The cure for anything is salt water: sweat, tears or the sea.
Salt is the one ingredient that every person has in his or her cupboard. If you are like me, you might have several varieties from various far-flung sources. I’ve got smoked salt, mined salt, salt from the peaks of the Himalayas and salt derived directly from the sea, including my three favorites, fleur de sel, Maldon salt and sel gris.
One of salt’s most miraculous attributes is its ability to preserve foods. Before refrigeration, our forebears were able to preserve their catch and “salt away” meats after the hunt. This kept them from starvation in lean times. Today we face no such hardships -- hobbyists and doomsday preppers aside -- so salt as a means of preservation is no longer a necessity.
Instead, let’s focus on the space between preservation and seasoning: brining. Brining is a simple process for which you need no special tools and few ingredients: salt, water and something to brine.
The brining of meats is common. Lots of people brine their Thanksgiving turkey. At Providence, we have taken to brining certain fishes. The one that has yielded the best results is Alaskan halibut. The technique also works with other white-fleshed fish and even salmon, but I especially like it with halibut, which has a certain reputation among cooks.
Halibut has many fans and just as many detractors, who are not wrong when they say that it is not the most flavorful fish. Because it is low in fat, halibut benefits from a little, ahem, “enhancement,” as it’s termed here in L.A. An hourlong dunk in a simple brine of salt and water is just the thing to transform halibut into the type of fish you always wished it could be.
Use a standard 5% brine. To prepare enough for six to eight portions of fish, start out with 50 grams of salt, 600 grams of water and 400 grams of ice. Whisk the salt into the water until it has dissolved before adding the ice. The ice ensures that the brine remains cold throughout the hour. By the way, I recommend using sea salt for the brine because it dissolves readily and has no anti-caking agents or additives. Either sel gris or Maldon will do.
Buy the halibut in large pieces that you can then cut into individual 5- to 6-ounce portions after the brining. This will help limit the salt absorption.
Once the hour has passed, remove the fish from the brine and rinse it briefly in an ice water bath or under a cold running tap. Dry the fish with paper towels. Finally, lay the fillets out on a sheet tray and place them in the refrigerator uncovered for at least four hours. Over that time the fish will dry and form a pellicle, or skin, which is comprised of proteins that create a sturdier portion of fish that is easier to handle and browns more readily.
When brined and properly cooked, the meat will break off into large, lovely translucent flakes. It will be juicy, seasoned through and through and unlike any halibut you’ve had.
Cimarusti is chef at Providence restaurant in Los Angeles, which has two Michelin stars.
Combine salt and water in a large mixing bowl and stir to dissolve the salt. Add ice. Set the brine aside while you prepare the fish.
Cut the fish into 2 1/2-inch wide by 1-inch thick strips along the length of the fillet. (After brining, you’ll cut the fish into cooking portions). Be sure to use the sharpest knife in the drawer for this and work slowly and carefully. Remove the blood line from the skin side of the fillets. Place the fillets in the brine and leave for 1 hour.
Remove the fish from the brine, dip briefly in salt-free ice water and dry it thoroughly with paper towels. Lay the fillets out flat on parchment-lined baking sheets and refrigerate, unwrapped, for a minimum of 4 hours.
Cut the fillets into 5- to 6-ounce portions, and prepare as you wish.
To grill the halibut, heat the grill over medium-high heat until hot and clean it well with a wire brush. Brush both sides of the fish with a very thin coating of mayonnaise and sprinkle with salt, if desired.
Just before putting the fish on the grill, wipe down the grate with an old rag that has been briefly dipped in cooking oil. Place the fish on the grill and, after a minute or so, turn the fillets at a 45-degree angle to mark them. After another minute, flip the fillets. Cook for 2 more minutes. The flesh should yield to gentle pressure when pressed (you can also use a cake tester to test the doneness of the fillet; when the fish is properly cooked, a cake tester will pass through with only gentle resistance).
Remove the fish to rest, preferably on a rack, for 5 minutes before serving.
Prepare the vinaigrette. Place the mustard, vinegar, sugar, salt, pepper and garlic in a mason jar. Place the lid on the jar and give it a good shake. This will dissolve the salt and the sugar. Remove the cap, add the oil, relace the cap and shake again. This will yield about 1 1/3 cups of creamy, well-emulsified vinaigrette, more than will be required for the recipe (the remainder can be stored tightly covered in the refrigerator for at least 1 week).
Blanch the green beans briefly in a large pot of rapidly boiling salted water and cook just until the color brightens, about 1 minute. Remove to a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking, then drain and pat dry.
Slice the tomatoes and arrange them on a large serving platter. Depending on the shape of the tomatoes, you may want to cut some into wedges and others may look better sliced. Season the tomatoes with Maldon salt and a few turns of freshly milled black pepper. Sprinkle the tomatoes with the chopped shallots and distribute half the green and opal basil, parsley and tarragon evenly over the tomatoes. This should be done one-half hour before you are ready to serve your guests.
Just before the fish is ready, shake the vinaigrette again to re-emulsify, and drizzle one-fourth of it over the tomatoes. Place the cooked and drained haricots vert in a mixing bowl and toss them with enough vinaigrette to coat them well and season with salt and pepper. Scatter a layer of beans over the tomatoes.
Place the grilled halibut on top of the tomatoes and the beans. Drizzle the halibut with more vinaigrette and scatter over the remainder of the dressed beans. Distribute the remaing herbs over it all. Pass the remaining vinaigrette at the table.
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