As Passover approaches, my thoughts turn toward gefilte fish, which of course means "stuffed fish." So why are the fish balls in the jar called gefilte fish? They are the stuffing without the fish, cooked separately. My grandmother, who made the best gefilte fish that I have ever had, referred to the fish balls as kneidel, the same term she used for matzo balls and actually cognate with the French quenelles. Her gefilte fish was mamish stuffed. She would take the stuffing, and stuff pike, carp and whitefish steaks, with the skin still on to hold the stuffing in, as well as the heads and cook them in the fish broth along with some kneidel for those who didn't want to deal with the bones. My grandfather and uncle were both fishmongers, and one of the signs of adulthood in my family was your graduation from kneidel to stuffed fish heads. Given all of this, no one in my family is willing to eat gefilte fish out of the jar at a seder. Likewise, no one is willing to make it how my grandmother did, and even if they were willing, no one knows how because no one took the time to learn the recipe.
So what do we do? We serve salmon buglama, a recipe which I adapted from Darra Goldstein's The Georgian Feast . I switched her safflower oil , likely a holdover from Soviet era agriculture, to olive or walnut oil, and handle the onions differently. Otherwise, the recipe is pretty much the same, with the exception that we serve it cold as well as hot. During the year, we usually have it hot with new potatoes zapped with garlic, and then eat the leftovers cold for lunch the following days. However, on Pesach we have served it cold for at least 10 years as our fish course, and people demand it every year. It is very easy, and you can prepare it a day or two in advance. The quantity below will serve 4-6 as a main course, and be enough for small portions for 8-10 as an appetizer. You can increase the quantities proportionately. It is most attractive if you cook and serve it without disturbing the layers.
- 2 pound salmon filet (wild is best, farmed is acceptable), skin removed and cut into cubes the size of stew. (they may do this for you in the fish store, save the skin if you want and see below)
- 1 medium to large onion, halved and sliced thin
- Cilantro, washed well and chopped, up to one cup
- 1-3 lemons, sliced thin with seeds removed.
- 4 to 8 bay leaves, depending how much you like them (you can find and use fresh bay leaves on Pesach if you have compunctions about dried herbs and spices)
- 2 large tomatoes, sliced thin, or the equivalent in smaller tomatoes.
- Olive oil, or substitute walnut oil if you want
- Salt and pepper.
- In a deep skillet with tight cover , drizzle a little oil and lay half the onion.
- Put the salmon on top of the onion, season with salt and pepper, top with cilantro and remaining onion, and drizzle with a bit of olive oil.
- Layer in order the lemon, bay leaves and tomato, season with more salt and pepper and drizzle with oil.
- Cover tightly, bring to the boil, turn heat down and simmer gently for 15 minutes, or a bit more if necessary. Don’t open the cover and don't test the fish by disturbing the layers, but if the cover is nice and hot and the tomatoes lightly cooked, it is done.
- Serve hot or cold.