art of gefilte fish making. OK, I admit, I
never did finish that book (“Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”), but I
think I got the gist. There was something about my gefilte fish experience that
made me feel I had really found my place in the chain of Jewish motherhood. It’s
similar to the experience of making challah with my daughter — like time has
stopped and we have truly stepped away from the everyday world. It’s something
I do not feel in my women’s study group or at temple. Even though I am a modern
Jewish woman, and even though I lead the seder as well as prepare the food, it
is the rituals of the kitchen that connect me to the Jewish universe and my
ancestral foremothers.

Eileen Mintz’s Gefilte Fish

Fish Mixture:

5 pounds assorted fillets of fresh fish

Sample assortment, but you can be creative:

1 1/2 pounds salmon

1 1/2 pounds snapper

1 pound black cod

1 pound ling cod or true cod

1 1/2 large sweet onions

4 large carrots

5 large eggs

1 1/2 tablespoons sugar (or a little more)

4 teaspoons salt

4 teaspoons pepper (white)

Paprika

3/4 cup matzah meal (or up to a cup) for binding

3/4 cup ice water

Stock:

2 carrots

3 onions

4 shakes paprika

4 shakes of black pepper

4 tablespoons sugar

To prepare stock, fill two large heavy stock pots full of
water. Slice three onions and carrots, divide equally between pots. Add fish
skins, and heads if so desired. Sprinkle in paprika, salt and pepper and two
tablespoons of sugar. Boil this stock to a medium boil for 10 minutes.

Wash fish and pat dry. Grind the fish, onions and carrots
together, using a meat grinder, food processor or chopping bowl. If you use a
food processor or meat grinder, chop the fish again in the wooden bowl.

Add eggs one at a time. Add sugar, salt and pepper and
continue to chop until very well blended and into very small pieces. Add water
a little at a time throughout this process. Add matzah meal and chop again.
Check to see if mixture is thick enough to bind together and to make an oval
gefilte fish ball. If not, add more matzah meal.

With wet hands, shape the fish balls and carefully drop into
boiling stock. Cover slightly and cook on medium-low heat on the stove for two
hours. When done, let the fish sit in the pot for 10 minutes and then remove
pieces carefully to container. Strain the remaining stock over fish balls, just
barely covering them.

Chill and serve. These will keep in the refrigerator for up
to six days. This is enough fish to serve a large group for the seder and can
easily be doubled to make sure there are leftovers. Â


Donna Gordon Blankinship is a freelance writer living in Seattle.