Seder Today

Gefilte fish, the way my grandmother prepared it

Vitaly Paley

There are two variations, or rather two different recipes. I vaguely remember eating both growing up but have never prepared them myself. The recipes have been passed on to my mother and now she is passing them on to me. I will describe them in loose terms as my mother described them to me.

Photo by Cydney Puro


Version #1

  1. Take one whole pike or white fish about 3 pounds, boned and butterflied 
  2. If using bone in fish then 4 pounds or so scaled, gutted and cut through the bone into 3 to 4 inch pieces.
  3. Generously salt the fish pieces (head and all) and let them sit in a cool place for at least two hours but better to refrigerate overnight.
  4. Wash the salt off and dry well. Cut as much meat out as possible around the head and the spine bone, leaving the skin and the spine bone intact. Grind the extracted flesh on a meat grinder with .5 of roughly chopped onion and 6-7 ounces stale bread soaked in about a pint of milk. Stir in one 3 beaten eggs and season the mixture with salt and lots of ground black pepper. Stuff the forcemeat back into the head and all the cavities around the skin making it look like the original pieces of fish if possible.
  5. If using a boned butterflied fish, spread the stuffing on the bottom side of the fish cover with the top.
  6. Slice unpeeled onion (peel adds color) and line the bottom of a large Dutch oven with them. Then scatter a few thin slices of peeled and thinly sliced red beets (be careful and not put too many or the resulting broth will be red in color. Amber or golden color is desired) followed by a layer of peeled and sliced carrots. Gently place the stuffed pieces of fish in a single layer on the bed of sliced vegetables or if using a whole stuffed fish carefully place it in the fish poacher or pot long enough to hold it. Completely cover the fish with more of the same sliced vegetables in the same order as the bed. Sprinkle some whole black peppercorns, large pinch of sugar and add a couple of whole bay leaves. Pour enough water to come up just above the top layer of vegetables. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Take the cover off and lower the heat to a gentle simmer and cook for 2, 2.5 hours and the resulting liquid is very flavorful and a bit tacky to the touch.

Chef’s comments: Fish will want to float to the top. Cover the fish loosely with parchment paper and pour a bit of cooking liquid over the top. It will keep it submerged while letting the liquid reduce and evaporate. Cool completely and serve with some cooked carrots, a bit of gelled cooking liquid and prepared horseradish.

Some thoughts: If my memory serves me right my grandmother cooked all dishes that took a long time in our brick oven. In those days the wood or coal-burning oven was used for everything from heating a home, to cooking food and even sleeping on its top.

I imagine if one had a brick oven handy it would make for a wonderful rendition of this dish. If not, I am sure this stovetop version is plenty good and my mother insists this fish be prepared on the stovetop.

Fresh water fish like pike or carp was commonly used to make gefilte fish. I imagine our close proximity to the river and lakes had a lot to do with that. My grandmother preferred the pike. Pike was considered a noble fish worthy of high holidays and celebrations. Karp was more of a commoner’s fish. Needless to say we never ate carp during our holiday meals.

There is a reason this recipe calls for soaked bread and not matzo. Communist Soviet Union was an atheist country. Judaism was shunned upon even more then other religions.  Anti-Semitism was rampant and persecuting Jews was practically a national pass time. So off course we could not openly celebrate Jewish holidays. Matzo was almost impossible to find. My mother’s aunt would make some and sneak it in to my grandmother’s house for Passover by bringing it packed in a suitcase. Needless to say matzo was too precious to soak and grind into the fish forcemeat so my grandmother used bread instead. We kept our traditions alive and observed the religious customs as best as we could. 

Version #2.

I think that the following version is more suitable when whole fish is not available. It also offers a very different cooking and serving variation.

  1. Take a couple of pike fillets and generously season them with salt. Keep in a cool place of an hour or so. Wash the salt off and dry well. Grind the fillets on a meat grinder with some diced onion and stale bread soaked in milk or water. Add one egg and mix. Form into patties the size of your palm and pan-fry in vegetable oil till done and golden on both sides. Place the cooked patties onto a serving platter and let them cool while preparing other parts of the dish.
  2. Slice thinly a couple of large peeled onions and 4 to 5 large carrots. Cook the vegetables slowly in some vegetable oil until very soft. Stir in a little tomato paste and season to taste. Continue cooking a little longer stirring until the vegetables collapse. Cool the mixture slightly then spread evenly over the fish patties.
  3. Cool completely and serve with prepared horseradish.

Prepared horseradish recipe is available in Paley’s Place cookbook if needed. It is my grandfather’s recipe.