For centuries, Jewish women schlepped to the fish market, choosing the best fish “by the look in its eyes” before transforming it into the quintessential Sabbath gefilte fish. Using a wooden bowl and a half-moon-shaped chopper, they cut up the fish with onions, crying a little, chopping a little, until the mix was just the right consistency, later to be shaped into ovals or balls and poached in fish broth.
Gorgeous Gefilte From Joan Nathan
Today, cooks often turn to commercially prepared frozen loaves of ground fish, sometimes even spiked with jalapeños or almonds and raisins. These new, more American flavors are rapidly replacing the more distinctively fishy blends made from carp, whitefish, and pike, and have a smooth texture that indicates they have never felt the blade of a hand chopper.
Fish has always been a mainstay of the Jewish diet, and fish balls, a precursor to gefilte fish, can be traced backed to Spain in the Middle Ages, and possibly even earlier to the Middle East.
Gorgeous Gefilte From Joan Nathan
Traditionally, the fish mixture was stuffed back into the skin (thus gefilte, meaning “stuffed”) and baked in a crust or poached, with leftover filling formed into patties, covered with fish skin, and simmered in the same pot. When Jews migrated to eastern Europe after their expulsion from Spain and France, they con- tinued the tradition. Using the flesh of large, freshwater kosher fish, cooks added onions, garlic, a little egg, and matzo meal and stuffed the filling into the skin of the fish, poaching and sometimes baking it. On the Sabbath, it was, of course, served cold.
As the fish crossed the ocean to America with the large-scale eastern Euro- pean immigration, the artful but laborious stuffing step was discarded and the patties became the gefilte fish eaten today.
Although gefilte innovation like the first jarred fish and the frozen loaves are taking over now, I still, as with many things, prefer the taste of homemade that I make twice a year for Passover and Rosh Hashanah. Before Passover, at what we call a “gefilte-in,” friends assemble in my kitchen with their own pots, fish, carrots, eggs, and matzo meal to make these old-fashioned fish patties. (See Jewish Cook- ing in America for my homemade classic gefilte fish recipe.) For Rosh Hashanah, I make a light, circular fish terrine that looks beautiful and has the components of gefilte fish, but is much easier to make, baked in a Bundt or tube pan in a bain- marie. This is also a great make-ahead recipe, as it requires several hours of refrigeration before serving.
Gorgeous Gefilte From Joan Nathan
Turned out onto a platter and featured as one of many foods at a buffet, it is always a big success. Even those who swear they would never eat gefilte fish come back for seconds, provided you serve horseradish sauce with it.
Salmon Gefilte Fish Mold
Yields 15 to 20 slices
2 pounds salmon fillets
1 pound cod, flounder, rockfish, or whitefish
3 medium red onions, peeled and diced
(about 2 pounds)
3 tablespoons vegetable or canola oil
4 large eggs
4 tablespoons matzo meal
2 large carrots, peeled and grated
4 tablespoons snipped fresh dill, plus more for garnish
1 tablespoon salt, or to taste
2 teaspoons freshly ground pepper
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons sugar Parsley, for garnish
Horseradish and Beet Sauce (see below)
1) Have your fish store grind the fillets or pulse them yourself, one at a time, in a food processor or meat grinder. If using a food processor, pulse the fish in short bursts, being careful not to purée the fish—you want some texture. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Grease a 12-cup Bundt pan and fill a larger pan (such as a large Pyrex dish) with 2 inches of hot water.
2) In a large pan over medium-high heat, sauté the diced onions in the oil for about 5 minutes, until soft and transparent but not brown. Set aside to cool.
3) Put the fish, onions, eggs, 2 cups (470 ml) water, matzo meal, carrots, 4 tablespoons dill, salt, pepper, mustard, and sugar in the bowl of a standing mixer equipped with a flat beater. Beat at medium speed for 10 minutes.
4) Pour the mixture into the Bundt or tube pan, then put the pan inside the larger water-filled dish (called a bain-marie). Smooth the top with a spatula. Cover with aluminum foil and bake for 1 hour, or until the center is solid. Remove the Bundt or tube pan from the water dish, then allow the terrine to cool slightly for at least 20 minutes. Slide a long knife around the outer and inner edges of the Bundt or tube pan, then carefully invert the terrine onto a flat serving plate.
5) Refrigerate for several hours or overnight. If any water accumulates on the serving dish, carefully drain it away before serving. Slice the terrine as you would a torte and serve as an appetizer, garnished with parsley and dill and served with Horseradish and Beet Sauce. Leftovers keep for up to 5 days.
Horseradish and Beet Sauce
Wherewith does one show his delight therein? … With a dish of beets, a large fish and cloves of garlic. — Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Shabbath, Folio 118a
Jews serve horseradish, sliced as a root or ground into a sauce, at Passover to sym- bolize the bitterness of slavery. It was in Ashkenaz, what is now Alsace-Lorraine and southern Germany, that the horseradish root replaced the romaine and arugula of more southerly climates as the bitter herbs at the Passover dinner.
Today, farmers in France dig up horseradish roots and peel and grate them outdoors, making sure to protect their eyes from the sting. Then they mix the root with a little sugar and vinegar and sometimes grated beets, keeping it for their own personal use or selling it at local farmers’ markets.
Horseradish with beets originally came from farther east in Poland, to which Jews immigrated from the west in the fourteenth century, and from the east probably earlier. It was a condiment served at Easter and represented the blood of Jesus Christ, something that I will bet most Jews did not know when they bought it from farmers at outside markets in Poland.
A few years ago, I ate an adaptation of this tasty sauce at the short-lived Kutsher’s Restaurant in New York. I have played with it and now it is a keeper at our Passover Seder.
Yields about 4 cups
3 large beets (about 2 pounds), trimmed but not peeled
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 ounces (about 1 cup) peeled and roughly chopped fresh horseradish root
2 tablespoons white vinegar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 to 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1) Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Rub the whole beets with 1 tablespoon of olive oil and wrap in foil. Bake the beets for about an hour or until tender in the center when pierced with a knife. Remove from the oven, allow to cool, then peel and cut into large chunks.
2) In the bowl of a food processor, mix the horseradish and the vinegar. Process with the steel blade until finely chopped; do not purée. Add the beets and remaining olive oil. Pulse until the beets are coarsely chopped, but not puréed. Transfer to a bowl and add the salt, pepper, and lemon juice to taste.
3) Adjust the seasoning as needed. Cover and refrigerate for at least a day. Serve as an accompaniment to the gefilte fish mold (see page 223).
Excerpted from “King Solomon’s Table” by Joan Nathan. Copyright ©2017 by Random House. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.