Readers have clamored for Joan Nathan's recipe for gefilte fish since seeing her very good-natured putting up with Jeff Goldberg's and my invasion of her pre-seder gefiltathon, pictures of which she held up on a Martha Stewart show segment. There she made the fish in a bundt pan--a loaf, or more elegantly a pate, that she could cut and serve Martha with two colors of horseradish.
But, as Joan said on that show and her friends enthusiastically demonstrated when Anup Kaphle, our videographer, and I arrived last Tuesday morning, it's much more fun when you pat the dough into a quenelle shape. Something that the beautiful and talented Pamela Reeves kept urging me to do, thrusting raw fish-onion dough into my hands. But I wussily wanted the gloves another of her fellows was sensibly wearing, and besides, if I'd worked the dough one fraction too enthusiastically I would have ruined the texture and the taste she had so carefully prepared (more wuss, and though I resisted the urge to name-drop, I did give Reeves a tip I'd gotten once when working with Julia Child: get fish out of your fingers by washing them with toothpaste).
By far the hardest and most important step of this recipe is the first: finding the fish. The one time I attempted gefilte fish, influenced pre-Nathan-books by Mimi Sheraton, I haunted the classic Brookline Jewish fishmonger Wulf's for weeks in advance, ordering the fish, and as I recall I filleted and skinned it at home so that I'd have the heads and bones. Crazy. The thing to do is find a fish man like Joan's Charles of the Giant, who apparently delivered a perfect blending of beautifully filleted and ground fish ("When he knows it's for Joan Nathan..." one of the Fish Shticks, as Goldberg and I named the participants, said in hushed tones). Then the rest is just, as Goldberg kept pointing out, smelly.
As for the carp in the bathtub: a reader and friend, Sandi Brooks, wrote to chide me saying, Didn't I know about that? Of course I did, I responded indignantly. But I didn't know about this short film, made in Brussels, about preparing carp for Rosh Hashanah; I randomly found a reference to Christmas carp in Prague bathtubs. We're all from eastern Europe! And, as I pointed out, I meant that question about the bathtub. I nearly did it in my Wulf's days, and inspired by the gefilathon, might do it again--maybe at Rosh Hashanah.
From Jewish Cooking in America (1st ed.) p 141
•7 to 7 ½ pounds whole carp, whitefish, and pike, filleted and ground*
•4 quarts cold water or to just cover
•3 teaspoons salt or to taste
•3 onions, peeled
•4 medium carrots, peeled
•2 tablespoons sugar or to taste
•1 small parsnip, chopped (optional)
•3 to 4 large eggs
•Freshly ground pepper to taste
•½ cup cold water (approximately)
•1/3 cup matzo meal
* Ask your fishmonger to grind the fish. Ask him to reserve the tails, fins, heads, and bones. Be sure he gives you the bones and trimmings. The more whitefish you add, the softer your gefilte fish will be.
1. Place the reserved bones, skin, and fish heads in a wide, very large saucepan with a cover. Add the water and 2 teaspoons of the salt and bring to a boil. Remove the foam that accumulates.
2. Slice 1 onion in rounds and add along with 3 of the carrots. Add the sugar and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer for about 20 minutes while the fish mixture is being prepared.
3. Place the ground fish in a bowl. In a food processor finely chop the remaining onions, the remaining carrot, and the parsnip; or mince them by hand. Add the chopped vegetables to the ground fish.
4. Add the eggs, one at a time, the remaining teaspoon of salt, pepper, and the cold water and mix thoroughly. Stir in enough matzo meal to make a light, soft mixture that will hold its shape. Wet your hands with old water, and scooping up about ¼ cup of fish form the mixture into oval shapes, about 3 inches long. Take the last fish head and stuff the cavity with the ground fish mixture.
5. Remove from the saucepan the onions, skins, head, and bones and return the stock to a simmer. Gently place the fish patties in the simmering fish stock. Cover loosely and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes. Taste the liquid while the fish is cooking and add seasoning to taste. Shake the pot periodically so the fish patties won't stick. When the gefilte fish is cooked, remove from the water and allow to cool for at least 15 minutes.
6. Using a slotted spoon carefully remove the gefilte fish and arrange on a platter. Strain some of the stock over the fish, saving the rest in a bowl.
7. Slice the cooked carrots into rounds cut on a diagonal about ¼ inch thick. Place a carrot round on top of each gefilte fish patty. Put the fish head in the center and decorate the eyes with carrots. Chill until ready to serve. Serve with a sprig of parsley and horseradish.