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Eating Jewish: A new twist on Gefilte Fish: Halibut and Salmon Terrine

Gefilte fish, these two words make a lot of people turn their noses up in disgust while it can make others salivate. It is one of those foods, like cilantro or blue cheese, that people either love or hate, with few people falling in between these opposite opinions. For many, gefilte fish evokes images of whitish balls of fish floating in a jar of liquid, not particularly appetizing if I say so myself. Yet to look at the history of gefilte fish is to take it out of its ubiquitous glass jar and find a dish of necessity and ingenuity that is intricately tied to Jewish tradition.

Gefilte fish was a dish that was initially created for consumption on Shabbat in order to comply with the prohibition of borer (to select/sort), which prohibits one from separating undesirable items from desirable items. This results in being unable to pick away inedible bones from flesh. The name of the dish, which means stuffed in Yiddish, reflects the way in which the dish was originally prepared by carefully removing the skin from the flesh and discarding the bones. The flesh would then be mixed with matza meal or bread, onions, as well as other seasonings, and be stuffed back into the skin. The fish was then roasted, however cooks eventually began to poach the stuffed fish. Among the Jewish communities in Central and Western Europe gefilte fish was not the most common fish dish to be prepared on the Sabbath, yet gefilte fish became very popular among Jewish communities in Eastern Europe because it was a dish that allowed families to stretch their limited resources. Poorer families who could not afford to purchase fish would obtain free fish skins and occasionally some bones from the fishmonger, and they would then stuff the skins with breadcrumbs and whatever else they had on hand, sometimes completely omitting any fish meat to make this dish.

Gefilte fish was introduced to the culinary landscape of North America with the large influx of Eastern European Jews that immigrated to the continent at the end of the nineteenth century. The first Jewish American cookbook, Jewish Cookery by Esther Levy, contained a recipe for gefilte fish under the guise of “Stewed-Fish Balls” while the 1943 edition of the popular The Settlement Cook Book by Lizzie Kander contained a recipe for “Filled Fish (Gefüllte Fish)” that could either be baked or poached. Beginning in the 1940s, commercial gefilte fish became available and the first two large companies to start producing commercial gefilte fish were Mother’s Fish Products and Manischewitz, both of which packaged it in glass jars. Gefilte fish has subsequently become an icon of Ashkenazi cuisine and in turn an important part of the collective memory of the Ashkenazi community. The central position it holds in the hearts and memories of many within the community is evidenced by films named after the dish (and this one) as well as a children’s book called The Carp in the Bathtub which is centered around this dish.

With gefilte fish being a dish that has undergone various changes, from being baked to poached and through the inclusion of such untraditional ingredients as salmon or jalapeno, you can see that it is no stranger to being altered. Therefore, the recipe for halibut and salmon terrine I’ve included below fits into this tradition of adaptation. This take on gefilte fish produces a dish that has a delicate fish flavor to which the onions add some sweetness, with the dill being a perfect partner to the fish. Just as with traditional gefilte fish, horseradish would be a good accompaniment to this terrine. While this reinterpretation provides a nod to traditional gefilte fish, I promise that people won’t be turning their noses up at it! Chag Sameach!

Halibut and Salmon Terrine From Passover Makeover
by Melissa Clark in Martha Stewart Living, April 2011

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 large sweet onion, chopped
12 ounces boneless, skinless halibut fillets (or another similar white fish), cut into chunks
12 ounces boneless, skinless salmon fillets, cut into chunks
2 large eggs
¾ cup cold water, plus boiling water for pan
3 tablespoons matza meal
1 tablespoon sugar
½ teaspoon fresh lemon juice
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
½ large carrot, peeled and grated
½ large parsnip, peeled and grated
1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill

  1. Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Coat a 5 by 9 inch loaf pan with 1 ½ teaspoons olive oil. Heat remaining olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Cook onion, stirring, until soft, 6 to 8 minutes. Set aside.

  2. Pulse the halibut and salmon in a food processor until finely chopped, not smooth (I don’t have a food processor so I used a hand blender which worked just as well).

  3. Beat eggs with a mixer on medium speed until frothy, about 2 minutes. Beat in onion, fish mixture, cold water, matzo meal, sugar, lemon juice, 2 teaspoons salt, and some pepper until well combined, about 3 minutes. Beat in carrot, parsnip, and dill.

  4. Transfer mixture to pan. Smooth top using an offset spatula. Cover with parchment-lined foil, and transfer to a large roasting pan. Pour enough boiling water into roasting pan to come halfway up the sides of the loaf pan. Bake until terrine is firm in the center, about 45 minutes. Remove pan from water. Let cool for 10 minutes.

  5. Run a knife or an offset spatula around the edge of the pan to loosen terrine. Place a plate on top, then flip. Tap top and sides gently several times to help release terrine. Let cool completely. Soak up any released juices with a paper towel. Refrigerate, covered with plastic wrap, for at least 1 hour.

  6. Uncover terrine. Slice, and serve with horseradish.

More on: Food, Recipes, Passover,
Halibut and Salmon Terrine
Full image
Photo by Katherine Romanow

How to cite this page

Romanow, Katherine. "Eating Jewish: A new twist on Gefilte Fish: Halibut and Salmon Terrine." 19 April 2011. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on July 31, 2014) <http://jwa.org/blog/eating-jewish-A-new-twist-on-Gefilte-Fish>.

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