Vegetarian Gefilte Fish

March 28, 2022
1 Ratings
Photo by Julia Gartland Prop Stylist: Anne Eastman Food Stylist: Yossy Arefi
  • Prep time 40 minutes
  • Cook time 1 hour
  • Serves 5 to 7
Author Notes

Gefilte fish, or stuffed fish, in Yiddish, is viewed by many as the bane of Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine. Most know the dish in its jarred form: suspect beige balls of mixed fish floating in jellied broth. While some people love it, for many Jews, gefilte fish elicits a mix of disgust and embarrassment when it comes out at the Passover seder during the retelling of the Biblical exodus from Egypt. There’s a prevailing sense of “our people survived… for this?”

Jarred gefilte fish is in fact a relatively recent invention. The Cincinnati-based Manischewitz, perhaps better known for their sweet kosher wine, first started selling gefilte fish in the 1940s. For centuries earlier, Ashkenazi Jews in Central and Eastern Europe took on the laborious task of making their own, deboning the fish before sunset on Friday (to keep the provision against doing work during Shabbat), then stuffing the mixed flesh (typically carp, whitefish, and/or pike) back into the fish skin, then poached or roasted. It was a cornerstone of the Shabbat table (if you could afford the fish in the first place). These days, gefilte fish is making something of a comeback. Ashkenazi Jewish chefs like Jeffrey Yoskowitz and Liz Alpern, co-authors of The Gefilte Manifesto, are celebrating and reimagining “Old World” recipes. Even vegetarians are getting in on the action, wanting to recreate the heimisch nostalgia of gefilte fish––of course, sans fish.

Eve Jochnowitz, a Greenwich Village-based culinary ethnographer, studies historical Yiddish language cookbooks. As she puts it, “a Jewish heart longs for gefilte fish.” In her research, she found a century-old Lena Braun recipe for vegetarian gefilte fish that uses salsify, or oyster plant) to mimic the texture and flavor of fish.

“I bought the book from a Judaica dealer and read through it when I was first discovering the universe of Yiddish cookbooks in the late [1980s],” said Jochnowitz. “I was very struck by the vegetarian gefilte fish recipe as a great service to folks who just could not bear to give up certain Jewish dishes.”

Jochnowitz adapted Braun’s recipe, using a more readily available mix of cooked cauliflower and parsnip puréed with white onion and roasted cashews that are then bound together with egg and matzo meal (or subbed with panko). My adaptation goes a step further, adding carrot to the faux fish mix, seasoning the mix with lemon zest, Old Bay (that most reliable of Ashkenazi seafood seasonings), and wakame powder to bring additional flavor and umami to the shtetl classic. (If you’re not a fan of that sea/fishy flavor, feel free to half the wakame powder.)
Joe Baur

What You'll Need
  • 42 grams (about 1 medium) carrot, half peeled and roughly chopped (scant 1/4 cup); half left whole
  • 75 grams (3/4 cup) roughly chopped cauliflower
  • 75 grams (about 1/4 medium, 3/4 cup) peeled roughly chopped parsnip
  • 33 grams (1/4 cup) raw, unsalted cashews or walnuts
  • 40 grams (1/4 medium, heaped 1/4 cup) white onion
  • 1 large egg
  • Kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons Old Bay Seasoning
  • 1 teaspoon very finely ground wakame powder
  • 1 large lemon
  • 2 tablespoons matzo meal (not matzo ball soup mix)
  • Prepared horseradish, for serving
  • Roughly chopped parsley or dill, for garnish (optional)
  1. In a medium saucepan, place the chopped carrot, cauliflower, and parsnip. Cover the vegetables with water then place a lid on the pot. Over medium-high heat, bring the mixture to a boil, and cook for 10 to 15 minutes, or until fork-tender.
  2. Meanwhile, place the cashews in a small, dry skillet over medium-high heat and toast, stirring frequently, until they darken and smell nutty, about 5 minutes.
  3. While the nuts toast, place the onion in a small food processor or blender and pulse until the onion is well-minced. Add the toasted nuts to the blender and pulse again until the mixture forms a chunky puree.
  4. Strain the vegetables using a colander run under cold tap water from the tap until cool enough to handle, about 10 seconds. Transfer to the food processor or blender with the onion mixture and pulse again until it’s a chunky paste.
  5. Use a Microplane to zest the lemon into a large bowl. Cut the lemon into wedges and set aside. Whisk together the egg, 1 teaspoon salt, pepper, sugar, Old Bay, and wakame powder with the lemon zest until incorporated. Scrape the vegetable-nut purée into the bowl along with the matzo meal. Use your hands to mix well to form a loose batter. Place the bowl in the refrigerator for 10 minutes, until firm (if you’re familiar with set matzo ball batter, look for the same texture.)
  6. Meanwhile, fill a large pot with water and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the remaining carrot-half and season the water with a big pinch of salt. Lower the heat to low to maintain a simmer.
  7. Wet your hands with cold water, then scoop out 50-gram (about 1/4-cup-sized) chunks of the refrigerated batter. Press the batter between your cupped hands to form 5 to 7 oval-shaped mounds; make sure they are as tightly packed as you can get them. They may look small, but will double in size as they poach.
  8. Use a slotted spoon to carefully transfer the gefilte fish to the pot of boiling water, then cover, adjusting the heat to maintain a simmer, and simmer for 50 minutes. Don’t worry if small areas of the gefilte fish exterior come apart. The gefilte fish will hold their primary shape and resemble pump, pillowy footballs. You may need to check and adjust the heat levels so the water doesn’t come above a simmer to a rolling boil. As the gefilte fish balls continue to poach, line a sheet pan with a clean kitchen towel. When they have doubled in size and poached fully, remove them and the carrot from the pot with a slotted spoon, and place onto the lined sheet pan to dry for at least 10 minutes.
  9. Once the carrot has cooled enough to handle, cut it into 1/4-inch-thick slices on the bias. Serve the gefilte fish at room temperature, topped with a carrot slice, a sprinkle of dill, a dollop of horseradish, and with lemon wedges for squeezing.

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1 Review

sara D. April 27, 2023
could I use garbanzo flour or cooked and then ground up pappadam as a GF alternative to matzoh meal? Thinking next year for a vegan GF Passover for friends.