Alaskan adventure inspires halibut meals at home

JeanMarie Brownson
Chicago Tribune

Alice, our naturalist guide in Talkeetna, Alaska, says she cried when her freezer malfunctioned. She lost more than 100 pounds of halibut from a recent fishing expedition. Only one week into our Alaskan vacation, and barely a dozen halibut meals in, we were starting to understand the local devotion to this fish.

Alaskan halibut has no rival — it tastes mild and slightly sweet with a creamy, satisfyingly meaty texture. It works well on the grill, in a pan, under the broiler, in the fryer, smoker or steamer. It can be poached, sauced, sandwiched, caked or chopped into salad. We even like it flaked in omelets and diced into soup.

We attempted to eat our fill during our August trip, enjoying the sweet, white fish at nearly every meal on the Kenai Peninsula. But just one day after our return to Chicago, we found ourselves at our supermarket fish counter buying four thick fillets of wild-caught Alaskan halibut.

Fortunately, halibut can be found fresh in fish markets much of the year in the lower 48. However, we are nearing the end of peak season. From now until November, Alaskan halibut reigns as a top choice for its superior taste and mouthwateringly tender texture.

From the family of right-eyed flounders, halibut is the largest type of flatfish and often weighs hundreds of pounds. The Marine Stewardship Council advises that we only buy Pacific halibut (which includes Alaskan). Atlantic halibut has been seriously overfished and is listed on the group’s “avoid” list. When buying any fish, always read signs and labels and ask questions. No signs or labels? Find another store.

Good fish does not come cheap. Whenever possible, plan to cook it the same day it’s purchased. Before I shop, I put a cooler with blue ice blocks in the car to transport the fish home safely. Once home, I rinse the fish, wrap it loosely in wax paper and set it on a tray lined with ice in the refrigerator.

My favorite way to cook halibut is to coat it in fresh herbs and let it “marinate” for an hour or so. Then a simple seasoning of salt and pepper and cooking in flavorless oil will allow the delicate flavor of the fish to shine. I prevent overcooking (and dry, mealy texture) by searing the fish quickly in a very hot pan, then popping that pan into a very hot oven. The drops of pan juices that accumulate as the fish cooks should be spooned over the fish before serving.

I usually shy away from sweet elements with fish, but I will never forget the lavender-honey-glazed roast halibut we ate on our first night in Fairbanks. At home, I season orange blossom honey with minced fresh lavender, spicy cracked pepper and a little lemon zest. A judicious dollop over the hot fish will make you swoon. (Any leftover honey tastes fantastic on buttered biscuits or toast spread with goat cheese.)

Fortunately for us, tomato season and halibut season overlap. The acidity of a slice of tomato pairs perfectly with the sweet fish. In Seward, Alaska, a fishermen’s playground, we devoured a seared halibut fillet layered with dark red tomato slices, crisp bacon and romaine on hearty toast. The BLT of our dreams. I spread my toast with basil mayonnaise and thank my stars for halibut in nearby supermarkets.

I love to cook extra fish, so I have some for leftovers. Flaked into a bowlful of herby mayonnaise, diced tomatoes and sweet peppers, it makes a terrific salad.

By the way, these recipes can be made with other fish. I like wild-caught Alaskan salmon (silver salmon is in season now), cod and sablefish (also known as black cod) here, too.

Seared Halibut With Honey Lavender Glaze

Serve the fish with a quick-cooking side, such as Israeli couscous mixed with herbs and tomatoes.

1/4 cup honey

1 teaspoon minced fresh lavender leaves or rosemary

1/8 teaspoon minced fresh or dried thyme leaves

1/8 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest

Freshly cracked black pepper

1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh basil, parsley or chives (or a combination)

4 pieces, each about 1 inch thick, halibut fillet (about 2 pounds total)


Grapeseed oil or olive oil

Thinly sliced lemon, for garnish

Fresh lavender sprigs, microgreens, pea shoots, sunflower sprouts or baby arugula for garnish, optional

Put honey into a small dish, and add the lavender, thyme, lemon zest and pepper to taste. Use a spoon to crush the herbs into the honey. Let stand. (Mixture can be covered and stored at room temperature up to a couple of days.)

Place 1/3 cup of the herbs in a baking dish. Pat fish dry, then add to pan, turning to coat the fish on all sides with the herbs. Sprinkle fish generously with salt and pepper. Refrigerate covered, about 2 hours.

Heat oven to 450 degrees. Heat a large nonstick or other heavy-bottomed ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat. When the pan is hot, lightly brush the fish with oil on all sides. Immediately add the oiled fish, skin side up, to the hot pan. Let sear over the heat about 3 minutes. Carefully flip the fish, then transfer the pan to the oven. Cook until the fish nearly flakes at the thickest portion, about 6 minutes.

Remove from oven; carefully transfer fish to a heated serving platter. Scrape any pan juices over the fish. Drizzle with tiny dots of the honey. Serve with lemon slices, fresh lavender sprigs and a garnish of microgreens. Makes 4 servings.

Nutrition information per serving: 502 calories, 37 g fat, 6 g saturated fat, 112 mg cholesterol, 4 g carbohydrates, 4 g sugar, 35 g protein, 346 mg sodium, 0 g fiber

Halibut BLTs

Grill the fish over glowing hardwood embers for a smoky variation. The bread can be toasted in the broiler if the pieces are too thick for the toaster; watch carefully.

1/4 cup mayonnaise

2 to 4 tablespoons finely sliced fresh basil

1/4 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

4 to 6 slices bacon

1 large ripe tomato, cored, thickly sliced

Two 3-inch-long sections of ciabatta or sourdough baguette, halved through the middle, or four 3/4-inch thick slices sourdough bread

2 to 4 small romaine lettuce leaves

2 pieces, each about 1 inch thick, halibut fillet (12 to 14 ounces total)

Salt, freshly ground black pepper

Olive oil

Mix mayonnaise, basil and lemon juice in a small dish.

Cook bacon in a large skillet until as crisp as you like it. Drain on paper toweling. Slice the tomato, and toast the bread. Pat the lettuce dry.

Heat broiler to high. Season fish generously with salt and pepper. Then coat it with oil. Place fish, skin side up, on the broiler pan. Broil 5 or 6 inches from the heat source, turning once, until nearly flaky, 8 to 9 minutes total. Remove from heat. Remove skin if you wish.

Assemble sandwiches as follows: spread the toasted bread with the mayonnaise. Top one slice with half of the lettuce and tomato slices. Top with a piece of fish and then the bacon. Place a second piece of bread on top. Repeat for the second sandwich.

Nutrition information per serving: 691 calories, 47 g fat, 9 g saturated fat, 106 mg cholesterol, 30 g carbohydrates, 4 g sugar, 37 g protein, 847 mg sodium, 2 g fiber

Halibut Salad

This salad tastes great served on buttered toast or crisp crackers.

1 large or 2 small cooked halibut fillet(s), (about 12 ounces total), see recipes above

1/3 cup mayonnaise

1/4 cup thinly sliced fresh basil leaves

2 to 3 tablespoons chopped fresh chives

1/2 teaspoon fresh lemon or lime juice

1/4 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground pepper

2 medium tomatoes, cored, seeded, diced, about 3/4 cup

1/2 small sweet yellow or orange bell pepper, seeded, finely diced

Lettuce leaves, sprouts

Use a fork to break cooked fish into large chunks. You should have about 2 loosely packed cups. Handle fish gently so it doesn’t shred too much.

Mix mayonnaise, basil, chives, lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste in a medium bowl. Add tomatoes and peppers. Toss to mix. Add fish and toss gently.

Serve on lettuce leaves garnished with fresh sprouts. Makes 3 cups or 10 servings.

Nutrition information per 1/4 cup serving: 110 calories, 10 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 17 mg cholesterol, 1 g carbohydrates, 1 g sugar, 5 g protein, 113 mg sodium, 0 g fiber