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, 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.
- 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
- 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)
- 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.
- Make the fish balls anywhere from golf ball size (or a bit bigger if you prefer).
- 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.
- Occasionally shake the pot, and if needed add more water to keep the fish just barely covered.
- Take the pot off the stove and let it sit for 15 minutes
- Carefully remove the balls from the stock with a slotted spoon and place in containers.
- 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.
- 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).