My paternal grandmother, Bobe, used to make two kinds of gefilte fish every Friday: white or traditional and red or a la Veracruzana. The moment you sat down, she made you choose, “which do you want mamele, white or red?”
Invariably, after you chose, she’d ask, “you don’t like the way I make the other one?”
She’d barge in, make room on your plate and serve you the kind you hadn’t picked, right next to the one you had chosen. She’d wait for you to taste it and tell her how good the one you hadn’t chosen was. Then, she would eat right off your plate.
Having come from tiny shtetls in the polish countryside, both her and my grandfather arrived in Mexico so very young. Mexico gave them an opportunity to start a life away from pogroms.
They worked hard and made a simple but good life for themselves. Though they were humble, and without much savings, every Friday they had a bountiful table full of food for their three grown children and their families – all together there were ten granddaughters. Nope. Not a single grandson!
Mexico also brought so many flavors to Bobe’s traditional foods. At the table there was petchah (chicken foot jelly!) that could be garnished with a salsa verde cruda, gribenes (chicken cracklings) tucked into warm corn tortillas and a heaping spoonful of fresh guacamole, the crispiest potato kugel, a stew that always had falling apart meat and a soupy prune or carrot tzimes. To finish, it was her prized chocolate babka spiked with Mexican canela.
Yet, nothing beat her Mexican-style gefilte fish, aka the red one.
The red is different from the white in so many ways. The white, or traditional, is made by combining ground fish filets, white onion, carrots, eggs and matzo meal and shaping them into patties that are poached in a stock made with the head, tail, and bones of the fish. It is refrigerated, covered with this same fish stock, which turns gelatinous as it cools (a delicacy if you have the acquired taste!). It is served cold. The red has the same fish mixture, but it is poached in a thick and spiced up tomato sauce enriched with capers, green olives and mild pickled peppers. It is served hot. Everyone in my family is wild about it.
The red sauce is called Veracruzana because it comes from the state of Veracruz, which geographically seems to embrace the Gulf of Mexico. The Veracruzana sauce is traditionally served over large fish, and its flavors showcase the intermarriage of Spanish and Mexican ingredients that took place throughout the years of Spanish colonization. It was through the port of Veracruz that most European immigrants came into Mexico, like my Bobe.
One hell of a cook she was, with her treasured jar of shmaltz in the refrigerator ready to be scooped out and used on almost anything. She was as generous in her cooking as she was in life. After my parents divorced, when I was an early teen, she would put money in my backpack or my jacket, without me noticing, every time I visited. She knew I didn’t want to take it, as she didn’t have any extra to give out.
I never had the chance to serve Veracruzana, the red gefilte fish, from my kitchen to my Bobe. She passed away, just a couple months ago, and oh man, I wish I had. She would have been so proud. She would have probably asked me, “why, mamele, you didn’t like the white?”
My gefilte fish will always be for you, Bobe. And just so you know, I always make the red and the white. I miss you so bad.
For the fish patties:
- 1 pound red snapper fillets, no skin or bones
- 1 pound flounder fillets, no skin or bones
- 1/2 white onion, quartered, about 1/2 pound
- 2 carrots, peeled and roughly chopped, about 1/4 pound
- 3 eggs
- 1/2 cup matzo meal
- 2 teaspoons kosher or sea salt, or to taste
- 1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper, or to taste
For the red sauce:
- 3 tablespoons safflower or corn oil
- 1/2 cup white onion, chopped
- 1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
- 3 cups fish broth or water
- 2 tablespoons ketchup
- 1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt, or to taste
- 1/4 teaspoon ground white pepper, or to taste
- 1 cup manzanilla olives stuffed with pimientos
- 8 pepperoncini peppers in vinegar brine, or more to taste, chiles güeros en escabeche
- 2 tablespoons capers
To prepare the fish patty mixture:
- Rinse the red snapper and flounder fillets under a thin stream of cool water. Slice into smaller pieces and place in the food processor. Pulse for 5-10 seconds until fish is finely chopped but hasn’t turned into a paste. Turn fish mixture into a large mixing bowl. Then place the onion, carrots, eggs, matzo meal, salt and white pepper into same bowl of the food processor. Process until smooth and turn into the fish mixture. Combine thoroughly.
To prepare the red sauce:
- Heat the oil in a large cooking pot over medium-high heat. Add the chopped onion, and let it cook for 5-6 minutes, stirring, until soft and translucent. Pour the crushed tomatoes into the pot, stir, and let the mix season and thicken for about 6 minutes. Incorporate 3 cups water, 2 tablespoons ketchup, salt and white pepper. Give it a good stir and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and bring sauce to a gentle simmer. Continue to simmer while you roll the gefilte fish patties.
- Place a small bowl with lukewarm water to the side of the simmering tomato broth. Start making the patties. I like to make them about 3” long, 2” wide and 1” high, in oval shapes. Wet your hands as necessary, so the fish mixture will not stick to your hands. As you make them, gently slide each patty into the simmering broth. Make sure it is simmering and raise the heat to medium if necessary to keep a steady simmer.
- Once you finish making the patties, cover the pot and bring the heat to low. Cook them covered for 25 minutes. Take off the lid, incorporate the manzanilla olives, pepperoncini peppers and capers. Give it a gentle stir and simmer uncovered for 20 more minutes, so the gefilte fish will be thoroughly cooked and the broth will have seasoned and thickened nicely.
- Serve hot with slices of challah and pickles.