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Sunday, April 30, 2006

A 'Warm' Tradition

One of the most cherished traditions Zahava and I inherited from my mother's family is a delicious recipe for lightly breaded fried sole flounder fillets.  I'll be happy to share the recipe so long as people don't mind measurements like 'a pinch'... 'a smidgen'... 'a sprinkling'... etc., but be prepared... because the true greatness of this oniony, peppery dish is the fact that it is served cold.

In order to do this recipe justice it needs to be prepared well in advance.  As each batch is passed carefully from the frying pan to the platter and stacked gently between layers of paper towel to absorb the excess oil, the house fills with the intoxicating smell of fried onions and pepper that are part and parcel of the breading.

Once finished, all the fish is placed lovingly in the refrigerator to await the hungry crowd that will hungrily devour every last crumb and stray burnt onion.

This recipe was passed down from my Great Grandma Dora (my mother's paternal grandmother), and my mother has fond memories of frequently enjoying it at her grandma's table as a little girl.   

For years, 'Grandma Dora's fish' was an eagerly anticipated informal weeknight staple at our house.  Forks and knives were the preferred way of eating... but late in the meal fingers often saw action in search of the last stray bits of fish or onion between the oil-stained paper towels.

The funny thing is that as sometimes happens, my parents recently found out something interesting about the recipe from a long-lost relative.

A few years back I went on a genealogy jag and documented many generations of ancestors on both sides of my family.   In the process I also unearthed a bunch of living relatives with whom my mother had lost touch for most of her adult life. 

During a trip down south my parents made arrangements to pop in and say hello to one of these lost relations, and the visit provided a wonderful opportunity for all parties to catch up and share family gossip.  One topic that my mom raised during the visit was our family's reverence for Grandma Dora's cold fish recipe.

This pronouncement was met with utter incomprehension from the relatives my parents were visiting.  My parents went on to describe the recipe with its breading, fried onions and pepper... and suddenly a look of comprehension dawned on the faces of our relatives.  They knew exactly the recipe my parents were talking about... only it was always supposed to be served piping hot directly from the skillet!

It took only a few minutes to sort out how the culinary traditions had parted ways.

It seems that my mother's extended family was fairly large... and as the matriarch, Grandma Dora couldn't host everyone at once.  So, some relatives were routinely invited for leftovers. 

Now, I'm not saying that my mother's part of the family were second-class citizens in the pecking order of familial love or anything (although it certainly would seem that way), but more often than not they were the ones invited over on nights when Grandma Dora was serving left-overs... and quite frequently these leftovers included cold fried fish.

Personally, I can't imagine Grandma Dora's fish served hot.  The very idea offends both my palate and my sense of tradition.  Served cold, it is the perfect informal weeknight summer dish accompanied by fresh corn on the cob (smothered in clarified butter) and washed down with lots of lemonade or iced tea.   Serving it outside on a patio or deck seems to only enhance the enjoyment!

I, for one, am hugely relieved that, for whatever reason, my grandparents were not sufficiently close to Grandma Dora to warrant a dinner invitation on nights when the fish was served hot.  I know it probably sounds selfish to an outsider, but if not for a certain prevailing 'coldness' towards our branch of the family tree, some of my most treasured childhood sensory memories would never have come to be.

Many people read the words 'cold fish' and think of an aloof, unemotional person.  But for me, it will always conjure the very warmest associations of familial tradition and love.

Update (by popular demand):

Grandma Dora’s Fish Recipe (as transcribed by Zahava)

The Onions
Minimum 3 large onions, sliced for frying
Oil for frying (use olive usually)
Salt for frying (makes the onions crisp faster)

Gently heat oil prior to adding onions. Add onions and salt lightly. Add additional salt when “turning” onions to assure they brown evenly. Fry onions until brown and crisp. Remove onions from fry pan and drain on paper towels. Retain the oil — onion flavor in the oil greatly enhances the flavor of the fish!

The Fish
Note: you should assume minimum of a quarter pound of fish per person.

One Kilo flounder fillets (2 lbs +/-) -- if you use frozen fillets, thaw completely before frying
2 or so eggs, gently beaten
Matzo-meal (generous amount — usually start with at least 1.5 cups, though you may need more)
Salt/pepper to taste (we use LOTS of black pepper)

Again, heat oil before adding fish. Oil is hot enough when a drop of water “bounces” in the oil (a tip from Zahava’s Grandmother). Dip each fish fillet in the beaten egg, and then dredge in the seasoned matzo-meal. Fry breaded fillet until edges begin to brown and then turn to cook the other side — generally 3-5 minutes per side. Remove cooked fillet and drain on paper towels.

For best flavor, it is advised to place fish and onions in layers between new sheets of paper towels and refrigerate overnight (or at least 4 hours) -- start with layer of towel, then layer of fish, then layer of onion, then start again with layer of towel. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap.

Recommended side dishes:
  Sliced tomato
  Potato salad
  Antacid (good, but still greasy)  =:-P


Posted by David Bogner on April 30, 2006 | Permalink


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Flounder, not sole, is the preferred fish. I've made it with sole (when I couldn't get flounder), but it was not as good.

Posted by: zahava | Apr 30, 2006 12:20:13 PM

Oh oh, yes please! Peppery and oniony, YES PLEASE! (I predict you'll be forced to post it.)

I loved this story! Funny how anything can spell love. I remember reading a while ago abt a woman who got married and always cut off a chunk of meat bfr putting it in the pot, and her husband coudln't understand it. She told him her mother did it that way as well and he still couldn't understand it. So she asked her mother who had no explanation to offer other than her mother had always done it like that too, and finally the mother asked the grandmother, who said "We only had the one pot and it was small so the meat never fit in."

It's the same mechanism that makes toast and café au lait taste much better when my mother makes it for me.

Posted by: Lioness | Apr 30, 2006 12:24:49 PM

Babe... think it was your Mom's MATERNAL grandmother.... Grandma Fay's family was in Chicago. Your grandfather's family was from Brooklyn... factory in Williamsberg?! =:-P

Posted by: zahava | Apr 30, 2006 12:46:50 PM

Either what I suggested before -- or the dinners were in Brooklyn and not Chicago.... We'll have to ask AGAIN. [sigh]

Brain cells anyone? We seem to have misplaced ours....

Posted by: zahava | Apr 30, 2006 12:47:58 PM

If brain cells were dreams these days I'd be REMless, I'm afraid I cannot help.

But the recipe, OH THE RECIPE!! It looks delicious, tnx! I promise I'll let you know how it went when I venture into something that requires more than 3 steps. Ahem.

Posted by: Lioness | Apr 30, 2006 2:49:17 PM

Trepp, you may be the only person who has ever made me teary while talking about fish. You have an amazing gift of weaving a story about the smallest of things, into something tender and heartfelt.

Posted by: Randi(cruisin-mom) | Apr 30, 2006 5:43:25 PM

It's funny how food brings out the warmest memories. I can still remember when I would visit my grand-father in Chicago. He would fry matzos with eggs and we would sit down and talk.

When I cook them for my son, he is more prone for discussion.

Thanks for the recipe! I'm going to try it out.

Posted by: seawitch | Apr 30, 2006 6:24:15 PM

Thanks for the recipe... I'll have to give it to my parents, who'll probably enjoy it very much... (I don't eat fish, but can certainly appreciate the sentimental side of the post! ; ) Great story!

Posted by: Irina | Apr 30, 2006 7:38:20 PM

Yummmm! *wiping drool off chin*

Must ask b&c to review, pronto!


Posted by: Doctor Bean | Apr 30, 2006 8:21:10 PM


Question: I have some frozen fillets of "Marloza fish" (That's what it says in Hebrew; I have no idea what that translates to in English) in my freezer. Do you think this recipe would be OK with that? I have little experience making fish so I don't really know what I'm doing, and am looking for recipes.

BTW, how does one say "flounder" in Hebrew? I know that "sole" is "sole."

Posted by: Sarah | Apr 30, 2006 8:31:54 PM

Basically the same recipe as my mother's family tradition. Nothing like it. We always use medium matzo meal--gives much the best consistency and crunchiness for the coating.

Here's a suggestion for extra crispiness. When your fish is turned brown, turn up the heat (being careful not to make the oil spill over), lift each fillet out of the oil with a fish slice and, holding it over the pan, let the oil run off, then plunge it back in again.

Also, the very best way to finish before putting into the fridge after the first wrapping in kitchen towels to get the surplus oil off: let the fillets cool on a cake cooling grid. Produces a drier crisper fillet than wrapping in paper towels.

In England, Jews usually fry dover sole (fabulous), halibut (out of this world), haddock (brilliantly tasty). I'm hoping you all might drop by some time so you can do a comparative tasting.

Actually, we do eat it hot too and love it--because of that wonderful crunchy crispness, which doesn't last once it's cold, and the hot juiciness of the fish. But I know custom and practice should be respected.

I usually fry up a whole batch of fish to take us through Pesach. Another of the joys of Pesach. It's the first thing I do once the kitchen is KLP and the Pesach utensils are in place.

Happy eating....

Posted by: Judy | Apr 30, 2006 8:35:21 PM

Thank you so much for sharing this recipe, I am sure to try it!

I think its very interesting that it is supposed to be served hot and the drama it stirs in your mind. So, I will taste it hot and then I will taste it cold. Should I give you my assessment of which is better when I get around to it? ;-)

Posted by: FrumGirl | Apr 30, 2006 8:42:33 PM

Sarah -- I have no idea how to say flounder in Hebrew -- one of the reasons I have used sole here in Israel to make this recipe. I was looking for a thin (as in not thick), less-fishy tasting fish to as closely as possible match the flounder.

In my family, my grandmother used haddock or cod which is much thicker and offers a different experience as the proportion of fish-to-batter-and-onions is very different. I agree with Judy -- haddock in this style is brilliantly tasty -- but it is also a different taste and texture than David's great-grandmother's recipe. Equally good, but definitely NOT the same culinary experience.

Posted by: zahava | Apr 30, 2006 10:13:58 PM

Sarah-- I strongly recommend using fresh fish rather than frozen. When you freeze fish, it increases the water content, and even when defrosted it means you won't get nearly such a good taste compared with fresh.

If you want to use the frozen you have, try wrapping in a paper towel after defrosting and before you dunk it in the egg mixture and the matzo meal.

Posted by: Judy | May 1, 2006 2:14:00 AM

I'm not a huge eater of fish, but the way you write about it makes me want to make this! I, too, would rather eat it hot, but perhaps I can try it both ways. Pictures, please!!!!

Posted by: Tracey | May 1, 2006 3:40:45 AM

And you didn't find me on your 'genealogy jag'? ;)

I like that recipe - we're on the go a lot during the spring & summer (all sorts of activities going on), and having some tasty fish in the 'frig would come in handy. Would go well with Limoncello, right?

Posted by: Steve Bogner | May 1, 2006 3:58:39 AM

I don't eat fried foods but terrific story!

Posted by: Essie | May 1, 2006 5:21:15 AM

I hate cold fish, but my savta made me some fish pastry, and well, it taste pretty good when cold!

Posted by: Emanuel Ben-Zion | May 1, 2006 6:29:19 AM


Thanks for the information. That is very interesting and a good thing to know. But . . . do you live in Jerusalem? If so, I would love to know where I can buy fresh fish in my neighborhood (Katamon/Talpiot). I've never seen it any way other than frozen. I've seen on many listserves for olim that in general, finding non-frozen fish is an issue here, particularly salmon but other fish as well.

And, as a non-fish-cooking person who is just starting out with it, the array of fish at the shuk, still with the bones and eyes everything, look very intimidating to me. I wouldn't begin to know what to do with it. Add to that the problem that I don't know most of the Hebrew names and . . . well, it's just a lot easier to get something that looks like sole, which I recognize, frozen, and stick it in my freezer while I try to figure out what to do with the mysterious thing.

Posted by: Sarah | May 1, 2006 9:26:07 AM

Zahava... [in the order of your comments:] Yup, nope, there you go. :-) Thanks honey.

Lioness... How could we resist such an enthusiastic response? Enjoy the recipe... and let me know how it came out. BTW, I've shown my kids 20 times how to make grilled cheese sandwiches for themselves (the secret is to fry the bread in butter before you add the cheese), but they both insist that grill cheese tastes better when I make them.

Randi... Awww. That's high praise coming from someone who made me tear up while reading about your prodigious mucous production on your first date with your future husband. :-)

Seawitch... Food and love are inextricably linked (at least in our culture).

Irina... I don't eat fish much either, but this deserves its own category. trust me.

Doctor Bean... What do you mean "Must ask b&c to review, pronto!"? Get out in that kitchen and rattle those pots and pans!!! My father makes this recipe and so can you! :-)

Sarah... Zahava sometimes uses frozen fillets, but take Judy's advice and make sure to blot all the water off them while they're defrosting.

Judy... Thanks for the good, timely advice. Even though we grew up thousands of miles apart it's uncanny how similar our food-lives have been.

Frumgirl... You're very welcome. I'd be interested to know how you like it both ways... but nothing will ever make me want it anything but cold. :-)

Tracey... Trust me when I tell you that this is a fish-hater's dream come true. It is comfort food taken to a whole new level!

Steve... Sadly I have found no common ancestor for any other Bogners in the US. As to your question, yes Limoncello would go quite nicely with this recipe... but make sure the kids aren't planning to drive or operate heavy machinery before setting up their shots! ;-)

Essie... You don't...?! Does this mean you don't celebrate Hanukkah?????

Emmanuel Ben-Zion... Fish Pastry? My kids have a video called Kiki's Delivery Service that mentions a fish pastry (Herring pie) and the very idea almost made me gag? This recipe is nothing like that.

Sarah... Judy lives in the UK (if you're not reading her you can't call yourself well-informed!), but at Machene Yehudah they have a few fresh fish sellers.

Posted by: treppenwitz | May 1, 2006 9:34:21 AM

[Behold the power of Treppdom, even Emanuel is commenting now! Though I have no idea what he is talking abt - fish pastry?? Will research matter diligently.]

Posted by: Lioness | May 1, 2006 11:52:17 AM

Sarah, the fish in Machane Yehudah is probably fresher than what I buy in London. Look for any fish that has firm looking white/creamy flesh.

I don't know Israeli supermarkets well enough; but the ones in the UK sell chilled fish in packets as well as frozen. That's a better choice than frozen, if you can find it. You'll soon pick up the right Hebrew for the task...

Posted by: Judy | May 1, 2006 3:21:02 PM

Just an afterthought for those new to frying fish:
the choice of oil is very important, as they have different high temperature/burning points.

The best to use is groundnut oil, or other nut oil. If that's not available, corn oil. Use the best quality you can afford. Avoid olive oil.

In my childhood, my mother used to strain the oil after use so it could be used for another batch. That probably also reflected post WWII austerity in London.

It's worth giving thought to how you're going to dispose of your used oil for environmental reasons, and also to avoid blocking up your plumbing.

Posted by: Judy | May 1, 2006 3:39:33 PM

Essie... You don't...?! Does this mean you don't celebrate Hanukkah?????

OK, sometimes I make exceptions ;-) (Shavuot--blintzes....yum...)

Posted by: Essie | May 1, 2006 4:20:55 PM

thank you .

Posted by: منتدى كوره | Aug 1, 2008 6:52:10 PM

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