There’s something about Passover that makes me want to cling to traditions, to the way I’ve always done things – not to everything, but to some critical mass of practices or foods tied to family, the Ashkenazi culture I was raised in, and plain old childhood memories. Firmly in all of those streams of tradition was gefilte fish: the kind in a jar of jelly that you could just barely convince yourself was tasty, or a good vehicle for really hot horseradish, or something so much a part of the ritual that you couldn’t not have a bit. Some seder attendees always boycotted it outright. Funny, there was always an extra jar at the end of the holiday, and I remember finding one at some other time of year and wondering how long it had been there. More than a year? Possibly.
If I ever had homemade gefilte fish it was only once or twice. It was one of those projects that seemed only ever to be undertaken by Eastern European-born bubbehs or do-everything yummy mummies, either of whom were happy to stay up till 2 in the morning elbow-deep in ground fish, if they even knew where to get the right kind of freshwater fish that you weren’t supposed to eat raw because of parasites, adding an element of danger for the OCD among us. The frozen kind that comes in logs that are boiled with an onion and a carrot and then sliced were nicer, almost gourmet by comparison, so I would sometimes contribute that to group seders.
In Britain, it turns out, they do gefilte fish differently. It’s fried; how exciting! What doesn’t taste better fried? You can even get it in little trays during the rest of the year at Marks & Spencer. Fried gefilte fish does seem to be a British thing, according to this article in the Forward. And obviously fried doesn’t lend itself to jars full of fishy jelly, and to have it in quantity for a family seder, you’d want to be able to make enough. Finally, Britain is islands surrounded by salt water, and the relative lack of freshwater fish means that people are not too fussed about what kind of fish you use. Homemade was starting to seem less of an insurmountable ideal.
Reader, I made my own fried gefilte fish. It wasn’t hard or technical, didn’t keep me up till 2 am, wasn’t even that messy, and I would do it again. We even enjoyed eating it. What surprised me the most was how much it tasted like what I expected gefilte fish to taste like, even though it was more or less a fish cake… but I doubt anyone would miss the jelly.
Fried Gefilte Fish (adapted from the Forward’s recipe)
Makes 10-12 patties
1 pound fish (I used farmed trout fillets, and pulled the skin off before grinding in the food processor)
1 tablespoon cracked black pepper
½ tablespoon sea salt
3 tablespoon plus 1 1/2 cups matzo meal
¾ cup oil (the original recipe said olive oil, which is kosher for Passover but not so great for frying at high temperatures; your decision)
1) Grind fish and onion in food processor, then combine with, egg, pepper and salt and 3 tablespoons of the matzo meal.
2) Form the mixture into small balls, each about the size of a lemon. Roll each of these in the remaining matzo meal, creating an even coating.
3) Fill the bottom of a wok with frying oil and set carefully over a medium-high flame. When a sprinkling of matzo meal sizzles in the oil, add as many patties as will fit without crowding the pan.
4) Fry for 2 minutes on each side, at which point patties should be crisp and golden brown. Check that the fish is cooked all the way through (the center should be white rather than translucent). If not cooked through, continue cooking on lower heat.
5) Serve hot or cold with chrain (horseradish). (I also threw together some tartar sauce with mayo, a pickle, a hard-boiled egg and some dill, as I wasn’t sure how the fresh horseradish would go down.)