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Enjoying Fresh Pacific Halibut All Summer Long
Photo courtesy of the International Pacific Halibut Commission
From spring to fall, one of the real prizes among fresh fish is halibut from the north Pacific. And these days, thanks to a change in the way fishing seasons are regulated, more and more of the north Pacific halibut catch is coming to market fresh rather than frozen, and throughout the May to November season.
Pacific halibut (Hippoglossus stenolepis) and its Atlantic cousin H. hippoglossus are the two largest flounders in the world, capable of growing to more than six feet in length and several hundred pounds in weight (though the typical size is less than a hundred pounds). They prefer cold, relatively deep waters of the continental shelf, and while they are found as far south as California and Virginia, they are most numerous in the northern part of their range.
There is some commercial catch of Atlantic halibut, but the vast majority of our halibut supply is of the Pacific species, most of which is caught off Alaska and British Columbia. The fishing season for halibut runs from spring to fall, when the fish come closer to shore.
For decades, the commercial Pacific halibut fishery was all about frozen fish, which makes sense given the remoteness of many of the fishing areas. Even the fishing regulations favored freezing, by concentrating a lot of fishing effort in one area at one time. As the number of boats in the fishery grew, the only way to limit the catch and spread the annual quota out over the season was to confine fishing to increasingly short sessions. By the early 1990s, most Pacific halibut were being caught in a series of 24- to 48-hour "fishing derbies," in which thousands of boats would concentrate on a particular area of ocean such as the central Gulf of Alaska or the inner Aleutians. Once each mini-season was over, all the boats would head to the nearest port to unload their catch, most of which would be frozen. A few days or weeks later, another area would open up for another mini-season, and all the boats would head there for another session of round-the-clock fishing. Having the halibut come to the processors in predictable pulses suited the freezers, as well as many of their customers, who could plan ahead for frozen halibut specials throughout the year.
However, the increasing use of air freight in the 1980s whetted the appetite of the market for fresh halibut, and in 1991 the Canadian authorities revamped their regulatory system to one that favors delivery to the fresh market. Instead of dividing up the annual quota for Canadian waters by time and space, they allotted a share of the total quota to each vessel in the fishery. Under this individual vessel quota system, each permit holder could fish when and where he chose until he caught his annual quota, or until the end of the season. Spreading out the catch over the entire season, plus the relative proximity of the British Columbia fishing grounds to processing and shipping facilities, made it easier for the Canadians to bring their fish to market on ice rather than frozen, and not surprisingly, they gained a large share of the U.S. fresh halibut market over the next few years. Alaska adopted a similar system in 1995, and while most of the catch is still frozen, a growing share comes to the market without ever having seen the inside of a freezer.
While band-saw-cut steaks are the rule with frozen halibut, fresh halibut is often sold in fillet form as well. Either version may also be found as a tail section or "roast" of two pounds or so, with both fillets attached to the central bone and the skin intact. Halibut is suitable for just about any cooking method -- grilling, broiling, baking, poaching, frying, sauteing. A lot of older halibut recipes give long cooking times -- as much as 30 minutes for baked steaks -- after which an inch-thick piece of any fish is guaranteed to be dry. The same goes for the old-fashioned rule of cooking it "until it flakes easily with a fork," which means to me that the meat has toughened and the moisture has melted away. If this is how you think of halibut, you owe it to yourself to give it another try. Cooked just to the point that the center of the meat is turning from translucent to opaque (the equivalent of "medium rare" to "medium" in beef), halibut is tender and juicy. An instant-reading thermometer inserted parallel to the bone is the best way to check the doneness of a halibut roast; at 130 degrees there will be a trace of translucence, and it will be fully opaque at 135 degrees.
Halibut Roast with Green Herb Sauce
Serves 4 to 6
A baking dish attractive enough to go straight from the oven to the table is ideal for this dish. Remember, however, that the fish will continue cooking for a few minutes in the hot dish even after it is removed from the oven, so remove it at closer to 130 degrees. If you will be transfering the fish to a platter to serve, cook it to a few degrees higher.
3/4 cup each diced celery, carrots, and onion
6 small peeled cloves garlic, halved
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 halibut tail section, 2 to 2-1/2 pounds
Salt and pepper to taste
Sauce Verte, below
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Choose a shallow baking dish that will hold the fish comfortably. Scatter the diced vegetables and garlic in the pan, drizzle with 2 tablespoons of the oil, and stir to coat the vegetables and the bottom of the pan lightly with oil. Put the pan in the oven to bake 10 minutes (it's all right if the oven is still warming up at this point) while you prepare the fish.
Rinse the fish well and pat dry. Season the skin and exposed meat with a little salt and pepper and rub all over with the remaining oil. Remove the roasting pan from the oven and lay the fish on top of the vegetables, dark- skinned side up. Return the pan to the oven and bake until a skewer easily enters the thickest part of the fish, or it registers 130 to 135 degrees on an instant-reading thermometer (20 to 25 minutes for a 2-1/2-pound tail).
While the fish bakes, prepare the sauce. Serve the fish in the baking dish, or transfer to a serving dish with a large spatula or two and spoon the vegetables from the pan around the fish.
To serve, divide the upper fillet in half along the natural seam down the middle, and slide the halves to the sides. Lift out the central bone and the lower fillet should evenly divide into two portions. Spoon a little of the juices over the fish and drizzle each serving with a tablespoon or so of the sauce; pass additional sauce at the table.
Sauce Verte (Green Herb Sauce)
2 garlic cloves, peeled
1/2 cup (loosely packed) fresh parsley leaves
1 to 2 tablespoons fresh tarragon, chervil, or dill leaves
1 to 2 tablespoons chives or green onion tops, roughly chopped
1-1/2 teaspoons vinegar
1/4 cup olive oil
2 anchovy fillets (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste
Parboil the garlic 1 minute; add the herbs and cook until wilted. Drain and rinse with cold water to stop cooking. Combine with the remaining ingredients in a blender or food processor and blend to a puree. Serve at room temperature.
Jay Harlow is a Bay Area cookbook publisher and author of ten books including Once Upon a Bagel, The California Seafood cookbook & Beer Cuisine.