Getting Creative With A Passover Staple: Gefilte Fish

Jars of gefilte fish sit on shelves at McCaffrey's Passover Store in Yardley, Pa. i

Even if you don't have access to fresh pike and whitefish, you don't necessarily have to turn to gefilte fish in a jar. Portland chef Jenn Louis makes hers with salmon and halibut. William Thomas Cain/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption William Thomas Cain/Getty Images
Jars of gefilte fish sit on shelves at McCaffrey's Passover Store in Yardley, Pa.

Even if you don't have access to fresh pike and whitefish, you don't necessarily have to turn to gefilte fish in a jar. Portland chef Jenn Louis makes hers with salmon and halibut.

William Thomas Cain/Getty Images

Monday night marks the start of the Jewish holiday of Passover. Across the world, Jews will sit down to meals of ceremonial food. There's matzo, symbolizing the exodus from Egypt, and wine to celebrate freedom. Then there's gefilte fish.

These poached fish patties have been called the national dish of the Ashkenazi, the Jews of Eastern Europe. But as tastes change and Jews travel far from Europe — to places like the West Coast of the United States — they have found ways to keep the tradition alive.

That doesn't have to mean gefilte fish in a jar. Robert Sternberg, a cookbook author, culinary historian and rabbi, finds the stuff inedible.

"Wouldn't touch it," he says. "Once you've had the real thing, you can tell the difference."

Sternberg's grandmother came from a small town in Lithuania and used to make her traditional gefilte fish from carp, whitefish and pike — all fresh. Really fresh.

Get the recipe for Jenn's Gefilte Fish.

Portland chef Jenn Louis, shown at her restaurant, Lincoln.

Portland chef Jenn Louis, shown at her restaurant, Lincoln, has put her own twist on traditional gefilte fish. Courtesy Alexis Achten hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Alexis Achten

"When she would make gefilte fish, and that was nearly every other week," Sternberg says, "I knew it was going to be a gefilte fish week, because on Thursday live fish would be swimming in the bathtub."

Even if Jews on the West Coast wanted to fill their bathtubs with fresh fish, it's hard to find many lakes with pike and whitefish. So they look toward the Pacific Ocean instead.

Tinkering With Tradition

Like many West Coasters, Jenn Louis, who runs Lincoln Restaurant in north Portland, Ore., makes her gefilte fish out of salmon and halibut, which usually start their spring runs right around Passover.

"The salmon has a little more fat content to it, a little bit more structure and a little bit more of a bold flavor. And the halibut is a really, really lean fish. It's very, very delicate," Louis says. "But together, I think, they just complement each other very well."

Louis' recipe initially came from a family of fourth-generation Oregon Jews. But she has added her own touches.

"I like a little more updated version, with some lemon zest, which kind of gives a brighter flavor, [and] some fennel frond. And then I use a court bouillon, which is an acidic poaching liquid, with white wine, fennel seed, peppercorn ..."

Louis doesn't have qualms about tinkering with many people's traditional idea of gefilte fish. Jewish cuisine reflects a range of flavors, she says, even within her own household.

"My husband is Sephardic — his family is from Greece by way of Spain — and my family is Ashkenazi, mostly Russia and Poland. And so we grew up with really different food," she says. "He didn't grow up with bagels, lox and cream cheese, and I did. He grew up with a representation of more of a Mediterranean diet."

So while Louis' West Coast gefilte fish may sound strange, to culinary historians like Sternberg, it is very much a part of Jewish tradition.

"Jewish cooking will always look first at local ingredients, at seasonal ingredients," he says. "You know, using what's regionally available, and working with it in the traditional ways, which is really a cornerstone of all cuisine."

Jenn's Gefilte Fish

Makes 24 large patties

3 pounds halibut, skinless, cut into 1-inch cubes
3 pounds salmon, skinless, cut into 1-inch cubes
3 onions, grated
3 carrots, grated
Finely grated zest of 2 lemons
2 tablespoons finely chopped fennel frond
2 tablespoons salt
6 eggs
3 tablespoons sugar
3/4 cup matzo meal
3/4 cup water
1 1/4 teaspoons freshly ground pepper

Pulse fish in food processor until roughly ground.

Put fish in large bowl and add remaining ingredients. Mix just until combined. Do not overmix. Chill for 30 minutes.

Form into 3- to 4-ounce patties. Poach patties in gentle simmer in court bouillon (see recipe below) for 30 minutes. Allow to cool in broth.

Remove from broth and chill. Serve with horseradish.

Court Bouillon

Makes 6 quarts

7 quarts water
1 bunch fresh thyme
1 bunch fresh flat-leaf parsley
1/2 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
1/2 teaspoon whole fennel seeds
1 bottle (750 ml) dry white wine
1 yellow onion, sliced
2 medium carrots, peeled and sliced into 1/4-inch rounds
1 lemon, washed and sliced into 1/4-inch rounds
3 dried bay leaves
2 tablespoons coarse salt

Fill a large stockpot with water (about three-quarters full). Bundle thyme, parsley, peppercorns and fennel seeds in a small piece of cheesecloth to make a bouquet garni, and place in stockpot. Add remaining ingredients.

Cover pot and bring to a simmer over medium-low heat. Remove lid; gently simmer 30 minutes. Remove from heat; discard bouquet garni. Use bouillon immediately, or let cool completely, about 1 hour, before storing.

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