This Gefilte Fish Must Go On
Recipe Roots: Newark, NJ > Gloversville, New York > South Orange, NJ > Princeton, NJ > Manhattan
Shared by Patricia Reinfeld Kolodny and Johanna Kolodny
In 1965, when Evelyn Silverman Reinfeld and her family moved into a ranch-style house in New Jersey, she designed her own kitchen. She selected a restaurant-grade fridge and a mixer larger than the professional KitchenAid line on the market, and installed a Corning cooktop and an additional gas stove in the basement for different types of cooking. Closets in the house were full of cooking utensils and baking pans, recalls her daughter Patricia Reinfeld Kolodny. And, in one closet sat small fruit cakes that she doused with Cointreau, an orange-flavored liqueur, that aged for five years before they could be consumed.
“She had the two volume set of Gourmet and she used that as her bible,” explains Patricia, who goes by Patti. She also turned to the Joy of Cooking and The Settlement Cookbook, but she had her own recipes as well, and likely, says Patti, adopted some of the recipes made by local women with German roots she hired to help her when she hosted parties. Regardless of the source of the recipe, everything in Evelyn’s kitchen was made from scratch. If someone in the family requested a coconut lemon cake for a birthday, the coconut flesh was grated by Evelyn.
“She had a cookbook with her own writing, but when she passed away, we couldn’t find it,” Patti says. “Basically, everything was in her head.” And she didn’t like children scampering around the kitchen, so none of her recipes were transferred to the next generation through cooking together.
Today, only three of her recipes remain in the family. Her stuffed cabbage, turkey stuffing, and her gefilte fish, which originally came from Evelyn’s mother Nettie, whose mother came from Eastern Europe — though no one is quite sure from where, possibly Hungary. Both the stuffed cabbage and the stuffing were written down because Patti’s husband insisted upon it.
The gefilte fish? Well, that’s another story. The family’s famed gefilte fish recipe was passed to Patti when Evelyn was in the hospital in 1974. She had suffered a heart attack and was in the ICU, Patti recalls, when she told her daughter to go to the nurse’s station and grab a notepad. Evelyn was having fish delivered later in the day to make gefilte fish and she didn’t want it to go to waste, so she dictated the recipe to Patti and told her to go home and make it. “That was Evelyn Silverman Reinfeld!” Patti exclaims.
Evelyn dictated the instructions, including her own twist on Nettie’s recipe, cooking it in a fish poacher in a loaf shape, so the gefilte could be served in elegant slices instead of crude balls. That year, Patti made the gefilte fish and brought it to her mother in the hospital. “She was satisfied that we had done a fairly good job,” Patti says. In the years that followed, Evelyn continued to make the fish until the last few years of her life.
Patti still has the recipe she wrote down in the hospital and today, she and her daughter Johanna make the recipe together in Johanna’s Manhattan apartment for the seder they host annually. While Johanna doesn’t have many memories of cooking with her grandmother (though the two baked cookies together) Patti says her daughter inherited some of Evelyn’s traits and kitchen skills.
When Johanna was little and her grandmother would stay over the two shared a room. “My mother must have whispered in her ear after Johanna fell asleep: ‘Be frugal, don’t be like your parents. Learn to bake. Be a good cook. Be clean,” says Patti. Somehow, by osmosis, the important things transferred.
Evelyn's Gefilte Fish
Serves 15 - 20
Time: 4 hours + chilling time
The key to gefilte is the balance between the mix of the three types of freshwater fish traditionally used for this dish: whitefish, pike, and carp. These days (especially in the U.S.), it has become increasingly rare to find pike and carp readily available (unless you live in Brooklyn and have access to Raskin’s Fish Market or other Jewish fishmongers in your community). If you can’t find pike or carp you can use all whitefish or substitute with hake, sole, flounder, whiting, tilapia or halibut. Ask your fishmonger to reserve the bones, heads, and tails for you to use in the poaching liquid. You can also ask your fishmonger to coarsely grind the filet, or if you are like Patti, you can make friends with your local fishmonger as she did when she was living in Princeton, NJ, convince him to purchase his own grinder, and send all of your friends to him for their gefilte fish needs. If you fancy yourself a true devotee, you may consider investing in your own meat grinder and grinding the fish filets yourself! Evelyn’s recipe requires a fish poaching pot which is critical to the technique and presentation that makes this recipe unique. A fish poaching pot can easily be found on Amazon or at a restaurant or kitchen supply store.
3 ½ lbs. whitefish filets, coarsely ground (head, bones, and tail reserved)
1 lb. yellow pike filets, coarsely ground (head, bones, and tail reserved)
½ lb. carp filets, coarsely ground (head, bones, and tail reserved)
6 medium yellow onions, peeled
8 medium-large carrots, peeled and trimmed
1 ½ tablespoons salt
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon sugar
1 ½ cups club soda
1 cup matzo meal
1 package of cheesecloth (9 sq. ft.)
3 packets of gelatin, optional (kosher options do exist)
Fresh or prepared beet horseradish
fish poaching pot (see headnote)
1. Rinse the reserved fish trimmings (head, bones and tails) and place in the bottom of a fish poaching pot. Fill the pot to the halfway mark with water and bring to a boil over high heat, skimming any foam or impurities that rise to the surface. Note: unless you have a special burner on your stove that will accommodate the poaching pot, set the pot across two burners to heat the pot evenly.
2. Slice two of the onions into ½-inch thick rounds and lay on top of the fish trimmings. Place rack inside the pot. Cover, reduce heat to low, and let simmer while preparing the filling.
3. Place the ground fish in a large mixing bowl. Coarsely chop the remaining four onions and place in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse the onions 5-10 times until finely chopped, but not mushy. Add the onions to the ground fish. Coarsely chop four of the carrots and pulse in the food processor 5-10 times until finely chopped, but not mushy. Add the carrots to the bowl with the onions and fish and mix until evenly combined.
4. Place the ground fish mixture in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. With the mixer on low, incorporate one egg at a time. Add the salt, pepper, and sugar. With the mixer still going, add the club soda and matzo meal and mix until combined.
5. Spread the cheesecloth out, then fold it in half. Remove the cover of the pot and gently lay the cheesecloth over the opening so that there is about 1-2 inches of overlay around the edges of the pot.
6. Using a large spoon or spatula, fill the cheesecloth evenly with the fish mixture (up to the top edge of the pot), being careful not to pack it down too tightly. Smooth the top of the mixture evenly with the back of your spoon, and tuck the edges of cheesecloth into the pot (you will need them again later to lift the loaf out of the pot). Essentially, you are creating a little cheesecloth hammock for the gefilte loaf to rest in and hold its shape while it cooks. Cover and lower heat to a gentle simmer.
7. Cook for 1 hour, then lay the remaining whole carrots over the top of the gefilte loaf. Cover and let cook for 1 ½ - 2 hours more. You may need to adjust the heat as it cooks to maintain a gentle simmer, so keep and eye on the heat while it cooks. The finished gefilte should be light in color, firm to the touch, and the carrots should be cooked through.
8. Remove the whole carrots from the top of the loaf and reserve for garnish. Carefully (and ideally with help from an extra set of hands), remove the loaf from the poaching pot by pulling up on the edges of the cheesecloth. Place the loaf, cheesecloth side down, on a large platter, plate or cutting board. Place another large platter over the top of the loaf and carefully invert so that you can easily remove the cheesecloth. Let cool, and then cover tightly with plastic wrap and chill overnight.
9. For serving: Slice the loaf into ½-inch slices and the carrots into ¼-inch rounds. Serve on a bed of iceberg lettuce, with a few sliced carrot rounds and a dollop of beet horseradish.
10. Optional: In some families, it is traditional to serve gefilte fish in a savory fish jello. To make this: Use a slotted spoon to remove the fish bones and onions from the poaching liquid. In a measuring cup, mix the gelatin with 3/4 cup of water and let thicken. Add the gelatin to the remaining poaching liquid and stir to combine. Strain the liquid through a fine sieve over the gefilte loaf, let cool, and then cover tightly and chill overnight. Note: Because Evelyn was such a stickler for presentation, she would make the gelatin, but serve it on the side with the gefilte in cube form. Patti and Johanna usually skip this step!