adapted from Jewish Holiday Cooking: A Food Lover's Treasury of Classics and Improvisations by Jayne Cohen (Wiley, 2008)
Yield: About 8 servings
Inspired by the Chinese method for preparing tender, soft dumplings, I cushion these delicate fish balls between cabbage leaves for a gentle twenty-minute steam bath. The fish mixture here is particularly delicious. Extra egg yolks and a little pureed carrot and parsnip bring added flavor and a lush softness. No fish broth, but a bit of the liquid from cooking the sweet vegetables moistens the matzoh meal filler.
The result is gefilte fish brimful of flavor yet light and fresh tasting. To complement it, mellow the horseradish's fire with some mayonnaise seasoned with fresh dill.
For the Fish Balls
- 1/3 cup diced scraped carrots
- 1/3 cup diced peeled parsnips
- 3 tablespoons matzoh meal
- 2 tablespoons mild olive or vegetable oil
- 1 1/2 cups coarsely chopped onion
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 tablespoon chopped shallots
- 2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill, plus 16 additional sprigs
- 2 pounds fish fillets, skin and any bones removed and discarded, rinsed to remove any scales, patted dry, and cut into 1-inch pieces; or 2 pounds fish ground by your fishmonger (see Cook's Note)
- 2 large eggs
- >2 large egg yolks
- 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
For the Dill-Horseradish Mayonnaise
- 1 cup mayonnaise
- 1/3 cup finely minced dill
- 1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon prepared white horseradish, drained
- About 12 large cabbage leaves, washed (you can use slightly imperfect or dark green outer leaves)
- Soft lettuce leaves, endive, or radicchio, for lining plates
Prepare the fish balls: In a small saucepan, bring 1 cup lightly salted water to a boil. Add the carrots and parsnips, and simmer until the vegetables are very tender. Drain, reserving the cooking water, and transfer the vegetables to a food processor. Put the matzoh meal in a small bowl and stir in 1/3 cup of the reserved cooking water. Let this mixture sit so that the matzoh meal can soften as it soaks in the liquid.
Warm the oil in an 8-inch skillet. Add the onions, sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper, and saute, stirring, over medium heat until soft, shiny, and just beginning to color palest gold, 8 to 9 minutes. Don't let them brown. Transfer the onions and any oil remaining in the skillet to the food processor. Add the shallots and the chopped dill to the food processor and puree until fairly smooth. Transfer the mixture to a large wooden chopping bowl or a wooden chopping board. (Don't wash out the food processor if you are grinding your own fish.) If your fish is not ground, put it, about 2 teaspoons salt, and 1/8 teaspoon pepper in the food processor and pulse just until the mixture is chopped fine, but not pasty. Add the fish to the wooden bowl or board. (If you are using preground fish, add it now, seasoned with salt and pepper.) Add the matzoh meal mixture. Beat the eggs and yolks in a bowl until thick and lemon-colored. Using a hand chopper or cleaver, work the eggs and lemon juice into the fish mixture, a little at a time. (Hand-chopping at this point incorporates air into the mixture, making it lighter and fluffier than pulsing in the food processor.)
Test for seasoning. Poach a teaspoon of the fish mixture in lightly salted boiling water for a few minutes. Taste, and if needed, add additional salt and pepper. Chill the fish mixture, covered, for at least 1 hour or up to 4 hours. It will be easier to mold and the fish balls will be fluffier.
While the fish is chilling, combine the ingredients for the dill-horseradish mayonnaise. Cover and refrigerate.
Steam the fish balls: You'll need a large, wide pot such as a 5- to 6-quart Dutch oven or heavy casserole with a tight-fitting lid, and a rack that stands at least 2 inches high. (A simple round cake rack works well. If it is not high enough, set it over 2 custard cups or empty tuna cans in the pot.) Fill the pot with water to a depth of 1 inch.
Line the rack with a layer of cabbage leaves. Form the fish mixture into 16 ovals, using a scant 1/4 cup for each, wetting your hands with cold water if needed to work the sticky mixture. .Depending on the variety of fish used, the mixture may be very soft, but will firm up as it cooks and later, as it chills. Bring the water in the pot to a boil. Gently put as many ovals on top of the cabbage leaves as will fit comfortably in a single layer without touching. Place a sprig of dill on each fish oval. Top the fish with another layer of cabbage leaves and cover the pot tightly. Turn the heat down to medium and steam for 20 to 25 minutes, until the ovals are completely cooked through at the center. (When steamed in raw cabbage leaves, the fish will probably take closer to 25 minutes; when steaming the second batch in the now-cooked cabbage leaves, it will probably take about 20 minutes.) Line a platter with some of the cooked cabbage leaves and carefully put the cooked fish on top of them. Using additional cabbage leaves as needed, cook any remaining fish ovals in the same way, transferring the fish as it is done to the cabbage-lined platter. Remove and discard the dill sprigs from all the ovals and cover with a layer of cooked cabbage leaves to keep them moist. Let everything cool to room temperature. Wrap the platter with plastic wrap and chill the fish until cold.
For best flavor, serve the fish chilled but not icy cold. Remove the fish from the cabbage leaves and arrange attractively on platters or individual plates lined with lettuce, endive, or radicchio, and accompany with the dill-horseradish mayonnaise.
Cook's Note: I like a combination of half salmon and half red snapper or lemon or grey sole. And I've made a terrific, plush-tasting gefilte fish with half Chilean sea bass and half flounder. Or use your own or your fishmonger's favorite mixture. Avoid very strong-flavored fish like bluefish or mackerel. Be sure to use a combination of fat and lean fish.