Coming up on our holiday table, following the appetizers, is the most famous of all traditional Jewish dishes, Gefilte Fish.
How do you recognize a Jewish fish? It swims with a carrot in its mouth. I think this joke is older than the gefilte fish itself. In truth, even though eating fish on Erev Shabbos (Friday night) and holidays is an ancient custom that had been developed for several reasons, the actual gefilte (stuffed) fish has not swam into our field of vision, biting a carrot, until about 18th century.
In the dessert, the Jews complain about “fish for the asking” they had eaten in Egypt. Most probably, according to ancient sources, they had carp, pike, and mullet. Stuffed fish, the predecessor of gefilte fish, is mentioned in several books of Jewish customs. One of the reasons is the prohibition to separate good from bad (boirer) on Shabbos and Yom Tov, which literally means picking out bones. Ground up fish stuffed into skin neatly takes care of this issue.
Another reason is, of course, economical. Struggling with dire poverty, Eastern European Jews have discovered that ground up combination of the cheapest (in those times) kinds of fish with bread crumbs, matzoh meal, or any other fillers, simply fed more people. In addition, a huge whole carp, holding the ubiquitous carrot in its teeth, looked elegant and graced even the poorest table.
There are a few other reasons: the numeric value of the Hebrew word dag (fish) is seven, symbolizing the holiness of Shabbos; the hope of redemption is symbolized by a fish; hidden under water, fish helps to protect us from the Evil Eye as the Gemorrah (Brochos 20a) explains that the Evil Eye has no power over that which is hidden. In fact, one of the special blessings over specific symbolic foods on Rosh Hashana is a “fish” blessing: we request that we should be fruitful and multiply like fish. It is followed by another blessing, this time only on fish head: “that we be as the head and not as the tail.” It goes without a saying that in order to pronounce the latter, one must have an actual head on the table. Fish “a la jar” or “a la log” is fine on an ordinary Friday night, but not on Rosh Hashana (if need be, go ahead and use it, but you’ll still need to get a fish head somewhere).
My grandmother’s explanation was that the three kinds of fish required to make gefilte fish symbolize our forefathers Avrohom, Yitzhok, and Yaakov who swim in the waters of Torah. I was truly astonished when, browsing through the recipes online, I found one that not only specified the three kinds of fish – carp, pike,and whitefish or bluefish – but even listed the same proportions of their weight to each other as I have learned from childhood. Unfortunately, even that recipe has a disclaimer: if you can’t find all three, you can use two (http://www.bonappetit.com/entertaining-style/holidays/article/easy-gefilte-fish-recipe). I beg to disagree! On occasion, I’ve used tulapia or snapper for a third fish, but it is instilled in me that the three-fish combination honors our forefathers.
Making gefilte fish requires a lot of math. First you need a carp. The one you see on my photo is probably the biggest I’ve ever made, 12 lbs (I will list ingredients for half this size). You need half of the carp’s weight in pike. Since both the second and third fish will be ground up, you don’t have to worry about two pikes, or half a big one, as long as the total weight is correct. Then you need the third fish, preferably whitefish, but bluefish is fine, and in a crunch, any firm non-fatty fish will do, but the weight of it must be half of the pike’s weight. In my case, I had two three-pounder pikes and one bluefish that was exactly three pounds. Add all this up, and you get total weight that I can’t even lift – 21 lbs! Divide this in half, and that’s how many pounds of onions you will need. Got all that? Good, let’s start.
Leave the fish alone for now, and start prepping your vegetables. Put two large onions aside and chop the rest. Crying is allowed in moderate amounts! Saute chopped onions until you get a creamy light golden mass. That should take a couple of hours. Meanwhile, you can peel the other two onions, a few garlic cloves, a couple of big fat carrots, and a couple of beets. Quarter one onion and slice the other one into circles. Slice carrots and beets. I do them all in a food processor. Soak a few slices of whole wheat bread (that’s what you save leftover challah for!) or some matzoh meal. Take your fish pot (mine goes diagonally on two burners) and spread a heaping tablespoon of sauteed onions on the bottom, then add sliced raw onion, carrots and beets, in no particular order, but evenly.
Here is my husband with his electric grinder. Prior to this moment, he had carefully taken the flesh off the bones, removed the numerous tiny pinbones, and saved for me the heads, bones, and skin of all three fish, as well as the carp’s spine. Now he is grinding the fish with the soaked bread, sauteed onions, quartered raw onion, and garlic cloves. We grind it twice, to blend everything better. Once everything is ground up and blended, I add whisked eggs and season with salt and pepper. I actually kneed it by hand, like dough.
The part that seems tricky but actually isn’t is “sculpturing” the whole fish by plastering the spine inside and out and covering it with skin on both sides. You also want to fill the head as much as possible, as it is a delicacy in itself. You will definitely have quite a bit of the filling left. From that you make the kids’ treat – koilim, or patties. They do a double duty: first, when you place you fish into the pot and cover it with water, place koilim on top of it to weigh the skin down; secondly, when they pop off, you have about 30 minutes left to readiness. The heads and skin of the other fish go into the pot as well; they add a lot of flavor.
And this is it, Beautiful People! Bring it to boil, add some ground allspice, reduce to simmering, and keep basting it. Depending on the weight of the fish, it’ll take anywhere from 2 to 6 hours. Is it worth the trouble when you can easily buy frozen logs and doctor them to your taste? It is to me, because the taste of it is a taste of heaven on earth!
Once it turns this dark golden color, it’s ready. Turn the heat off and let it cool. Remove very carefully, so as not to mar the beauty of it. Fish out as many carrot and beet pieces as you need to decorate its back, and of course, make sure there is a carrot in its mouth! All this delicious liquid also shouldn’t go to waste. You mash up the veggies in a colander while pouring the liquid through it. If you like fish jelly, you put some on the side and refrigerate it. The rest of it is used to make fish yukh – just boil potatoes in it until you get a thick stew.
Serve it with good and strong chroin(horseradish), and may all the blessings multiply in the New Year for you and your family! Shana Tova! A Zis Yor!
- 6 lbs whole carp
- 3 lbs pike
- 1,5 lbs whitefish, bluefish, or any firm non-fatty white fish
- 5 lbs onions
- 3 garlic cloves
- 1 large carrot
- 1 large beetroot
- 3 slices whole wheat bread or one roll (alternatively, 1 cup matzo meal), soaked in water
- 2 eggs
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Ground allspice to taste
- Put two onions aside. Chop the rest of the onions, saute until light golden and creamy consistency.
- Slice one of the remaining onions into circles. Peel and slice carrot and beetroot, peel garlic cloves, quarter remaining onion. Soak bread.
- Spread heaping tablespoon of sauteed onions on the bottom of fish pot. Cover with sliced onion, carrot,and beetroot. Put aside.
- Filet all fish, leaving carp head, spine, and skin intact. Grind fish flesh twice, adding sauteed onions, garlic cloves, and soaked bread.
- Whisk eggs, add to ground fish, season with salt and pepper. Kneed by hand. Sculpture filling along the spine inside and out, cover with skin on both sides. Fill the head as well.
- Place into pot. Use remaining filling to fashion patties. Place patties on top of fish to weigh skin down. Place heads and skin of smaller fish into the pot. Cover with water.
- Bring to boil, add allspice, reduce to simmering. Simmer and baste until patties pop off, then simmer for additional 20 – 30 minutes, until dark golden. Add water, if necessary.
- Remove from heat, let cool. Carefully remove fish, head, and patties. Garnish with carrots and beets. Serve with horseradish.
- Separate and refrigerate fish jelly, if desired. Mash vegetables and liquid with a spoon through a colander. Bring to boil, add potatoes, cook till very soft. Serve hot to accompany fish.