By Rachel Schwarz
Last week, Jewish families all over the world celebrated Pesach, or Passover. In my house, my dad leads the service and story that accompanies dinner. He has taken on this role not only because he enjoys it, but also because it’s a tradition. Everyone in my family has happily allowed him to assume this responsibility.
Not only does he share the Passover story with us, but he has also developed his own interpretation of the service that involves a facilitated discussion about a current issue in the lives of Jews around the world.
No matter what other changes happen each year, I can always count on Passover as a time when my dad will take the reigns, share a piece of my family’s religious history with us, and remind us that the world is a lot bigger than our home in Dallas, Texas. It’s also a time that I look forward to in which my family always communicates and interacts positively. We don’t argue or disagree; we simply enjoy the holiday and each other’s company,
Tradition is intimately related to communication. Whatever traditions you have with your family, think about the unspoken words that are transferred during these occasions. Moods improve, discussions are plentiful, and experiences are special.
Passover is one of my favorite family traditions. What are some of yours?
You should never make this dish. Why?
- Your house will reek of fish for one week.
- YOU will smell like fish for one week.
- Your refrigerator will smell like fish for two weeks.
You should read this recipe/back story. Why?
- It’s about what really matters.
- It’s funny.
- It’s delicious.
My mom, of blessed memory, was a great cook. The only problem was that she never taught me anything. Every year for the Jewish Holidays of Passover and Rosh Hashanah she made her famous gefilte fish balls – a classic appetizer dish. The universe must’ve sent me a hint – shortly before her death I realized that I did not know how to make this fish, a dish that was loved by all.
I dashed over to her home and watched her prepare the gefilte fish, against her wishes. She remarked, “I don’t know how I do it. I just put it all together. I can’t give you a real recipe”. Hence – you will find these approximate amounts below.
Order from Tom Thumb grocery store:
- 2 pints of finely ground onions
Tell the guy to take this amount of fish and filet and grind twice. Once it’s ground you should have around a total of 6 pounds of ground fish. Make sure he saves the carcass and skin – and gives to you. Have them remove the eyes.
- 3 pounds of buffalo fish
- 4 pounds of trout
- 4 pounds of whitefish
- 8 carrots
- A head of celery – use the very tops and the bottom part (I think my mom was saving the best part for other usage)
- 1.5 sticks of margarine
- 2 large onions, sliced (that’s in addition to the pre-ordered ground onions)
- 1 dozen eggs
- 14 ounces matzo meal
- Lawry salt
- Garlic salt
- 2 packs of clear Knox gelatin
- Couple of jars of red horseradish
Place rinsed skeletons, heads, tails in bottom of a huge silver deep rectangular pan that will cover two of your burners on your stove. Throw away fish skin.
Add water – totally cover – about ¾ high in the huge pan.
Add all the carrots, celery tops and bottoms, margarine, sliced up onions.
7 seconds of salt – from large container using the spout
7 seconds of garlic salt – with open bottle (no sifter)
5 seconds of Lawry salt – with open bottle (no sifter)
4 seconds of sugar out of sack
3.5 seconds of pepper
Put on two burners on stove on high till it boils. Cover and turn to simmer for around 40 minutes to an hour. While this is simmering, prepare the fish.
Put all the ground fish in large bowl.
2 pounds finely ground onion
3 cups of water
1 dozen eggs
14 ounces of matzo meal
6 seconds of salt (for all seasonings use same lid as above)
4.5 seconds of pepper
5 seconds of Lawry salt
5 seconds of garlic salt
4 seconds of sugar
Knead together and add 4 more cups of water
Use an ice cream scooper – dip scooper into heated fish broth first – then scoop out 2 balls. Fill the scooper but make it flat at the top (unlike today’s huge portion of ice cream at an ice cream shop, but that’s another story). Put the scoops of fish into the fish broth. Turn the broth up to boil again and wait for the balls to float, turn white, and not fall apart. These are your test balls! IF they fall apart, add more matzo meal to your ground fish concoction.
Take your test balls out when ready and place in freezer. Go grab some coffee and wait a bit. Take the balls out of the freezer and eat them. Should taste delicious.
Now get busy: Put 16 balls at a time into the fish broth. Bring to a boil. Should take about 10 min. to cook – or until they’re really floating.
All of this: 114 balls (not an approximation) *
Once done: take all the fish bones and other ingredients out of the fish broth. Add in the gelatin. Save the cooked carrots and dice.
Pour the fish broth over the fish balls in their various glass Pyrex dishes. Cover and refrigerate.
Serve this way:
One little slice of cooked carrot on top of each ball. Looks a little like the balls are graduating from college.
Place some of the jelled fish broth on each plate.
Add a dab of horseradish to the side.
* While Mom never had a written recipe, she kept a log of each time she prepared Gefilte Fish. Her detailed notes of jelling challenges, added matzo meal, how many balls went where date back to the 1950’s. Some notes from her batch on 9-18-1990: “It made a total of 114 balls and I think it turned out very good! Indeed EXCELLENT AND IT JELLED!! Total of 81 balls for Karen, she had 11 left for her. 12 for Nina, 8 for me, 4 for Reisman, 8 for Kallenberg, 2 each for Ruth and Norma”.
As I grew up, we always had a large crowd for Rosh Hashanah. Then after I got married, I inherited the tradition and celebrated this High Holy Day – the Jewish New Year, at my home. At one time we peaked at around 45 people for this seated dinner.
Mom continued to prepare the fish. On the day of the dinner she would arrive at my door around 11am, honking her horn. I’d come outside and help bring in the 5 Pyrex dishes filled with The Balls. We would sit down, have some fish with fresh Challah (bread) – a true highlight moment. I always knew the best part about this celebration was not the holiday itself, but the entire day spent with my Mom. We would set the tables, prepare other dishes, and spend quality time together.
I vividly recall her final Rosh Hashanah. According to her notes she brought the fish over on 9 – 8 – 1991, two days before her 72nd birthday. She honked her horn as usual. As she came in she said, “Karrrren (she had a thick German accent), I’m tired. I don’t know why. I shouldn’t be, but I am.”
We had our typical fantastic day together and a lovely evening celebration. She had a fatal heart attack two months later.
A year later I took her copious log, called the grocery store and attempted to make The Balls. At the last minute Aunt Lorraine offered to help. (Aunt Lorraine was not a ‘real’ Aunt – she was my Mom’s best friend and a second mother to me. We just called everyone ‘aunt’ and ‘uncle’.)
Out of deep sadness evolved a new rich tradition. From that year forward, Aunt Lorraine and I would prepare The Balls together. She had her pot – covering two burners, I had mine – covering the other two burners. She tossed in the same amount of seasoning as I. Then she’d say, “Karen, I don’t get it! We’ve done the exact same thing, but your balls always taste better”, which was an accurate assessment, in my humble opinion. I responded, “Aunt Lorraine, I know why. My mom is watching over my pot, not yours.”
Then Aunt Lorraine was diagnosed with a terminal illness, and just ahead of Rosh Hashanah she called and said, “Karen, I won’t be able to prepare the gefilte fish this year.”
Her comment spoke volumes. What she was really saying was, I can’t make the gefilte fish because I’m dying. That would be the ONLY reason one would not be there.
Here are the lessons I’ve learned from gefilte fish balls.
With my mom – It wasn’t about the balls, it was about love, and tradition, and celebration and family.
With Aunt Lorraine – It wasn’t about the balls, it was about finding ways to move from deep grief to new and special connections that help fill the void.
So – don’t make these balls (refer back to beginning of recipe).
But – do make time for those you love. Create wonderful traditions in and out of the kitchen. Those memories – past, present, and future are delicious.