This recipe for Moroccan fish balls blew my mind when I first tried it a decade ago. I never imagined using gefilte fish in savory cooking. We’ve all had traditional Ashkenazi-style fish. Some of us boil it or bake it, and I’ve also had it pan-fried.
I was eating Shabbat dinner at the home of a Sephardic family from Tangier, and my hosts served these amazing spicy fish balls. It was such a good fusion of European and North African Jewish cooking.
The fish is made into small balls like matzah balls and cooked in the sauce so it’s really flavorful. I like recipes that serve several purposes, so if you’re not a fan of gefilte fish you can make this sauce and serve it with salmon or another mild white fish. If you use fish fillets, this recipe can work as a fish course or as a main meal if served over rice.
I took the liberty to use the spices that I prefer, so this may be a little different from other traditional recipes. I particularly enjoy the addition of saffron because it elevates the flavor of the dish.
This is the perfect recipe to make when you’re bored with your regular fish recipes. I love that it’s full of vegetables and is an easy way to get an extra serving in for the day. I use a piece of challah to mop up any extra sauce on my plate — you don’t want to let any go to waste.
The flavoring of this dish is more about the exotic spices than the heat. If you really like spicy food, feel free to add more pepper.
Moroccan fish balls with pepper sauce
For the sauce:
2 pounds of Roma tomatoes, skins removed, or 1 large can diced tomatoes and 2 cups of tomato sauce
¼ cup tomato paste
¼ cup olive oil
1 large onion, sliced or diced
2 cups sliced bell pepper; I use orange and yellow for color
2 carrots, peeled and sliced
4 cloves garlic
4 cups water
¼ cup fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons salt
1½ tablespoons Ras al Hanout (Moroccan spice)
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
¼ teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon cayenne or Aleppo pepper
A pinch of saffron
½ cup chopped parsley or cilantro (or a mix of both), plus more to garnish
Optional: 1 can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
For the gefilte fish:
1 large loaf frozen gefilte fish
¼ cup matzah meal
1 egg whisked
2 cloves fresh minced garlic
¼ teaspoon cumin
¼ teaspoon coriander
¼ teaspoon turmeric
A pinch of salt
2 tablespoons freshly chopped parsley or cilantro
¼ cup and 2 teaspoons of olive oil, divided
I thaw the fish in the refrigerator overnight and prepare it before I make the sauce. I used to buy unsweetened fish for this recipe since it’s a savory dish, but you can use sweet fish as well.
Take the completely thawed fish out of the paper and put it in a mixing bowl. Thawed gefilte fish can be sticky, so you may want to use a rubber spatula to scrape any excess off the paper.
Using a spatula, mix the matzah meal, oil, egg, parsley or cilantro and the spices. Cover the mixture with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least an hour before cooking. The resting time helps the matzah meal soften, which will give you fluffier fish balls.
When it’s time to cook the fish, roll it into small balls as if you were making matzah balls. It helps if your hands are slightly wet when forming the fish because the mixture is sticky. They cook best when they are the size of a golf ball. The fish will be cooked in the sauce, which gives both the fish and the sauce a much richer flavor.
You can use either fresh or canned tomatoes for the sauce. I’m a fan of shortcuts, so I often cook with canned tomatoes, but if you have the time, use fresh tomatoes — you won’t be sorry.
If using fresh tomatoes, prepare an ice bath (a bowl of water with a few cups of ice cubes in it) and bring a saucepan of water to boil. Drop the whole, raw tomatoes into the boiling water. After about 2 or 3 minutes the skin will start to peel and the tomatoes will crack. This happens one by one; as they split, remove them with a slotted spoon and immerse them into the ice bath. Let them cool in the water for 15 minutes. This is an important step in making any tomato sauce because the skin of the tomatoes will peel right off. Start peeling the skin from the crack and gently pull it to remove it from each tomato.
Slice each peeled tomato lengthwise and, using a sharp knife or spoon, scoop the seeds out and discard.
Chop the tomatoes. You should have about 2 cups of chopped tomatoes. When tomatoes are in season and cheap, I often do this step with 15 pounds of tomatoes at a time and freeze them for later use in soup or for marinara sauce. If you’re using canned tomatoes you can omit this step, but keep the tips that I shared with you in mind for other recipes.
Warm ¼ cup of olive oil in a large heavy-bottomed soup pot or enameled cast iron pot over medium heat. Add the onions, stirring occasionally, and let them cook for 10 minutes. Add the chopped peppers and carrots, and continue to cook for another 10 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, remove the vegetables to another bowl, leaving as much leftover cooking oil in the pot as possible.
Add the tomatoes (fresh or canned) to the remaining oil and sauté over medium-low heat for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. I make a little well with the tomatoes, moving them to the sides and leaving a bare spot in the center of the pan.
If the cooking oil is totally soaked up, add 1 tablespoon of olive oil to the center of the pot and pour all the spices into the oil at once. Stir the spices into the oil and sauté them for about a minute or until fragrant.
Add the 4 cloves of minced garlic to the oil and cook for another minute before mixing the entire pot well to combine the spice mixture into the tomatoes.
Add the tomato paste and continue cooking for another 3 minutes.
Stir the onion and peppers back into the pot with 4 cups of water, ¼ cup of lemon juice and ½ cup of freshly chopped parsley or cilantro. Many Moroccan recipes use both cilantro and parsley together. If you wish to add chickpeas, do so at this time.
Raise the heat to medium-high and bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce the heat to simmer. Cover and cook for 1 hour, stirring occasionally. The water will reduce and you will have a rich, chunky sauce chock-full of peppers and flavor.
The sauce may look a little oily and seem like it has a bit more liquid than a pasta sauce — this is good for cooking the fish appropriately. If the sauce seems too thick or dry, add another half cup of water before adding the fish.
Bring the sauce to a soft boil over medium heat before adding the fish.
Using a spoon, gently add the fish balls to the pot, placing them as deeply as possible into the sauce.
Cover, reduce the heat to low and simmer and cook for 25 minutes.
If you prefer to use fresh fish fillets, add them to the top of the sauce, cover the pot and simmer for the same amount of time.
Salt to taste. Serve 2 or 3 fish balls (or a fillet of salmon or white fish) with a nice scoop of pepper sauce per plate. Enjoy and bless your hands! PJC
Jessica Grann is a home chef living in Pittsburgh.