Originally published May 4, 2008
By Greg Atkinson, former Taste contributor
RUMMAGING THROUGH SOME old papers, I ran across a mimeographed copy of a handout from a middle-school science class. I saved it all these years because it was in my own handwriting. My seventh-grade teacher divided the class into small groups and allowed each group to teach the class for one period. The group I was in chose to teach the rest of the class about legendary sea monsters, dispelling old myths with the coldest scientific reasoning our little minds could muster.
The mimeographed document with its crude renderings of the mythical beasts served as a visual aid. Below each illustration is a brief explanation of how the creatures were fabricated in the minds of sea-weary sailors. The sea serpent, we surmised, was “probably inspired by a row of jumping dolphins.” A mermaid was “actually a manatee with seaweed hanging over her head.” One creature that looks suspiciously like the head of a man-eating halibut we dismissed as “pure delusion.” Little did we know.
Although they might not be man-eaters, Pacific halibut might truly qualify as monsters of the deep. The largest specimen on record is a 495-pound fish caught near Petersburg, Alaska, but commercial fishermen routinely bring in fish in the 150-to-200-pound range.
When I lived in Friday Harbor, I used to buy halibut off the dock from fishermen returning from Alaska. Before 1995, when the International Pacific Halibut Commission adopted an Individual Fishing Quota system, the fishery was governed by managing the length of the openings. A more abundant supply meant a longer opening; diminished supplies meant shorter openings. Because short openings forced fishermen to harvest as much as they could during that window of opportunity, risks escalated when the opening times contracted.
Regardless of the weather or the condition of their boats, halibut fishermen had to go out.
For chefs, the old system meant that fresh halibut was available for only a short season, and for the rest of the year, we had to make do with frozen fish. So when the fresh season was upon us, I used to run a sort of halibut festival at the restaurant, transforming the bones into stock for bisque, frying up the cheeks for appetizers and running the fillets as a dinner special that invariably outsold every other item on the menu.
Mostly, I looked for fish in the 30-pound range because they were easy to handle, and I knew how to portion them for restaurant service. But one year, spellbound by a 200-pound specimen, I decided I had to have it. I fashioned a sort of rain suit of garbage bags and somehow hauled the thing from the dock to the trunk of my Volvo, and then laid it on the floor of the walk-in cooler to cut it into four gigantic fillets. My oldest son, who was still a toddler at the time, was fascinated by the “sea monster,” and when the filleting was done, he and I went into the restaurant kitchen and had a private feast made from the trimmings.
These days, fresh halibut is available for roughly nine months of the year — from early spring to late fall — so the pressure is off. But I still like to celebrate the arrival of spring halibut with a special meal.
Slow-Cooked Alaska Halibut with Spring Vegetables
Typically, halibut is cooked quickly in a very hot oven. But my friend Sharon Kramis taught me to pack the halibut into a dish just large enough to hold it, then cover it in olive oil to bake slowly. The olive oil is then used in a sauce.
For the fish
Four 7- to 8-ounce halibut fillets
2 teaspoons sea salt
1 teaspoon white pepper
¾ cup olive oil
For the vegetables
4 small Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and cut into ½-inch slices
2 carrots, peeled and cut into large julienne strips
½ pound romanesco or broccoflower (bright green cultivars of cauliflower)
½ pound snap peas
1 medium-size beet, boiled until tender, then peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
Pea vines or spring greens for garnish
For the sauce
1 egg yolk
4 cloves garlic, finely grated
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon sea salt
¾ cup oil, reserved from baking the fish
1. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F. Sprinkle the halibut fillets with the sea salt and white pepper, and place them in a baking dish just large enough to hold them in a single layer (a 1-quart oval works well). Pour on the olive oil, and bake the fish until it registers 145 on an instant-read thermometer, about 30 minutes. When the fish is ready, transfer it to a warm platter, and tent with parchment or foil to keep it warm.
2. While the fish is baking, cook the potatoes, carrots and broccoflower in batches in a large pot of boiling salted water, just until they are fork-tender, about 8 minutes for the potatoes, 5 minutes for the carrots and the broccoflower. Cook the peas in the same water for 3 minutes. As the vegetables are cooked, lift them out of the water, and hold them on a baking sheet. (Cook the beet by itself so it doesn’t color the other vegetables.)
3. To make the sauce, put the egg yolk, garlic, lemon juice and 1 teaspoon sea salt in a blender and run the motor until the mixture is light and smooth, then slowly stream in the oil in which the halibut was baked to make a smooth emulsion.
4. If the vegetables are cold, pop them in the oven to warm them up. Then distribute them evenly between four plates, plant a halibut fillet in the center of each plate, and finish with a dollop of the sauce and a few sprigs of pea vine or spring greens.
— Greg Atkinson, 2008