The Rite of Passover
Gefillte fish is one of those foods you either love or hate. You don’t acquire a taste for it. You just know the first time you try it.
I happen to love it. Probably because it is so like fiskeballer that come from my Norwegian heritage. At any rate, my love for this peculiar Passover food was one of the first things to make my mother-in-law give me a chance, despite the fact that it was not a food of my childhood. When I learned to make it, we were solid. To this day she introduces me to her friends as the daughter-in-law who can make “the fish”.
Today was the day to make this year’s fish. We’ve come a long way since my first batch which required an old-fashioned meat grinder. I carefully ground three kinds of fish: white fish, pike, and carp. Today I actually get the same three kinds of fish from a Korean fish market near Chevy Chase Circle, already ground, with the bones and heads in a separate bag. (If you have never eaten gefillte fish, you are probably already starting to roll your eyes.)
You slowly simmer a fish stock using the bones and heads and onions and carrots while you prepare the fish mixture. This is not one of the more pleasant kitchen smells, so it is better to make it the day before your Passover seder so the house can air out a bit.
The ground fish is combined with pureed onions, carrots, and parsnips, eggs, salt, pepper, and a little sugar. I actually use my hands to mix it all together, being literally up to my elbows in fish. Then you carefully form patties which you drop into the boiling stock to cook for a while.
This is one of those food that defies measurement or timing. You experiment with seasoning until it just seems right. You cook it until it looks done. So much for precision.
While it’s cooking, you make red horseradish that will knock your socks off. It’s simply horseradish root, a large beet, white vinegar, and sugar all blended together. You don’t dare stand over the food processor when you open the lid because the fumes are overpowering.
When the fish is done it is removed to a storage container, a carrot slice placed on the top of each patty, and some of the stock added to keep it from getting too dry. One of the great bi-products of gefillte fish is the richest fish stock you will ever find. It makes a great bouillabaise. But that is not for this holiday.
The cook’s reward is a plate of fish and horseradish, served with none other than the first matzah of the season. This is the rite that announces the coming of Passover.