adapted from Jewish Holiday Cooking: A Food Lover's Treasury of Classics and Improvisations by Jayne Cohen (Wiley, 2008)
Yield: About 12 servings
For the Fish Balls
- 3 cups chopped onion (3/4 pound)
- 1/2 cup carrot, scraped and diced
- 2 tablespoons mild olive oil or vegetable oil, such as avocado or sunflower
- 1 large garlic clove, peeled
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 cup packed fresh challah pieces (crusts removed) or, for Passover, egg or plain matzoh, moistened with white wine or water
- 1/4 teaspoon packed saffron threads, crushed and dissolved in 2 tablespoons hot water
- 3 pounds skinless fish fillets (stray bones removed), rinsed to remove any scales, patted dry, and cut into 1-inch pieces or ground by the fishmonger (see Cook's Note)
- 1/2 cup ice water
- 2 pinches of sugar
- 4 large eggs
- 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
For the Fish Stock
- About 3 pounds fish bones, skin, and heads
- 4 large carrots, scraped and quartered
- 2 large onions, peeled and quartered
- 2 celery stalks, including leaves, quartered
- 2 parsnips, peeled and quartered (they add a subtle whisper of sweetness; optional)
- 3 or 4 parsley sprigs
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Sugar (optional)
- Accompaniments: soft lettuce, Belgian endive, or radicchio leaves, for lining plates; ground horseradish
- Optional garnish: very finely minced flat-leaf parsley or chives
Prepare the fish balls: In a 10-inch heavy skillet, saute the onions and carrots in the oil over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes. Don't let the vegetables brown: you just want to soften and sweeten them. Add the garlic and season with salt and pepper lightly. Cover the pan, reduce the heat, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the carrots are soft enough to mash roughly with the back of a metal spoon, 10 to 15 minutes.
Transfer the vegetables and oil from the skillet to a food processor and pulse just until the ingredients are thoroughly combined. Add the challah or moistened matzoh meal and saffron and process until smooth. Transfer the mixture to a large wooden chopping bowl (the kind used with a crescent-shaped chopping tool, like the half-moon-shaped Jewish hockmeisser or crescent-shaped Italian mezzaluna) or a chopping board.
If the fish is already ground, add it to the challah (or matzoh meal) mixture. If fish was not purchased ground, place half of the pieces in the food processor (don't bother rinsing it out) and pulse until it is chopped medium-coarse. Add to the challah (or matzoh meal) mixture. Process the remaining half of the fish in the same way, and add it to the mixture.
Chop the ingredients, using a hand chopper with the bowl or a sharp cleaver with the board, gradually adding the ice water as you work. Continue chopping while adding 2 teaspoons salt, 1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons pepper (to taste; the fish should be quite peppery), and the sugar. Chop in the eggs, one at a time, and the lemon juice. Keep chopping until the mixture becomes very smooth, light, and fluffy. (All this hand-chopping incorporates lots of air into the ingredients, which will make the fish balls light and delicate. Using a food processor or blender will simply puree the ingredients to liquefaction.) Refrigerate until thoroughly chilled and firm, at least 2 hours.
Prepare the stock: rinse the fish bones, skin, and heads and place in a very large, wide, heavy saucepan. Add 2 quarts cold water and bring to a boil, skimming constantly to remove all the bitter froth and scum as they rise to the top. Continue skimming the broth while it cooks at a gentle boil for another 10 minutes. Add the carrots, onions, celery, parsnips, if using, parsley, and salt and pepper to taste, then reduce the heat and simmer, partially covered, for about 1 hour. Skim occasionally, as needed. Strain the broth through a fine-mesh sieve, pressing down hard on the solids with the back of a spoon to extract as much flavorful liquid as possible. Discard the solids (if you want to serve the carrots with the fish, save them and set them aside). Rinse out the saucepan and pour in the strained broth. Bring the broth to a simmer and adjust the seasonings. Add a pinch or two of sugar to remove any trace of bitterness, if needed.
Wetting your hands with cold water as necessary, form the fish mixture into ovals, using 1/3 to 1/2 cup of fish for each gefilte fish ball. Place the balls on one or two platters as you finish making the rest. Using a spatula, carefully lower the balls one by one into the simmering broth. Add only as many fish balls as will fit comfortably in a single layer. If they are not covered with stock, baste them with a few spoonfuls. Cover tightly and simmer over low heat, without peeking, for 30 minutes. Remove a fish ball and cut it in half to test for doneness: it should be completely cooked through, with no dark or raw spots. Cook a bit longer, as needed, but don't overcook. Remove the balls with a slotted spoon and place in a single layer in a deep dish or two. Poach any remaining balls in the same way, and transfer them to the same dish. Reduce the liquid in the pan over high heat by at least half. Pour a shallow layer of the liquid over the gefilte fish and refrigerate any remaining liquid. It should gel nicely. Refrigerate the gefilte fish for at least 6 hours, preferably overnight. To serve, arrange the chilled fish on the lettuce, surrounded by some of the fish gelatin, if desired, and any reserved carrots. Accompany with ground horseradish.
Cook's Note: For the fish, choose an equal quantity of carp, pike, and whitefish; equal parts pike and whitefish (my preference); or your own or your fishmonger's favorite mixture. You can mix fresh and saltwater varieties, if you'd like, such as carp with halibut. Avoid very strong-flavored fish like bluefish or mackerel. For the best taste, you should have some combination of fat and lean fish.