Saturday, April 2, 2016

Gefilte fish for the 21st century

Is it possible to make gefilte fish taste good without relying on nostalgia and childhood taste memory?  In the former Soviet Union it was a special occasion dish that many of my compatriots remember fondly.  But now that we've traveled the world and got used to Michelin starred fare, ground fish cooked for 2 hours doesn't go down so easy.

The traditional version I grew up with required de-boning a whole carp, grinding it, stuffing the filling back into the fish skin and cooking it in a fish stock infused with beets and other aromatics. The hot pieces were arranged on a platter (very often to reassemble the whole fish), covered in the ruby red fish stock, refrigerated overnight, and served cold with congealed stock.

Normally, I don't like to modernize the foods of my childhood, but a recent gefilte fish facebook question planted the idea in my head.  There I was, sleepless at 3am trying to untie this gordian knot.

First there was the question of the fish.  Carp and pike are not easily available in Boston and are extremely bony, so I decided to go with branzino (Mediterranean bass).  It's easily available.  Any fishmonger can clean and fillet it, giving you a bag of heads, bones, and skin to use for stock and fillets to use for the fish patties.  Branzino tartar bound with beet jelly sounded good, but that wasn't going to trigger any childhood memories, so that concept had to go.

I dismissed the idea of stuffing the fish filling into the skin.  It required complicated de-boning procedure, and in my opinion didn't add much to the taste.  I wasn't about to throw away the valuable gelatin from the fish skin, so I threw the skin into the stock pot along with heads, bones, beets, carrots and a few aromatics.  After 1.5 hours of simmering, my stock was ready to strain, season, and refrigerate.  I saved the beets and carrots for decoration, seasoning them generously with salt and red wine vinegar before refrigerating.  The next day, I was greeted with perfectly solid beet jelly.  After skimming the fat from the stop, it was ready for action.

I played around with the idea of poaching the fish fillets without grinding them, but eventually I came back to the mixture needing to be ground.  Just like a steak will never trigger a food memory of a burger, neither will the solid fish remind you of ground fish stuffing.  But how do you keep it light and flavorful?  The flavor part was easy; sauteed onions, garlic, cilantro, lemon juice, and orange zest took care of it.  The orange zest would probably freak out your grandma, but let's just keep that between you and me.  It's not in your face, but makes the dish much more refreshing.  

The texture was a real challenge.  I could have gone the French quenelles route adding insane amount of heavy cream to ground fish.  But that seemed to mess with the nature of the dish, so I decided to avoid dairy.  To help with softness, I added bread crumbs (I used panko, but you can use matzo meal to make it kosher for Passover).  To reduce the density (traditional brick like texture was something I could live without), I separated the eggs and whipped the whites to stiff peaks with cream of tartar before folding them into the fish mixture.  I also had trouble with the pasty texture achieved in a food processor.  To solve that problem, I only pureed half of the fish in a food processor with the egg yolk, bread crumbs, and other flavorings.  I minced the remaining fish by hand and folded it in along with whipped egg whites.

I shaped the mixture into quenelles using 2 spoons and dropped each one into hot fish stock (just below the simmer), but you can certainly scoop it out with a cookie or ice-cream scoop too.  But whatever you do, you need to drop these dollops directly into the stock since this mixture is too loose to be shaped into patties.  10 minutes later, the fish was done.  I arranged it in a plate with beets and carrots.  Cooled it, poured the stock on top and refrigerated overnight.

The result was delicious and true to the original.  Any Russian Grandma would eat this in a heart beat -- no foam, no smeared sauce, no raw fish.  But Gen X will appreciate the lighter texture and bright flavor befitting a spring dish.

Gefilte Fish for the 21st century

Branzini are usually 1 Lb each.  Red snapper will also work.


Branzini frames (no gills or guts), heads, and skin from two 1 Lb fish
1 medium beet, peeled, cut in half pole to pole, sliced crosswise ¼ inch thick
1 large carrot, peeled, sliced ¼ inch thick
1 yellow onion, peeled, quartered
2 bay leaves
1 tsp whole peppercorns
red wine vinegar to taste

  1. Put everything into a pot, add water just to cover (about 5 cups).
  2. Bring to a simmer. Cook uncovered at a bare simmer for 1.5 hours. Don’t skim.
  3. Cool till warm. Strain through fine mesh sieve into a bowl, pressing on solids.
  4. Rinse off and save beets and carrots. Put them into a container, splash with red wine vinegar and season with salt.  Taste and adjust.
  5. Season the stock very generously with salt and red wine vinegar (start with 2 tsp vinegar). The perceived intensity of salt and acidity will be a lot lower once the stock is chilled. Pour the stock into a tall container and refrigerate overnight to make degreasing easier. The next day the stock should solidify. Skim the fat off the top, move the stock to a 10 inch skillet without the impurities that accumulate on the bottom of the container. 
Fish mousse:

1 yellow onion cut into small dice
2 Tbsp olive oil

Combine the above in a small pot on medium heat, season with salt, cook stirring occasionally until translucent and golden, 12-15 min

Branzini fillets from 2 fish (about 1 Lb total weight of fillets), bones and skin removed

Cut fillets lengthwise into ¼ inch thick strips, and separate into 2 piles. Cut the first pile into ¼ inch thick dice, then mince and sprinkle with salt. Put the second pile of fish and cooked onions into the food processor with

2 garlic cloves, minced
Zest of 1 orange
2 Tbsp minced cilantro (or tarragon, dill, parsley)
1 egg yolk
¼ cup panko bread crumbs (or matzo meal)
2 Tbsp fresh squeezed orange juice or cold water
Salt, pepper, and lemon juice to taste

Puree everything in a food processor thoroughly, scraping down the bowl as needed. The mixture should be thick, smooth and creamy. Move to a large bowl.

2 egg whites at room temperature
½ tsp cream of tartar
Pinch of salt

Combine the above in a mixer bowl.  Whip in a mixer fitted with a whisk attachment on high speed to stiff peaks. Fold ¼ of egg whites into the fish puree to lighten the texture. Then fold in the reserved minced fish and the remaining egg whites into the fish puree.

Cooking the mousse:

Warm up the stock in a 10 inch skillet to just below the simmer (200F). Shape the mousse into quenelle shapes with 2 soup spoons. Drop each quenelle into the stock as it’s ready. When the skillet is full, set the timer for 5 min. Maintain the heat between 190-200F. The stock shouldn’t boil. Flip each quenelle with a spoon and cook another 4-5 minutes, or until quenelle reach 145-150F in the center. Remove quenelles from the stock into a serving dish that’s at least 1.5 inch deep. Repeat the cooking procedure with the remaining fish mousse. Let the stock cool off to warm. Strain it through a fine mesh sieve and pour over quenelles in a serving dish. Decorate with reserved beets and carrots. Refrigerate overnight, covering with plastic after completely chilled.

Baking alternative:

This is a good option and taste good even if you want to skip making the stock.

Line the bottom a terrine dish with a piece of parchment paper. Add the fish mousse. And cook in a water bath at 350F for 30 min or until the center is 140-145F. Remove from a water bath. Cool to room temperature. Pour ½ inch of beet stock on top and refrigerate overnight, covering with plastic after completely chilled.


Anonymous said...

I love fish. Thanks for share.

Unknown said...

Thanks Helen! If I'm feeling brave next year, I'll add this to my seder!