As a kid growing up in central Maine, just northwest of Augusta, there were very few other Jewish families with whom to compare traditions. My father was raised in Bayside, NY, a section of Queens that was, at that time, dominated by Ashkenazi Jews from Poland and Romania, many of whom immigrated to the United States in the early to mid-20th century. My mother, on the other hand, came from a crop of Baptist Franco-Americans in northern Aroostook County. Therefore, my family holidays were anything but traditional and were often a mix between my very observant father’s reform Judaism and my mom’s more spiritual leaning into the joy of Christmas morning and the careful decoration of Easter baskets.
The Bickerman Passover seders are an afternoon-long affair. The Methodist neighbors from up the road join us as we take turns reading from the same Maxwell House Haggadah that we’ve had since the early 1990’s. As the youngest Hebrew reader, I am expected to stumble through the four questions as my mother leaps up and down from her seat for the multiple courses of matzah ball soup (from the box, of course) and Hillel sandwiches until, at last, the gefilte fish. The final course before the main at our seder. A gelatinous tan mound scooped from the jar, placed on my paternal grandmother’s fine china, and served with a sprig of parsley and perhaps a dollop of horseradish. This infamous dish was a delight of my childhood when my cousin and I would dare one another to sample a bite. Any leftovers from our game would be given to our very appreciative Maine coon cat.
But what is gefilte fish? The word gefilte is derived from the Yiddish word for “stuffed fish” and is described in an unappetizing manner by Wikipedia as, "a poached mixture of ground deboned fish, such as carp, whitefish or pike”. The “stuffed” in the name is a remnant of the dish’s provenance hundreds of years ago wherein the intact skin of a whole fish was stuffed with minced-fish forcemeat, a laborious practice akin to the practice of making sausage. The jarred Manishewitz concoction of my childhood is a concoction of carp, mullet, and whitefish bound together with egg white and matzah meal and suspended in either “jelled” or liquid broth. The company, based in Newark, NJ, proudly advertises that the product is “made from select fish that are caught in the Great Lakes of the U.S.A.”. Interestingly, catfish is never used because it’s not kosher, due to the fact that it lacks scales AND fins (the two requirements of a kosher fish). For more information on how to ensure your fish is kosher, see here:
If you, like many others, eschew the humble gefilte fish in favor of more seemingly palatable courses, why not make your own? A 2016 cookbook was written based on this very premise. “The Gefilte Manifesto: New Recipes for Old World Jewish Foods” explores new takes on the old dish, including forgoing the traditional poaching and opting for a bake and slice method instead. Whichever recipe you choose for your at home gefilte creation, we encourage you to look beyond the freshwater species and seek out local Maine seafood. pollock, haddock, or hake would be excellent in place of carp or other freshwater species, and even halibut is listed on one recipe I found. Don’t be afraid to visit your local fishmongers, like Free Range Fish & Lobster, Harbor Fish, or and ask them for recommendations.
Classic gefilte fish recipe
by Josh Cohen
“The recipe calls for 2 pounds of fish. Traditionally, a mixture of carp, pike, and whitefish is used. However, it is my conviction that any mild, sweet, white-fleshed fish will work. The relative firmness of the flesh of the fish is not a very important factor. You can use flounder, perch, sole, halibut, cod, tilefish, or even sea bass. Just stay away from “oily” fish like sardines, mackerel, and trout.”
For the reinforced fish stock
32 ounces fish stock
32 ounces water (substitute fish stock for water if your stock is homemade)
1 large carrot, diced
1 rib of celery, diced
8 sprigs fresh thyme
1 leek (trimmed, cleaned, and sliced into thin slivers)
1 cup dry white wine
4 sprigs tarragon
For the gefilte fish
1/2 medium yellow onion, finely diced
1/3 cup matzo meal
1 cup reinforced fish stock
2 pounds fish, boneless and skinless fillets (see author’s note for details)
1/8 teaspoon white pepper
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
4 eggs, separated
3 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons sugar
Make the reinforced fish stock: Add the fish stock and water to a large pot. Add the carrots, celery, thyme, leek, and white wine. Bring the stock to a boil, then reduce the heat to a gentle simmer. Simmer the stock for 50 minutes, then add the tarragon and simmer for an additional 10 minutes. Strain the stock. Please note that the reinforced fish stock can be made ahead of time and stored in the refrigerator.
Make the gefilte fish: Set a small skillet over medium heat and add just enough olive oil to cover the bottom of the skillet. When the oil is hot, add the onions and stir regularly until they become soft, sweet, and translucent, approximately 25 minutes. If you see the onions beginning to caramelize, lower the heat—you do not want them to brown. When the onions are done cooking, set them aside until they cool to room temperature.
Add the matzo meal and stock to a large mixing bowl. While the matzo is absorbing the stock, place the fish and the onion in a food processor. Add the white pepper and cayenne. Pulse the fish in the food processor until there are no large pieces of fish visible. Transfer the fish mixture to the bowl with the matzo and stock. Add the egg yolks, salt, and sugar. Use a rubber spatula to thoroughly mix together the ingredients. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg whites until they form soft peaks. Fold the whipped egg whites into the fish mixture.
Set the reinforced fish stock over high heat. When it begins to boil, turn the heat down so that the stock is gently simmering. Form the fish mixture into oval shapes that are slightly smaller than the size of your fist. You can use a large spoon to help mold the fish mixture into a nice oval shape. Drop the fish into the simmering stock and cook for approximately 25 minutes, until the gefilte fish is fully cooked through. You may need to cook the gefilte fish in batches if it is not possible to fit all the fish in the simmering stock pot at one time. Remove the cooked gefilte fish to a rimmed baking sheet. When the gefilte fish have cooled, store them in the refrigerator. Serve the gefilte fish cold with your favorite horseradish condiment, and garnish with your favorite spring ingredients (I like to use pea shoots and radishes).