Passover is Dan’s favorite Jewish holiday. The story and traditions are so specific and image-conjuring, and the meal so delicious and special, as it’s only made once a year…how can you go wrong?
(Clara and her sweet tooth prefer Rosh Hashanah.)
A standard component of any Passover sedar is gefilte fish, most often of the Manischewitz variety. We know there are folks out there who love this stuff, folks whose childhood memory of this tradition is so strong that taste and texture and other troubling elements can do nothing to mar their enjoyment of the dish in their later adult life. We, however, are not these folks.
We find modern day gefilte fish…troubling. Though it’s supposedly made of fish, it comes jarred with a shelf life of three years. Yes. This jar of gefilte fish, on the shelves in April 2012, doesn’t expire until March of 2015. How is it possible that one of the most perishable edibles on earth – fish – can be canned for an extremely nonperishable shelf life?
Yes, yes, we know many kinds of fish can be and are shelf-stabilized. But still, there’s something about the pale, completely unrecognizable orbs of jarred gefilte fish and the mucousy goo (ahem, “fish stock jelly”) that surrounds them that make us decidedly suspicious. (At least tinned sardines look like sardines…right?). Whatever happened to the fish to get it in this state, we don’t really want to know.
The thing with foods that come in cans and jars, though, is that once upon a time, they had another, more organic form. Gefilte fish must, at some point, have started with a recognizable fish.
It did, of course.
We recently read Jane Ziegelman’s food-centric 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement, and Gefilte fish is something of a star, taking up a place on most of the tables in the book. Ziegelman tells us that “‘gefilte fish’ comes from the German gefülte, meaning stuffed or filled, since the original version was exactly that, a whole stuffed fish” (page 87). Awesome! Here’s the beginning of a basic recipe:
The prepared fish flesh is seasoned and stuffed back into the original skin – fancy! – then baked with vegetables.
It actually sounds delicious.
Ms. Ziegleman also tells us that, in fact, the dish is not originally Jewish, though “across Central and Eastern Europe, one could find some version of gefilte fish wherever Jews had settled, prepared, like clockwork, Friday mornings, and served that evening with grated horseradish. Aside from matzoh or challah, few Jewish foods were as ubiquitous” (page 87). It’s actually quite interesting to read up on the variations – we were surprised by how many of them there are! – and thanks to Google books (marvel of marvels), you can, too, here.
Most importantly, she notes that “because of its intricacy, the dish was also a perfect measure of the Jewish housewife’s culinary skill. No other food in the Jewish kitchen requires as much time or finesse” (again, page 87.)
Hm. We’re not sure we have the finesse to make gefilte fish from scratch. But we got to thinking: it couldn’t be possible that all prepared gefilte fish came in jars…
If you venture into Chasidic Williamsburg on a Sunday afternoon, and make it to the Lefkowitz grocery store on Lee Avenue at Ross without being chased off by a resident disproving of your bare wrists and ankles, squeeze past the over-sized carriages toting several small children apiece and past aisles crowded with jars of horseradish, cold whitefish salad, high-gluten flour, rainbow cookies, ground hazelnuts and almonds and jars of something that looks oddly like dulce de leche…in the back, in the narrow freezer case, you’ll find…frozen gefilte fish.
A lot of it.
This is the real deal. First off, it’s raw. You actually have to cook it. And its freezer life is a few months at best. There’s no fish stock jelly. Just some white fishes (the combination depends on the brand), some onions, an egg or two. Win.
We took our lead from Zeigleman, and prepared it thus:
Place the log of frozen gefilte fish in a pot. Cover with water, and add a tablespoon of granulated sugar, salt and freshly ground pepper, a sweet onion, quartered, and two carrots. You can also add some celery stalks or a can of crushed tomatoes, if you have them on hand. Cover tightly, and boil for an hour and a half hour (or, for a less smelly cooking experience, cover and bake at 350F for the same amount of time). Remove the log, slice, and serve, cold, with the cooked vegetables and a strong horseradish.
In fact, Clara always gets seconds.
If you make it to Lee Ave, be sure to stop in at Flaum’s on Lee at Wilson for some sour pickles and smoked white fish.
And Oneg Heimishe on Lee between Rutledge & Heyward for the best rum balls & rugelach this side of the Atlantic.
And if you’re lucky, you might also witness a mega sale of, um, classic chasidic wear.