September 22, 2018

The Sephardic Answer to Gefilte Fish

Although I’m an only child, I was compensated for this unfortunate circumstance in the form of cousins whom I regard as brothers and sisters. The dynamics of a relationship with a cousin can be an extraordinary thing. You have enough diluted shared DNA to recognize a family resemblance, but you don’t have the competitive baggage that siblings often have. It’s like having the best of all worlds: a deep and binding sibling-like shared history without the tension that can come from growing up in the same household.

My cousin Dudi and I barely knew each other until recently, yet we share a connection that feels like it was cultivated over a lifetime. When my parents immigrated to the U.S., Dudi was not yet born. Our 10-year age gap prevented us from getting to know each other until a few years ago.

Dudi’s grandmother and my maternal grandmother were sisters, and they had a love-hate relationship until Dudi’s grandmother’s death. According to Dudi, they would fight on the phone and hang up on each other regularly, like two little girls, full of drama even as old women. My mother adored her Aunt Adela and would often spend weekends off from the army at Adela’s house, which was near where she served. She often speaks of the food she ate there, mainly the Romanian Ashkenazi classics such as sarma and kozunak.

While both of our grandmothers focused on Romanian food, their daughters, my mother and Dudi’s, ventured in the opposite direction. My mother married into a Sephardic family of Bulgarian cooks, while her cousin, surrounded by Moroccan Jewish neighbors, developed a passion for Sephardic cuisine and ignited that hunger in Dudi.

While both of our grandmothers focused on Romanian food, their daughters, my mother and Dudi’s, ventured in the opposite direction.

Although we didn’t grow up together, Dudi and I are shockingly similar. We had mothers who worked full time and can trace our love of kitchen work back to childhood when we preferred cooking the family meal to doing our homework. Like me, Dudi came to professional cooking relatively late in life. Four years ago, at the age of 40, he left Israel and an established career in engineering to join our cousin Marion and his wife, Angelina, in their incredible restaurant La Luna in Nosara, Costa Rica.

Similarly, at around the same age, I left my corporate job at The New York Times to pursue my own business in Israel. A few years later, my husband’s new post brought me to Uganda, where finally I was able to focus on my passion for cooking. For Dudi and me, the idea of working in the food space was a faraway dream until an unexpected turn led us to take the ultimate plunge, culminating with my opening my restaurants and now serving as a chef at the American embassy, and Dudi opening his first restaurant later this year in Costa Rica.

We regularly find ourselves making the same dish and swapping stories about kitchen life. Neither of us feels right when we are away from cooking for long, and although we love to travel, we feel happiest in the action and intensity of a kitchen. We lean toward Sephardic food, preferring chraime to gefilte fish but we love that, too. We have cookbooks on our bedside tables and read them for fun like novels. We eat mostly for the condiments and possess an infuriating struggle for perfection, playing with a recipe or a food concept until we drive ourselves and others mad.

Unsurprisingly, Dudi and I make chraime (fish in spicy tomato sauce) almost identically. I’ve merged our recipes so you can benefit from both. Dudi calls this dish “fish for lazy people” because it’s so simple to prepare. And that’s true — it’s a straightforward recipe I often make in my paella pan from Spain to add an extra Sephardic touch. Dudi likes it with bread, preferably challah, not sliced but torn straight from the loaf. I love eating chraime with plain, white rice cooked in some chicken fat and broth from chicken soup.

This Sephardic mainstay dish uses any variety of firm, white fish. In Israel, it’s usually made with Nile perch or grouper and is a must for Sephardic Jews on Rosh Hashanah and Passover. While Dudi lives on the beach in Costa Rica and is spoiled for choice, I live on the shores of Lake Victoria and am limited to using tilapia or Nile perch, whichever of the two is freshest in the market that day.

I’ve found that the flavor of this dish dramatically improves if you cook it with fish that still has its bones attached so they can impart the sauce with a more unctuous texture and flavor. Dudi makes his chraime with fillets, but you can buy yourself a whole fish and ask your fishmonger to fillet it for you keeping the head and tail to stew in the sauce along with the fillets. That way, like a perfect cousin mind meld, you too can enjoy the best of all worlds.

CHRAIME:
SPICY SEPHARDIC FISH
½ cup light olive oil
8 cloves garlic, chopped or sliced
½ large fresh sweet red pepper, chopped
1 15-ounce can chopped Italian tomatoes
or 4 very ripe red tomatoes
with their juice
2 heaping tablespoons sweet paprika
1 heaping tablespoon hot paprika
(or to taste — we like it spicy)
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1½ teaspoons ground turmeric
½ teaspoon dried red chili flakes
(optional)
3 heaping tablespoons tomato paste
1½ cups boiling water
Juice of 1 lemon (about 4 tablespoons)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
to taste
1½ pounds firm white fish (fillets or
bone-in steaks)
1 bunch fresh cilantro (optional, roughly
chopped for garnish)
Lemon wedges for serving

Heat olive oil on low heat in a medium-size saucepan (a paella pan is ideal for this). Add garlic while the oil is cold and cook on low heat until fragrant but not brown. Add chopped red pepper and canned or fresh tomatoes with their juice and saute until reduced. Add the dry spices and tomato paste and cook until oil is bright red, about 1 minute. Add boiling water and lemon juice and cook partially covered until sauce has reduced and thickened and oil is beginning to pool around the sides of the pan. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Place fish into the sauce and turn up the heat to medium-low. Cover pan and cook approximately 15 minutes or until cooked through. Uncover and gently simmer on low heat to reduce the liquid produced by the fish until the sauce is thick. Add chopped cilantro, if using. Let fish rest in the pan a few minutes. Serve warm with lemon wedges and plenty of bread or rice and for mopping up the sauce.

Makes 4 servings.


Yamit Behar Wood, an Israeli-American food and travel writer, is the executive chef at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, and founder of the New York Kitchen Catering Co.

“Gefilte” Ceviche

Cooking class at Cafe Crespo Cooking School in Oaxaca, Mexico

Many people just don’t like gefilte fish, especially the jarred commercial stuff. If you live where there is fresh fish and great produce, like, say LA, you can make what most people do like: ceviche. Gefilte means “stuffed.” Here, the fish is stuffed beneath a smooth avocado puree. This recipe, adapted from Casa Crespo in Oaxaca, uses far less fish than gringo versions, so is lighter and less fish-intensive.

Gefilte Ceviche

½ lb halibut fillet or sea bass fillet or red snapper fillet, cut into ½ in cubes*

1 ½ cups fresh-squeezed lime juice

2 ripe tomatoes, chopped

½ cup chopped onion

1/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro

3 pickled jalapeño chilies, chopped

1/3 cup green olives, chopped

1/3 cup capers, chopped

½ teaspoon dried oregano

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon ground black pepper

1/3 cup olive oil

Topping:

1-2 ripe avocados, cubed

1 t. fresh lime juice

1/2 t. salt

cilantro for garnish.

 

Place the fish in a glass bowl, cover with the lime juice and marinate at room temperature for ½ an hour up to two hours.

Chop the tomatoes, removing the seeds. Place in a large glass bowl, add the onion, cilantro, chilies, olives, capers, pepper, salt, oregano and olive oil and combine.

Rinse the fish 3 times in cold water. Add the fish to the tomato mixture. Add more salt and pepper if needed.

To make the topping, combine avocados with salt and lime juice. Puree in blender or by hand, adding just enough water to make a thick smooth puree.

To serve, fill a pretty glass or ramekin with some ceviche. Top with  pureed avocado. Using the back of a knife or spatula, smooth over top to “seal” glass. Garnish with a cilantro leaf.

*If you can’t find fresh, high quality ocean fish, do not make this. Do not use cod, swordfish or other species prone to parasites.

Eat, drink and be healthy

There is an age-old question about what’s the “perfect” diet. The idea behind this question is if we just find the perfect diet and we follow it, we can stop looking, stop worrying, stop stressing over too many carbs or sugar or meat or butter.

But what does “perfect” really mean in the realm of diet and nutrition? Perfect for whom? At what age? In what region? At what activity level? In what culture and society? With what kind of metabolism and immunity and digestion and brain function? At what stress level? 

And, perhaps most importantly, will it still allow us to eat kugel?

The answer is complicated. In the health and nutrition fields, you will find more dietary theories than you can possibly imagine. Some nutrition experts believe in looking at what our ancestors ate; others think we should look at our DNA for answers. Then there’s the idea that our blood type might have something to do with our nutritional needs. 

So many people, including health professionals, think of nutrition as pure science — as if the science will lead us to the best diet. Science has us believing that reducing food to its vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, fiber, fat, protein and calories, and consuming those in the proper balance, is the answer. 

What this approach overlooks, however, is that this “proper balance” is almost impossible to determine. After all, no two of us are exactly alike, and there are plenty of other variables: Our well-being is influenced by our thoughts and feelings, our environment, the toxins all around us and in our food supply, the health of our digestive system that determines what nutrients we absorb from the food we eat, and our life circumstances. 

This isn’t to say that you should give up. There are plenty of general guidelines for healthy eating that everyone can follow.

An easy one is to manage what’s on the end of your fork — think quality over quantity. If you eat meat, fish, eggs or poultry, buy organic, grass-fed, pasture-raised, free-range and/or wild-caught.

Stop eating processed junk foods, including regular and diet sodas, and get processed sugar out of your diet. (Also cut out fruit juices, which are high in sugar.) Instead, use natural sweeteners such as maple syrup or raw organic honey — in small amounts, of course.

You should also try to consume whole food in its natural state, where all of its nutrients are fully available. This includes raw nuts and seeds, grains and beans, vegetables and fruits.

Be sure to have lots of green leafy vegetables at least twice per day, and make sure you eat good fats, daily and in moderation (coconut and olive oils, olives, avocado).

When it comes to what you drink, a good rule each day is to consume at least half  an ounce of good quality spring water for each pound you weigh. (It may sound like a lot, but check out how much your water bottle holds and do the math. You can do it!)

Finally, no matter what kind of diet you choose, make sure you eat with joy. No joke — it increases your ability to digest. When you eat under stress or anger, digestion shuts down, leading to weight gain and poor nutrient absorption.

How can it work with Jewish foods?

Don’t think that just because you’re trying to eat more healthfully that you have to give up your favorite Jewish dishes:

  • Substitute almond flour (lower in carbs than wheat) or coconut flour (contains healthy fats and is low in sugar) in breads, pastries and matzo balls. Be careful with ordinary flours, since some people have a sensitivity to the gluten protein found in wheat, rye and barley.
  • Substitute carrots or yams for white potatoes or noodles in your kugel dish. This helps keep down your sugar intake.
  • Gefilte fish is often made with sugar and matzo meal, but it doesn’t have to be. Check out the following delicious recipe without these unhealthful ingredients. 

 

GEFILTE FISH

  • 1 pound white fish (e.g. Dover sole) fillets, skinned and deboned
  • 1/2 pound salmon fillets, skinned and deboned
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt 
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice, freshly squeezed
  • 1/4 cup fresh dill, finely chopped
  • 1 cup grated carrots
  • 1/2 cup parsley, finely chopped

 

Directions

Cut the fish into large chunks and place in a food processor. Pulse until finely ground; do not puree.

Heat oil in a large frying pan. Sauté diced onion over medium-low heat until soft and transparent; cool for 10 minutes.

Pulse onion, eggs, salt, pepper and lemon juice into fish mixture. Pulse in dill, carrots and parsley. Refrigerate mixture for 3 hours.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Shape fish mixture into 1 1/2-inch balls. Drop balls into water and cook for 15 to 20 minutes until cooked through. Place balls in a 9-by-13-inch baking dish and refrigerate to cool. Serve with horseradish sauce made from horseradish root and apple cider vinegar (no added sugar) and garnish with fresh sprigs of parsley.

Makes 18 fish balls.

Recipe adapted from Elana’s Pantry (elanaspantry.com), the website of New York Times best-selling author Elana Amsterdam. 

At end of life, Oliver Sacks craved gefilte fish, and Judaism

On August 30, at age 82, noted neurologist and author Dr. Oliver Sacks died after succumbing to a cancer that first plagued him nearly a decade ago, paused, and recently reappeared.

One of his last essays, published posthumously, appears in the September 14 issue of The New Yorker and is, surprisingly, an ode to gefilte fish.

“Our gefilte fish was basically carp, to which pike, whitefish and sometimes perch or mullet would be added,” he wrote of his mother’s recipe. “The fish had to be skinned, boned, and fed into a grinder – we had a massive metal grinder attached to the kitchen table, and my mother would sometimes let me turn the handle. She would then mix the ground fish with raw eggs, matzo meal and pepper and sugar.” Sacks first shared his cancer diagnosis in a February article in the New York Times.

Over the next six months, the writer, best known for his compassionate studies of patients with rare afflictions, turned his keen eye on himself, reflecting on his life through several essays and a memoir, “On the Move,” published in April.

Gefilte fish has long inspired both passionate defense and ire. It is also having something of a cultural moment, thanks to a recently surfaced, cryptically titled email from Hillary Clinton, which was revealed to refer to a shipment of carp facing Israeli tariffs in 2010.

But for Sacks, the traditional Eastern European dish represented the taste and smells of his Orthodox Jewish childhood in northwest London, and the full circle of life.

Though Sacks was not religiously observant as an adult, this food, it seemed, served as an unbroken tie to his Jewish identity throughout his life.

He recounted in The New Yorker essay, titled “Filter Fish,” the successful efforts of his late housekeeper, Helen Jones, an African-American Baptist woman, to fashion a homemade gefilte fish that rivaled his mother’s.

He also found himself craving the food in his last days: “Deliveries now arrive daily from one shop or another,” he wrote, naming a number of well-known New York delis.

A newfound appreciation for Jewish tradition defined much of Sack’s final writings. He articulated this most explicitly in an August 14 article in the New York Times called, simply, “Sabbath.”

In it, he recounted the rituals of his childhood Shabbat in a household headed by two surgeons, who, though they didn’t work or drive, kept the phones operational in case of a medical emergency.

Though he wrote fondly of these times, Sack’s homosexuality was not received well by his parents, and their reaction pushed him away from Judaism.

Over the next several decades, he studied medicine in Los Angeles, dabbled in body building in Venice Beach, struggled with drugs and gained international recognition for books such as 1973’s “Awakenings” and 1985’s “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.”

In 2014, Sacks visited family in Israel, his first visit to the country in 60 years, since spending a few months on a kibbutz as a 22-year-old.

In the New York Times essay, he recounted a Shabbat meal during that trip in which he finally felt embraced by his faith, and contemplated what he may have missed by keeping it at a distance.

“The peace of the Sabbath, of a stopped world, a time outside time, was palpable, infused everything,” he wrote, “and I found myself drenched with a wistfulness, something akin to nostalgia, wondering what if…”

How Hillary Clinton turned gefilte fish into a hashtag

We are nowhere near Passover season, if there is such a thing, but gefilte fish is trending across the Internet. How this much-maligned fish dish became a social media sensation is a story that’s almost too good to be true — involving Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, American-Israeli relations and, of course, carp.

The tale began Monday night, when the State Department released the latest batch of Hillary Clinton’s emails from her time as secretary of state. Among the messages was this gem.

The citizens of social media were quick to appreciate the humor of the email, which serves up the inherent hilarity of gefilte fish garnished with Hillary’s trademark brusque demeanor.

The Gefilteria in Brooklyn, a shop that produces “artisanal gefilte fish,” was especially pleased to see its trademark ingredient in the news.

Tablet’s Yair Rosenberg discovered the genesis of the perplexing email in, of all places, a passage from Michael Oren’s recently published memoir “Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide.” In February 2010, as part of her State Department duties, Clinton had to deal with a shipment of 400,000 pounds of carp (the main ingredient of gefilte fish) to Israel that was blocked due to a high import tariff imposed by free trade laws from 1985.

Clinton was feeling pressure to make sure the carp was delivered for two reasons: Passover was quickly approaching and Schafer Fisheries in Illinois was threatening to lay off a large portion of its staff if it could not profit from the 200 tons of carp it had shipped.

“Sounds to me like one of those issues that should rise to the highest levels of our government,” Clinton said at the time. “I will take that mission on.”

Luckily, after days of negotiations with Israel’s ministers of trade and finance, a compromise was achieved – and Passover seders across Israel were able to include the most-essential, if under-appreciated, holiday dish.

Gefilte fish, the way my grandmother prepared it

There are two variations of this dish, or rather two different recipes. I vaguely remember eating both growing up, but have never prepared them myself. The recipes have been passed on to my mother and now she is passing them on to me. I will describe them in loose terms as my mother described them to me.

Version #1

If my memory serves me correctly, my grandmother cooked all dishes that took a long time in our brick oven. In those days, the wood or coal-burning oven was used for everything from heating a home to cooking food, and even sleeping on its top. I imagine if one had a brick oven handy, it would make for a wonderful rendition of this dish. If not, I am sure this stovetop version is plenty good; my mother insists this fish be prepared on the stovetop. 

Fresh water fish like pike or carp was commonly used to make gefilte fish. Our close proximity to the river and lakes had a lot to do with that. My grandmother preferred pike. Pike was considered a noble fish worthy of high holidays and celebrations; carp was more of a commoner’s fish. Needless to say, we never ate carp during our holiday meals.

There is a reason this recipe calls for soaked bread and not matzo. Communist Soviet Union was an atheist country. Judaism was shunned upon even more then other religions. Anti-Semitism was rampant, and persecuting Jews was practically a national pastime. So, of course, we could not openly celebrate Jewish holidays. Matzo was almost impossible to find. My mother’s aunt would make some and sneak it in to my grandmother’s house for Passover by bringing it packed in a suitcase. Needless to say matzo was too precious to soak and grind into the fish forcemeat so my grandmother used bread instead. We kept our traditions alive and observed the religious customs as best as we could.  

Directions:

Use one whole pike or white fish about 3 pounds, boned and butterflied. If using bone in fish then 4 pounds or so scaled, gutted and cut through the bone into 3 to 4 inch pieces.

Generously salt the fish pieces (head and all), and let them sit in a cool place for at least two hours (it is best to refrigerate overnight.)

Wash the salt off and dry well. Cut as much meat out as possible around the head and the spine bone, leaving the skin and the spine bone intact. Grind the extracted flesh on a meat grinder with ½ cup of roughly chopped onion and 6-7 ounces stale bread soaked in a pint of milk [Ed. Note: for Passover substitute matzoh soaked in water]. Stir in one beaten egg and season the mixture with salt and lots of ground black pepper. Stuff the forcemeat back into the head and all the cavities around the skin, making it look like the original pieces of fish if possible.

If using a boned butterflied fish, spread the stuffing on the bottom side of the fish and cover the top.

Slice unpeeled onion (peel adds color) and line the bottom of a large Dutch oven with them. Scatter a few thin slices of peeled and thinly sliced red beets (be careful and not put too many, or the resulting broth will be red in color. Amber or golden color is desired.) followed by a layer of peeled and sliced carrots. Gently place the stuffed pieces of fish in a single layer on the bed of sliced vegetables or, if using a whole stuffed fish, carefully place it in the fish poacher or pot large enough to hold it. Completely cover the fish with more of the same sliced vegetables in the same order as the bed. Sprinkle some whole black peppercorns, one large pinch of sugar, and add a couple of whole bay leaves. Pour enough water to come up just above the top layer of vegetables. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Take the cover off and lower the heat to a gentle simmer and cook for 2 to 2 ½ hours; the resulting liquid is very flavorful and should feel a bit tacky to the touch.

(Chef’s comments: The fish will want to float to the top. Cover the fish loosely with parchment paper and pour a bit of cooking liquid over the top. It will keep it submerged while letting the liquid reduce and evaporate.)

Cool completely and serve with some cooked carrots, a bit of gelled cooking liquid, and prepared horseradish. 

Version #2 

I think that the following version is more suitable when whole fish is not available. It also offers a very different cooking and serving variation.

(Prepared horseradish recipe is available in Paley’s Place cookbook if needed.) It is my grandfather’s recipe.

Directions:

Generously season a couple of pike fillets with salt. Keep in a cool place for an hour or so. Wash the salt off and dry well. Grind the fillets on a meat grinder with some diced onion and stale bread soaked in milk or water [Ed. Note: for Passover substitute matzoh soaked in water]. Add one egg and mix. Form into patties the size of your palm and pan-fry in vegetable oil till golden on both sides. Place the cooked patties onto a serving platter; let them cool while preparing other parts of the dish.

Slice thinly a couple of large peeled onions and 4 to 5 large carrots. Cook the vegetables slowly in vegetable oil until very soft. Stir in a little tomato paste and season to taste. Continue cooking a little longer, stirring until the vegetables collapse. Cool the mixture slightly, then spread evenly over the fish patties.

Cool completely and serve with prepared horseradish.

Caught between gefilte fish and Campbell’s soup

When I first gravitated toward writing about food and immigration to the United States as an ostensibly serious academic, colleagues asked me—and, frankly, I asked myself—the obvious question. Why food? Food perhaps lacked the gravitas and significance of subjects like political, labor or immigration history. Academics might grudgingly admit that food is fun, or, at worst, accuse me of having gone over to the realm of the “popularizers.” 

Food does indeed provide one of life’s greatest pleasures. And yet, for much of human history food also has been associated with difficulty, controversy, confusion, and conflict. Most people, for most of life on Earth, have fretted over where, or if, they would get their next meal. But the matter of food, and particularly food’s relationship to immigration, has long merited more ambitious historical treatment. Food has always functioned simultaneously as a barrier that sets one group of people apart from others and as a bridge linking people with little else in common. 

But truth be told, the subject grabbed me because of the problematic and opposite ways it spoke to my personal memories. Those recollections of my childhood as an American-born daughter of immigrant parents who came to Milwaukee in the 1940s involved, on the one hand, remembrances of great food eaten at home: potato latkes at Hanukkah smothered in sour cream and apple sauce; chicken soup every Friday night with lakes of fat floating on the surface and around which swam homemade noodles, known as lokshn; gefilte fish; and cheese blintzes at the spring holiday of Shavuot, followed by a dessert of cheesecake. My mother, a frightened newcomer to America, not only prepared all these Eastern European Jewish specialties, inspired by American abundance, but also made her own cookies, jams, pickles, rolls, noodles, soups, and some of the family’s bread. 

I remember sharply the chasm between the foods I loved—prepared by my mother, a Holocaust survivor who defined her cooking as her only real contribution to a complicated and not very happy home—and the American world of consumption. Visits to friends’ homes, families more thoroughly American than ours, meant encounters with store-bought cookies, Lorna Doones and Mallomars. In the homes of non-Jewish pals I saw boxes of Oreos, forbidden because Nabisco baked them with lard, rendering them unkosher. (Only in 1997 did Oreos remove the offending substance.) I discovered in other kids’ kitchens jars of peanut butter, laid out on their tables next to loaves of white bread in plastic wrappers, and jelly in jars, usually grape. Why, I wondered, did we not eat any of those foods and so many more like them? Some, like those Oreos, I understood not to be kosher. But it’s not as if peanut butter, canned tuna fish, Welch’s jelly, Hellmann’s mayonnaise, Kraft cheese, or Campbell’s soup violated Jewish law.

Even Thanksgiving represented something of a cultural minefield. Besides the fact that pie and cranberries could have been food from some other planet, as far as my mother was concerned, she questioned the rationality of having an enormous meal with a turkey—a slightly problematic and new food—on a Thursday. After all, we were already going to sit down as a family the next night for our typical Friday dinner of fish, chicken, soup, chopped liver, kugel (a noodle dish), and baked apples—a meal whose preparations always started the day before. While my parents loved America, viewing it as a haven for Jews, they found the Thanksgiving dinner an absurd way to express that gratitude. My father proposed having the holiday meal on Friday night as a compromise, but my sister and I dug in our American heels. Thanksgiving had to be on Thursday.

Many of my friends came from immigrant homes as well. A significant number of my classmates were the children of Jewish Holocaust survivors and had been born in displaced persons camps, coming to Milwaukee via the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. But their parents—possibly younger, more flexible, more urbane than mine—seemed to have caught on that part of being American involved, even if they kept kosher, learning to know and love America by its foods and iconic brands.

Over time, my parents relented on some of the commercial brands made of ingredients that did not violate Jewish law, and which seemed to me so utterly American. Each little victory, whether over peanut butter or Triscuits, put me on the path toward being what I considered a normal American youngster. But father and mother always sneered at these foods, referring to them as goyish, not Jewish, and not tasty at all.

Junior high is an anxious time for many teens, and so it was for me on the food front. Seventh grade meant for the first time eating lunch at school, in the hall of horrors known as the lunchroom, packing a paper sack with whatever came out of your home kitchen, unless you were lucky enough to buy your lunch, which was never an option for me. What came out of our kitchen included home-baked hallah bread, irregularly cut, unlike the uniform slices of white bread between which my co-diners in the Steuben Junior High School cafeteria stuffed their fillings. On those days when my mother packed me a sandwich of leftover chicken, she lubricated the hallah or the rye bread with a layer of schmaltz, rendered chicken fat. The gooey yellow substance (which I now crave) would leak out of the wax paper wrapped around the sandwich to stain the brown paper bag, announcing to the world that I had brought some weird, totally alien food, which betrayed my lack of sought-after normalcy. (On more than one occasion I threw out the lunch bag because the schmaltz stain proved too much to bear.). My lunch bag also contained no store-bought cookies, but instead mandlebroit (almond cookies) or a hunk of sponge cake.

Suffice it to say that my culinary traumas became even deeper and more fraught when we girls had to take home economics, two wretched semesters of cooking. Here we learned the words, tropes, and themes of the American kitchen. Cinnamon toast, Welsh rarebit, macaroni and cheese stick in my mind as encounters with new and exotic dishes. I even learned about pizza. We were instructed to tell our mothers that when they prepared their evening meals, they should make sure that each family member ate off a plate that contained foods of various colors, though I was never exactly clear which ones, and I was not about to go home and critique the colors of mom’s cooking.

My class of Jewish girls experienced a moment of truth when our cooking teacher announced that the next week we would be cooking bacon and eggs. Some, not all, of the Jewish girls eyeballed one another. What would we do? The rules of the class mandated that you had to cook it, and you had to eat it. One girl with incredible moxie raised her hand and told the teacher that some of the girls could not eat this dish. The teacher asked why not, and the seventh grader explained, however stumblingly, the matter of kashrut, or the Jewish dietary laws. The student helpfully went on to point out that the local supermarkets carried a product, I believe made by Hebrew National or Best’s, called “kosher bacon”—no oxymoron there!—that were basically strips of kosher beef that could be fried, and resembled bacon. The teacher went into her wallet, took out some money, handed it to the brave defender of our people, and asked her to buy a few packs. Those of us who would not eat the real thing, the porky product, could sit together and keep up the faith.

These personal memories informed how I came to think, in my professional life, about immigration, religious and ethnic difference, and the ability of the dominant American culture both to accommodate difference and foster conformity. These recollections of meals eaten, thrown out, and negotiated convinced me that food is never just food. Food is about more than fun, nutrition, or even survival—it is the landscape upon which people meet each other in new places, and learn how to remain who they had been, while becoming someone new at the same time.

Hasia Diner is a professor of Hebrew and Judaic studies and history and director of the Goldstein-Goren Center for American Jewish History at New York University. She wrote this for What It Means to Be American, a national conversation hosted by the Smithsonian and Zocalo Public Square.

This year, more Angelenos than ever get Passover aid from local agencies

This year, more than 1,000 Los Angeles families in need received food from organizations that provide assistance specifically for Passover.

During the weeks leading up to the first seder, on April 6, visitors to distribution sites set up by agencies, synagogues and organizations took home essentials for the holiday — wine, grape juice, matzah, gefilte fish, horseradish, eggs and more — so that they could have seders and kosher food for the eight days of the holiday.

Low-income families received assistance from Tomchei Shabbos, Global Kindness, Valley Beth Shalom, JFS/SOVA, the Israeli Leadership Council, the Iranian American Jewish Federation (IAJF) and elsewhere. Social workers from Jewish Family Service, a nonsectarian social service agency, referred many individuals and families in need to food-giving agencies. Tomchei Shabbos, which provides donations of kosher food to Los Angeles Orthodox families weekly, served additional families for Passover.

The majority of recipients this year were people who’ve lost their jobs in the recent recession, including, said Rabbi Yona Landau, executive director of Tomchei Shabbos,  “people who got sick and couldn’t work, people who were abandoned, women who were abandoned by their husbands and they have to care of the family themselves.

“There’s a lot of different cases,” Landau said. “If they didn’t get our food, they wouldn’t have any food.”

Others receiving food assistance for Passover included immigrant families of Persian, Israeli and Russian descent; seniors with disabilities; and some divorcees, all facing major financial challenges, according to Debbie Alden, a board member of Valley Beth Shalom’s Sisterhood and Nouriel Cohen, CFO of Global Kindness. Many of the recipients were formerly volunteers at these agencies and organizations — people who used to be middle-class — but are now reliant on charity.

“We had people who were donating to us a little bit, and now they are asking, which is really sad,” said Shahla Javdan, president of the IAJF.

Because of privacy concerns, no recipient families gave their names for interviews.

On the night of April 2, an elderly woman living in West Hollywood receiving a delivery from two volunteers in their 20s, told of her problems with sciatica. “Not well,” she replied to a volunteer who asked how she was doing as they brought the food into her home.

Tomchei Shabbos volunteers delivered some of the food for Passover to recipients’ homes. Some requested that the food be left at their doorsteps.

Other recipients parked at the curb at Pico Boulevard and Weatherly Drive, the site of the organization’s storefront, waited to receive the boxes filled with produce, which they loaded into the backseats of their minivans and the trunks of their sedans with the help of eager volunteers.

Tomchei boxes were marked with only families’ initials so as not to give away their identities. Valley Beth Shalom’s distributors employed a similar method for their food giveaway.

In the days leading up to Passover, people strapped for cash shopped at Pico-Robertson grocery stores Elat Market and Glatt Mart using food coupons from the IAJF. The stores cooperated with the IAJF, selling $25 and $50 coupons at a 25 percent discount to the IAJF, which then distributed the coupons to community members.

SOVA, a program of Jewish Family Service, differentiated Passover packages for Ashkenazi and Sephardic families. Ashkenazi families received gefilte fish and horseradish, while Sephardic families received rice and dates in addition to matzah ball soup mix, macaroons, eggs, walnuts and matzah.

“They will be able to do a nice seder with what they receive,” Fred Summers, director of operations at JFS/SOVA, said. “Some of the things will last longer than one night, [but] it will probably not be an eight-day supply.

The numbers of those in need might surprise some. JFS/SOVA provided for approximately 700 individuals and families for Passover, according to Summers. Tomchei Shabbos served around 600 families, estimated Landau. VBS distributed 124 boxes filled with Passover items, Global Kindness helped nearly 350 families, the Israeli Leadership Council provided assistance for more than 100 families, and the IAJF distributed between $30,000 and $50,000 in food coupons, Javdan said.

More families requested Passover food this year than in previous years, Javdan, Landau and Cohen all said, and the agencies couldn’t meet all the demand. Despite news reports that the economy is improving and new jobs are being created each month, Cohen said more people are in need this year than ever before. “Not only for Passover, but for other holidays also.”

My family’s Karaite-style Passover

Never mind the gefilte fish and brisket, the mass-produced, cardboard-like matzah and the kosher-for-Passover wine. Instead, Passover seder at my parents’ Karaite Jewish home includes a mouth-watering menu of barbecued lamb chops, crisp homemade matzah, sweet raisin juice and chewy almond cookies that stick to the roof of my mouth.

The yellowing, paper haggadah we use relies on biblical Hebrew verses that recount the Israelite Exodus from Egypt chanted in exotic, Oriental melodies. Ironically, the thin booklet was brought from my parents’ native Cairo during the community’s own exodus from Gamal Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arabist regime, more than four decades ago. Because my sister and I were raised in a Reform temple in the far-flung desert town of Barstow, we eagerly chanted the Four Questions and searched tirelessly for the afikomen. It was only much later that we came to know that those rabbinic, or mainstream, Jewish traditions had been conspicuously absent from my parents’ Passover seder in Cairo.

Karaite Jews rely on the Hebrew Bible, the Tanakh, as the sole source of religious law, not accepting the Talmud and later rabbinic works as legally binding or divine. Karaites strive to interpret the Bible according to its “plain meaning” and place this duty on each person. Karaites traditionally remove their shoes before entering a prayer sanctuary and often fully prostrate themselves during prayer. Their siddur, or prayer book, consists mostly of biblical passages, including the Shema, but excludes those not biblically based, such as the Amidah.

Observant Karaites are permitted to mix poultry and dairy products. Many also believe it is OK to mix meat and dairy, contending the biblical prohibition refers only to boiling a young goat or sheep in its mother’s milk — not eating meat and milk together.


Amy Gazzar prepares Karaite Matzah. Photos by Mediha Fejzagic DiMartino

Today, my parents enjoy being active members of a mainstream Conservative congregation in South Orange County, where my father participates in Torah readings and sometimes acts as a gabbai on the bimah, or dais. Both say they feel comfortable with the Conservative congregation and consider some aspects of Karaism to be strict, such as the prohibition against menstruating women entering a synagogue and, among the very religious, cooking.

Despite my family’s integration, my parents have also managed to maintain some of their ancient Karaite customs. In addition to commemorating Passover the Karaite way, they gather occasionally at the home of a relative or friend for Sabbath prayers or a yahrzeit conducted while kneeling on clean, white sheets that serve as makeshift prayer rugs.

In America, there are an estimated 730 Karaite families, including a large community in San Francisco’s Bay Area and more than five dozen families in Southern California, according to the Karaite Jews of America. Israel has replaced Egypt as the modern center of Karaite Judaism and is home today to tens of thousands of Karaite Jews, many of whom have also adopted at least some rabbinical or mainstream Jewish customs.


Amy Gazzar prepares Karaite Matzah. Photos by Mediha Fejzagic DiMartino

Karaites trace their practices to the time of Moses, considering their Judaism to be the Judaism God commanded in the Torah.

But Karaism as a formal movement is widely believed to have crystallized in the late ninth century in the areas of Iraq and the land of Israel, with the merging of elements from various Jewish groups that mostly rejected the Talmud, according to Fred Astren, professor and chair of the Department of Jewish Studies at San Francisco State University and a visiting scholar at the University of Cambridge. “The majority of rabbinic commentators affirm that Karaites are Jews, and that they do not disagree on the fundamentals of Judaism or that the Torah was received by Moses on Mount Sinai, but they do differ in the way they observe the commandments. Where the differences in the commandments could be most pronounced [is] in the calendar and marriage,” Astren said.

Karaite holidays are fixed according to the new moon after the barley in Israel reaches a stage of ripeness, as was done in biblical times; as a result, they can fall on different days from the more commonly used Jewish calendar.

“If you are eating when other Jews are fasting, and fasting when other Jews are eating, that’s pretty strong stuff,” Astren said. Today, however, most Karaites in America (and an increasing number in Israel) follow the pre-calculated calendar used by mainstream Jews.


Amy Gazzar prepares Karaite Matzah. Photos by Mediha Fejzagic DiMartino

Sephardic rabbis have long accepted intermarriage with Karaites. Central Eastern European rabbis traditionally have not, since Karaites did not use a get, or divorce document, in the Middle Ages, though they tended not to get divorced, Astren said. Later, when they did use divorce documents, he added, they were not according to rabbinic halachah.

While living in Israel from 2005 to 2009, I learned that intermarriage between Karaites and rabbinic Jews is common there, as it is here in America. (However, I was told by an Israeli scholar that a Karaite who marries a rabbinic Jew under a mainstream Orthodox rabbi in Israel is required to accept the Oral Law, just as a mixed couple who marries under a Karaite rabbi is required to study and accept the Karaite way.)

Although my older sister and I don’t really practice Karaism, we certainly feel part of this warm and wonderful community that has maintained some of their ancient traditions, teachings and values. My sister married a man of Egyptian Karaite descent, and today their loquacious 2-year-old son chants the Shema in both Karaite and Ashkenazic tunes.


Amy Gazzar prepares Karaite Matzah. Photos by Mediha Fejzagic DiMartino

Karaite Judaism was once considered a serious rival to rabbinic Judaism, inspiring intellectual attacks from great rabbinic minds, such as Saadia Gaon and Maimonides. I find it remarkable that Karaism, particularly in Israel and in the San Francisco Bay Area, has endured in some form and is alive today. Yet, it’s strange and a bit sad to think that despite efforts to revitalize the movement both in Israel and America, many of the Karaite ways are being lost with my generation.

Before my mother left Egypt in 1967, Passover cleaning in their modest Cairo apartment started up to a month in advance and involved rigorously scrubbing their walls, floors and doors with soap and water. If someone mistakenly entered an already koshered room with forbidden food, they would — to my mother’s dismay — have to scrub down the entire room again.

Her predominantly Jewish school, known as the Sybil, which was badly damaged after it was set on fire in the 1950s, would close its doors during the entire week of Passover, she said.

More cluck for your passover buck

I have always enjoyed researching and developing new dishes to serve during Passover, but have you ever heard of Mock Gefilte Fish? Because everyone loves chicken, I am constantly looking for new and different chicken dishes to prepare, and I find that each recipe has a story all its own.

Mock Gefilte Fish, made with ground chicken, really tastes like gefilte fish. An ancient and popular dish substituting ground chicken or turkey for the fish, it was served during Passover among the Vishnitz Chasidic Jews, and called falsher or “false fish.” The Chasidim, who were very strict, fearing that fish may have contained some undigested bread, abstained from eating it during Passover.

We like the idea of surprising our guests by serving this just-like-the-real-thing “gefilte chicken” — chilled on a bed of lettuce, with horseradish, at the seder. And it solves the problem for those who cannot or prefer not to eat fish.

 

I can’t imagine a Passover dinner without chicken soup with matzah balls, but the question I am often asked is “How can I make my chicken soup taste like chicken?” My answer is always the same: “The more chicken you put in your soup, the more flavor it will have.” I always make my mother’s matzah ball recipe, which produces the lightest, best matzah balls I have ever tasted.

The secret for flavorful soup is to use whole chickens that have been tied (or trussed) with kitchen string to keep them intact. Add water, lots of vegetables, salt and pepper, bring to a boil, and simmer for 1 hour or until the chicken flavor is intense. When cool, carefully remove the chickens from the soup to be used for other dishes on the seder menu.

The leftover chicken soup that you served for Passover seders can be pureed with the vegetables in it and served during the remaining days of Passover. In addition, you can serve it with a Parsley Pesto Sauce, either drizzled on or mixed in.

We often cut the soup chicken into quarters or pieces and bake them in a rich tomato-mushroom sauce until the chickens have absorbed the flavor of the sauce. Then, just before serving, we transfer them to a large platter to serve as part of our seder dinner. Or, for another meal, spoon the tomato-mushroom sauce onto individual heated serving plates, place the chicken on the plates and top with mushrooms and vegetables.

Another use for leftover chicken is Chicken-Fennel Salad, served on a bed of lettuce for lunch, or as a main course. Bake popular “sliders” using my recipe for Passover Rolls. They can be filled with sliced chicken or chicken salad, and are great for the children to take for lunch.


MOCK GEFILTE FISH

Mock Gefilte Fish. Photos by Dan Kacvinski

2 1/2 quarts chicken broth
2 onions, sliced
5 stalks celery, sliced
5 carrots, peeled and thinly sliced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 pounds ground chicken or turkey
2 eggs
1/2 cup matzah meal or potato starch
Lettuce leaves
Red horseradish

In a large pot, combine the chicken broth, 1 onion, 3 stalks celery and 3 carrots. Bring to a boil over high heat, lower the heat, and simmer for 10 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

In a food grinder or wooden bowl, combine the chicken with the remaining onion, celery and carrots. Grind or chop the mixture until well blended. Transfer to a glass bowl. Add the eggs, matzah meal and 1/2 cup chicken broth from the pot. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Blend well. The mixture should be soft and light to the touch.

Wet your hands with cold water and shape the mixture into 2-inch ovals. Place the balls in the chicken broth in the pot. Bring to a boil, cover partially, and simmer for 30 minutes or until done. Transfer to a large glass bowl with the broth. Cool, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate. Serve on a bed of lettuce with horseradish.

Makes 16 to 18 portions.


JUDY’S PASSOVER CHICKEN SOUP WITH THE FLUFFIEST MATZAH BALLS

2 (3-pound) chickens, trussed
2 pounds chicken necks and gizzards, tied in cheesecloth
4 large onions, diced
1 medium leek, sliced into 1-inch pieces
2 to 3 cups thinly sliced carrots (16 small carrots, cut into 1-inch pieces)
2 to 3 cups thinly sliced celery with tops (5 stalks celery with tops, cut into 1-inch pieces)
3 medium parsnips, thinly sliced
Water
12 sprigs fresh parsley
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

In a large, heavy Dutch oven or pot, place trussed chicken, necks and gizzards, onions, leek, carrots, celery, parsnips and enough water to cover. Over high heat, bring to a boil. Using a large spoon, skim off and discard the scum that rises to the top. Cover, leave the lid ajar, reduce heat to low, and simmer for 1 hour. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Uncover and simmer 30 minutes longer, until chickens are tender.

Using two large slotted spoons, carefully remove the chickens from the soup and transfer to a large platter. Let soup cool to room temperature, then chill. Skim off fat that hardens on the surface and discard.

Makes 12 servings.


THE FLUFFIEST MATZAH BALLS

3 eggs, separated
About 1/2 cup water or chicken stock
1 to 1 1/2 cups matzah meal
1/8 teaspoon salt
Pinch freshly ground black pepper

Place egg yolks in a measuring cup and add enough water or chicken stock to make 1 cup. Beat with a fork until well blended. Set aside.

In a large bowl, using an electric mixer, beat egg whites until they form stiff peaks; do not overbeat. In a small bowl, combine matzah meal with salt and pepper. With a rubber spatula, gently fold the yolk mixture alternately with the matzah mixture into beaten egg whites. Use only enough matzah meal to make a light, soft dough. Season with salt and pepper. Cover and let firm up for 5 minutes. Form into balls.

Bring soup to a slow boil. Using a large spoon, gently drop in matzah balls. Cover, reduce heat to low, and simmer for about 10 minutes (do not uncover during this cooking time).

Makes 8 to 10 matzah balls.


PARSLEY PESTO SAUCE

1 cup finely packed fresh parsley leaves, without stems
1/2 cup tightly packed fresh basil leaves
2 tablespoons pine nuts or walnut pieces
2 garlic cloves, peeled
1/2 cup olive oil
Pinch sugar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Put the parsley, basil, pine nuts and garlic in a processor or blender. Pulse until finely chopped. With the machine running, slowly pour in the olive oil in a thin stream. Add sugar, salt and pepper.  Pour into a glass bowl, cover and refrigerate.

Makes about 2 cups.


ROASTED CHICKEN IN TOMATO-MUSHROOM SAUCE

1/2 cup olive oil
2 onions, thinly sliced
4 garlic cloves, minced
2 carrots, peeled and thinly sliced
2 stalks celery, thinly sliced
1 can (15 ounces) whole peeled tomatoes, with juice
12 medium mushrooms, quartered
1 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh parsley
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Chickens from soup, cut into pieces
Preheat oven to 375 F.

In a large roasting pot, heat olive oil and add the onions, minced garlic, carrots and celery; sauté until soft. Add tomatoes and mushrooms, mix well, bring to a boil over medium heat, and cook for about 5 minutes. Add the wine and simmer for 5 to 10 minutes, adding additional wine or liquid if needed.

Transfer the chicken to the roasting pot and baste with the onion-tomato mixture to coat the chicken. Add the parsley, rosemary and salt and pepper. Bake, covered, 30 to 40 minutes, basting occasionally, until the chickens are heated through.

Makes 10 to 12 servings.


CHICKEN-FENNEL SALAD

Chicken-Fennel Salad

4 cups diced poached chicken
1 cup diced fennel
4 green onions, trimmed and thinly sliced
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
1 to 2 cups mayonnaise
2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Romaine or iceberg lettuce, for garnish

In a large mixing bowl, toss together the chicken, fennel, green onions and parsley. Set aside.

In a small bowl, whisk together the mayonnaise, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Add to the chicken mixture and mix gently until combined. Refrigerate until ready to serve. Serve on a bed of lettuce or tucked into a Passover Roll, resembling a slider.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.


PASSOVER ROLLS FOR SLIDERS

Chicken sliders with Passover Rolls

1 cup water
2 cups safflower or vegetable oil
2 cups matzah meal
1 teaspoon salt
4 eggs
Preheat oven to 375 F.

In a heavy saucepan, bring the water and oil to a rolling boil.

In large bowl of an electric mixer, combine the matzah meal and salt. Pour the boiling water mixture into the matzah mixture and blend well. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition, until completely blended. Let mixture rest for 10 minutes, covered.

With well-oiled hands, tear off pieces of dough and shape into rolls. Place 2 inches apart on a well-oiled foil- or Silpat-lined baking sheet. Bake for 40 to 50 minutes or until golden brown. Transfer to cooling racks.

Makes about 12 large or 24 small rolls.


 

Judy Zeidler is the author of “The Gourmet Jewish Cook” (Morrow, 1988) and “The International Deli Cookbook” (Chronicle, 1994). She teaches cooking classes through American Jewish University’s Whizin Center for Continuing Education. Her soon-to-be-published cookbook, “Italy Cooks,” is based on 35 years of travel to Italy. Her Web site is judyzeidler.com.

For more Passover recipes visit jewishjournal.com/passover_food.

VIDEO: Heeb Olympics 2008 — Gefilte Fish Wrestling



Four modern-day gladiators do battle for the gold (a lifetime supply of Gold’s mustard) in the Heeb Olympics. For more information, check out www.heebmagazine.com.

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
Stock:
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

Fish:
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.

PASSOVER: Prague’s Matzah Metamorphosis

An anonymous source breathes heavily on the other end of the receiver, softly intoning that the only way to get the goods is from an inside contact.

Through friends, I discretely discover my intermediary, who leads me through several dark corridors for an encounter with an angry man.

His gruffness is unmistakable: He is the Czech version of the infamous “soup Nazi” from “Seinfeld,” a man so demanding of his customers that he would ban them for life if they showed any signs of sauciness. I am trembling, fearing that if I cross him, all is lost.

The problem is, I don’t want the whole box; I don’t need that much. This angers my ersatz dealer.

“Well then what do you want?” he asks, irritated.

I make a pathetic gesture indicating that I will take half. He sniffs disapprovingly, but cajoled by a front woman, he surrenders.

For the final score, I have to come back in a few hours, go deep into a Prague basement, find a waiter whom I only know by first name, and pay an exorbitant amount for the rest of my booty.

It’s all very hush-hush, and, of course, Kafkaesque. And it’s not cocaine or heroine I am trying to obtain, although I feel as if embroiled in the drug deal of the century.

It’s matzah I’m after, plus gefilte fish, and for years this is the kind of ordeal one had to go through if one was in Prague for Passover and was not a member of the Prague Jewish community.

And this was the best of times, meaning the matzah was there and I was able to buy it.

The great matzah hunts of years past reflected the growing pains of a tiny Jewish community in a post-communist country, where the availability of kosher foods was severely limited and foreigners were long kept at arm’s length.

This year, the rumor is, everything has changed.

There is a new community board, a new rabbinical presence and the matzah, like the freedom it represents, will now reportedly be available to all.

But before I put that to the test, some reflections on past panic-stricken searches for unleavened bread. In my first Passover in Prague, 2002, I called a rabbi who works outside of the official community, Ron Hoffberg, formerly of New Jersey, now the representative of Conservative Jewry in the Czech Republic.

He laughed at my naiveté: “Matzah? Get real. They don’t sell it here at the stores and the community has it, but it’s only for the community.”

I had no idea what that meant. I am a Jew, why can’t I buy matzah?

A Czech co-worker confirmed Hoffberg’s warning. I was doomed to a matzah-less Passover, along with the other foreign Jews in Prague.

But that was a different time, when the community of some 1,500 was so inwardly focused that tourists’ knocks on the door of its headquarters were often met with a harsh rebuffs.

“Go away, this is not the museum,” was the retort I once got from the guard of the beautiful Baroque building in the heart of Prague’s Old Town. I thought he would hit me with a flyswatter.

The second year, in preparation for more matzah derring-do, my colleague contacted a sympathetic rabbi.

Still unable to show what locals said was an “American face” for fear of revealing my outsider status, my Czech co-worker kindly agreed to fetch the matzah.

However, she was stopped by what she described as “some old crones” at the matzah pickup point who were not sure she qualified.

She dropped the rabbi’s name, and they reluctantly handed it over.

Fast forward to 2006: “Now it’s all over and everyone can get matzah, as well as lots of other kosher stuff. We have a fully stocked store,” says the cheerful Rabbi Menachem Kalcheim, an Israeli assistant to the country’s chief rabbi, Karel Sidon. “And if we run out of matzah, well, we’ll just run to Vienna to get more. No problem.”

He even has an English-speaking assistant at the rabbinate to take calls from matzah-hunting tourists.

Kalcheim explains that for years, the community was afraid to sell to outsiders because as a nonprofit organization it would take a loss if it overbought.

As for stores, a spokeswoman for Tesco, the leading purveyor of foreign imports in Prague, explained that although it had stocked matzah about six years ago, it didn’t sell very well, so the store stopped buying it.

When my day of reckoning — and shopping — arrives, the security guards at Kalcheim’s store are ready for all matzah seekers, shyly smiling and pointing them to the refurbished community store.

It’s still only a corner with some closets, but now there’s a frozen section with enough chicken and beef to keep a kosher refrigerator well stocked.

The friendly attendant also can offer matzah packages for $2 each, as well as gefilte fish.

Kalcheim says that the community will subsidize the cost for families, as the country’s average monthly salary is $700.

While my matzah purchase was pleasantly painless, my other long-dreamt of treasure, macaroons, were sold out. Kalcheim insists I take his.

Instead, I begin calling the Chabad rabbi.

Will he take pity on me? Probably. Because as an American, he is one of few people in the Czech Republic who even knows what a macaroon is.

 

Recreate, Update Bubbe’s Specialties

 

The first time Tina Wasserman prepared gefilte fish for Passover, it smelled up her whole house. The fish was past its prime, but it wasn’t spoiled, so “it didn’t make my family sick,” she said. But still, the experience was so horrifying that she didn’t attempt to prepare gefilte fish again for many years. Since then, Wasserman, who is Reform Judaism Magazine’s food columnist, has learned a thing or two about gefilte fish.

Wasserman, who earned a master’s degree in food and fashion merchandising from New York University, has been a cooking teacher for 33 years. She taught first in her native New York, and for the past 25 years she’s taught in Dallas.

When she teaches, she said, she tries to think of everything that can go wrong and offers her students tips on avoiding those pitfalls, along with faster alternative preparation methods and substitute ingredients. She presents much of this wisdom on her Web site, Cookingandmore.com.

Wasserman tries to rekindle peoples’ traditions without assaulting their memories. “From the time I was 12, I knew I wanted to teach cooking,” said Wasserman, who got her start teaching at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan when she was in her mid-20s. Back then, someone suggested that she start Passover workshops.

“Why on earth in New York do you need classes on Passover cooking?” Wasserman remembers thinking. “But much to my surprise, students came.”

And they’re still coming. Until then she had not realized how many people have lost their family recipes for such popular holiday foods as matzah balls and tzimmes. She seeks to rescue recipes from the dustbin of history and is particularly interested in recipes from places with small or dwindling Jewish populations. “Throughout the centuries, Jews have moved across the globe, spreading their food habits with them,” said Wasserman, who sees it as her job to help keep those cultures alive.

Wasserman is a bit like the bubbe you wished you had, or the one who is no longer here to help you cook holiday foods. When she first moved to Dallas, she taught cooking at a Jewish community center there.

“People figured if I’m from New York, I must know something,” she said. But Wasserman, who was raised in a Conservative household, is a second-generation American. Besides her impressive credentials, which include consulting for the largest fish market in Dallas, creating delicacies for the biggest kosher caterer in Philadelphia and acting as Chef Field for the Marshall Field department store chain, the thing Wasserman has going for her in the Jewish cooking world is her knowledge of kashrut. When she was in college, if friends had a question about kosher food, she reports, they said, “Go ask Tina. She knows everything.”

When she lived in Manhattan, Wasserman conducted Passover cooking workshops in her apartment. One day, in the middle of a cooking class, Wasserman saw her mother, who then had cancer, entering her apartment. Wasserman was overcome with emotion as she thought, “You’ve given me Passover traditions — and now I’m passing them on to people who have none of their own.”

More recently, Wasserman, while resurfacing her kitchen cabinets, had to remove all their contents. As her 17-year-old daughter stood in the kitchen, Wasserman clutched a plain box.

“Do you see this box?” she asked her daughter. “If anything happens to me, grab it. It contains all of our family’s original recipes.”

Wasserman’s kitchen renovation is now finished. Though her recipe box is back safely in its place, as Passover approaches she refers to it often. She expects to have about 40 people at the first seder and is preparing every dish she’ll serve from scratch.

“With all this going on, Passover at my house is a real trip,” she said. “But that’s my joy.”

Homemade Gefilte Fish — The Easy Way

Poaching Liquid

4 pounds whole fish (any combination of carp, whitefish, pike, snapper or sea trout)
2 carrots, cut into 1-inch lengths on a diagonal
2 stalks celery, cut into 2-inch lengths
1 pound yellow onions, thinly sliced
1 Bouquet Garni (1 bay leaf, plus thyme, marjoram and summer savory or parsley to taste) wrapped in cheese cloth
2-3 quarts water

Fish

2 medium yellow onions
1 carrot
1/4 cup very loosely packed
fresh parsley
2 eggs
1/3 cup water
1/2 cup matzah meal
Salt and pepper to taste
Garlic, ginger, sugar, dill or whatever your bubbe used to use

Fillet the fish or, better still, have the store do it for you. If you want to make a gelled broth, take home the head and bones.

Reserve the filets.

Rinse out the head of the fish. Make sure any bloody masses are removed. Soak all of the bones and the head in cold salted water to cover for 15 minutes or longer. Drain and discard the water.

Place the bones and head on the bottom of a large Dutch oven and cover with carrots, celery and thinly sliced onion (from Poaching Liquid list). Add the Bouquet Garni and the 2-3 quarts of water to cover. Simmer for 60-90 minutes. Carefully strain the liquid. Reserve carrots and set aside. Discard the head and bones. Cool and divide the broth in half.

To make the fish, grind reserved filets twice in a grinder fitted with a fine blade or process in a food processor, until mixture develops a fairly smooth texture. Remove fish to a large bowl.

Grind or process (from Fish ingredient list) the onions, carrot and parsley. Add to fish.

Add eggs, water, matzah meal, salt, pepper and additional flavorings, if desired. Mix well with a fork until light and fluffy.

Note: to check for seasoning, cook 1 teaspoon of fish mixture in salted water for 10 minutes. Taste and then adjust seasonings, if necessary. Never taste fresh water fish raw!

Shape the fish mixture in your hands to form ovals and gently place in a frying pan to which half the prepared fish stock, about1 inch deep, has been added. Poach covered for 20-30 minutes (depending on size) over low heat or until center of a fish oval appears white. Drain on a cloth towel, then cool in reserved fish broth. Serve with horseradish and garnish with reserved carrots.

Makes 8-12 patties.

Syrian Spiced Meat With Eggplant and Prunes

“The hardest thing about making this sensational dish is finding a pot large enough and heavy enough to hold all of the ingredients and cook them slowly over a low flame,” Wasserman said. “Make this dish in advance and then reheat before serving. If the casserole is nice enough, you can serve the recipe right from the dish it’s cooked in. But since most attractive casseroles don’t hold five quarts, you can transfer some of the layers, as best as you can, from the cooking pot into a large serving dish.”

2 pounds ground chuck meat
2 teaspoon ground allspice
2 teaspoon ground cinnamon1 teaspoon kosher salt
Pepper to taste
3 tablespoon vegetable oil
6 medium onions, halved lengthwise and then cut into fourths
4 large red potatoes, cut into eighths
12 ounces pitted prunes
1 large eggplant, quartered lengthwise and cut into 1-inch slices
2 6-ounce cans of regular (not flavored) tomato paste
1/4 cup light brown sugar
3/4 cup fresh lemon juice

In a large 2-quart bowl, combine the ground meat with the allspice, cinnamon, salt and pepper. Distribute spices evenly by mixing first with a fork and then with your hands.

Place the oil in the bottom of a 6-quart Dutch oven or metal casserole.

Place half of the onion slices in the bottom of the pot. Cover with half of the meat, making sure that you press the meat evenly and firmly into the onions.

Scatter half of the potatoes, prunes and eggplant over the meat.

Repeat with the remaining onions, seasoned meat, potatoes, prunes and eggplant.

In a 3-quart bowl, combine the tomato paste with the remaining ingredients, along with salt and pepper to taste, into a smooth sauce. Pour the sauce over the meat and vegetables. Gently swirl the pan to allow the sauce to permeate the dish evenly.

Cover the pot and bring to a boil over medium high heat. Keeping the meat at a medium simmer, cook the mixture for two hours, or until the potatoes are tender and dish is thickened.

Ashkenzi law prohibits eating rice during Passover, but if you’re Sephardi, serve this dish with rice flavored with some pine nuts and sautéed onions.

As part of a Passover meal with additional entrees, makes 36 servings, but only 10-12 servings as the single entree of a normal meal.

Deluxe Matzah Farfel Kugel

3/4 cup, plus 1 tablespoon cooking oil or chicken fat, plus more if needed
3/4 cup diced onion
3/4 cup diced celery
3/4 cup diced fresh mushrooms
1 box matzah farfel
1 1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon paprika
2 eggs, well beaten
2 1/4 cups chicken broth, warm

In 3/4 cup oil or chicken fat, sauté the onion until golden brown. Add the celery and mushrooms. Fry some more until celery is translucent. Add a little more shortening, if vegetables are sticking to the pan.

Place vegetable mixture in a large bowl and add the farfel. Toss thoroughly so that all the farfel is coated with vegetables and fat.

Combine seasonings, eggs and warm broth. Pour over farfel mixture. The mixture should be loose. If needed, add more broth.

Grease a 9-by-13 roasting pan with 1 tablespoon of shortening, preferably chicken fat. Pour in farfel mixture and bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour, or until golden brown.

Variation: For a sweeter kugel, use 3/4 cup onion, 1 1/2 cups apple chunks and orange juice in place of all or part of the broth. Leave out celery and mushrooms. Yield: 16-24 squares, depending on size.

 

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.

Gramma Gene’s Gefilte Fish

Passover is a special holiday for me and brings back many wonderful food memories. One of my favorites occurred many years ago, when I was invited to a Passover seder at the home of my husband-to-be. I still remember that evening, and especially the taste of the gefilte fish my future mother-in-law had made.

The next year, a few days before Passover, I found myself walking with her on Fairfax Avenue. We were on our way to the fish market to purchase the ingredients necessary to make her famous gefilte fish. We waited in line for about 45 minutes — it was crowded and seemed like everyone in the neighborhood was there to buy fish.

The women were gossiping and discussing their family recipes and the way they make gefilte fish. When it was finally our turn, Gramma Gene picked out four or five different kinds of whole fish: one she used for its fatty quality, one gave it more flavor, one was for color and another for texture. Everything was fresh except the turbo, which at that time was only available frozen. She instructed the fish store owner to remove the skin, head, and bones of all the fish and wrap them separately.

We returned to Gramma Gene’s house to begin the process of making gefilte fish.

First a large white pot was filled with water, vegetables, the fishskin, heads and bones and brought to a boil. It then was simmered for about one hour. Then we strained the liquid and added onion skins, which give the fish a golden color. In the meantime, using a hand grinder, we ground the eight to 10 pounds of fish fillets along with onions, carrots and celery, and then added eggs and matzah meal.

The ground mixture was then transferred to a wooden bowl and the chopping began, adding water, salt and pepper in small amounts as we worked. I loved watching her chopping technique, which continued until the mixture reached a magical consistency. "Is it ready to shape into balls?" I asked. "Not yet," she answered, "First we must taste it for the proper seasoning." Finally she approved. We moistened our hands with cold water so the ground fish would not stick to them, shaped the mixture into balls and placed the fish into the simmering broth. The pot was covered with aluminum foil, and in less than one hour, we had made the most delicious gefilte fish I had ever tasted.

Over the years, as we cooked together, I learned to take notes. I recorded the different kinds of fish we bought — it changed from year to year — the measurements for the matzah meal, the amount of water and eggs used and how long to simmer the fish broth. I was almost prepared several years later, when she and I made the gefilte fish in my home for the first time.

I especially remember that Passover, because Gramma Gene had broken her arm and was unable to cook. She sat on a high-stool overseeing everything and gave me instructions, while my husband, Marvin, helped. I thought it was a success, but unfortunately we oversalted the fish and had to add potatoes to the pot to help take away some of the salty taste. At the seder that night, no one knew of my near-disaster. They all complimented me on how delicious the fish was — and my mother-in-law never revealed our secret.

She is no longer alive, but when I make gefilte fish, she is always in my thoughts. It is almost as though she is sitting there beside me encouraging me to continue the tradition she taught me. With all the modern kitchen conveniences available now, she would be surprised at how much easier it is to make. I now use the grinder attachment to my electric mixer, but I still chop the fish mixture in her wooden bowl, using the same method she did when adding the water, salt and pepper.

I love teaching Passover cooking classes and find it very rewarding, especially as I relate my food experiences to the students and show them how to make Gramma Gene’s gefilte fish. At the end of the class, they always comment that they are anxious to go home so they can make it themselves and begin their own Passover family tradition.

Gramma Gene’s Gefilte Fish

Fish Broth

3 yellow onions, coarsely diced (reserve skins)

2 carrots, peeled and thinly sliced

1 cup sliced celery tops

2 pounds fish bones, heads and skin from filleted white fish

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Cold water

In a large pot, place the onions, carrots, celery tops, fish bones, heads and skin, and salt and pepper. Add water to cover and bring to a boil. Simmer for one hour, adding additional water if needed. When the broth is very flavorful, strain out the fish bones and vegetables and discard. Keep the broth warm. Prepare the fish broth and keep warm.

Gefilte Fish

7 pounds white fish and pike, filleted (bones, heads and skin reserved)*

2 yellow onions, peeled and thinly sliced

4 carrots, peeled and thinly sliced

4 celery stalks, sliced

3 eggs

1/2 cup matzah meal

1 cup cold water

Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Fish roe (optional)

Garnish with lettuce, sliced cucumber, sliced beets and horseradish sauce

*If possible, buy whole white fish. Have it boned and wrap the bones, heads and skin separately. If you’re lucky, you may find roe inside the fish, so you can poach it with the fish balls.

In a food grinder, grind the fish with the onions, carrots and celery stalks. Put through the grinder again. Place the ground mixture in a large mixing bowl and blend with the eggs and matzah meal.

Transfer the mixture to a large wooden chopping bowl and, using a hand chopper, chop the fish mixture, adding the water gradually with 1 tablespoon kosher salt and 2 teaspoons pepper as you chop. (Mixture should be soft and light to the touch.) Wet your hands with cold water and shape the fish mixture into oval balls.

Bring the broth to a boil over high heat, add reserved onion skins and place the fish balls in the broth. Cover, reduce the heat to medium high, and cook for one hour, or until fish is tender; do not overcook.

Cool, transfer to a shallow glass bowl, cover with plastic wrap and foil, and refrigerate until ready to serve. Fish can stored for up to three days and can be frozen.

To serve, arrange a lettuce leaf on each plate; top with fish and garnish with cucumber and beets. Serve with horseradish sauce. Makes about 50 fish balls.