Sunday, March 28, 2010

Smoked Whitefish Gefilte Fish with Horseradish Mayonnaise

There are some ethnic foods that can easily win fans outside their native lands. Even if you've never heard of Tibetan momo, chances are that you'll adore the flavorful dumpling of meat or vegetables wrapped in a soft and slippery dough. And you might be hard-pressed to spell dacquoise, but who wouldn't love disks of nut-enriched meringue layered with luscious buttercream? These foods seem to hit upon cravings and tastes that hold wide appeal, regardless of your background.

And then there are the foods that are a somewhat harder sell. It's like learning a language: if you're not exposed during that critical period in childhood, chances are it's never going to come easily to the tongue. At least not without a good deal of work. Gelatinous chicken feet, and ripe cheeses that smell like unwashed socks (Taleggio, I'm looking in your direction). And while I adore the fermented funk of shrimp paste, I can see why some, like my boyfriend, think it stinks like something that died on the beach. Which brings me to one of the least popular foods of my people: gefilte fish.

Gefilte fish gets a bad rap. It's a classic peasant food, a poached patty made of a mix of lake fishes that have been chopped and mixed with matzoh meal, eggs and seasoning, and poached in broth. Like meatloaf, it's a way of stretching an expensive or valuable ingredient, making sure everyone gets a taste of fish even when there aren't quite enough fillets to go around. It's similar to (and arguably developed from) the quenelle of French high court cuisine. But that's not how most people know it. To most Americans, gefilte fish comes in a jar from Manischewitz, surrounded by a yellowish jellied stock. It's not delicate, and it's not delicious.

But it doesn't have to be that way. In its traditional form -- made from fresh fish, and seasoned well -- it can be a lovely dish. Here on the West Coast, people often make their gefilte fish from salmon and halibut. It makes for a great variation, but I want something with just white-fleshed fish to meet my craving for tradition. The usual lake fish of Eastern Europe (or suburban New York) are pretty hard to come by out here. But last year I discovered a variation made with smoked whitefish. I grew up eating this delicacy on deli brunch trays, and am a sucker for its flavor. In this gefilte fish, the dense smoked fish is combined with tender sole. The salty/smoky flavor is offset by sweet carrots, mellow cooked onions and nippy scallions. The mixture is so tender it must be steamed on cabbage-lined trays instead of poached, but the resulting gefilte fish has a delicate, pate-like texture. Nobody's feeding this version to the dog under the table. I daresay it will win converts, even outside of the chosen people. (And yes, the smell of steaming cabbage + fish is exactly as awesome as you're thinking.)

And while I have some hesitation in mixing my Blog Life with my Real Life, I humbly direct you toward a radio story I produced on gefilte fish's historical preparation and West Coast incarnation. Perhaps that version will make it onto our Seder table next year.

Smoked Whitefish Gefilte Fish with Horseradish Mayonnaise
adapted from Jayne Cohen's Smoked Whitefish Gefilte Fish with Lemon-Horseradish Sauce in Bon Appetit, May 2002

yields ~15-20 patties, depending upon size of patties, and amount of additional matzoh meal required

Gefilte Fish
3/4 cup sliced peeled carrots
1/2 cup matzoh meal
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 cup chopped onion
1 cup chopped scallions
4 eggs
1 Tbsp lemon juice
1 1/2 lb sole (or other mild fish, such as flounder), cut into cubes
3/4 lb smoked whitefish, flaked off the bone
3/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
1 head cabbage

Horseradish Mayonnaise
2 garlic cloves, pressed
1/3 cup prepared horseradish
2 Tbsp lemon juice
1 cup mayonnaise
1 Tbsp dill leaves, chopped (optional)

Place the carrots in a saucepan with water to cover, and simmer until beyond tender (and nearly mushy), ~7-10 minutes. Drain, reserving 1/2 cup of the cooking liquid in a large bowl. Add the matzoh meal to the cooking liquid, and place carrots in a food processor.

Heat the olive oil over a medium flame in a heavy skillet. Add the onions, and saute until soft but not browned, ~5 minutes. Add the green onions, and stir 1 minute more. Remove from heat, allow to cool slightly, and add to the carrots in the food processor. Add matzoh meal mixture, and puree until smooth.

Crack 3 of the 4 eggs into a large mixer bowl, and beat until foamy and thickened, ~3-4 minutes. Add the carrot/onion/scallion/matzoh meal mixture, and mix well.

In your now-empty food processor bowl, add the fish, salt and pepper. Pulse until finely chopped, but not pureed. Add the remaining egg, and pulse until just combined. Add this mixture to the vegetable/egg mixture, and stir to combine. Cover and refrigerate until very cold, ~2 hours. Check after an hour -- if the mixture seems like it's too soft to shape, add additional matzoh meal.

After the fish mixture has chilled, set a steamer basket (or multiple steamer baskets if you've got) over simmer water. Peel the leaves off of the cabbage, and use them to line the baskets. Scoop out 1/3 cup of the fish mixture, form into a patty shape of your choosing, and place on the cabbage-lined steamer. Repeat, leaving a bit of space between (the gefilte fish will swell slightly upon steaming). Top with more cabbage. Cover and steam until the gefilte fish is firm and cooked through, ~40 minutes. Remove the cooked patties to a container (along with their cabbage leaves, which will keep them from drying out), and repeat the process with remaining mixture. The fish will be somewhat delicate when you remove it, but will firm upon chilling. Chill cooked gefilte fish in the refrigerator until cold, ~5 hours. Gefilte fish can be made up to two days in advance.

Combine sauce ingredients in a bowl, adjust seasonings to taste, and serve with the gefilte fish.


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