Joan Nathan’s Mother-in-Law’s Zamosc Gefilte Fish

The gefilte fish in Joseph Wechsberg’s mouthwatering description is unfortunately a dish of the past. Today, most people buy frozen or bottled brands. Good cooks, however, insist on preparing the homemade variety for Friday night and the holidays. My late mother-in-law, Peshka Gerson, made it twice a year, at Passover and Rosh Hashanah. She used her mother’s recipe, handed down orally, from Zamosc, Poland. Her only concession to modernity was making individual patties rather than stuffing the filling back into the skin as described by Wechsberg. In addition, her filling was less elaborate. Years ago, when I asked Peshka for her recipe, two of her sisters-in-law were present. They all agreed that the rule of thumb is one pound of fat fish to one pound of thin. They also preferred the Polish custom of adding a little sugar. (Lithuanians say sugar is added to freshen already unfresh fish. Needless to say, Lithuanians do not add sugar to their gefilte fish.) Peshka, Chuma, and Rushka disagreed, however, on the seasonings. Chuma insisted on more salt, and Rushka explained that a little almond extract would do the trick. They both took me aside, promising to show me the “real” way to make gefilte fish. I have used their two suggestions as variations on Peshka’s basic recipe. Make your fish Lithuanian or Polish, with sugar or without, but just remember—it’s the carrots and horseradish that really count! I have been making this recipe since the mid-1970s. The only difference is that I cook the fish for twenty minutes. My mother-in-law cooked it for two hours!

Ingredients:

Fish:
• 3 pounds carp (meat)
• 1 1/2 pounds whitefish, pickerel, or rockfish (meat)
• 1 1/2 pounds yellow pike or buffel (meat)
• 6 onions
• 2 tablespoons salt, or to taste
• 6 eggs
• 3 tablespoons sugar
• 1 /2–1 cup matzah meal
• 3/4 cup water
• 1 teaspoon almond extract or 1/4 cup ground almonds (optional)
• 1 1/4 teaspoons pepper
• Horseradish (bottled or fresh)
Stock:
• 4 stalks celery, cut in 4-inch slices
• 3 onions, sliced
• 6 carrots, sliced on the bias
• 8 cups water, or enough to cover bones with 1 inch to spare (use less rather than more)
• Bones of fish (and heads, if desired)
• 1 tablespoon salt
• 1/2 tablespoon freshly ground pepper
• 1 tablespoon sugar

Preparation:

1. Place all the stock ingredients in a large kettle with a cover. Bring to a boil, then partially cover and reduce the heat to a simmer. While waiting for the pot to boil, begin preparing the fish.
2. In a wooden bowl, add to the ground-up fish all the other ingredients listed under Fish, carefully chopping very fine and blending. You can also use the grinder on a mixer. Wet your hands and form the fish into fat, oval-shaped patties, carefully sliding each into the simmering stock.
3. Simmer over a low flame slowly for 20 to 30 minutes or for 2 hours. Allow to cool in the pot and carefully remove all the patties, placing them on a platter.
After the fish has been removed, strain off the cooking liquid. This stock should then jell when chilled; if it does not, simply add a package of unflavored gelatin, following instructions on the package.
4. Serve the chilled gefilte fish with the jellied fish stock, horseradish, and of course the carrots.

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