The raw materials:
Carp – the cheapest fish on this earth, full of teeny bones and a fatty skin (occasionally referred to as “crap”)
Beets and carrots, for color and sweetness
Clean, dry onion skins (no one ever accused Jewish cuisine of being wasteful)*
Pepper, salt, and sugar
About five hours, five helpers, a couple of bottles of wine and a ton of patience.
That’s all it takes to prepare my grandmother’s gefilte fish (from here on out referred to as gefilt-oy fish, so named for the obscene amount of time and labor that goes into its preparation).
Do not be fooled by the short and basic ingredient list – this is not a trivial recipe. It is probably the least trivial cooking event I have ever been a party to. And a party it was, by the way – one that started with wine and ended with vodka. We had to celebrate the fish, did we not?
I wish I had concentration enough to snap a photo of the final, plated fish, but by that time all I wanted to do was crawl into bed. I can tell you that my grandmother’s gefilt-oy fish is very sweet, smooth, and light. I loved making the fish with my entire family and closest friends around me, crowding around my Mom’s kitchen island. I loved looking at the fish, drinking to the fish’s well-being, eating the fish, so on and so forth, but will I ever make it myself? NFW. Email me if you need me to decipher that acronym.
The following recipe is more of a guideline than a hard-set protocol. I am writing it up less to encourage anyone to undertake this lengthy (read: pain in the ass) procedure but to give you an idea of just how much of a pain in the ass it actually is. Unless you have your whole family crowded around you. Then it's fun.
My grandmother's gefilt-oy fish
For 3-4 kg of carp (whole fish):
1) Boil the carp heads, tails, and fins (excluding the gills!) for 30 minutes to make a fish stock. Strain the stock and keep hot.
2) While the stock is boiling happily away in a giant pot on the stove, slice the fish vertically into “steak” pieces. Make an incision (pardon the medical terminology) along the spine of the fish on both sides. Slide the knife under the skin and cut out the knob of fish flesh between the ribs (are they actually ribs? Pardon my cursory knowledge of fish anatomy) and the spine, being careful to keep the skin attached.
Keep the bones! They are key players in the many many subsequent steps.
3) Grind the fish flesh, onions, and two pieces of white bread soaked in water in a meat grinder. Mix in two raw eggs, a tablespoon of canola oil, black pepper, salt, sugar, and some cold water to a grandmother-sanctioned consistency. What that consistency is, I cannot say.
4) Adjust seasoning. And by this my grandmother meant taste the RAW fish and egg mixture, all the while assuring your family that you are not going to die of carp/crap poisoning because we eat sushi right? It’s the same thing, right? (Umm, no. Actually it’s not the same thing, not at all. Last time I checked, toro didn’t cost 99c per pound.)
5) Stuff the ground fish back into the fish skin. This step is totally key and I totally failed. I was not able to make a single piece that met my grandmother’s stringent requirements. I either put in too much filling or too little, either too far in or too far to the side. It wasn’t pretty. Oy.
6) Layer thinly sliced raw, peeled beets, sliced onions, and clean onion skins on the bottom of a heavy pot. Layer fish pieces on top, adding vegetables/onion skin between each fish piece and between each layer to prevent the fish from sticking. Drizzle each layer with canola oil.
This cauldron-esque pot made the trip from Moscow with my grandmother. Apparently, my inability to pack lightly has a genetic component.
7) Pour hot fish stock down the side of the pot (so as not to break up or otherwise disturb the already tormented fish) until the top layer of fish is almost covered, but not quite. Bring to a boil over high heat, lower heat and cook covered for 1 hour and uncovered for 2 hours, shaking the [hot, boiling, heavy, scary] pot occasionally to prevent the fish pieces from sticking to each other. [Please don’t sue me for damages if you, I am assuming drunkenly, decide to try this for yourself.] Every once in a while spoon some cooking liquid over the top layer of fish to prevent it from drying out.
8) Carefully transfer the cooked fish to a platter and pour some of the strained cooking liquid over the pieces to give them a gloss.** Cool completely in refrigerator before eating.
* Oddest ingredient prize? That belongs to the onion skins. The skins are largely responsible for the yellow/orange hue of the final gefilte fish product.
** The fish stock, after boiling with the vegetables and gefilt-OY fish, is rich and gelatinous. My grandmother recommends boiling potatoes in leftover stock. I imagine it would also make an amazing base for some form of soup.