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In my family, just saying “homemade gefilte fish” causes us to salivate. Food memory, for sure. Any man, woman or child who makes homemade gefilte fish will swear theirs is the best. And the variations on this Jewish delicacy abound: some add sugar (Polish) and some use Salmon, heaven forbid (sorry my Pacific Northwest friends). In my Midwestern-upbringing opinion, however, the best recipe incorporates Walleye and Northern pike. But since I live in Seattle I use all white fish, some with fat and some without.
Making gefilte fish evokes memories of Jewish holidays. My mom used a very different method and put the fish and stock into a roasting pan in the oven. I don’t recall that her fish was one of her better dishes. Thankfully, my Bubbie-in-law made the very best, gold standard fish and I remember taking copious notes while she ground the fish by hand, her long braids wrapped up in a head scarf. My sister- in- law Nancy would alternate years with me, and she had a good set up with an extra stove in her garage. Every year, the two of us would critique the fish without mercy and, sadly, we just couldn’t get it to taste as good as Bubbie’s.
Nancy passed away over 10 years ago so I am the only gefilte fish maker in my family. Each year my mixture varies a bit since Passover falls at various times, usually in April. This year trout, dover sole and cod were recommended and it was one of my top batches for sure! Having my special fishmongers Kenny and Big Mike at Uwajamaya is the key. They grind the fish and save the bones, heads and the like for my fish stock. In addition to the delicious fish, they handed over rockfish heads and halibut bones and skin.
Before you start, open all the windows in your kitchen, and close doors to the areas where you don’t want the smell of fish to emanate. Put on the exhaust fan over your large pot. Change into a ratty old tee shirt (mine is purple and says “Iowa” ) and know that when you are finished, you will need to go straight to the shower with a bar of soap and shampoo and scrub every inch of your body.
Yields around 23-25 large fish balls, about 4.5 oz each.
Fish Stock Ingredients
- 5 lbs white fish heads, bones, skin
- 3 large carrots, cut into 2 inch sections
- 3 large celery, cut into 2 inch sections
- 2 large brown skinned onions, quartered (keep the peel on for color)
- 4 large sprigs of fresh parsley
- 2 Tbsp sea salt
- 1 tsp peppercorns
- 5-6 quarts water or enough to barely cover the above
Put all the stock ingredients in an 8 quart pressure cooker for 20 minutes at full pressure. Remove the pressure cooker from the stove and place under cold running water to lower pressure quickly. Strain liquid through a chinoise into the largest pot you have (at least 8 quart). Discard all solids. If you don’t have a pressure cooker, just simmer the stock for an hour in a huge pot and strain. Note – you can do this a day prior to making the fish balls.
Add 6 fresh peeled and cut up carrots and more fresh parsley to this liquid and bring to a simmer while you are forming the balls
Fish Ball Ingredients
- 1 ⅔ lb ground trout
- 2 lb ground dover sole
- 2 ¼ lbs true cod ground
- 4 eggs – beat with whisk
- 1 1/3 large brown skinned peeled and chopped onion – finely chopped 1/4 inch or so
- ½ cup matzo meal
- ¾ tsp ground white pepper
- 1 ½ Tbsp sea salt
- ¼-½ cup lukewarm water (add more if needed – do it slowly so not too much)
Use your huge stainless steel bowl to mix the above ingredients together. Adjust the consistency and taste as needed so that you can still form balls with wet hands, but the mixture should be moist and not at all stiff. Let the mixture sit on the counter for about 15 minutes before forming the balls. Use wet hands to form balls that are oval, smooth and around 4 – 4.5 ounces each.
Slip the balls gently into the simmering stock. If your pot isn’t large enough, divide the broth between two stock pots. I happen to have a huge pot that is perfect for this amount of fish.
Don’t crowd the pots! Bring to a low boil, cover pot and lower the heat. Cover and simmer on low for 45 minutes. Every 15 minutes or so I shake the pot and baste the balls so they are moist. At 45 minutes remove the pot lid and reduce heat even more.
I take a slotted spoon and take out the fish balls to a rimmed dish but continue to simmer the stock for one hour until it is golden, reduced and concentrated.
Once cooked, store the cooled fish balls with liquid half way up the sides of your container. Refrigerate and serve cold with hot horseradish.
This will keep in the refrigerator for 4-5 days. This year I saved the stock and I plan to make a smaller quantity of fish in the next month or so, and I’ll also use some of the fish stock for a nice fish-based vegetable soup.
Note: In the past I have used different mixtures of fish:
1 ½ lb rockfish
1 ½ lb dover sole
2.8 lbs rainbow trout
1 ½ lb trout
1 ½ lb petrale sole
1 lb red snapper