A different set of scales

Fish can make a satisfying main dish before or after Yom Kippur.

Whole Crispy Fish (photo credit: Laura Frankel)
Whole Crispy Fish
(photo credit: Laura Frankel)
Fish is the traditional main course before the Yom Kippur fast in the homes of some Greek Jews. Nicholas Stavroulakis, author of Cookbook of the Jews of Greece, noted that the main course for this dinner and for the meal after the fast is determined by the custom of kapparot, which calls for slaughtering a rooster or a hen to atone for one’s sins, but “the chicken was replaced in some communities by a fish.”
Whichever food the family opted for – chicken or fish – “it was usually boiled and seasoned with lemon, as it is unwise, in a hot country like Greece, to eat a heavy salted meal either before or after a day of abstinence,” wrote Stavroulakis. A typical Greek fish preparation is one he refers to as steaming, in which the fish is cooked in a covered pan with a small amount of liquid. After making a few diagonal incisions on each side of each fish, cooks put them in a frying pan and simmer them in a sauce of olive oil, lemon juice, water, chopped dill, chopped parsley, salt and pepper. The fish are served warm or cold, moistened with their cooking sauce and sprinkled with more parsley and dill.
Preparing fish this way highlights its natural flavor. So does roasting, a basic method suitable for good-quality whole fish, steaks or fillets. Before roasting a fish, cooks in Mediterranean lands drizzle it with olive oil, and might sprinkle it with a bit of salt and a little thyme or oregano. At the table, the fish is often served with lemon halves and a cruet of extra virgin olive oil. On most days, salt and pepper are also on the table – but they are used with a very light hand before the Yom Kippur fast.
Fish cooked in fresh tomato sauce is another Mediterranean favorite. In Greece, cooks squeeze lemon juice over the fish and let it stand while preparing the sauce.
First they cook a puree of fresh tomatoes in olive oil, and add the puree to a mixture of sautéed onions, garlic, bay leaves and sliced tomatoes simmered with white wine (see recipe).
In some Italian Jewish households, a fish dish called pesce all’ebraica or Jewish- style fish is traditional at the break-the-fast dinner. Edda Servi Machlin, author of Classic Italian Jewish Cooking, prepares it by sprinkling the fish with salt, sugar and red wine vinegar, drizzling it with olive oil, and baking it with pine nuts and raisins in a covered pan.
Smoked or pickled fish is a favorite on many Ashkenazi tables for the meal following the fast. “This custom apparently came about because the fish supposedly helps restore the salts and minerals lost from the body during fasting,” wrote Gloria Kaufer Greene, author of The Jewish Holiday Cookbook.
English Jews might serve gefilte fish made differently than usual, noted Greene.
“Most British Jews prefer their gefilte fish fried, not poached... In fact... poached gefilte fish is usually only eaten when fried fish might be too heavy, such as to break the fast on Yom Kippur.”
Among Dutch Jews, however, fried fish cakes are popular for breaking the fast, according to Clarissa Hyman, author of The Jewish Kitchen. To make them, cooks mix cooked flaked cod with onions fried in margarine or butter, mashed potatoes, eggs, parsley, nutmeg, salt and pepper. After chilling the fish mixture, they form it into cakes, coat them with matza meal or dried bread crumbs and shallow-fry them in oil until they brown.
Fish with mashed potatoes is a combination that also works well as a casserole.
To make it, we sauté fish fillets with leeks, cover the mixture with creamy mashed potatoes and a light sprinkling of grated cheese, and bake it (see recipe).
Indeed, casseroles, as well as baked and poached fish, are among the most convenient types of dishes for the break-the-fast meal because they can be prepared in advance. Just reheat the casserole in the oven or the microwave, or remove the baked or poached fish from the refrigerator so it comes to cool room temperature, and dinner can be on the table in short order.
This recipe is from Cookbook of the Jews of Greece. Author Nicholas Stavroulakis notes that you can use whole fish or fillets; if using fillets, he recommends thick ones. With tomatoes at their peak, this dish is a good choice for the meal before or after the Yom Kippur fast. Serve the fish warm, cool or at room temperature.
Makes 4 servings
❖ A 1.4-kg (3-pound) carp or 700 grams (1½ pounds) fillets of fish, such as haddock, cod or salmon, at least 2.5 cm. (1 inch) thick ❖ Juice of 1 lemon ❖ 3 medium tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped ❖ 5 Tbsp. olive oil ❖ 1 medium onion, sliced in rings ❖ 3 or 4 cloves garlic, crushed ❖ 3 bay leaves ❖ 1 large tomato, sliced in rounds ❖ 1 cup dry white wine ❖ Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 180ºC (350ºF). Clean and scale the carp under running water. Do not remove the head or tail.
Put the fish in a large baking pan and pour the lemon juice over it.
Prepare tomato puree: In a skillet, cook the chopped tomatoes gently in 3 tablespoons olive oil until the mixture thickens. Remove from the heat and cool.
In a saucepan or skillet, sauté the onion slices in 2 tablespoons olive oil until transparent.
Add the garlic, bay leaves, salt and pepper. Stir well and add the tomato slices. When they begin to wilt and soften, add the white wine, reduce the heat to a low simmer and cook for 10 minutes. Stir in the tomato puree. Pour the sauce over and around the fish.
Bake for 30 to 45 minutes, or until the fish is tender.SALMON AND LEEK CASSEROLE WITH POTATO TOPPING
This is a fish version of a popular French bistro specialty, hachis parmentier, which is usually made with meat. Green beans, broccoli, green salad or Israeli salad are good accompaniments.
To reheat the baked refrigerated casserole, bring it to room temperature, cover and bake at 190C (375F) or heat in the microwave until it is hot.
Makes 4 to 6 servings
❖ 900 gr. (2 pounds) boiling potatoes ❖ ½ cup milk ❖ 3 or 4 Tbsp. butter ❖ Salt and white pepper to taste ❖ Freshly grated nutmeg to taste ❖ 2 Tbsp. olive oil or vegetable oil ❖ 1 large leek (about 350 grams or ¾ pound), white and light green, split, cleaned, cut in thin slices (about 3 cups slices) ❖ 700 gr. (1½ pounds) salmon fillets, skin and bones removed, cut in 1.25-cm (about ½-inch) dice ❖ 1 tsp. dried thyme, crumbled ❖ Freshly ground pepper ❖ 2 Tbsp. grated Parmesan cheese
Cook potatoes in their skins in salted water to cover, about 30 to 35 minutes or until tender.
Peel them, return to saucepan and mash them. With wooden spoon, beat in milk and 2 or 3 tablespoons butter over low heat, until milk is absorbed and butter melts. Season to taste with salt, white pepper and nutmeg.
In large deep sauté pan, heat oil and 1 tablespoon butter over medium heat. Stir in leeks, cover and cook over medium-low heat, stirring often, about 7 minutes or until tender. Stir in salmon and thyme. Sprinkle with salt and freshly ground pepper. Cook uncovered over medium heat, stirring, 2 to 3 minutes or until outer surfaces of salmon cubes change color.
Spoon salmon mixture into an oiled 2-liter (2-quart) shallow baking dish. Gently spoon mashed potatoes in dollops on top. Spread potatoes lightly to completely cover salmon mixture. Sprinkle with cheese.
Preheat oven to 190ºC (375ºF). Bake about 20 to 30 minutes or until potatoes begin to brown. Broil 1 to 2 minutes to further brown top; watch carefully so it does not burn.
The writer is the author of Healthy Cooking for the Jewish Home and 1,000 Jewish Recipes.