Sometimes writing about what is in my heart is difficult as there are times when there are not words to capture what I am thinking or feeling. Occasionally, when I am cooking, whether it be a dish or a season, something will transport me back into my mother’s kitchen where the aromas and tastes of century old traditions were being recreated. As my mother and I would make rugelach or noodle kugel she would talk about how she learned how to do this from her mother, who learned how to do it from her mother, and so forth and so on. Sadly, my mother’s cookbook lived in her head. Nothing was written down. Periodically, I could get her to write these things down for me and so I have a few. However, the recipes were written in her heart and in her mind. When she began to lose her memory, they began to fade with her. When she died, most of them died with her. However, what I have been coming to realize is that some of those legacies somehow got written in my heart as well.
While maybe they were not exact, there are some recipes that seem to float up in my memory and bring me back to century old traditions of foods that one rarely sees homemade anymore like gefilte fish. Unless you were raised in an old school Eastern European or Jewish household you might never have heard about gefilte fish, but not only was I raised on it, but I remember being with my mother learning how to make these patties which taste nothing like what you buy in a jar at the store. No matter who else makes them, they never quite have the taste of those my mother made for me. Perhaps it was the love she poured into fileted and grinding all the carp, whitefish, and pike. I always laugh how those fishes are like a trilogy in my head, as if they are a seafood mirepoix (carrots, celery, and onions)
I can remember my mother saying how sometimes she would ask the fish man to grind them for her, but nag him about making sure she got all the trimmings, bones, head, and tail back. I think this is why she liked grinding it herself; she knew she was not going to miss a bone. She would put all these precious remains in a large pot with some water and let it simmer, skimming off water floated to the top. As she did so, she would say to me, Sarah Bella (my Hebrew name), you always have to remove this scum from the pot and your life, it will ruin what you are working so hard to create. Once we had purified the broth, she would add slices of onions and carrots and a little bit of sugar to season the water. “We always need to bring sweetness into our life,” she would say.
My job was to help her finely mince the onions, which made me cry, the carrots, which tasted like candy, and the parsnips, whose taste I never managed to be able to describe. Forget asking her how much, because she would just say that looks about right, or no we need a bit more. then we would take the fish she had ground and mix it with some salt, pepper, matzo meal, a little bit of water and a few eggs (3 or 4 if my memory serves me correctly and when it was that perfect consistency, we would form it into these little torpedo shaped pieces.
Then she would take all the remains out of the broth and slowly she would slide each piece of gefilte fish into the broth to cook. As they simmered, she would taste the stock, seasoning it as she went. After what seemed like a lifetime, but was probably no more then about 30-40 minutes, we would slide them out and drain them. Then as a thank you gift, she would share one with me and she would say one day you will teach your daughter how to do this.
I remember asking her why she never wrote these things down and she would say things like this are more then recipes, they are legacies that we pass down from generation to generation the old-fashioned way. Just as God has written things on your heart, so are these recipes being written there as well. They will be an integral part of your life just as the words of God will be. It is my legacy, which I pass on to you.