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  • Signe Langford

Filter Fish

For years I've been tormenting myself about writing a memoir or at the very least, jotting down little remembrances, but I put it off and off and off, and in the meantime I read other people's memoirs, one after the other. I'm telling myself it's research, or that each one is a lesson in how to. Uh-huh.

Over the holidays I read three enthralling memoirs: The Kiss by Kathryn Harrison, Being Young: Scott, Neil, and Me by Astrid Young; Wildflower: An Extraordinary Life and Untimely Death in Africa by Mark Seal; and On the Move: A Life by Oliver Sacks. Here's what happened: I thoroughly enjoyed myself; I learned a bunch of stuff about some fascinating folks; and I realized I haven't had an interesting enough life to bother writing about it. And you know what? It's a bloody relief! The world does not need another misery memoir, a list of injuries and abuses committed against a kid by a bunch of damaged people who were doing the best they could considering their own childhoods. Sure, I can look back over it and say there are some moments worth spilling ink over, if only for the sheer horror or weirdness or black comedy, of it. And that's where the little remembrances or vignettes will ( day) come in, and come to life. Perhaps combined with my painting? We shall see.

In the meantime, there are many more memoirs I still want to read, written by folks who have been to places I will never go; done things I'll never do; lived lives I'll never live; and to enjoy them vicariously and from the comfort of my sofa is fine by me. Especially if I get a recipe out of it....which brings us to: Filter Fish.

In On the Move, Oliver Sacks, recounts how his very gentile, Jersey Shore housekeeper and cook, Helen Jones, took it upon herself to learn how to make gefilte fish, for her Jewish boss. Between her accent, his accent, and her never having heard of the stuff, she thought the Ashkenazi delicacy was called "filter fish", and I simply can't stop giggling about it. I can hear her, clear as day. Fun fact: I just this minute learned that my Wix spellcheck also wants to change gefilte fish into filter fish, so, wow..

And so, with some Fogo Island cod and Springhills trout in the freezer and Dr. Oliver Sacks in my heart I set out to make my own filter fish - gluten free! - for the first time.

I started with a recipe from Food & Wine online, and then tweaked it a little to make it gluten-free and easier, by using almond flour instead of matzo meal, and by not insisting you make fish stock from scratch. And this is where you say..."the best laid plans..." Right. What I ended up making was a delicious batch of filter fish burgers, a small pot of filter fish soup - completely accidental, the result of my first three ovals falling apart in the broth - and three questionable, steamed filter fish ovals. Still, all very tasty, so not a total failure.


15oz or 400ish g fish; in this case, Fogo Island cod and Springhills farmed Ontario trout fillets; skin removed after poaching

1 L fish, chicken or veggie stock 

1 carrot, peeled and coarsely chopped

1 onion, peeled and coarsely chopped

1/4 cup chopped fresh flat leaf parsley; or one nice handful

1/3 cup toasted almond flour

3 Tbsp toasted, ground flax or flax meal

3 free-run eggs, lightly beaten

¼ cup chopped fresh chives, plus more for garnish

2 tsp kosher or sea salt, more to taste 

1/2 tsp pepper



Into a large saucepan over medium-high heat add the stock and fish fillets; bring to a gentle simmer and allow to cook for about 10 minutes. Transfer fish to a cooking cooling rack over a plate to drip dry. Skim any foamy scummy stuff from the surface of the stock; set aside.

Peel the skin off and cut or break up the cooked fillets into smaller pieces and add to food processor; pulse until finely chopped. Not paste, but not big chunks either. It's the Goldilocks grind, you're after here! Transfer to a large bowl.

Now add the carrot, onion, chives and parsley into the bowl of the food processor and pulse until finely chopped and well blended, make sure to stop and scrape down the sides.

To the bowl with the blended fish, add the onion and carrot mixture, the eggs, almond flour and flax meal, salt and pepper; blend very well together, nothing works like a pair of clean hands. Divide mixture evenly into 12 balls, then shape into ovals, about 2-inches thick. Place patties on a plate and chill until ready to cook.

Now, this is the bit I completely failed at, but I'm including it in case you want to give it a go. If you do, I suggest trying one and see what happens. Godspeed!

Bring the fish stock back up to a simmer over medium low heat; try to keep the poaching stock at about 180°F. Working in batches - don't over-crowd the pot - gently add the fish ovals into the simmering stock. Gently move and turn them so they don't stick to the pot and cook on all sides - a thermometer inserted into thickest portion of patties should register about 140°F. Transfer cooked ovals to a serving platter, cover and chill for 4 to 12 hours.

So, how did that work for you? If, like me, you say to hell with this, I'm makin' burgers! Just add some oil or butter or schmaltz - if you've got it - to a skillet over medium heat and fry on both sides until golden. Although, I suspect, if you've got schmaltz in the house, you probably know how to make gefilte fish or at least, you have a bubbie who does.

The other cooking method I tried was to steam them over the stock in a Chinese bamboo steamer. They came out OK. Not amazing. Just OK. Still, however you cook them, the flavour is really nice, and the texture is lovely.

Technically, they're supposed to be served cold, but I think you get a pass for eating filter burgers warm. But, if you want to stick to the script, garnish the cold gefilte fish with more fresh chives, and serve with some horseradish, pickled beets, or pickles or all three and some nice bread or crackers and a side salad. I ate mine with sauerkraut and my picked wild onions. What a lunch, this filter fish is!

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