I was part of a fascinating conversation on Facebook recently, in which an American Jewish friend made a disparaging comment about gefilte fish. Lots of other Americans piled on with the disgust toward these unappetising jarred fish balls floating in gloopy liquid. One person even revealed a childhood with canned gefilte fish, even more questionable than the giant jars. But something funny happened in this thread – both of the British Jews who responded had very different memories of gefilte fish; positive memories of a tasty dish, much looked forward to on special occasions. I have always loved these light fish balls, and during the period that I lived abroad, it went without saying that when I came home for a visit, my mum would cook me gefilte fish as a welcome home treat. I don’t know if there is a transatlantic difference here (obviously it was a pretty small sample and I’ve already encountered one American friend who actually likes the stuff in the jar) but the discussion prompted me to look out our family gefilte fish recipe for Passover.

This recipe comes, via my mum, from my great aunt Lily and I’m sure her mother brought it over from Lithuania. Aunt Lil, as we called her, was part of the more Jewishy side of my family, as opposed to the heathen branch I’m from. (Mind you, one of those relatives won a cooking competition with a pork chop recipe, so we’re not talking massively observant here…) Anyway, Lily was a very kind and elegant woman, and when I was a child, I enjoyed going to her and Uncle Solly’s house, which was full of beautiful old objects and seemed quite mysterious to me. Lily made enormous spreads of unfamiliar food, which both intimidated and fascinated me. As an adult, I wish I had more of her recipes. But I do have this one, which my mum has made for me countless times and I made for myself for this first time this year. Try it out for Passover – I promise it will banish any residual fears you might have about the humble gefilte fish…

Gefilte fish

For fish stock:

  • fish trimmings including heads, bones, skin
  • thinly sliced carrots
  • onions with skin on
  • celery

For balls:

  • 3lbs of mixed white fish, to include half hake
  • 1 large onion, grated
  • 2 medium eggs
  • 2tbsp matzo meal
  • 1tsp sugar
  • salt and pepper
  • 2tsp vegetable oil

First, get your fish stock made – you can do this in advance but it won’t take too long. Boil all the ingredients with lots of water in a pan and then strain, reserving the carrots as well as, obviously, the liquid. (We’ve all made the mistake once of straining stock, only to realise we’ve kept a sieve full of crap and have poured the actual stock down the sink…)

Skin your fish, remove any bones, and blend it in the food processor till it is in small pieces but not a paste. My grandmother used one of those old-fashioned mincers you attach to the tabletop, so that’s the texture you’re aiming at.

Next, put the fish into a bowl with the other ingredients and mix well. I’d advise breaking the eggs separately and adding them gradually as you might not need them all. Similarly, be prepared to add quite a bit more matzo meal if necessary. You want a firm but not stiff texture, easy to roll into balls. Roll them up – I prefer smallish, round ones like meatballs though Mr Lemur looked askance and said he thought they ought to be American football shaped.

Next bring the stock to the boil and add the fish balls. Reduce the heat to a bare simmer and poach for 15-20 minutes.

When they are cooked, lift the fish balls out of the stock and put them on a nice plate. (This is my mum’s exact instruction. A nice plate, people, not a nasty one!) Raise the heat and reduce the stock for 30 minutes more, till it becomes a glossy, slightly thickened sauce. Put a carrot hat on each fish ball and pour over sauce.

Serve at room temperature. Makes about 36 fish balls.