Sunday, April 01, 2007

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.


Blogger Kate said...

My first experience with gefilte fish was at a seder where the cook did not make her own but purchased jars from the deli. It was vile. Years later we went to a seder at my friend Sharon's home. She made her own gefilte fish and she insisted I try it. It was sublime. I have now learned the secret: if it is home made I am going to love it; if not, I am not going to eat it.


7:28 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Kate -- I quite agree. Once you eat homemade gefillte fish, you can never eat the jarred stuff again. Unfortunately making "fish" is a lost art on most Jews today I would say.

9:13 PM  
Blogger Kristin said...

You really are quite the culinary genius, I think. You make this look good and despite my own Norwegian heritage, I'm not a huge fan of gefilte fish. You almost make me want some.

10:16 PM  
Blogger Mother of Invention said...

I'm not a fan of anything "fishy" but you amaze me with your talent in the kitchen and how beautifully present food! Hope Renny, (from Oslo) sees this post.

8:04 AM  
Blogger Reya Mellicker said...

The whole process is so scary looking, but the result is beautiful and delicious. Cool post! Happy Passover!!

8:24 AM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Kristin, MOI -- Anyone who even remotely likes fish would like this because it really doesn't have a strong fishy taste.

Reya -- The only scary thing for me is getting the seasoning right. I always hold my breath as my "best critic" David takes the first bite. He knows if it measures up to Mama's fish. (At this point, he would never tell me if it didn't!)

8:40 AM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Ryea -- P.S. The leftover (now frozen) fish stock is exactly what we need for making paella!

8:43 AM  
Blogger steve said...

i truly admire your aggressive approach to your Culinary endeaveors. i have never had Gefillte, but i think we used to have some in a glass jar on a shelf, collecting dust at the Hyatt.
I have made Matzo Balls and I always liked doing that...its a happy thing to do...but i always wondered why we had to make them so big....they were like Tennis Balls and it just semmed like golf ball size would be better. Can you explain this?

2:00 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

I have never tried homemade gefilte fish - I know only the jarred variety ... which I enjoy.

6:31 PM  
Blogger Old Lady said...

I found out about the Norweigan Christmas fish treat this year on the news. My grandmother used to make a dish called Fish Rice, but one has to be a fish lover to like it!

7:49 AM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Steve -- I kept your suggestion in mind as I formed those little matzo balls. But those suckers still looked like tennis balls by the time they were done. I think it is inevitable.

Richard -- If you like the jarred stuff, you would love the homemade gefilte fish.

OL -- My gefilte fish doesn't smell nearly as vile as lutefisk (the Norwegian Christmas fish)!

11:57 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

I don't know if I would like the real stuff.

Sometimes we get shocked or disappointed by the change in texture, taste or aroma.

I remember my first experience of real Turkish delight was nothing like the Big Turk experience I was used to.

12:15 PM  

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