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David Lissner
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Eat this! Gefilte fish, the Jewish aphrodisiac

Wildfire’s gefilte fish.

Wildfire’s gefilte fish.

What it is: A traditional Jewish dish, gefilte fish are balls or cakes of seasoned minced fish simmered in fish stock and served chilled.

The fish could be any kind that’s available. Historically, inexpensive carp was often used; Schafer Fisheries in Thomson, Ill., exports millions of pounds of Asian carp from the Mississippi to Israel for gefilte fish. In the U.S., milder-tasting fish such as whitefish and pike tend to be preferred.

Seasoning varies with regional differences. A linguistic and culinary divide through Eastern Poland known as the “Gefilte Fish Line” once separated “Galitzianers” (Jews from Galicia, encompassing parts of Poland and Germany) from “Litvaks” (Jews from Lithuania, Latvia and the Russias). Galitzianers preferred heavily sweetened fish, while Litvak recipes have more pepper and garlic.

Where it comes from: Eastern European recipes for gefilte fish more or less as served today date to the 16th century, but early forms of the dish were likely eaten in medieval times or even ancient Rome. Gefilte means “stuffed” in Yiddish, and originally the minced-fish mixture served as a forcemeat that would stuffed back into the fish skins; use of the term for skinless fish balls arose in the 19th century.

What to do with it: Gefilte fish is traditionally served as an appetizer or sometimes a light meal. It’s commonly served on the sabbath. Serving fish on Friday nights has been Jewish custom since talmudic times, because it’s considered a symbol of fertility, and ancient rabbis instructed Jews to make love on Friday nights. More prosaically, Jewish law also forbids removing the bones from fish as unacceptable work on the sabbath, so the pre-boned, chopped fish dish is ideal.

Joe Decker

Joe Decker

Gefilte fish is also served on holidays, such as Passover, which starts Monday evening. At Wildfire in Glenview and Lincolnshire, Chef Joe Decker will serve his version Monday, April 18, and Tuesday, April 19, as part of a traditional Passover dinner menu inspired by his family’s celebrations.

Sharp horseradish forms the traditional accompaniment to gefilte fish, and the red style colored with beets makes a lovely contrast to the pale fish. Coins of poached carrots also usually garnish the dish, for additional color, and some people like to serve a little of the flavorful jellied fish stock as well.

For centuries, Jewish homemakers prepared gefilte fish by laboriously hand chopping the fish, but today a food processor makes short work of it.

Wildfire’s gefilte fish
Jewish chopped-fish balls
Chef Joe Decker

1-1/4 pounds whitefish fillets, skinless, cut into 2-inch chunks
1-1/4 pounds haddock fillets, skinless, cut into 2-inch chunks
5 medium carrots, peeled
2 medium onions, peeled, cut into 1-inch chunks
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup matzo meal
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
Fish stock

For serving:
Tender romaine leaves
Prepared red horseradish
Parsley sprigs

Chill the cut fish in the freezer for 20 to 30 minutes. Chill the food processor bowl and blade as well. Quickly mince fish in the food processor, in batches if necessary, until just smooth. Don’t overblend. Remove from the machine.

Slice 3 of the carrots in half lengthwise and cut into 1-inch chunks; process these carrots and onions and until finely minced. Don’t overblend. In a large bowl, hand mix the ground fish, carrots and onions and eggs until combined.

Mix together all the dry ingredients, then fold into fish mixture. Chill for 1 hour.

Bring a large pot of fish stock to a simmer. Meanwhile, scoop out 1/2-cup portions of the fish mixture and roll into football shapes, dipping hands in water to handle with ease.

Poach the fish and remaining whole carrots in simmering fish stock covered with parchment paper for 1-1/2 hours. Remove the fish and carrots and chill. Strain the stock and chill it as well. Store the fish in the cold fish stock. The dish can be made to this point several days ahead.

To serve, cut the poached carrots into 1/2-inch coins. Serve the fish balls atop romaine leaves, garnished with carrot slices, horseradish and sprigs of parsley. 15 servings.

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