The delicious, pricey and infamously easy-to-overcook Northwest favorite is back in season, and John Sundstrom and Edouardo Jordan are here to help you cook it.
A halibut is not a pretty fish. There’s no troutlike silver shimmer or salmon iridescence, nothing lithe about halibut. They’re big and flat, brownish or grayish on top, pale underneath. They start out bilaterally symmetrical, swimming upright, then — like their flounder family — they turn sideways, becoming makeshift rays. The eye on their bottom side creeps around to the top as they grow. They like to live deep and dark and cold.
Halibut can reach 8 feet, weighing up to 500 pounds. The snowy-white, firm but yielding, pristine-tasting fillet that ends up on your plate is probably 6 ounces. The season starts just this time of year, a Northwest rite of spring, albeit a pricey one. Partaking in a restaurant can mean up to $40 a plate, while the cost of fillets at this writing at Mutual Fish is $28.99 a pound — which, while plenty for two, still isn’t cheap.
The local halibut sportfishing season is nigh and may seem tempting, under the circumstances. But those who seek to catch halibut, according to Seattle Times outdoors reporter Mark Yuasa, sometimes call them “barn doors,” because it’s like trying to reel one of those up from the ocean floor. The unwieldy fish require an extra-stout rod and heavy-duty tackle, plus lead weights in order to get the hook down to 150 feet, or 350 feet, or even further. To bring one in requires forbearance, strength and perhaps a degree of fearlessness, for halibut have been known to kill. In Alaska, landed at last on a boat, one broke its captor’s leg, severing an artery in the process, and the man bled to death. “Thus,” Yuasa relates, “many will gaff a halibut outside the boat or even shoot them with a gun to subdue them before bringing them in.”
The urbanite will understandably prefer to read a little “Moby-Dick” and then stroll to a restaurant or, closer, their own kitchen. But if the latter route’s less costly, there’s apprehension involved, as halibut is infamously easy to overcook.
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Chef John Sundstrom says that at his storied Capitol Hill restaurant Lark this halibut season, “We’re kind of going with a little Eastern Mediterranean influence,” serving it with za’atar yogurt, green chickpeas (“a little more vegetal and springy” than regular ones), spicy aleppo pepper, and a salad of shaved raw artichoke heart and “tender herbs.” (That’s his sweet term for springtime’s newcomers: parsley, mint, maybe basil. “You can’t eat a branch of rosemary,” he says.)
Sundstrom likes the halibut from the tribal fishery at Neah Bay — coming from closer to home than Alaskan halibut, it’s “super-fresh.” His careful sourcing and expertise — and thoughtful sides, artistic plating, Lark’s lovely setting, etc. — will cost you $35 an order.
If you want to DIY, Sundstrom’s happy to provide his method. Skin your fillet, then get a stainless, French black-steel or cast-iron pan quite hot, on medium high. (Not getting the pan hot by itself is the main cause of the fish sticking, he says.) Add a tablespoon of oil — Lark uses half vegetable, half olive — then salt and pepper “whatever side you want to be the presentation side” of the fish and lay it in the pan, that side down. Now “Try not to move it at all … leave it alone for probably two minutes, then gently lift up the edge to make sure it’s getting color and not sticking,” he says. Cook for maybe another minute, until golden brown on the bottom, then “Turn it, throw a teaspoon of butter in the pan, and baste,” cooking another two or three minutes. It’s done to medium-well, he instructs, when it’s just not translucent anymore.
Halibut went on Lark’s menu last Friday. “Customers are super excited,” Sundstrom says, “ … almost to Copper River level.” Halibut will be king, accounting for 80 percent of his seafood sales, until salmon season “really gets going” in a month or so.
At his acclaimed Ravenna restaurant Salare, chef Edouardo Jordan is going through up to 60 pounds of halibut a week. (Speaking of acclaim, Jordan was just named to Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs 2016 list, with Salare open less than a year. Congrats!) His preparation is “gently” oven baked and served with millet, kale, rapini, pickled peppers, shaved raw Meyer lemon and preserved Meyer lemon dressing, for $27. Oh, and it has one more element: a chip made out of the fish’s skin, which is removed, boiled, salted, cooled, stretched, dehydrated, then deep-fried, “like a cracklin’,” Jordan says. “I wouldn’t recommend that for the home cook,” he laughs. “They have to come here and try it.”
But skin-chips aside, Jordan says to season your halibut fillet with salt, then oven-roast it at 400 to 450 degrees on a nonstick or parchment-paper-lined pan, with a little extra-virgin olive oil; 8 to 10 minutes should get it just a little over medium-rare. “That’s like the easiest way,” he asserts, requiring “no brain function besides looking at a timer.”
At Salare, cooks test for doneness using a cake tester — a metal pin that’s inserted into the center of the fish, then touched to one’s skin or (alarmingly) lip. The pin should be “definitely above your body temperature, but definitely not so hot that you can’t touch your skin,” at which point it’s too late and you’ve burned yourself.
The home cook can tell, Jordan advises, when the fish goes from “translucent to a little pale white, not too pinky. That’s a technical term,” he laughs, adding, “It’s hard to explain.”
In any case, if you overcook it, he says, it’s still lovely in a salad — with fresh garden greens, maybe a grain or chickpeas, ramps, lemon. Dressed with aioli, it’s “definitely a beautiful springtime cold dish.”
“You don’t have to be afraid of halibut,” Jordan says reassuringly. Tell that to those out fishing for them, packing heat.