Polpettone di Tonno with Horseradish Green Sauce

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No, that’s not gefilte fish. And that’s exactly what I love about it. Let me introduce you to my version of Polpettone di Tonno, Italian tuna loaf. It plays the “gefilte fish” role of festive holiday fish appetizer, but with more nuanced and fresher flavor. I was honored to have my Polpettone di Tonno featured as one of the Jewish Food Experience’s Top 10 Recipes for Rosh Hashanah 2017.

Here is the article I wrote to accompany the recipe:


Giving Gefilte Fish the Boot

One of Hillary Clinton’s emails released in 2015 had as its subject line: “Gefilte Fish.” And the message of the email was: “Where are we on this?” I laughed out loud at the idea of Mrs. Clinton discussing gefilte fish (it turned out the question was related to an effort by Secretary of State Clinton to get Israel to allow a blocked U.S. shipment of carp). But I also laughed because in many ways, that’s how I’ve been approaching gefilte fish for holiday meals in recent years. Where are we on this, and more specifically, how can I find a way to honor this tradition?

There are those who love gefilte fish and those who hate it. I’m not one of the ones who love it. And in good Jewish fashion, I feel somewhat guilty about that, especially because the food is an icon of Jewish American cuisine and it’s traveled an interesting journey to reaching that status.

The story begins with the fact that Jews have loved fish and considered it a symbol of fertility and blessing since ancient times. But poor Ashkenazic Jews in Europe trying to stretch limited resources often had to get creative to feed their families. One way was turning to an ancient Roman cooking method of stuffing food back in the skin for cooking. Jews adopted it for fish, and that’s how the dish got its Yiddish name, gefilte, which means “filled/stuffed.”

Preparing gefilte fish started with buying a whole live carp or pike. Some would go so far as to keep the live fish in the bathtub for a few days to help remove the muddy flavor before butchering it. Then cooks would debone and grind the fish, add onion, bread or matzah crumbs, eggs, salt, pepper, and sometimes sugar, and stuff the mixture back into the fish skin for poaching in liquid.

Over time, cooks evolved away from cooking the fish in the skin, but the name remained and gefilte fish, shaped into loaves or egg-shaped ovals called quenelles, became a favored chilled or room temperature appetizer for Shabbat dinners (where the advance preparation respected the Sabbath prohibition against separating undesirable parts—like bones—from desirable ones—like flesh). It also became traditional at holiday meals, especially Rosh Hashanah and Passover.

European Jewish immigrants brought the tradition with them to America, but eventually gefilte-fish making began dying off. Then, after World War II, small commercial enterprises began selling gefilte fish in cans. Manischewitz entered the game in 1954, and mass-produced gefilte fish began hitting the shelves and the holiday tables. Although these versions were considered inferior to homemade, they nonetheless became quite popular (if it meant not having a carp in your bathtub, I can see why!).

Recently in the United States, gefilte fish has been having somewhat of a renaissance, with homemade recipes and even artisanal prepared versions billed as game changers. Given that I don’t love the dish, I wasn’t intrigued by making it myself. So, I bought an artisanal version, sure that this would overcome the gefilte fish problem. Alas, no. I joined nearly all my dinner guests in leaving most of those fancy slices on the plates—even people who like gefilte fish didn’t like it.

So back to the perennial “where are we on this” question. This year, I sought an alternative that honored the concept but offered flavor I could enjoy and a process I’d be willing to undertake. As I often do, I looked for inspiration in Jewish-Italian cuisine. In The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews, Edda Servi Machlin shares a recipe for polpettone di tonno (tuna loaf), and I found a similar recipe in Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. The recipes featured canned tuna, and, like gefilte fish, are made ahead and served cold or room temperature. I sensed potential.

I started testing and decided to add an ingredient sometimes featured in Italian fish dishes, artichokes, which mellowed the fish flavor and gave it more dimension. Machlin’s version called for bread crumbs but Hazan’s version called for mashed potato, which I preferred to make the dish gluten-free as well as acceptable for Passover.

Machlin served it with an egg and anchovy sauce, but I wanted flavors to freshen the dish and turned to the bright and beautiful Italian salsa verde (green sauce). In a nod to the tradition of serving horseradish with gefilte fish, I added a little bit of the pungent root, which gives the sauce a nice subtle kick.

Despite all this tinkering, I don’t take altering such iconic foods lightly. But I hope my tuna and artichoke loaf offers an alternate connection to Jewish culinary history that celebrates the role and spirit of gefilte fish—and is something that will please the haters and not disappoint the lovers. And along the way alleviate my guilt about not liking gefilte fish.

When I took a bite and then wanted to eat another and another, I was pretty thrilled. But the real test came when I presented the new dish to a group of dinner guests. To my relief, it was warmly received even by the people who normally eschew gefilte fish. And I had a jar of store-bought gefilte fish standing by for the guests who love the traditional kind…but it went unopened.

Now, when it comes to gefilte fish, I finally know where I am at on this, and what I’ll make—polpettone di tonno.


Here are a few quick tips for this recipe:

Canned tuna (ideally an “Italian-style tonno”) works perfectly. I prefer the loaf to have a little texture rather than be a more homogeneous mass, so I chop the tuna and artichokes by hand. You do still need to get the chunks small though, as bigger pieces in the loaf will make more fragile and crumbly. If you prefer it to be smooth or don’t feel like chopping, feel free to use your food processor, of course.

Use only the tender part of the artichoke hearts. Tough leaves will not blend in well with the loaf. Reserve the rest of the artichokes for salads, pizzas, and pastas.

Once you shape the mixture into a tight loaf, start rolling at one end of the cheesecloth to make sure your create a snug wrap. This will help ensure the loaf cooks up intact and stays together when you unwrap it later.

Use a little kitchen twine to tightly tie off the ends. Then just be sure to support the loaf from the bottom (using two large spatulas works well) when you lower and lift it. The goal is to avoid breaking it or creating weak spots.



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