The great gefilte fish fight


Editor’s Note: Today’s piece is by Rabbi Louis (Eli) Finkelman, who has written in this space before about pickles, rumtopf and celery.

Gefilte (pronounced guh FILL tuh) fish is a Jewish delicacy that’s eaten year-round, but it’s popular at Passover because we celebrate the holidays with festive meals. Those who make gefilte fish from scratch don’t often do so for an ordinary meal–it has to be worthy of the considerable bother.

Gefilte fish literally means stuffed fish. Originally the European Jews who developed this dish would take a whole fish, scrape out and debone the meat and chop it (often adding chopped vegetables), put it back in the fish skin and bake it.

These days, few bother with the fish skin, instead forming balls out of the ground fish mixture and boiling them. You can get gefilte fish in jars and cans in supermarkets in Jewish areas–but it doesn’t hold a candle to home-made. Recently stores have also started selling frozen “gefilte fish” loaves that you can boil whole and then slice. These products are tastier than the canned or jarred products–but home-made still reigns supreme.

There are as many variations as there are European towns where Jews once lived. The biggest dividing line seems to be sweet vs. non-sweet. Sugar in a fish dish may sound weird, but trust me, the end result is delectable!

Here is a link to a delightful 14-minute film about three generations of women and their relationship to gefilte fish.

By Rabbi Louis (Eli) Finkelman

My grandparents made the big family seder at their apartment in the Bronx every year. When Grandma could no longer do all the preparation, other women in the family, including my mother, teamed up to clean and cook.

When Grandpa died, my father took over the role of leading the seder. When my mother fell ill and could no longer prepare for the seder, my sister Miriam (Mimi) took a few days off from work to get the house ready, and to help get Dad ready to host the seder each year.

This was a declaration, not a proposal to discuss.

The first seder without Dad

And so my sister came to visit us in California a few days before Passover, in time to help with the planning and cooking to get us ready for the seders. My wife, Marilyn, and my sister Mimi did the work together, to prepare; other relatives would come later, to join the celebration.

But it would be a bittersweet celebration. Dad had died in November. The seder would be in California, as he had foretold, but he would not be there.

By 1993, my wife and my sister had known each other for 24 years.  They had become friends almost immediately after they met, good friends. By 1993, they might have even been best friends to each other. On the rare occasions when they disagreed, they talked things over and decided together. They even worked together smoothly in the same kitchen.

And so preparation for the 1993 seders went smoothly, as everyone expected.  Marilyn and Mimi planned the menus, shopped together, assigned each other tasks, and cheerfully worked together preparing festive meals. Until they had a fight, their first real fight ever.

It had to do with who would prepare the gefilte fish.  My sister – who generally does not insist — insisted that she would prepare the gefilte fish. My wife – who generally decides in an instant what is important and what is not important – refused. This was important; she was going to prepare the gefilte fish. They could not talk this one over; they could not break the impasse. Neither of them could do any more cooking that day.

My wife suffered a night of interrupted sleep.  How could she sleep well, in the middle of a fight with her best friend? And why did they have to fight over a pot of fish?

Why did it matter?

By morning, Marilyn had figured out why who made the gefilte fish mattered, and why it would not matter anymore. Either recipe would taste fine, but the fish had a back story, or rather, two back stories.

My wife learned her recipe from her Grandmother Keanig. Her grandmother did simple cooking, only a few foods she learned to cook the old-country way.  Grandma did not work from written recipes – who knows if she had learned to read in any language? – but her hands knew what to do.

The last decade of Grandpa Keanig’s life, Grandma had stayed right beside his sickbed every single day.  After he died, Grandma Keanig flew out to visit us. During that visit, she taught my wife her recipes by showing her and cooking with her. My wife would recite her grandmother’s instructions out loud, and my daughter – then a first-grader — sat in the kitchen with a pencil and a notebook writing down those instructions in a childish hand.

Every year, in a ritual telephone call before Rosh Hashanah and another before Passover, Grandma would want to know how the fish came out. And every year, before Rosh Hashanah and before Passover, my wife would report, “The fish came out good, but not as good as yours.”

In my family, Grandma did just about all the preparations for the seder herself.  Grandpa made fresh grated horseradish with fresh-squeezed lemon juice,  touch of sugar and fresh grated beets. Grandpa made haroshes, a sauce of apples, nuts and sweet red wine. But Grandma did the cooking.  She had daughters and daughters-in-law, whom she loved and appreciated, but who were not allowed in the kitchen when Grandma worked.

Also unwelcome in the kitchen were the granddaughters, except for my sister. Grandma appreciated the way Miriam, even as a young girl, got things done, efficiently and quickly, with a minimum of fuss, cleaning up as she worked, taking instruction easily. Making gefilte fish was among the many skills Miriam learned in Grandma’s kitchen.

The question did not really hinge on the difference in flavor between the two recipes. My grandma, originally from Zlotopol in Ukrainian Russia, made a peppery version, perhaps in the Ukrainian style, or perhaps just because Grandma liked pepper. Marilyn’s grandma, from Brisk in Byelorussia, used less pepper and more sugar.

The root of the question

The real question hinged on whose traditions would go into making this seder. Which style of fish got served, and which person made the fish, really stood for whose seder we would have.

Of course in practice, the seder would have elements from both families. The fight was over. Mimi made the gefilte fish that year. The next day, Marilyn summarized the experience with the observation that she and her friend Mimi could manage “one fight every 24 years.”  I hope that does not mean they have another fight coming up next year.

As for the recipes, the notebook with Grandma Keanig’s gefilte fish recipe showed up a few years ago as we packed for a move. We gave the notebook to our daughter, who has become quite an accomplished cook.

A recipe in my wife’s card catalogue reads “Grandma’s Gefilte Fish.” It does not specify whose grandma, but it has sugar and not much pepper.

Note: Buy fresh fish and ask the person at the counter to fillet it for you and give you the skin and bones in a separate bag.


Clay oven chicken the medieval way


For years Rabbi Louis (Eli) Finkelman, who has written several guest blogs in this space, and his wife, Marilyn, have participated in the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), where they join other like-minded people in living for a few days or a few weeks in true medieval fashion. For months I’ve been badgering Marilyn to write a piece about medieval cooking, and she finally came through.

Marilyn Finkelman has been a teacher of writing and research in law schools, a teacher of adult Jewish studies, and a homeschool mom. In the SCA, as Lady Miriam bat Pessah, she does archery, embroidery, cooking, calligraphy, brewing (wine and mead), cheese making, illumination, and Jewish cultural studies. 

The Finkelmans are planning a clay-oven cooking extravaganza as part of their celebration of the festival of Sukkot, which started this year at sundown Sunday, Sept. 27. The festival in part celebrates the fall harvest, so that seems entirely appropriate!

Historic cooking is among my many hobbies in the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), an organization that encourages study and re-creating the arts and skills of pre-17th century Europe, the “Middle Ages.”

It always amazes me that we have cookbooks from that period given that, even in very wealthy households, the cook probably couldn’t read and no one would allow anything as valuable as a book to go anywhere near a place as dangerous as a kitchen.

Islamic recipes more user-friendly

I find the medieval Islamic recipes more user-friendly than northern European recipes. There are several wonderful translations available, including Nawal Nasrallah’s Annals of the Caliphs’ Kitchen, a huge collection of recipes from 10th century Baghdad, and Charles Perry’s A Baghdad Cookery Book, a shorter collection of recipes from the 13th century.

But even the recipes that make sense intuitively present challenges. These dishes were cooked on open fires or in clay ovens, using different utensils and cooking methods. Some of the ingredients are hard to identify, and even those that are familiar may not have been very much like the ingredients available in our local market. The recipes are much sketchier than modern recipes, rarely including amounts or precise instructions. Typical is the instruction to add a given ingredient or cook the dish “enough.”

All of the Islamic cookbooks include several versions of judhaba, which involve making some sort of bread pudding, and cooking it in an oven while “hanging over it a fat chicken.” Here is the first of about 15 variations from Caliphs’ Kitchen (p.374):

Take a whole bread made with the finest … flour, let its weight be 1 ratl. Cut it into morsel sized pieces, which you then soak in water in a green glazed bowl for about an hour. When the bread pieces are saturated and puffed, put them in the pan. Pour on them 1 ratl honey, 2 ratls sugar, and 1 ratl water. There should be enough to cover the bread and a little more. Mix in aromatic spices and saffron, too. Put the pan in the bottom center of a hot tannur, suspend a plump chicken over the pan, and [let it roast until done], God willing.

As many questions as answers

Doesn’t that sound delicious? But it presents as may questions as it answers. What kind of bread would be considered “made with the finest flour”? Does the “green glazed bowl” matter? This recipe calls for equal weights of bread, honey, and water, and double the weight of sugar. Doesn’t that seem cloyingly sweet? What spices and how much of those spices? How do you suspend a chicken over that pan? Would it work in a modern kitchen oven, or do you need the live fire cooking?

And there are lots of variations in other judhaba recipes. Some call for different types of bread, cut to different sizes. The bread is soaked in different liquids, for example milk or berry juice. Proportions and types of sweetener vary. Recipes call for additions of different ingredients, for example apricots, dates, raisins, rosewater syrup, bananas, walnuts, almonds, sesame oil, eggs, onions, mushrooms, and more. Some recipes call for a thin bread laid under and over the bread pudding.

I tried a version of this in my kitchen oven, just laying chicken pieces over some soaked bread mixture, but it came out dry and dull.

Then, last summer, we built a clay oven in our backyard, and I decided to try this concept again.

Working from the base recipe, I used a loaf of medium density bakery bread. I soaked it in my metal mixing bowl, letting it get soggier than my usual bread pudding would be. I could not get myself to make it as sweet as the original recipe suggested, so I used the honey but not the sugar.

I looked through the other recipes for spices that might be mentioned, and ended up adding salt, cinnamon, sesame oil and cloves. I wanted to do one of the additional flavors, and settled on dates. I used some thin pita I had in the freezer for the bread above and below the bread pudding.

Hanging the chicken

I was stumped on how to hang the chicken over the bread pudding until a friend solved the problem for me. “What’s wrong with you, girl?  Haven’t you ever heard of beer can chicken?”  I used tomato cans instead.

There was a steep learning curve as we started using our oven. Once the oven was fully heated up, after about two hours of fire, we cleared the coals out and cooked with the residual heat. (We have since started doing some of the cooking on the fire while the oven is heating up.) We put the judhaba in right after the sourdough breads came out, so the oven was probably around 400 degrees, and left it in for about an hour or maybe a little less.

The result was superb. The pita on top of the bread pudding crisped up, turning into chicken flavored pita chips. And with the pita on top, the bread pudding stayed nice and moist. It was sweet and delicious.

The chicken was clearly not the point of the recipe, but it was crisp-skinned and delicately flavored. We served on a large platter, with the cut up chicken in the middle, surrounded by the bread pudding, with the pita chips around the edges.

My redacted recipe is still less precise than most modern recipes. And I do not know whether it would be as good cooked in a modern oven. But we are planning a “clay oven greatest hits” cook day this fall, and judhaba was tops on everyone’s list.