Question: How do you recognize a gefilte fish swimming in the ocean?
Answer: It’s the only one with a carrot on its head.
The subject of gefilte fish, in all of its old and new permutations, brought a standing room only crowd of over 200 enthusiasts to the Center for Jewish History in NYC last week.
An enthusiastic group of curious old timers (“what’s to talk about so much?”) and young hipsters (“SO cool”) gathered in the comfortable theatre to hear New York’s quintessential gefilte makers talk about their recipes, why gefilte fish has lasting appeal, what their patrons have to say about it, and best of all, to offer samples to the hungry crowd after the panel discussion.
Mitchell Davis, executive VP of the James Beard Foundation, moderated a panel with Elizabeth Alpern and Jeffrey Yoskowitz of the Gefiltera; Zach Kutsher of Kutsher’s Tribeca; Jack Lebowohl of 2nd Ave Deli; and Israeli chef Omer Miller of Dining Hall and HaShulhan in Tel Aviv.
Gefilte fish was described by Davis as a signifier of Jewish culture. Dominant flavors identify geography of origin (sweet from Poland, peppery from Hungary) and are often reflective of those culinary traditions.
Naama Shefi, a culinary curator working on a newly created video archive of Jewish food for the Center for Jewish History introduced the panel. She asked why an overflow crowd was gathered to talk and taste gefilte. “After all, gefilte is NOT fois gras”, she reminded us, with her gentle smile.
“It is the fascination for memory and longing. I believe food is a medium of love and THAT outweighs taste brilliance”, she suggested.
Jack Lebowohl, owner of the 2nd Ave Deli, feels that people come into his deli seeking reminders of their grandparents’ aromas and love. “A customer once said, after inhaling deeply, that the deli smells like Judaism,” he recalled with a smile.
Zach Kutsher emphasized that his restaurant’s gefilte fish is “the most polarizing dish on my menu. It doesn’t meet diners’ pre-conceptions.”
But that reinvention of the traditional is precisely what he intended with his elegant, upscale interpretation. By sourcing wild halibut and local micro greens, and dressing the challah bound mixture with a lemon vinaigrette and drizzling the composition with parsley oil, “it is more like a French preparation.” (For more on my dining experience at Kutsher’s, click here for my review.)
Israeli Chef Omer Miller said that the gefilte craze has not hit the Tel Aviv scene yet. Still unconvinced of its deliciousness, he recalled being prodded by his grandmother to eat it because, well, he SHOULD. “Yea, but it’s grey!” he retorted, not quite sure.
Liz Alpern and Jeffrey Yoskowitz, founders and creators of the Gefilteria in Brooklyn, referred to our times as being in a “food moment”. Alpern pointed to the resurgence of all kinds of traditional foods being cooked and presented at food markets like Smorgasburg and the Essex Street Market. This food renaissance reflects a re-thinking of traditional foods and includes re-branding and re-marketing in order to attract a new generation to items traditionally found on their grandparents’ tables.
In the end, it’s all about taste and presentation. It was no surprise that the hungry crowd surged the lobby after the talk, to check out the generous samples being offered by these gefilte makers. The buzz was palpable as friends compared notes and strangers chatted about what was new and what they thought.
Kvass cocktails, boldly magenta with beet juice, and mixed with soda water and gin were served as the cocktail of the evening. It was cleverly conceived of and created by the Gefilteria team.
Dessert was whimsical gefilte-shaped nut cookie, served with beet dyed shredded coconut and provided by Tralala Juice Bar and Bakery.
Cards for comments and voting for BEST gefilte were distributed. The winner was the Gefilteria. They will have their recipe documented in Shefi’s newly created video archive of Jewish food.
Their gefilte bruschetta won me over, too, with its deliciously moist neatly presented rectangle of gefilte topped with shredded carrot and beet horseradish.
Nothing grey about this re-invention!
Thank you to the 2nd Ave Deli for providing this recipe for traditional gefilte fish.
- 1 1/2 pound filet of whitefish and 1/2 pound filet of carp or pike (At fish store, ask for whole fish, fileted and skinned. Retain the heads and bones. Many stores will also grind the fish for you.)
- 2 large onions (about 2 cups when grated; don’t tamp it down)
- 1 stalk celery
- 1/2 medium carrot
- 6 eggs, beaten
- 4 teaspoons sugar
- 2 1/2 teaspoons salt
- 3/4 cup corn oil
- 1 cup matzo meal
- heads and bones from fish
- 4 medium onions, peeled and quartered
- 2 stalks celery, trimmed and chopped into 3-inch pieces
- 2 medium carrots, peeled
- In a food processor or grinder, grind fish (refrigerate heads and bones for later use), 2 onions, 1 stalk of celery, and half a carrot. (If you use a food processor, make sure you leave no large pieces of fish or bones; you may want to transfer the mixture, bit by bit, into a wooden bowl, and go over it vigorously with a hand chopper).
- Place fish mixture in a large bowl, and add eggs, sugar, salt, pepper, and corn oil, mixing thoroughly with a wire whisk. Stir in matzo meal, and continue to mix until everything is thoroughly blended. Refrigerate for one hour or more (longer, even overnight, is better).
- Fill two large stockpots 3/4 full of water, and bring to a roiling boil. In each, throw in half the fish heads and bones, 2 onions, half the celery, and a carrot. Divide batter into 12 patties of equal size. (Don’t worry that your batter is a little loose; it has to be that way to keep your gefilte fish light.) Transfer each patty to a large cooking spoon, shape into an oval, and very gently lower it into the boiling water. Put six in each pot. Lower heat and simmer for 1 1/2 hours.
- Remove fish balls and carrots from pots, and refrigerate on a covered plate. Discard everything else. Serve chilled with red and/or white horseradish. Slice carrots for garnish.