Jewish food maven and cookbook author Joan Nathan has speculated that gefilte fish originally came from Spain, made with Mediterranean fish such as sea bass and flavoured with saffron and spices. Gefilte means stuffed and originally the fish mixture was stuffed back into the fish skin and roasted.
When the Jews were expelled from Spain during the Inquisition, they fled to Eastern Europe and the fish mixture changed, with carp and pike being used because they were available. The Jews were poor, so the mixture was extended with matza meal, onions and other fillers, and simply spiced with salt and pepper. Sweet gefilte fish – sugar beets were a staple crop in Poland – was standard in that country, and a side dish of beet horseradish accompanied it in most places.
As the Jews once again escaped out of Europe in the 1800s, they went to places like Scotland, where I grew up. My Jewish cooking heritage was quite different there.
Gefilte fish, an often-disliked staple of the Passover table, is usually served as greyish poached fish in blobs of jellied stock. In Scotland, land of the deep fryer, we fried them. Cod and haddock were used because they were readily available and cheap.
In Canada, no one makes this excellent fried version. Such a shame because they are so good and should be enjoyed all year, even after Passover has come and gone, at which point you can replace matza meal with breadcrumbs. Baby ones on a lettuce leaf make a perfect hors d’eouvre, or they are a real treat eaten out of hand from the refrigerator. Serve hot with horseradish, or at room temperature with red cabbage slaw and pickled cucumbers.
Scottish gefilte fish
Combine 1 medium chopped onion with 2 eggs, 2 teaspoons salt, freshly ground pepper to taste, and 1 tablespoon oil in a food processor. Process until reduced to a smooth puree. Pour into a large bowl and stir in ½ cup matza meal. Leave for 30 minutes until liquid is absorbed.
Cut 1 lb each skinned haddock and cod into 1-inch chunks. Place half the fish in the food processor, and process for 5 to 10 seconds until the fish is finely chopped, but not pureed. Add to bowl with matza mixture and repeat with remaining fish. Stir well to combine. Optionally add 1 tablespoon sugar if you prefer sweet. The mixture should be firm enough to shape into a soft patty or ball. If it feels too soft, stir in 1 or 2 tablespoons more matza meal. Leave for half an hour or refrigerate overnight.
Scoop ⅓ cup portions, and form into patties about 2-inches wide and 1-inch high. If the mixture sticks, rinse your hands under cold water and keep them wet.
Scatter 1 cup matza meal on a plate. Season with salt and pepper. Gently coat patties.
Pour enough oil to reach ½-inch depth in a deep skillet over medium high heat. When oil is hot, add patties in batches without overcrowding. Cook 3 minutes per side or until deep golden and cooked through. Transfer onto paper towels to remove excess oil. Let cool for 10 minutes before serving or serve at room temperature.
Some tips: To reheat, place in 350 F oven for 10 to 15 minutes or until hot. To freeze, arrange the uncoated patties on a tray lined with parchment paper. Once frozen, transfer to sealed freezer bags. Defrost and coat with matza meal before frying.
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