Holidays: Serving fish at Rosh Hashanah

NEW YORK, July 20 (JTA) — “Fish at Rosh Hashanah?” asked a friend when I suggested bringing poached striped bass to her house for a New Year’s celebration. “Isn’t fish for Passover?”

Until marrying into a family from Trieste, Italy, I believed the same thing. But my husband soon introduced me to a lemony bass, a traditional appetizer enjoyed in Italy during both Passover and Rosh Hashanah.

While every holiday should begin with lighting candles, blessings over bread and wine and partaking in fish, says culinary ethnographer Eve Jochnowitz, today many American families skip the fish.

Perhaps it’s because Lower East Side bubbes became the brunt of too many jokes for keeping live carp in bathtubs. Perhaps it’s because the pale flavor of bottled gefilte fish simply can’t compare to the poached patties they prepared with love. Perhaps we’ve simply lost the knack for tackling fresh fish.

But there are historical and religious reasons to serve fish at holidays throughout the year — especially at this Rosh Hashanah, which begins this year on Sept. 29, a Friday night.

“It would be a double mitzvah to have fish this Rosh Hashanah,” says Rabbi — and chef — Gil Marks, author of “The World of Jewish Entertaining” (Simon and Schuster, 1998).

Both Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews customarily ate fish on Shabbat and other holidays because it is a good omen to fulfill the Lord’s commandment to Abraham “to be fruitful and multiply” like the fish in the sea.

“In the ancient world, fish symbolized fertility, abundance, and prosperity,” says Jochnowitz, who teaches a class called “Historical Approaches to Jewish Food” at the New School in Manhattan. “It was therefore auspicious to delight in fish during Sabbath meals.”

Rosh Hashanah in particular is concerned with fertility and prosperity in the coming year, explains Marks. For this reason, fish and foods bearing seeds are excellent choices on menus.

Because it symbolizes fertility, fish reminds us of the creation of life. At the same time, it intimates the messianic age to be ushered in by the Meal of the Righteous, at which the Leviathan, a large fish, plays a prominent part. In this way, fish connects both to creation and the end of days. There is a mystical dimension to Jewish rituals, which often transcends time.

Marks describes the ancient custom of displaying the head of a fish on the Rosh Hashanah table. It was a sign for the coming year to be rosh, meaning head, to progress or move ahead.

“The Talmud mentions fish as a Sabbath food at all three meals,” he says. It also indicates that separating the flesh of fish from its bones is considered work, which explains in part the popularity of gefilte fish among Ashkenazi Jews and the array of recipes calling for chopped fish or fillets in Sephardi cuisine.

In many countries, fish is a staple item at Rosh Hashanah celebrations. Alsatian Jews dine on sweet and sour carp, German Jews savor a similar dish flavored with gingersnaps. Indian Jews flavor fish with curry or wrap fillets in lettuce leaves. Turkish and Greek Jews simmer their holiday fish in sauces made from tomatoes, greengage plums, or prunes.

“Among Egyptian Jews, bellahat,” or ground fish balls with tomato and cumin, “is known as a Rosh Hashanah dish,” says food writer Jayne Cohen, author of “The Gefilte Variations” (Simon and Schuster, 2000). Requiring no poaching in broth, these fish balls are so easily prepared that her 15-year-old daughter often makes them. Given the recipe by Corinne Rossabi, an excellent home cook raised in Egypt, Cohen calls it a spicy alternative to gefilte fish.

“One thing I look forward to at Rosh Hashanah is shopping for ingredients for bellahat at my local greenmarket,” she says. Made with a riot of tomatoes, the dish is in sync with Rosh Hashanah’s affinity for produce loaded with seeds as part of the holiday’s symbolism of fertility and abundance.

For people who prefer gefilte fish but seek a trendy twist on tradition, the salmon gefilte fish recipe below is subtle and light. Marks received it from Bertha Sherman of Portland, Ore. While preparation is easier than advertised, you can cut a step by asking the market to chop the fish.

Yet if you are short on time or too squeamish to sink your hands into ground fillets, fish can still grace your Rosh Hashanah table.

“I’ll tell you how to doctor store bought gefilte fish,” says a travel agent from Highland Park, N.J. Her secret: Simmering the contents of a jar with fresh fillets, carrots, celery and onion. “Believe me, my gefilte fish smells and tastes like homemade.” As good as bubbe’s? Well, almost.

Of course there is another alternative for people willing to pay the price of convenience, one in accordance with Rosh Hashanah’s themes of fertility, prosperity and abundance.

“Although I’ve never seen it, caviar might be an interesting custom to start at Rosh Hashanah,” says Marks, with a chuckle. “Why not?”

EGYPTIAN GROUND FISH BALLS WITH TOMATO AND CUMIN

Adapted from “The Gefilte Variations” by Jayne Cohen

Fish Balls

11/2 skinned and filleted flounder, haddock, cod, scrod, sole, hake, sea bass, snapper or grouper

1/2 cup matzah meal

2 large eggs

1 Tbsp. minced fresh garlic

1 tsp. kosher salt

1/2 tsp. ground cumin

1/4 tsp. cayenne

olive oil for frying

Sauce

2 cups canned whole tomatoes with their juice, seeded and chopped

2 Tbsp. olive oil

Juice of 1 large lemon

Salt and pepper

For garnishing: soft-leafed lettuce; chopped parsley or cilantro; and lemon quarters

1. Cut the fish into 1-inch pieces. In a food processor, puree them with matzah meal, eggs, garlic, salt, cumin and cayenne until mixture is smooth. Transfer the puree to a large bowl and refrigerate it covered for one hour. With moistened hands, shape the mixture into 16 slightly flattened logs, using a scant 1/4 cup for each. Transfer them as they are formed to a sheet of wax paper. Heat 1/4 inch of oil over high heat in a large, heavy skillet until it is hot but not smoking. Add the fish balls in batches and fry, turning them once until pale golden. Transfer balls to paper towels.

2. Wipe out the skillet. Add the tomatoes and their juice, olive oil, lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste. Cook over high heat for 8 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes break up and the sauce is thickened. Add the fish balls and simmer the mixture over low heat, covered for 15 minutes, turning fish balls once or twice. Remove the skillet from the heat and allow fish to cool in sauce.

3. Line a platter with lettuce. Arrange fish balls on them, and spoon sauce over fish. Sprinkle with parsley or cilantro, and accompany with lemon wedges. Serve the fish chilled or at room temperature.

Yield: About 8 servings.

SALMON GEFILTE FISH

Adapted from “The World of Jewish Entertaining” by Gil Marks

Stock

2 quarts cold water

Fish bones, heads and tails

4 stalks celery, sliced

4 medium carrots, sliced

2 medium onions, sliced

2 tsp. salt

Croquettes

11/2 lbs. fresh salmon fillets

1/2 lb. fresh yellow pike fillets

1/2 lb. fresh red snapper fillets

3 medium onions, chopped

4 large eggs, lightly beaten

3 Tbsp. matzah meal

1 large carrot, grated

3 Tbsp. chopped fresh parsley

Ground white or black pepper to taste

1. Put the stock ingredients in a large pot. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 2 hours.

2. In a food processor, finely grind the fish and onions. Stir in the eggs, matzah meal, carrot, parsley, salt and pepper. Place in the refrigerator until stock is ready.

3. Moisten your hands with cold water, repeating often while shaping the fish. Using a large spoon, remove about 1/3 cup of the fish mixture and shape into a ball. Gently drop the balls, on at a time, into the stock.

4. Return the stock to a boil, cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer for at least 1 hour and up to 2 hours. Add more water if the level threatens to fall below the fish.

5. Remove gefilte fish and carrots and place in a glass container. For a more gelatinous fish sauce, boil the stock until reduced by half. Strain the stock and pour enough over the fish to cover. Let cool, then store in the refrigerator. Serve with horseradish.

Yield: About 20 medium croquettes

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