On the Passover Seder table, there are few foods more reviled than gefilte fish. Burdened with the nickname “filthy fish” and typically sourced from glass jars where it’s suspended in a viscous, gelatinous sludge, it’s been likened to SPAM, cat food, and other, more scatological creations that offer no hint of why it deserves to have been called the national dish of the Ashkenazi, or Jews of Eastern Europe.
All of which is a pity, because gefilte fish, if treated right, can be, if not sublime, then definitely the best thing to happen to horseradish since roast beef. Although the mysterious torpedo-like logs found on grocery store shelves would suggest otherwise, the poached fish patties are very simple in origin, usually relying on a combination of ground fish, eggs, vegetables, and matzoh meal. Still, gefilte — which means “stuffed,” in reference to the traditional recipes that call for stuffing the ground-up fish back into its skin for cooking — remains something of a no-fly zone for most otherwise ambitious home cooks, perhaps because it’s so time-consuming, and perhaps because (at least in the city) there are plenty of stores, like Russ & Daughters and Midwood’s Domino, that sell top-quality gefilte that people actually have a desire to consume.
But like most Jewish holidays, Passover, which begins tonight, brings out both the best and most masochistic in its observers, meaning that it’s an ideal time to try something new, messy, and extremely labor-intensive. Thus, one-quarter of Fork in the Road spent most of yesterday chopping, blending, steaming, and all but murdering her food processor; the results can be viewed above. Despite the amount of work, the ends most certainly justified the means, yielding moist, fluffy, lightly-seasoned dumplings that were anything but filthy fish. Best of all, there wasn’t so much as a squidge of jelly to be found. If you are inclined to spend several hours in a similar fashion, the recipe, from Bon Appetit by way of Epicurious, follows below.
3/4 cup thinly sliced peeled carrots
1/4 cup matzo meal
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup chopped onion
1 cup chopped green onions
4 large eggs
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 pounds mild white fish fillets (such as sole or flounder), cut into small pieces
2 cups flaked smoked whitefish (about 8 ounces), carefully boned
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 large cabbage, separated into leaves
2 garlic cloves
1/4 cup prepared white horseradish
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 cup mayonnaise
Butter lettuce leaves
For gefilte fish:
Cook carrots in pan of boiling salted water until very tender, about 8 minutes. Drain, reserving 1/2 cup cooking water in small bowl. Stir matzo meal into water; let stand 10 minutes. Place carrots in processor. Heat olive oil in heavy medium skillet over medium-low heat. Add onion and sauté until soft, about 5 minutes. Add green onions and stir 1 minute. Add onion mixture to carrots in processor. Add matzo meal mixture; blend until mixture is pureed and smooth. Using electric mixer, beat 3 eggs and lemon juice in large bowl until foamy and slightly thickened, about 4 minutes. Stir in mixture from processor; do not clean processor bowl.
Blend fish fillets, smoked fish, salt, and pepper in same processor bowl until fish is finely chopped. Add remaining egg and blend to coarse paste. Add fish mixture to matzo meal mixture and mix thoroughly. Cover and refrigerate until very cold, about 2 hours.
Line large baking sheet with waxed paper. Using wet hands, shape 1/4 cup fish mixture for each dumpling into egg-shaped oval. Place on prepared sheet. Cover with waxed paper and chill while preparing cabbage and steamer.
Set vegetable steamer rack in large pot. Fill pot with enough water to meet, but not cover, bottom of rack. Line rack with cabbage leaves. Arrange 8 fish dumplings on leaves; cover with additional cabbage. Bring water to boil. Cover pot and steam dumplings until cooked through and firm to touch, about 25 minutes. Transfer upper cabbage leaves to platter. Top with cooked dumplings. Cover with bottom cabbage leaves. Steam remaining dumplings in additional cabbage leaves in 2 more batches. Cover and refrigerate gefilte fish until cold, at least 6 hours. (Can be prepared 2 days ahead. Keep refrigerated.)
Push garlic through garlic press into small bowl or mince garlic and place in small bowl. Mix in horseradish and lemon juice. Gradually whisk in mayonnaise. Season sauce with salt and pepper. Cover; chill up to 1 day.
Line plates with lettuce leaves. Arrange 1 or 2 fish dumplings on each. Spoon lemon-horseradish sauce alongside.