Most of you already know I come from three generations of kosher caterers, and I was raised working in a kosher kitchen. One of the greatest joys of my childhood was helping out on the Jewish holidays. I remember running up and down the dark wooden stairs, giving clients theirs orders of gefilte fish and other holiday delights. I worked hard for my tips, which I had to share with my grandfather.
Mrs. Koffler was in the kitchen making the gefilte fish. She was from Eastern Europe, and barely spoke English. She had her own cooking style – she never measured anything. Her apprentice in the kitchen was an African-American from Philadelphia named Eliot Hoffman. When Mrs. Koffler retired, Eliot became the chef in charge of making the gefilte fish. Over the years, the recipe has changed slightly, but it has remained essentially the same.
Remember, when it comes to Jewish cooking, I have never measured anything in my life. Gefilte fish must be made with touch, feel, and love. So, here goes…
8-9 lbs Carp, Pike or Whitefish, and Pollock, filleted and ground*
4-5 qt Water, cold
1 Turnip, large, peeled (white is best but yellow will also work)
1 Parsnip, peeled
6-8 Spanish onions, peeled, cut in 1/2” pieces
4-6 Celery stalks, cut in 1/2” pieces
6-8 Carrots, peeled, cut in 1/2” pieces
2-3 Tbsp Sugar, optional (Mrs. Koffler never used sugar; Eliot and my father did. I prefer it
without. When Mrs. Koffler wanted it sweeter, she would add salmon to the
3-4 tsp Pepper, freshly ground, to taste
3-4 tsp Kosher salt, to taste
6-8 Bay leaves
1/3–1/2 cup Matzo meal
*Ask your fishmonger to grind the fish. Ask him to save the tails, skin, fins, heads, and bones. Be sure he gives them all to you.
Place the reserved bones, skin, and fish heads in a wide fish steamer. If you do not have one, use a large saucepan with a cover. Add the water, 2 teaspoons of salt and pepper, and the bay leaves and bring to a boil. Remove the foam that accumulates.
Fish steamer for the gefilte fish.
Add 3 onions along with 3 of the carrots and the celery. Cut all into 1/2” slices. Add the sugar and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer for about 20 minutes while the fish mixture is being prepared.
Place the ground fish in a bowl. In a food processor finely chop the remaining onions, the remaining carrot, the parsnip and the turnip. (Not too fine. Do not let them liquefy.) Add the chopped vegetables to the ground fish.
Add the eggs, one at a time, salt and pepper to taste, and no more than a cup of cold water and mix thoroughly. Stir in enough matzo meal to make the mixture hold its shape. Wet your hands with cold water (or a little safflower oil), scoop 1/4 cup of fish from the mixture, and mold into an oval shape the size of your hand, about 4-5 inches long. Do this until you have molded all of the mixture.
Gently place the fish patties in the simmering fish stock. Place them right on top of the onions, skins, head, and bones and return the stock to a simmer. Cover and simmer for 30 to 40 minutes. Taste the liquid while the fish is cooking and add salt and pepper to taste.
When the gefilte fish is cooked, carefully remove from the steamer with a slotted spoon, and arrange on a small sheet pan to cool for at least 15 minutes.
Strain the stock; it should gel when chilled. Serve over the fish.
Serve with a sprig of fresh parsley and fresh beet horseradish.