Home January 2024 Shabbat's Magic

Shabbat’s Magic

Mexican Gefilte Fish

Celebrating our special day

Who doesn’t love a holiday? We Jews are lucky because we get to celebrate one every week. It’s called Shabbat, and a new cookbook, “Shabbat,” by the wildly popular author of “Sababa,” Adeena Sussman, brings you all the majesty and tradition of the holiday with recipes geared toward the day of rest, recipes that are do-ahead, approachable and relaxed, with Sussman helpfully sharing her masterful techniques and prep tips along the way. Accompanying the recipes are engaging stories of family, friends, local cooks and chefs of Israel, where she has lived for almost a decade.
   Having been raised in an orthodox home in Palo Alto, California, and steeped in ritual, Sussman “grew up enveloped in Shabbat’s magic, aware of how my family’s life revolved around this sacred bubble,” but also with the realization that “so much about Shabbat was about the food and the table that the two are inseparable in my mind. During the week we ate meals, but on Shabbat we had celebrations.”
   To some, what to cook for Shabbat centers on Friday night dinners, but our day of rest lasts 25 hours from just before sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday, four meals to plan for and enjoy. No worries. Sussman has the whole weekend covered with Crispy Eggplant and Goat Cheese Tart, Potato Blintzes with Mushroom Sauce or Cheesy Spinach and Phyllo Pie for breakfast or brunch, for example; a dizzying array of salads and sides—may I just give a shout-out for the Roasted Green Beans and Peppers with Smoky, Nutty Bread Crumbs my friend served with dinner recently? —appetizers, soups, stews, breads and a whole chapter dedicated to kugels. For dessert try the show-stopping Lemon-Black Sesame Bundt Cake, but don’t miss the Halvah Berry Bread Pudding with Tahini Drizzle hiding out in the Breakfast and Brunch chapter.
   Challah is the “one recipe that defines Shabbat,” says Sussman, but why bake two? As the Israelites wandered through the desert, she explains, G-d sent them manna, one piece for each day during the week, but “before Shabbat they received two, so they wouldn’t have to work by gathering their meal. Today, we place two loaves of challah on the table for Shabbat meals to symbolize those two pre-Shabbat portions of manna.”
    The traditional braiding of the Sabbath challah was actually adopted by Jews from their German neighbors during the Middle Ages. As they did with so many other customs, Jews living in the diaspora absorbed traditions from the surrounding culture. The rabbis then searched for symbolic meanings to these customs to make them more Jewish. Could the braiding signify G-d’s plaiting Eve’s hair for her wedding to Adam? The interlocked arms of lovers? Perhaps the triple concepts of the Creation, Exodus, and Messianic Age? As Maggie Glezer, author of “A Blessing of Bread,” told me, “Jews admired the Germans’ Sunday loaf. It looks beautiful, they thought. Obviously, we want our Sabbath loaf to look as beautiful. We mix our traditions with the local traditions and create new ones.”
    The serving of gefilte fish has been a Sabbath tradition since the Middle Ages, fish being seen by Jewish mystics as signaling the coming of the Messiah. Fish was expensive in Europe, and the recipe was developed as an economical way to stretch it so that every family member could get a taste. It became a particularly traditional Sabbath dish, made on Friday, because to remove the flesh from the bone was viewed by the devout as “work.”
    The word “gefilte” is actually German for “stuffed.” The original recipe called for seasoned, ground boned fish mixed with eggs and fillers, such as vegetables and crumbs, which was then stuffed back into the fish skin and cooked. Over the centuries the skin was eliminated, with cooks shaping the mixture into balls or patties and poaching them. Recipes varied greatly depending on geography. According to Matthew Goodman writing in “The Food Maven” for The Forward, Polish Jews preferred sweeter food than their neighbors and made their gefilte fish with sugar. “David and Diane Roskies have speculated that this variation may correlate with the rise of Chasidism in the region,” writes Goodman. “The Chasidim tend to like their
food sweet, associating sugar with the joy of religious celebration—though a more materialist explanation would point to the profusion of Jewish-owned sugar refineries in the surrounding area.”
   By contrast, gefilte fish in Lithuania was spiced heavily with pepper and served with horseradish alongside. Goodman references a doctoral dissertation by a Marvin Herzog, who proposed what he termed the “gefilte fish line.” “The line runs north to south, about 40 miles east of Warsaw,” explains Goodman. “West of it, the preferred gefilte fish preparation was sweet, while to the east the fish was peppery.” My own family lore tells of the anxiety my grandparents felt when my mother, of Litvak pepper-loving heritage, decided to marry my father, a Galitziana with sweet tooth proclivities, for fear they would be served, horror of horrors, gefilte fish with sugar by their new machatunem (their daughter’s in-laws).
   Canned or bottled gefilte fish, while convenient, cannot compare to authentic homemade. Its preparation need not be daunting; the food processor does the job easily. While gefilte fish was a staple of my childhood, it has gotten a bad rap through the decades, or as Rodney Dangerfield would put it, “It ain’t got no respect.” The Mexican Gefilte Fish in Spicy Tomatillo Sauce featured here keeps with tradition while bringing a whole new flavor to this iconic dish. Sussman obtained the recipe from the owners of Tacos Luis, “Israel’s best, most authentic, happens-to-be-kosher taqueria,” she says, where it’s bound with almond flour to keep it gluten-free and served with avocado and tostadas fritas (fried whole corn tortillas), signaling the coming of the Messiah but with a lot more pizzazz. Even Jewish mystics would approve.  

Mexican Gefilte Fish

Yield: (makes 20 balls), 6-8 as main course, 8-10 as appetizer


For gefilte fish balls

2 1/2 pounds skinless whitefish fillets, such as carp, snapper, flounder, lemon soul, tilapia, or a combination

1 large onion, coarsely chopped (2 cups)

1/2 cup almond flour

2 large eggs, beaten

4 teaspoons kosher salt

2 teaspoons ground coriander

1 teaspoon finely black pepper


For Salsa Verde:

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 large onion, finely chopped

6 fresh large jalapeños (10-12 ounces total), seeded if desired, chopped

1 can (28 ounces) tomatillos, (2 cups), coarsely chopped, + 1/4 cup brine from can

1 cup water

5 garlic cloves

2 cups fresh cilantro leaves and tender stems

2 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more to taste

1 cup fish broth, homemade or store–bought


For finishing

1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro, plus leaves for garnish

1/4 cup chopped pickled jalapeños, plus more pickled jalapeño rings for garnish (optional)

1 avocado, peeled, pitted, and cut into one–inch pieces

Baked or fried whole corn tortillas or tortilla chips

1 lime, cut into wedges

1. Gefilte fish balls: Pat fish fillets dry. Cut them into chunks and pulse them (in 2 batches, if necessary) in food processor until finely chopped, but not pasty, 5-10 seconds, or more as needed. Transfer to large bowl. Add onion, almond flour, eggs, salt, coriander, and black pepper to processor bowl and pulse until onions are very fine chopped or minced, scraping down sides of processor, if necessary, 20-30 pulses. Add onion mixture to fish and combine thoroughly with your hands. Chill, covered, while you make Salsa Verde.

2. Salsa Verde: In large (5-quart) heavy Dutch oven, heat oil over medium heat. Add onion and cook, stirring, until tender and translucent, 6-7 minutes. Add fresh jalapeños, tomatillos and brine, water, garlic, cilantro, and salt, bring to a boil, then reduce heat to simmer, cover, and cook until garlic is soft, 20 minutes. Add fish broth to cooked vegetables, warm through 1 minute, then remove pot from heat and use an immersion (stick) blender or conventional blender to blend until smooth, 15-20 seconds.

3. Fish: Using moistened hands, use 1/3 cup of mixture to form each gefilte fish ball. Gently lower gefilte fish balls into Salsa Verde and shake pot slightly to ensure they are coated in sauce. Bring to a low boil on medium heat, then reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, partially covered, until fishbowls are firm and opaque and sauce has thickened, 20-25 minutes. Stir in chopped cilantro and pickled jalapeños and season sauce with salt to taste. Divide among bowls and garnish each serving with pickled jalapeño rings (if using), cilantro leaves, and chopped avocado. Serve with corn tortillas and lime wedges.

Golden Challah

Golden Challah

To determine if your challah is done, insert a meat thermometer into the center. If it reads 190–195° Fahrenheit, you’re there.

Yield: 2 large or 3 medium challahs

1 cup warm water (110° to 115°F), plus up to 1/4 cup more

1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons sugar

2 packets (1/4–ounce each) active dry yeast (4 1/2 teaspoons total)

1/2 cup vegetable oil + 1/2 tablespoon for greasing bowl

1/8 teaspoon ground turmeric

4 large eggs

6 cups (780 g) all–purpose flour, plus more as needed

2 1/2 teaspoons fine sea salt

1/2 cup sesame seeds

Flaky sea salt, such as Maldon, or kosher salt

1. In bowl of stand mixer, whisk warm water and the 2 tablespoons sugar (I use a fork; no need to dirty the whisk). Whisk in yeast and let it get foamy and fluffy for 5-6 minutes (if this doesn’t happen, your yeast is dead! Start over!). Whisk in remaining 1/2 cup sugar, 1/2 cup of the oil, the turmeric and 3 of the eggs until incorporated.

2. Add flour and fine sea salt, then fit mixer with paddle attachment to incorporate ingredients well and mix on medium speed, stopping mixer and using silicone spatula to coax any loose flour into dough, until dough is shaggy but unified, 3 minutes. If dough does not hold its shape at all and looks more like a wet blob, add more flour, 1/4 cup at a time, to achieve desired texture; if dough feels dry and crumbly, add up to 1/4 cup more water. To knead in mixer, continue to knead on medium speed until dough is smooth and plush without being sticky and pulls away from mixer without leaving any dough on the sides or bottom of bowl, 5 to 6 minutes (dough may seem ready earlier, but kneading this long helps develop gluten, which will make for a stronger, better dough with better crumb and structure). Transfer to very lightly floured work surface (if you have a marble countertop, I recommend starting without flour and only adding it if the dough feels impossibly sticky in an all–over–your–hands way).

3. Using heel of one hand to lean into dough and the other to rotate it, knead until a very smooth dough forms, another 9-10 minutes. If you get tired, rest for a second, throw some dishes in the sink, then keep needing for another minute or two. You should be able to hold the ball of dough and not have it stick to your hands, but it also shouldn’t feel too dry or tear across the top; you’re looking for smooth!

4. Add remaining 1/2 tablespoon oil to a large metal bowl and use pastry brush or your hands to coat bowl with oil. Add dough, flip it to coat lightly in oil, seal with plastic wrap, then cover with clean kitchen towel, and let dough sit in warm place until at least doubled but ideally tripled in size, 1 hour 30 minutes to 2 hours for double and 3 hours for triple (trippling makes dough lighter, so if you have time, I recommend it). Uncover dough and punch it down with your fist, then transfer dough from bowl to work surface.

5. Cut dough into two equal–sized pieces (or 3 for smaller challahs), then cut each larger piece into 3 smaller pieces.

6. Line large baking sheet with parchment paper. Press down on each piece of dough to release any air bubbles, roll each into a 12–inch log (or a 10–inch log if making 3 challahs), then roll out and taper ends of each log to form 16–inch logs (or 12–inch logs for 3 challahs). Let logs rest 5 minutes to allow gluten to relax. Pinch top ends together, pressing down pinched top with chef’s knife to secure dough. Braid logs, forming a challah that is slightly tapered on both ends and plump and generous as it reaches center. Tuck ends under and arrange loaves on parchment–lined sheet, leaving at least 4 inches between loaves. Let rise, covered, in warm, draft–free place, until challahs puff and nearly double in volume, 1 hour.

7. During last 15 minutes of rising, set rack in center of oven and preheat oven to 350°F.

8. Beat remaining egg in small bowl, then brush challahs thoroughly all over with egg, making sure not to neglect sides of challah all the way down to parchment (so that sesame seeds will coat the whole challah). Coat each challah with 1/4 cup of sesame seeds (or about 2 1/2 tablespoons if you’re making 3 challahs). Sprinkle with flaky sea salt and bake until challahs are golden and fluffy and undersides are a lovely golden-brown color and sound hollow when tapped, 34-36 minutes for 2 large loaves, 28-30 minutes for 3 medium loaves. Cool and slice.

Jlife Food Editor Judy Bart Kancigor is the author of “Cooking Jewish” (Workman) and “The Perfect Passover Cookbook” (an e-book short from Workman), a columnist and feature writer for the Orange County Register and other publications and can be found on the web at www.cookingjewish.com.


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