A Parisian-Jewish caterer once described to me his favorite T-shirt, seen on a beach in Eilat, Israel. There was a smiling beige fish, stippled with schmears of purple-red, the exact color of beet-horseradish. Underneath, in bold black letters it implored: "Save the Gefilte Fish."
That was fifteen years ago, and today gefilte fish faces even greater threats to survival. For not only do fewer baby boomers and their children know how to prepare the real thing, but most people don't even have a taste memory of good exemplars of the genre. Either they grew up on jarred versions that rely on hillocks of grated horseradish to give the fish some semblance of flavor. Or they are accustomed to purchased "homemade" gefilte fish so sugary sweet it could pass for some Jewish dessert, fish-flavored in the way they do lobster ice cream in shops along the Maine seacoast.
My grandmothers never made their own gefilte fish. My father's mother baked whitefish smothered with chopped tomatoes, onions, and peppers, and served it cold for Sabbath meals. The only fish I remember my maternal grandmother making was canned tuna, mixed with hard-boiled eggs and onions.
But luckily, I've eaten some very good versions in the dairy restaurants once ubiquitous in my native Manhattan. And I've tasted even more delicious ones in the evocative prose of Yiddish writers. From Bella Chagall, author of Burning Lights, her charming memoir of growing up in Vitebsk, Russia before she married the legendary artist, I learned about the importance of a soft, tender texture. For color that will tantalize, I gild the fish with golden saffron, like the overworked mother in Chaim Grade's novel of World War II Vilna, My Mother's Sabbath Days, or add a little pureed onions and carrots to dab the pale fish with tiny threads of color while lending softness and moisture too.
When I do prepare a broth for the fish, I poach the fish balls just long enough to keep them quenelle-light. And often I don't poach them in a broth at all, but instead cook them like Chinese dumplings, steamed quickly between cabbage leaves. In this quick method, the wet vapor helps preserve all the subtle flavors of the fish while the nutty-sweet cabbage wrapper keeps it moist as it steams, and later as it chills without broth in the refrigerator.
There are those who think gefilte fish poses a sort of litmus test. You may not have to be Jewish to love Levy's Real Jewish Rye, the old advertisement said. But you certainly do to love these pale beige fish balls surrounded by even paler fish jelly. Fish jelly????
Actually, not so at all. When my recipe for Smoked Whitefish Gefilte Fish appeared on the Epicurious.com website (from a seder meal I devised for Bon Appetit magazine), a reader who prepared the recipe wrote in: "I made these for Passover for my husband's family. They were so delicious that I made them for my family for Easter Sunday! The fishcakes are light and tasty and the horseradish sauce is to die for!"
Just how did gefilte fish become the defining dish of Ashkenazi cuisine? On Sabbath and religious holidays, Jews are not permitted to work. For some, meticulously removing the flesh from tiny fish bones was a labor that swallowed up some of the joy of the holy day. And yet, one is encouraged to eat fish on these days as it is a symbol of fruitfulness and a mystical means to taste a bit of Paradise and ward off the evil eye. The solution: ground fish balls, which also stretch the supply of fish and can be prepared in advance.
Actually, gefilte fish literally means "stuffed fish," and the dish originally consisted of a fish skin stuffed with ground fish, bread or matzoh meal, eggs, onions, spices, and so on, then poached or baked. Today the mixture is usually formed into patties before being poached or baked. In England, the patties are often fried, and in Mexico, they may be spiked with jalapenos or other hot peppers and even served with a spicy tomato salsa.
I've included three of my recipes for gefilte fish here. The first uses the classic method of poaching the fish in a fish broth (though not for the traditionally long time that leaches all the flavor into the broth). The other two (including the unusual-and very tasty-combination of smoked whitefish with another white fish fillet, like flounder) use the simpler method of steaming between cabbage leaves. All would be perfect for your upcoming Passover seders.
Wishing you all very sweet Passovers-if not sweet gefilte fish!