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My Grandmother’s Gefilte Fish: Not Only for Passover!

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At this time of the year, the grocery store shelves are filled with cans and jars of gefilte fish. You can buy “all whitefish,” “extra sweet,” “old fashioned” and now even “gluten free.” Gefilte fish is a Jewish delicacy made of ground fish, spices, and other good things, depending on your tastes and tradition. It’s often served at Passover seders, but is delicious at any holiday meal as an appetizer.

I’ve never cared much for the canned stuff my mom served up. The problem with prepared gefilte fish is that I was spoiled long before my mother opened her first can of  Manischewitz (extra sweet in jelly). You see, I was raised on my grandmother’s homemade recipe. Every year (twice a year if we were lucky), my grandmother would grind, mix, boil, and chill her famous (in our family,gefilte fish anyway) gefilte fish. She would always prepare it with the carrots and onions (and maybe a stray bone or two) ground right in with the whitefish, carp and trout. Unlike the stuff in the jars, her Gefiltes had texture: coarse, not too dry, not too moist. Just right. And sweet—very, very sweet. No fish in a jar (or can) has ever come close to my grandmother’s.

Gefilte fish actually means “filled fish” in Yiddish, and occasionally my grandmother  would literally fill a fish (or just the fish skin) with the gefilte mixture. It tastes a lot better than it sounds.

This is more or less my grandmother’s recipe. (At least it tastes like it.) The only thing I’ve updated is to suggest having your fish guy grind the fish, carrots and onions (together). It makes preparation easier, less messy and it tastes a whole lot better than anything grandma Manischewitz has on sale in the Passover section of the grocery store!

So here it is; the only caveat is that, like my grandmother, I seldom use measuring cups or spoons, so all measurements are approximate.  This recipe makes enough fish balls to feed a sizeable seder or holiday crowd. It makes about 35 tennis ball-sized balls.

Ingredients:

  • 7 lbs. fish (I use 5 pounds Lake Superior Whitefish, 1 pound of lake trout, and 1 pound of buffalo fish, but you can use whatever is seasonal and fresh.) Make sure you ask the fish man to give you the skin and bones!
  • 2 Onions (Ground in with the fish)
  • 2 Carrots (Ground in with the fish) 
  • 8 eggs
  • 1 1/3 cups matzah meal
  • Ice-cold water
  • 1/2 tsp. white pepper
  • 1 cup sugar
  1. In a very large deep kettle place the fish bones and skin (wrapped in a layer of cheesecloth) on the bottom and fill the pot about a third with water. Put 2 onions (cut) and 3-4 carrots in the pot along with half of the sugar and a little salt (to keep things from boiling over)
  2. In a very large bowl (I use one of those disposable roasting pans), place the ground fish, ground carrots and ground onions. Mix in the eggs and then add matzah meal (not all at once) and mix as you go. Dig in and use your hands. Don’t be a wimp with it—really work it. Make sure you can make fish balls that hold together. If not, add ice cold water, just a bit at a time and/or a tiny bit more meal. You should only use just enough to make a nice “batter” that holds together well.
  3. Make the fish balls anywhere from golf ball size (or a bit bigger if you prefer). 
  4. Carefully place the balls one by one into the boiling fish stock.  Keep enough water in the pot just to barely cover the fish. Keep adding the fish balls one layer at a time (as much as that’s possible) until you’ve run out of fish or pot. Simmer on low-medium (or just low) for about 2 hours. 
  5. Occasionally shake the pot, and if needed add more water to keep the fish just barely covered.
  6. Take the pot off the stove and let it sit for 15 minutes
  7. Carefully remove the balls from the stock with a slotted spoon and place in containers. 
  8. Strain the fish stock and pour a bit over the fish balls to keep them moist. The will stay good in the refrigerator for 5-6 days. 
  9. Serve with prepared horseradish. If you want to get fancy, place a gefilte ball on a leaf of lettuce with a slice of cooked carrot on top). 

Chag Sameach!

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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is publisher and executive editor of Blogcritics, as well as a noted entertainment writer. Author of Chasing Zebras: The Unofficial Guide to House, M.D., her primary beat is primetime television. But Barbara writes on an everything from film to politics to technology to all things pop culture and spirituality. She is a contributor to the book called Spiritual Pregnancy (Llewellyn Worldwide, January 2014) and has a story in Riverdale Ave Press' new anthology of zombie romance, Still Hungry for your Love. She is hard at work on what she hopes will be her first published novel.
  • Susan

    I’m the first commenter? I guess people were too busy cooking and cleaning….

    My gefilte fish experience – I grew up with my mother always recooking Rokeach gefilte fish with carrots, onions and celery. My grandmother made her own but I don’t remember it. We had a cousin who, I thought, made great g.f. but everyone else hated it.

    For our Seder this year one of my guests asked to bring the frozen gefilte fish. It was so-so. Just in case she didn’t bring enough I re-cooked two cans of the Rokeach whitefish and pike – also so-so.

    The best is the home made (according to my son). For the past few years I’ve gone with a friend of mine (who is from Israel and is older than me) to a local fish store where they filet the fish for you and grind it (my friend, maven that she is, usually brings an onion with her for the store to grind with the fish). She picked out the fish – whitefish, pike and carp and knows approximately how many pounds of each. Then we brought the ground fish to her house where she added the right amount of matzo meal, sugar, etc. I was just a bystander to her expertise – except that I always had her grind dill, carrots and celery into the mixture – which she objected to because, she said, it made the fish more watery. But I like the taste. When the mixture was to her satisfaction I brought my portion home and made the bones, skin and vegetables into soup and boiled the gefilte fish. They always came out looking like matzo balls and were very delicate – sort of like chicken balls. But alas, my friend didn’t feel well this year and I didn’t feel competent to do it alone so were were left with the frozen and the canned. Hopefully next year we’ll be back to the home-made. I may even run down to the fish store in the next few weeks and experiment myself (and the bonus is, prices will be lower). End of story.

    Happy Passover Barbara.

    P.S. The last thing I did before my guests arrived on Monday was to DVR House (which I haven’t gotten around to watching yet).