Like many American Jews, I grew up eating Manischewitz gefilte fish from a jar. The fish patties could often be found in our fridge, even when Jewish holidays weren’t happening. Accompanied by a dollop of prepared horseradish, they were a welcome snack on days when I got home from school and found myself hungry before dinner.
Jarred gefilte fish has a certain sway on my psyche, which is perhaps why I never imagined making gefilte fish from scratch until last spring, when I hosted my first Passover dinner and decided that everything would be homemade. As it turned out, the process was surprisingly easy—and the result was way better than the jarred stuff.
Cooking dinner shouldn't be complicated
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Don’t just take my word for it. “I think that jarred gefilte fish holds an important nostalgic and symbolic role on the holiday table for many Ashkenazi Jews,” says Leah Koenig, the author of six cookbooks, including The Jewish Cookbook, published this month by Phaidon. “But when it comes to flavor and texture, making your own is fresher, brighter and ultimately really satisfying.”
Now that Rosh Hashanah is upon us, I am planning to make gefilte fish again for the second time, and I want to encourage others to go for it too. Making gefilte fish is strangely satisfying; it helps demystify a dish that operates for many Jews more as a symbol of Jewish cuisine than a dish they actually want to eat.
Here’s what you need to know. When you get down to it, it’s just a boiled fish ball. There are a few different types of fish you can use, and you want a variety. Traditionally, it’s pike and carp, a vestige of the old world. But those aren’t so easy to find—they weren’t at Whole Foods, for instance, when I last made gefilte fish. According to Koenig, other “firm white fish fillets” like halibut, snapper and hake will also do the trick. I used cod and trout. You can ask your fishmonger to grind the fish or you can do that yourself using a food processor. (Just make sure the fish isn’t too finely ground—you want some texture.)
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I followed a recipe by Joan Nathan—who suggests using salmon, trout or striped bass along with pike or carp—but there are many recipes out there and it is an easy dish to improvise on.
Before you make your fish mixture, you should get a stock going, boiling water in a pot with ingredients including chopped celery, onions and carrots. (Some recipes call for fish bones and heads for the stock, but that isn’t necessary—the dish is fishy enough.) Those are also the vegetables you’ll grind into the fish mixture, along with some fresh herbs like parsley or dill, which give the patties a nice flecked appearance. The mixture gains a firmer consistency when you’ve spooned it into a bowl and stirred in eggs, matzo meal and some oil. (Add salt and pepper to taste, of course.)
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When the mixture is ready, form it into balls with your hands—this part can get messy, but stay strong—put them into the pot and poach them for about 20 minutes. Then remove them. That’s it.
Afterward, you can spoon out the sliced carrots and use them as a garnish. If you’d like, you can reduce the stock and refrigerate it to create a jelly that can go along with the dish. Gefilte fish lasts a few days, so you can also make it in advance.
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It seems to me that while many Jews are comfortable cooking, say, brisket for Jewish holidays, they aren’t willing to give homemade gefilte fish a chance. But in my experience, brisket is actually much more difficult and time-consuming to make and get right than gefilte fish. I hope I’ve convinced you to give homemade gefilte fish a shot. I think you'll find that it is worth the effort. And if anything, your guests will certainly be impressed.
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