Gefilte fish (from the Yiddish: געפֿילטע פֿיש, “stuffed fish”, derived from the German gefüllte Fische) is an Ashkenazi Jewish dish made from a poached mixture of ground deboned fish, such as carp, whitefish, or pike, which is typically eaten as an appetizer with grated horseradish.
Fish is considered “parve”, meaning it is neither milk nor meat and thus according to kosher law, it may be eaten at both meat and dairy meals (meat and dairy are never mixed in the same meal in a kosher home).
Although the dish historically consisted of a minced-fish forcemeat stuffed inside the fish skin (as its name implies), since the 19th century the skin has been omitted and the seasoned fish is formed into patties similar to quenelles or fish balls.
The simple truth is that Gefilte fish is actually very close to the classic French fish quenelles served in the finest French restaurants! It’s use of Pike in particular is identical to the classic French quenelles. The addition of the cheaper carp and whitefish enabled poor Jews to stretch the expensive fish and feed an entire family.
Gefilte fish are very popular in Jewish homes on Shabbat and holidays such as Passover, although they may be consumed throughout the year.
Unfortunately, most commercial Gefilte fish is made from at best one or two fish (leaving out the Pike), is fairly tasteless and comes packed in a mucilaginous slime (jellied fish aspic) reminiscent of that found dripping from any number of ancient eldritch horrors from beyond the stars.
If it sounds unappetizing – it is.
Many young Jews are psychically scarred from being forced to eat bad Gefilte fish over the holidays, myself included (I’m only partially joking here!).
This fear of Gefilte is a sad travesty, for homemade Gefilte fish is both eminently delicious and savory. Very few make it at home anymore, but for you my Citizens, I will show you the sacred path to true Gefilte fulfillment!
Immodestly, I believe my recipe to be the best recipe to be found for Polish-style Gefilte (meaning there is a touch of sugar in it – Lithuanian-style has no sugar but does use pepper), with a nod to the Ukraine via the ground-in vegetables.
My recipe includes a French-inspired fish stock that adds a more complex and subtle flavor than you usually find in Gefilte fish. It is also mercifully slime-free.
Except for these variations, this recipe is resolutely traditional and made the only proper way: from the triumverate of fresh pike, whitefish and carp, in what I believe are the best proportions.
Any use of different fish is blasphemous and will bring down the accumulated anger of an ancient Ashkenazic ancestry upon you (Sephardic Jews are exempt from the ancestral wrath, but can now become honorary Ashkenazim by following this recipe exactly). 😉
Battle on – The Generalissimo
2 pounds carp (note that Ranch 99 Asian supermarket and many Chinese grocery stores frequently carry live carp – if you can get these, by all means do so!)
2 ½ pounds whitefish
3 pounds yellow pike – all fish filleted and coarsely ground (your fishmonger can do this for you), making sure to save the heads (split), bones and skin from each fish!
2 carrots, chopped
2 celery stalks with leaves, chopped
Several sprigs fresh thyme, parsley and tarragon
2 bay leaves
3 inch chunk of fresh ginger, cut into pieces
1 leek, split, cleaned and chopped
Several lightly cracked peppercorns
4 quarts cold bottled water or to just cover
3 teaspoons salt or to taste
3 onions, peeled
4 medium carrots, peeled
4 tablespoons sugar or to taste
1 small parsnip, chopped
3 to 4 large eggs
Freshly ground pepper to taste
½ cup cold bottled water (approximately)
⅓ cup matzo meal (approximately)
Place the reserved bones, skin, and fish heads in a wide, very large pot with a cover.
Add the water, carrots, leek, celery, herbs, ginger, bay leaves, peppercorns and 2 teaspoons of the salt and bring to a boil. Remove the foam that accumulates.
Place the ground fish in a bowl. In a food processor, finely chop the remaining onions, the remaining carrot, and the parsnip; or mince them by hand. Add the chopped vegetables to the ground fish.
Add the eggs, one at a time, the remaining teaspoon of salt, pepper, 2 tablespoons of sugar and the cold water, and mix thoroughly. Stir in enough matzo meal to make a light, soft mixture that will hold its shape. Wet your hands with cold water, and scooping up about ¼ cup of fish, form the mixture into oval shapes about 3 inches long.
Remove from the pot and discard the skins, heads, and bones and return the stock to a simmer. Gently place the fish patties in the simmering fish stock. Cover loosely and simmer for 60 minutes. Taste the liquid while the fish is cooking and add seasoning to taste.
Shake the pot periodically so the Gefilte patties won’t stick together. Strain out the gefilte, then reduce the stock by 50%. Add the gefilte balls back in, allow the stock to cool, then chill all in the refrigerator in the same pot.
Slice 1 onion in rounds and add along with 3 of the carrots in a pot with water. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of sugar and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer for about 20 minutes, then remove the carrots and allow to cool.
Using a slotted spoon, carefully remove the gefilte fish and arrange on a platter. Strain some of the stock over the fish, saving the rest in a bowl for another use.
Slice the cooked carrots into rounds cut on a diagonal about ¼ inch thick. Place a carrot round on top of each gefilte fish patty. Serve with a sprig of parsley plus grated horseradish.