Sunday, March 28, 2010

Gefilte Fish

Whenever I think about gefilte fish, I always think of my husband. Raised Catholic and from Boston, he only knew what he knew. So when dragged him to my family seder in Brooklyn that first year, I should have probably prepped him. Not only was he subjected to the BQE and my chaotic family, but then there was the dinner itself. When the gefilte fish came out in all its glory, he seemed honestly shocked. Then he looked like he was sure some monumental prank was being perpetuated, as if the family was pulling a fast one. Fish from a jar. With jelly all over it. Served cold. As he looked around for Alan Funt, I knew I would need to make some adjustments.

Despite this, he married me and we began to create our own traditions for Passover. We found a Hagaddah that worked for us and teamed up to get everything ready. Generally, I cook, and he cleans - this works for us on most occasions.  One year I decided to chuck the jars and make my own gefilte fish.  I ordered the fish, picked it up, brought it home, and feeling like the little red hen began to cook.  Except I forgot to ask them to grind it...but no worries, I had received a food processor as a wedding gift. How hard could it be.  

Lesson learned, chopping fish is not easy.  Whether you do it the old fashioned way (with multiple cleavers and all your friends and relatives in a small apartment kitchen in Brooklyn) or with a La Machine, it is messy, time consuming, and downright ugly.  First, I chopped the fish into 2 inch squares and added them to the machine.  After about five seconds of the most terrifying noise ever heard, it started to smell like it was burning.  I grabbed the plug, dumped it all out, and started again.  In the end, it took me over 2 hours to grind that fish at home, and two minutes to realize that I would never do it again.  My husband wisely stayed out of the kitchen.  

I let the mixture sit overnight as directed, giving myself some time to cool down and my husband an opportunity to clean up the ground fish that found its way into every corner of our kitchen. I am telling you, this man is a miracle - he actually got it all up - left to my own devices I would have just called Terminix.  The next day was a new day, and as I put two large stockpots up to boil, I was feeling more confident.  Until the stock.  Now, I had asked for the heads and bones per the recipe, but was not prepared to actually handle them.  So creepy looking and sharp to the touch, I could not believe I was going to use this as food.  To calm myself, I sang the fish head song (you know heads, fish heads, roly poly fish heads. Fish heads, fish heads, eat them up, yum.).  That seemed to do the trick, as I triumphantly added the fish to the pots.  

Later on, my husband went to to clean up, he was pleasantly surprised to see me calm, with 20 or so delicious gefiltes waiting to be eaten.  He went to clean the stockpots and let out a little scream, not expecting the fish carcasses to cascade down into the sink, bobbing about like little sea demons.  I bet he missed the jarred kind that year. 

Anyway, we have now gotten into a better routine.  I know to get the fish ground at the fish monger, he knows what to expect in the pot.  Both of us really enjoy the results, and our guests are always surprised and grateful to have this relatively simple dish, if you know the tricks. Enjoy and happy Passover.  

Gefilte Fish
 From The Second Avenue Deli Cookbook
For the gefilte fish balls
  • 1 (1 1/2-pound) fillet of whitefish and (1 1/2-pound) fillet of carp or pike (at fish store, ask for whole fish, filleted and skinned. Retain the heads and bones. Many stores will also grind the fish for you)
  • 2 large onions (about 2 cups when grated; don't tamp it down)
  • 1 stalk celery
  • 1/2 medium carrot
  • 6 eggs, beaten
  • 4 teaspoons sugar
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons salt
  • 3/8 teaspoon pepper
  • 3/4 cup corn oil
  • 1 cup matzo meal

For the cooking
  • Heads and bones from fish
  • 4 medium onions, peeled and quartered
  • 2 stalks celery, trimmed and chopped into 3-inch pieces
  • 2 medium carrots, peeled


  1. In a food processor or grinder, grind fish (refrigerate heads and bones for later use), 2 onions, 1 stalk celery, and half a carrot. (If you use a food processor, make sure you leave no large pieces of fish or bones; you may want to transfer the mixture, bit by bit, into a wooden bowl, and go over it vigorously with a hand chopper.)
  2. Place fish mixture in a large bowl, and add eggs, sugar, salt, pepper, and corn oil, mixing thoroughly with a wire whisk. Stir in matzo meal, and continue to mix until everything is thoroughly blended. Refrigerate for 1 hour or more (longer, even overnight, is better).
  3. Fill 2 large stockpots three-quarters full of water, and bring to a vigorous boil. In each, throw in half the fish heads and bones, 2 onions, half the celery, and a carrot. Divide batter into 12 patties of equal size. (Don't worry that your batter is a little loose; it has to be that way to keep your gefilte fish light.) Transfer each patty to a large cooking spoon, shape into an oval, and very gently lower it into the boiling water. Put 6 in each pot. Lower heat and simmer for 1 1/2 hours.
  4. Remove fish balls and carrots from pots, and refrigerate on a covered plate. Discard everything else. Serve chilled with red and/or white horseradish. Slice carrots for garnish.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

On the List: From China With Love

Hi all, I'm back...sorry for the delay in updating the blog.  My son has cerebral palsy, and he has been undergoing some fairly intense therapy. Managing that has consumed every moment of my free time for the past 3 months.  During that time, winter has turned to spring and the signs are everywhere. Flower buds, crocuses, lamb in the markets, artichokes, strawberries for less than $10/box of oldy, moldy berries...all good things that remind me of the equinox and all its wonder.

One thing that comes with spring is the new growing season.  And while I will be blogging about all the good things that come with this, it also reminds of me of some less than wonderful trends that have emerged over the past decades.  Specifically, I would like to discuss the advent of Chinese agricultural exports, and what it means to those who eat them.  Let me preface this with the fact that I am not some lunatic fringe, shut down trade agreements, I hate those lying commies gal.  To the contrary, I tend to swing toward classic, liberal economics.  Moreover, I admire China and its people, and predict great things for them.  But I do advocate a more pragmatic and cautious approach when it comes to their agricultural exports, both raw and processed.

There are the more obvious gaps, such as the great infant formula horror of 2008, when it was revealed that regular practice included lacing baby food with melamine, an additive used to make plastics and other industrial products.  No doubt you are also familiar with the fact that the same additive was found in Chinese cat and dog food exports a year earlier, resulting in many animals dying from renal failure.  The third time is a charm in 2010, when milk was pulled off shelves in China containing...melamine.  Get the picture?

There is a distinct and troubling pattern of repeating past mistakes and inability/refusal to undertake true quality control of food products. Now consider that China has become an agricultural world leader over the past 2 decades; more and more produce grown in and exported from China is landing in US supermarkets, often as the sole purchasing option. There are legitimate fair trade concerns, environmental problems, as well as quality assurance and health issues at stake.  As the Washington Post recently reported:
The FDA, responsible for inspecting some types of food from 130 countries, last year was deluged with 21 million shipments of food imports, among them 199,000 from China worth about $2.3 billion. FDA inspectors refused 298 food shipments from China in the first four months of this year: They included catfish laden with banned antibiotics, mushrooms laced with illegal pesticides, and others. The rejection rate for Chinese goods is about 25 times that for Canadian goods.
While not definitive, following are some key products that I have been following:
  • Garlic: Gilroy is in trouble.  China increased its exports to the US 35% between 2004 and 2008.  It's a $48 million dollar business. (Source: UN Comtrade).  It is the US's largest fresh vegetable import from China, and let's not forget that it is often dried and then used in garlic powder and other spices, as well as pastes.  Some additional health concerns include reports of growing garlic in sewage, using chlorine to treat the garlic, and excessive spraying.
  • Eggplant: China is the top global producer of eggplant, one of the most highly sprayed vegetables when produced commercially. There is also a lot of controversy about a new GMO version which actually produces its own insecticides.   
  • Pine nuts: On the web, there are periodic complaints about eating pine nuts resulting in a metallic, bitter after taste that lasts for weeks.  This only seems to occur with pine nuts grown in China. 
  • Fish and shellfish: China has a huge aquaculture infrastructure; their seafood comes from ponds, and is fraught controvery.  Let's see, again reports of it being raised in untreated sewage, use of illegal antibiotics, carcinogens, mercury, DDT,...the list goes on.  The water pollution problems in China are significant. The most common seafood exports (my perspective) from China include catfish, eel, shrimp, carp, crab, and salmon. 
  • Soy: Wow, their soy beans are literally toxic, and they are everywhere you don't expect them.  All products, whole and processed.  This means soy milk, infant formula, nutrition bars, supplements, etc. Read the Cornucopia Report.
This problem is compounded with the fact that you will never see a "Made in China" label on agricultural products.  So what to do?  Well, always try to buy locally and seasonally is an obvious solution, but one that does not necessarily fit into everyone's personal philosophy and/or budget. More practical advice is to ask, ask, ask your produce manager about what you are purchasing.  Most of them are pretty smart and have lots of information to share.  If they tell you your produce is from China, buyer beware.  Worse, if they give you a blank stare or flip answer, think twice about your purchases or even shopping there anymore.  

Next, beware of processed foods. Chinese agricultural products sure are cheap.  And abundant.  When you buy that frozen dinner, pre-prepared meal, or even order at a restaurant, assume that any of the above are fair game as ingredients. Again, ask, ask, ask.  

Finally, there are some items that you will likely not need to worry about, as China actually imports these items to supplement their own crops (despite policies that clearly have prioritized domestic production of these crops).  You can be less concerned about wheat and rice. Chinese meat exports are prohibited in the US, but there are all kinds of weird arrangements regarding Chinese chicken imports (we grow it in the US, ship it to China for processing, and they send it back). For the politically minded, soybeans are a top US export to China, which gives us ongoing leverage not only from a trade perspective, but also from a security POV. Why do they need soy? To feed their fish, cows, pigs, chickens, and other animals...these are not grass fed, pasture raised creatures.  But I do wonder if there is ever a soy shortage, will melamine will creep into their animals' diets?

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