A sweet gefilte fish like his Polish grandma used to make

I’ve bought meat from the same kosher butcher shop on Pico Boulevard in West Los Angeles for many years. But it wasn’t until recently that I asked G&K Kosher Meat owner Herschel Berengut, 58, about the Passover dishes he prepares at his to-go deli next door, Charlie’s. His eyes lit up as he explained how he learned to cook as a young boy in Poland and that preparing food was his real passion.

Lublin-born Berengut said his grandmother Faiga was known to be a wonderful cook. When he was young, Berengut remembers watching her prepare Polish specialties and food for the Passover seder.

As he grew up, he would help in the kitchen when his grandmother catered weddings and banquets. She also cooked for the local church, and during the war she was able to get official papers stating that his family was not Jewish; although it was helpful, not all of them survived.

Although it wasn’t easy being Jewish in Poland, those difficulties never discouraged Berengut’s family from practicing; they observed Passover and all the Jewish holidays.

After graduating from culinary school, Berengut opened a 150-seat restaurant called Frigata, located next to a lake. He catered large parties and was successful, even though he had to pay the Polish government a portion of his profits.

But his dream was to come to America with his family. He corresponded with an uncle who had left Poland for Russia and later immigrated to the United States.
When his uncle invited him to come to Los Angeles, Berengut seized the opportunity to make a better life for his family. Initially leaving his wife and daughter behind, Berengut arrived in America speaking only Polish, Yiddish and Russian.

His first job was as a chef at a Hollywood-area Russian restaurant, where he worked from 8 p.m. to 1 a.m. Next, Berengut worked a 12-hour shift at a butcher shop, typically sleeping three to four hours a night. Determined to bring his wife and daughter from Poland, Berengut saved money for six years before he was able to reunite his family.

When asked about his memories of the family Passover seder in Poland, Berengut said that the matzah only came in small squares. Since it was not available in Lublin, his family would receive it from cousins who lived in West Wroclaw, a town close to the German border where the matzah was made.

The charoset was a mixture of chopped apples, toasted walnuts, sweet wine and honey; lemon juice was added to keep the mixture from turning brown.

After reading the haggadah and retelling the traditional Passover story, dinner was served buffet style. It began with platters of sweet gefilte fish made with carp, as this bony fish was all that was available. Berengut remembers watching his grandmother wrap each fish skin around the sweet ground mixture, then poaching them in a fish stock.

Since coming to Los Angeles, Berengut has prepared several types of gefilte fish — one year he used only salmon, mixing it with egg, matzah meal and sugar. But now in his take-out deli you will find the traditional Polish gefilte fish made with carp and whitefish. He also grinds fresh horseradish daily to serve with the fish.

The main course for the family seder was lamb or veal, depending on what kosher meat was available. His father had a friend who sold them the whole animal, which they would have butchered by the local rabbi. They sold off the portions they could not use, making enough money to pay for the whole animal.

The meat was roasted with raisins, prunes, apricots, carrots and onions in a heavy pot that was covered and baked for several hours, until it was well done, almost caramelized, like tzimmis. It was served with potato kugel made with chicken fat. Berengut also prepares matzah dipped in broth and fried with eggs, a dish that his grandmother served only during Passover.

The Passover dinner finished with his favorite dessert, dried fruit compote, which is sweetened with honey and sugar and served with a platter of almond cookies.

At the end of the meal, when the children found the afikomen, they were rewarded with pieces of candy. It was a difficult time for his family, and Berengut was sad when the seder was over and everyone left by saying — instead of goodbye — “see you next year in Jerusalem.”

I was able to coax the somewhat reluctant Berengut to share his recipes, assuring him that many people would love to serve his Polish Passover dishes during the holiday.

Herschel Berengut's Polish Gefilte Fish
2 onions, diced
3 carrots, thinly sliced
3 stalks celery
2 to 3 pounds fish bones (carp and white fish)
2 to 3 tablespoons sugar
Salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

5 pounds fillets of carp and white fish
1 onion, quartered
5 eggs
1 cup matzah meal
3 tablespoons sugar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

In a large pot, place the onion, carrot, celery, and fish bones. Add water to cover, bring to a boil over high heat and add sugar, salt and pepper. Lower heat and simmer for 90 minutes, uncovered, allowing the liquid to reduce. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve or cheesecloth. Cover and refrigerate or freeze.

In a food grinder, grind the fish and onion. Transfer to a large mixing bowl or wooden chopping bowl and mix in the eggs, matzah meal and sugar, until firm. Mix well and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Wet your hands with cold water and shape fish mixture into oval balls.
In a large shallow pot or roaster, bring the stock to a boil, reduce to simmer and place fish balls into the stock. Cover and simmer for one hour, or until cooked through. Cool, transfer to a glass bowl, cover with plastic wrap and foil and refrigerate. Serve with horseradish.

Makes about 24 gefilte fish balls.