Chopped and fried gefilte fish, or ‘C&F’ as it was known in our house, was a regular fixture on our family menu. My Grandma would make it every week, on a Thursday, first mincing the fish and onion using a hand-cranked mincing machine, then adding the egg, seasoning and matza meal “until it looks right”. I don’t think she ever referred to a recipe.
Significantly, Grandma kept her dry ingredients in unlabelled glass jars in a cupboard – she could see the contents through the glass so why bother with labels? One week, the fishballs just didn’t taste right. There was an awkward atmosphere around the table as we ate them. Then someone mentioned it… Turns out that Grandma had grabbed the desiccated coconut instead of the matza meal. I strongly encourage you never to make this substitution!
Fish balls as we know them today have evolved from the traditional Ashkenazi ‘gefilte fish’, which would originally have been made from carp or other freshwater fish, and poached to cook. These days the fish is usually sea fish, and the mixture is most usually fried or baked, although the balls can also be poached in fish stock if preferred.
Grandma’s gefilte fish mixture would be shaped into patties or balls, then fried in an open frying pan in about 1-2cm of oil. Grandma always knew when the oil was the right temperature, and her chopped and fried fish always came out crispy and browned – delicious! Hot, freshly-fried fishballs are the best!
These days, I’m afraid I don’t make fried gefilte fish on a weekly basis. A couple of reasons: 1) I’m lazy and you can buy pretty good ones in the supermarket (not as good as home made, but OK), and 2) frying fish makes your hair, clothes and house STINK – my Mum has a single electric ring in her garage that she uses when making chopped and fried, and she wears an old dressing gown and a shower hat while she does it!
Since I don’t make chopped and fried gefilte fish so often, I do need a little help with getting the frying just right. The most important thing is the oil temperature, which can be hard to gauge, so I was delighted to get my hands on a Thermapen kitchen thermometer.
You may think that a kitchen thermometer is the sort of gadget that only professional chefs would require, but I was surprised by how useful it is in a domestic kitchen too. Using it to measure the temperature of my frying oil, for example, meant that the whole process was easier, and less stressful, and the results were much more consistent.
The Thermapen is chunky and easy to use, and gives an accurate temperature reading in only 3 seconds on its large format digital display. It’s waterproof, so easy to clean, and the probe folds up when not in use so you can chuck it in a drawer and not worry about spearing yourself! The Thermapen switches on automatically when you unfold the probe, and it can be angled so that it’s easy to insert into whatever you’re measuring – whether it’s hot oil or other liquid, or solid foods like meat, fish or even baked goods. Did you know you can test whether your challah is cooked by measuring the internal temperature? (It’s done at 190C, in case you’re interested. The Thermapen also comes with a handy chart of useful temperature information!)
But back to my chopped and fried gefilte fish. Grandma used a mixture of hake and haddock, but any flaky white fish is fine. You can shape it into patties, or little balls. Fry them, then drain on kitchen paper to absorb excess oil.
Interestingly, gefilte fish is not fried across most of the world, and if I’d had to guess which nation had thought to immerse the balls in hot oil, I would probably have said America, but apparently it’s we Brits who came up with the chopped and fried fishball. Well done us!
Serve these hot, warm or cold, with a dollop of extra-strong chraine (horseradish and beetroot sauce) on the side. Makes 16-18.
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- 400g white fish e.g. hake, haddock, cod, or a mixture
- 1 egg
- 1/2 a medium onion
- 25g (3 tbsp) medium matza meal
- Pinch of salt and pepper
- Approx. 500ml vegetable oil for frying
- Finely chop the fish in the food processor. Remove from the bowl and set aside.
- Peel and chop the onion, then put in the food processor with the egg and pulse until well combined and almost liquid.
- Return the fish to the food processor bowl, add the matza meal and seasoning, and pulse until just combined. Tip the mixture into a bowl or other container, cover, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes and up to 24 hours.
- Fill a small saucepan with oil to a depth of 2-3cm. Place on a medium flame and heat to 190C.
- While the oil is heating, divide the fish mixture into around 18 pieces, and roll each into a ball - this is most easily done with wet hands. Place the balls on a plate or chopping board ready for frying.
- Once the oil is hot, use a slotted spoon to carefully immerse 4-5 fish balls into the oil. The oil will bubble up immediately but should calm down quite quickly. Cook the fish balls, turning regularly, for about 5-6 minutes until a dark golden brown. Carefully remove from the pan using a slotted spoon, and drain on absorbent kitchen paper.
- Repeat with the remaining balls until they are all cooked.
- Don't cook more than 4 or 5 fish balls at a time - the oil temperature will drop when you add them and too many will lower the temperature too much, meaning that they won't cook properly and will absorb oil and taste greasy.
- If you have a kitchen thermometer, keep checking the oil temperature as the fish balls cook. If it goes above 190C, reduce the heat, otherwise the fish balls will brown too quickly and may still be uncooked in the centre.
NB: I was provided with a Thermapen kitchen thermometer to try. I was not obliged to write a positive review and all opinions are my own.