by Roz Cummins
The first seder I ever attended wasn’t as a guest or as a participant, but as staff.
I grew up in a town that had a youth employment agency and one of the services they offered was “Hostess Helpers.” High school students attended a brief training session (serve from the left, clear from the right…) and when we were done we were each handed a slippery vinyl apron that had a tendency to untie itself and sent on our way.
I had already worked at many sit-down dinners, cocktail parties, and large receptions, but this night was different from all other nights because this night was a seder.
I knew about the origins of Passover because the colorful painting of pascal blood smeared above the doorway in my Golden Bible for Children was imprinted on my mind, along with the account of the terrible plagues and the flight into Egypt. I did not, however, know anything about how people celebrated Passover in their homes in the late 20th century. The guests arrived just as the sun was setting, and they all took their beepers off and left them on the kitchen counter.
The mother and grandmother had cooked the meal and it was ready to go. All I had to do was serve it and clean up the kitchen as the meal progressed. I listened to the family reading from the Haggadah. The ritual was incredibly beautiful, and I was moved by the strong sense I got that the divine had been invited in and was present at the table with the family.
Apart from the moment when one of the beepers went off, the meal went well and everyone seemed to enjoy themselves.
Afterward, as I finished cleaning up in the kitchen, the grandmother somehow ascertained that I had never had gefilte fish. “What????” she gasped. “You’ve never had gefilte fish???” Clearly she felt that this was a situation that had to be addressed. Immediately.
Now, I had always been “a good little eater,” a kid who was willing to try most foods, but gelatinous, amorphous foodstuffs floating in a broth of indeterminate origin were low on my personal food chain. I was pretty sure that I didn’t want to try gefilte fish so I declined politely. Nothing doing. This was one determined bubbe! She pinned me against the kitchen counter and literally force-fed me my very first taste of gefilte fish.
So, I swallowed the spoonful of fish (a phrase I had never even imagined existed until that night – a spoonful of fish), took a deep breath, and politely declared it, “Very nice.” The grandma looked satisfied and we resumed cleaning the kitchen.
My memories of that night are of being introduced to the history and ritual of the seder meal – that singular sense of intimacy with the divine, the powerful feeling of participating in something that moves both forward and backward in time and which remains the same despite the changes that take place in the rest of the world and the rest of our lives – and, of course, the unasked for first taste of gefilte fish.
Since then, I’ve been fortunate to attend many seders as a guest, and also to have the chance to hang out with my friends in their kitchens as they prepare the meal for their family and friends. I’ve now had gefilte fish of all sorts – from a jar, from a store, and made by a friend. And I have to say – home-made is always best.
We are incredibly fortunate that Joan Nathan is willing to share her recipe for gefilte fish with us. This is from her new book, Quiches, Kugels, and Couscous: my search for Jewish Cooking in France.
Joan Nathan’s Gefilte Fish
(POLISH- STYLE FISH BALLS)
ONE OF THE EARLIEST PRINTED RECIPES for stuffed fish was in a volume entitled Le Cuisinier Royal et Bourgeois by Francois Massialot, published in Paris in 1691. The author suggested that the fish be cleaned and the skin filled with the chopped flesh of carp, along with chopped mushrooms, perch, and the nonkosher eel. The skin of the stuffed carp was stitched or tied together, and the fish was then left to cook in an oven in a sauce of brown butter, white wine, and clear broth; it was served with mushrooms, capers, and slices of lemon. In Alsace today there is still a special stuffed fish cooked in white wine, carpe farcie à l’alsacienne, which is similar. But by and large, gefilte fish came toFrance with the waves of emigrants from eastern Europe.
Sarah Wojanski’s Parisian version of gefilte fish from Poland uses pike, haddock, cod, whiting, sole, and carp, and sauteed onions. Although she makes her gefilte fish into balls, she also stuffs some of the chopped- fish mixture into the head of the fish and encloses more of it in the skin. I have divided Sarah’s recipe in half, but the amounts might still be too big for you. If so, just divide them again. I have a big Seder and always give some gefilte fish away.
Yield: 36 patties
8 pounds whole fish with bones and skin, such as carp, mullet, rockfish, haddock, whiting, sole, whitefish, or pike, filleted and ground*
2 tablespoons salt, or to taste
7 peppercorns, plus freshly ground pepper to taste
4 onions, peeled
6 medium carrots, peeled
1 parsnip, peeled and chopped
2 tablespoons sugar, or to taste
3 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
3 large eggs
About ¹?³ cup matzo meal
*Ask your fishmonger to grind the fish, reserving the tails, fins, heads, and bones. Be sure he gives you the bones and trimmings.
Put the reserved bones, skin, and at least one of the fish heads (see
footnote) in a wide, very large saucepan with a cover. Pour in water
to cover by about 5 inches. Add 1 tablespoon of the salt and the
peppercorns, and bring to a boil. Remove any scum that accumulates
with a slotted spoon.
Cut one onion into quarters, and add along with five of the carrots
and the parsnip. Add the sugar, and bring to a boil. Cover, and
simmer for about 2 hours. Long cooking will ensure a broth with
jelly. Turn off the heat, strain the broth, and discard the bones and
vegetables, reserving the carrots. Refrigerate overnight.
The next day, take the remaining three onions, slice thinly into
rounds, and sauté in the oil in a medium- sized frying pan until
they are golden. Pulse to grind in a food processor equipped with
the steel blade.
Put the ground fish and onions in a large bowl. Grate the
remaining carrots into the bowl and add the eggs, one at a time, the
remaining tablespoon of salt, the ground pepper, and about ½ cup
of cold water. Mix thoroughly. Stir in enough matzo meal to make
a light, soft mixture that will hold its shape. Either taste the raw
fish to see if the seasonings need to be adjusted, or if you are
uncomfortable tasting uncooked fish and eggs, heat the broth and
dip a small amount in the broth to cook before tasting.
Wet your hands with cold water, scoop up about ¼ cup of the
fish mixture, and form it into an oval shape about 3 inches long.
Repeat until you have made oval patties out of all the mixture
except for a handful to stuff the cavity of the reserved fish head or
heads. Gently put the fish patties and the fish heads in the simmering
fish stock, adding more water if necessary almost to cover.
Cover loosely, and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes. Taste the liquid
while the fish is cooking, and add seasoning to taste. Shake the pot
periodically, so the fish patties won’t stick. When the gefilte fish
is cooked, remove from the water and allow to cool for at least
Using a slotted spoon, carefully remove the fish patties and the
heads, and arrange on a platter with the fish head or heads in the
center. Strain some of the stock over the fish, saving the rest in a
bowl. Slice the cooked carrots into rounds cut on the diagonal
about ¼ inch thick. Put a piece of carrot on top of each gefilte- fish
patty. Chill until ready to eat. Serve one gefilte fish patty with a
sprig of parsley and a dollop of horseradish.