Getting a handle on how to fix halibut

The Pacific's lean, fine-textured fish, at its best in spring and summer, needs gentle cooking

adding a little fat helps

May 10, 2006|By RUSS PARSONS | RUSS PARSONS,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Seafood lovers who have been following fish news know that it's going to be a long spring. Salmon, the king of the season's fish, is missing in action and its prices are likely to stay high through the summer.

But, as Momma used to say, there's never a door that closes without a window opening somewhere else. This season's silver lining is Pacific halibut, which, thanks to the salmon shortage, might finally get its moment in the spotlight.

Halibut is a fish with charms all its own. While salmon is rich and assertive, halibut is mild-mannered. Other flavors have to stand up to salmon, but they fall in love with halibut.

Halibut is available pretty much year-round, but is at its best in spring and summer. The fish are highly migratory, and beginning in mid-March they move from the deep ocean to shallow coastal waters to feed.

Halibut is a flat fish, like flounder or sole, and shares their fine-textured flesh. Its main distinguishing feature is size. Halibut are huge. This is a fish so big its Latin genus Hippoglossus could well be "hippopotamus." Adult halibut can grow 9 feet long and weigh 700 pounds.

Halibut's close-grained flesh turns snowy white when cooked. Its flavor, not as aggressive as salmon and mackerel, is sweet with a warm, herbal bottom note.

Because halibut is so lean, it needs to be cooked gently. Adding a little fat to the dish is never a bad idea. In general, using moist-heat cooking methods, such as steaming or poaching, delays the moisture loss. But dry-heat methods, such as grilling or broiling, will speed it up.

So if you're going to grill halibut, pay very close attention. In fact, it's a good idea to remove the fish from the heat before it's completely done because the retained heat will finish the cooking.

That kind of gentle cooking makes halibut a very happy match for the fresh, delicate flavors of spring.

Make a chowder by simmering tiny potatoes in a milk broth scented with bacon and bay leaf. When the potatoes are soft, slip in chunks of halibut and poach until done - no more than five minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in sugar snap peas and chopped fresh herbs. The sugar snaps will brighten but not cook; they'll still have their sweet crunch.

Even easier is baking halibut in an aluminum-foil packet. Place the fish on a bed of pea shoots and top with a dollop of butter flavored with tarragon, chervil and chives. The fish gently steams, flavored by the pea sprouts and the herbal butter.

Serve the packets closed and let your guests open them. As the packets are unwrapped, hot, herb-scented steam will pour out.

One of the best things about this dish is that it can be made in advance. Refrigerate the assembled packages, and when you're ready, pop them in the oven on a jellyroll pan. They'll take less than 20 minutes from fridge to plate.

Just as simple is to cold-poach halibut. Heat a broth to a boil and pour it over the fish. Gradually, the hot stock will cook the fish, but won't overcook it. Serve at room temperature - chilling gives halibut a waxy texture.

The broth doesn't have to be anything complicated. Simmer the trimmings from a couple of fennel bulbs with a smashed garlic clove or two. The fish will pick up a delicate perfume from the liquid, which you can reinforce with a salad of thinly sliced fennel spiked with green olives.

So no need for weeping over the high price of salmon this season. Remember the other thing Momma told you: There's other fish in the sea.

Russ Parsons writes for the Los Angeles Times.

Halibut Baked `in Paper' With Pea Sprouts and Herb Butter

Serves 6

1/4 pound (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened

1 shallot, minced

1 1/2 tablespoons minced chervil

2 teaspoons minced chives

4 teaspoons minced tarragon

2 tablespoons lemon juice

salt

6 cups pea sprouts

6 ( 1/2 pound) halibut steaks or fillets

Beat together the butter, shallot, chervil, chives and tarragon until the mixture is relatively smooth and pale green. Beat in the lemon juice. Taste and season with 1/4 teaspoon salt. The herb butter should taste aggressively lemony.

Spoon the butter onto a sheet of plastic wrap in the shape of a log and roll it into a cylinder. Twist the ends of the plastic wrap in opposite directions to firm the cylinder, and roll it gently on the counter to eliminate any air pockets in the center. Refrigerate until ready to use. (Recipe can be prepared to this point a couple of days in advance.)

To prepare the packets, place a sheet of aluminum foil on the work counter. Arrange 1 cup of pea sprouts in a bed in the center. Lightly salt a halibut steak or fillet on both sides and place it on the pea sprouts. Slice off a generous tablespoon of the herb butter and place it on top of the halibut. Seal the packet tightly, folding the edges over several times to ensure a tight seal. Repeat with other steaks or fillets. (Recipe can be prepared to this point 8 hours in advance and refrigerated until ready to bake.)

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