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Not Gefilte

For most American Jews, gefilte fish is one of the standard, unchanging preludes to the actual dinner part of the Passover seder. And normally I have no problem with that, especially with hrein, or horseradish. By the time the recitation of the Haggadah and the explanation of the items on the seder plate are done, everyone is joking about (or egging on their kids to pipe up and ask) the Fifth Question: When do we EAT??? And gefilte fish is the first answer.

It’s worthwhile to be hungry enough for once to feel, rather than just nodding as someone tells you self-righteously, that such a modest dish, made with fresh fish in the days when most of our grandparents and great-grandparents were too poor to eat it often, can be something to look forward to.

Gefilte fish is basically an oversized quenelle of ground whitefish and pike, filled out with eggs, onion, and matzah meal to stretch it. Simmered in fish stock for a couple of hours with or without added sugar, cooled to let the broth gel, served room temperature or cold, with horseradish as contrast.

But since most of us don’t make our own gefilte fish at home anymore, it’s usually bland, salted (and sometimes sweetened) ovals of stuff pulled from a pricey store-bought jar–no longer what you’d consider fresh, and no longer economical. And it’s usually about twice as big as any normal/sane appetizer for a meal that’s going to include brisket, chopped liver, meatballs, eggs, chicken and/or turkey, and other big proteins.

Can it be made well fresh? Yes, actually, and a number of Jewish cookbooks–Joan Nathan’s among the leaders–tell you how. But do I want to cook it myself, or eat it any other time than at someone else’s seder? No. Flat out, no. Not only is it a two-hour-plus process, it’s a big chore. All for a mediocre, bland kind of fish dumpling.

The other problem this year is that my daughter is now diabetic, and for the first time I’m going to have to help her count carbs so we can give her the right amount of insulin for a seder meal that will probably last over two hours. It’s tricky enough to do that accurately for a restaurant meal–desserts, which come last and for which the menu isn’t usually even presented until you’ve already eaten the meal, are by far the hardest foods to estimate by sight.

But traditional Ashkenazi-style seder dishes like gefilte fish and matzah ball soup are stuffed full of surprise carbs too, and you can’t be sure how much they contain unless you’re the cook. And that’s not counting the mandated matzah and haroset. All you can say is, all that matzah meal really starts to add up. Will my daughter overrun her carb count before she ever gets to the meal itself, with a chance to risk it on (more matzah-filled) desserts?

If I cook some kind of fish during Pesach week, I want it to be fresh and without much in the way of carbs. Most of all, I want it to taste good. Actively good. The only kind of gefilte fish I’ve ever eaten that came anywhere near this–and it was extremely good–was a baked fish casserole served as a hot appetizer by the Czech-born mother of a high school friend. It contained (I think) most of the basic ingredients of gefilte fish–fish, eggs, onion, matzah meal or perhaps potato–but it also contained a lot of celery, garlic, cracked black pepper and herbs like sage and thyme. Cut into squares, it was slightly moist inside but crunchy on top, something like a baked pan of Thanksgiving stuffing or cornbread, and was just plain delicious–something you could rarely say about gefilte fish. I haven’t tried to develop a recipe for this one yet–maybe sometime this week. If you make it yourself, you can figure the carbs per slice without much trouble, or you can make it without much matzah so its carbs don’t overwhelm the rest of the meal.

Another option would be to make a spicier fish paste, leaving out most or all of the matzah meal, and fry it in patties to serve with tomato sauce laced with either garlic and fennel seed or cumin and cinnamon. It comes out relatively light in texture, crisp on the outside, and full of flavor. Something like fish felafel, and best served hot.

A third option, also best served hot, would be white fish fillets steamed or broiled with a little olive oil and a bit of garlic until just done, and then served drizzled with a sauce of fresh green cilantro leaves pulverized to a fine silt and mixed with lime juice to taste and maybe a bit of grated ginger. Both the color and the taste of this uncooked sauce are sharp, green and lively.

Spicy Fish Felafel


Between the tapeworm risk from raw freshwater fish and the salmonella risk from raw eggs, tasting the raw mixture is one old-country habit that should just be dropped altogether. I know that the Slow Food types are all about eating raw meat dishes as long as they’re authentic, or a French thing, or whatever, but really. Band with me here to eradicate “Jewish Housewives’ Disease”. The drugs to purge tapeworm are no fun at all, and one case of it will cure you permanently of old-world nostalgia for unsanitary cooking practices.

If you need to sample the spicing for any kind of fish paste made from freshwater fish, always cook a spoonful in the broth, frying pan, or microwave and make sure it’s cooked all the way through (and wash your hands and utensils well) before tasting. The microwave only takes a minute–well worth it.

OK, enough hocking already (what would Jewish cooking be without hocking?), on to the recipe.

  • 1-2 lb. red snapper or other worthwhile whitefish (depends how many people you need to serve)
  • 1 slice matzah, soaked in water a couple of minutes and squeezed dry to crumble (25 g carbs) OR 1/2 c. almond meal (10 g carbs)–or skip the filler altogether if the fish paste will hold together ok by itself in the frying pan
  • 1/2 med. yellow onion
  • 1 egg (plus one egg white if you’re doing 2 lb. of fish)
  • 1 largeish clove garlic
  • 1 T fresh dill or chopped fresh cilantro and/or a good pinch of thyme
  • 1/4″ to 1 cm dab of z’khug or good pinch of hot pepper flakes
  • pinch fennel seed or 1/4 to 1/2 t. cumin or curry powder
  • juice of 1/2 lemon
  • ~1/4 t salt

For frying:

  • 1/4 c. matzah meal or almond meal, mixed with a little curry powder if you want, for dusting the patties before frying, optional
  • olive oil

Grind all the fish paste ingredients together in a food processor until fairly fine. (>>More hocking here: Make sure to wash the food processor parts very well afterward in hot soapy water before using for anything else.) Roll scooped spoonfuls of the paste in a soup bowl with the matzah or almond meal and fry in a couple of spoonfuls of olive oil in a nonstick pan to brown on all sides.  Either cook through in the pan or remove to a pyrex or microwaveable ceramic plate and microwave 2-3 min. on HIGH or until just cooked through.

Serve with a variation on microwave marinara:

  • 1 28-oz can no-salt tomatoes
  • 1 large clove garlic
  • 1/4 med yellow onion
  • 1 t. vinegar
  • pinches or sprinklings of cumin, cinnamon, nigella seed if you have it, and more hot pepper flakes or z’khug to taste OR a mixture of Italian herbs and fennel seed. Preferably not both options at once!

Blend basic sauce plus desired flavorings in a food processor, microwave 5 minutes on HIGH in a partly covered pyrex bowl.

Green Cilantro-Lime Sauce for White Fish

  • 1/2-1 bunch cilantro leaves, washed well and most of the stems removed
  • juice of a big lime
  • grating of fresh ginger, optional

The cilantro can be pulverized by chopping it roughly and then rubbing it through a wire mesh sieve with the back of a soup spoon (laborious), grinding it down in a mortar and adding the lime juice a little at a time once it’s broken down, or puréeing the leaves with a stick blender in a small container with a little water or the lime juice itself.

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