I grew up in a home where homemade gefilte fish was de rigueur for major Jewish holidays and many a Shabbat: whitefish, pike, carp, grated onion and the fish bones and head to flavor the broth in which the fish balls were cooked. It was a recipe that was passed down from my Polish, Warsaw-based grandmother to my mother and then to me.
The recipe wasn’t hard to make. Make a broth of the bones, onion, carrot and celery, infused with kosher salt, a palm’s worth of sugar and lots and lots of black pepper. Boil it up until flavorful and then cook the fish in the roiling broth. Give it an hour or two and voila! Gefilte fish — round, ground fish balls — were yours for the taking, white and light, fluffy and sweetly seasoned, to be coupled with hot red chrain, the beet horseradish condiment that served as a counterpoint to the mildly flavored Eastern European delicacy.
Sounds easy, right? Well, it was. Probably as difficult as making meatballs in a bath of tomato sauce. What wasn’t easy was the smell it left in your home, the horrible, heavy scent that made your home NOT smell like home-sweet-home. It was a smell that, when you walked in the front door, forced you to say: “Open the windows!”
As Rosh Hashanah nears, and thoughts grow of the round fish balls that signify a full and plentiful year, I went in search of a 21st-century gefilte fish, a classic with a lightly scented twist. I wanted something equally as simple as the old school variety with a lighter, more pleasing flavor and perfume.
I found it in this updated American-style gefilte fish, made with sweet, white halibut and salmon – and no fish bones! It’s traditional but modern, a nod to the past and an embrace of how we eat and cook today.
The following recipe is printed with permission from The Community Table and Stories from The Jewish Community Center in Manhattan & Beyond by Katja Goldman, Judy Bernstein Bunzl and Lisa Rotmil.
For the court bouillon (cooking broth):
- 4 quarts water
- ½ bunch fresh thyme
- ½ bunch fresh flat leaf parsley
- ¼ tsp whole black peppercorns
- ¼ tsp whole fennel seeds
- 2 ½ cups dry white wine
- 1 medium onion, thinly sliced
- 1 medium carrot, peeled and sliced into ¼-inch rounds
- ½ lemon, cut into ¼-inch slices
- 2 bay leaves
- 1 Tbsp coarse salt
For the fish:
- 1½ pounds skinless filleted halibut
- 1½ pounds skinless filleted salmon
- 2 medium onions, grated (about 1 cup)
- 2 medium carrots, peeled and finely grated (about ½ cup)
- Finely grated zest of 1 organic lemon
- 1 Tbsp minced celery or minced fennel fronds
- 3 extra-large eggs
- 6 Tbsp matzah meal
- 6 Tbsp water
- 1 to 3 tablespoons sugar
- 1½ Tbsp kosher salt
- 1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- For the court bouillon (cooking broth), fill a stockpot with the water. Place the thyme, parsley, peppercorns and fennel seeds in a small piece of cheesecloth, knot to enclose, and add to the stockpot. Add the wine, onion, carrot, lemon, bay leaves and salt.
- Cover the pot and bring to a simmer over medium-low heat. Remove the lid, and simmer gently for 30 minutes. Remove and discard the cheesecloth package.
- For the fish, cut the fillets into 1-inch pieces. Working in batches, pulse the fish in a food processor until roughly ground.
- Place the ground fish in a large bowl and add the onions, carrots, zest, celery or fennel fronds, eggs, matzah meal, water, sugar (to taste), salt and pepper. Mix until just combined. Chill in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.
- Fill a medium bowl with ice water. Wetting your hands in the water as you work, form ½-cup portions (3 to 4 ounces each) of the fish mixture into ovals or round balls. Bring the court bouillon to a gentle simmer.
- Add enough fish cakes to make one layer in the pot and poach until the fish turns opaque and its shape is set, about 3 minutes. Add the rest. Simmer, continuing to poach the fish until cooked through, 30 minutes.
- Remove the pan from the heat and allow the gefilte fish to cool in the bouillon, about 20 minutes.
- Remove the fish from the bouillon and transfer to a storage container. Ladle 2 tablespoons of the bouillon over the fish, cover the container and chill.
- Serve with your favorite horseradish.