Seafood lovers who have been following the news know that it’s probably going to be a long spring. Salmon, the king of the season’s fish, is missing in action and its prices are likely to stay high through the summer.
But as momma used to say, there’s never a door that closes without a window opening somewhere else. This season’s silver lining is Pacific halibut, which, thanks to that shortage might finally get its moment in the spotlight.
And halibut is a fish with charms all its own. While salmon is rich and assertive, halibut is mild-mannered. Other flavors have to stand up to salmon, but they fall in love with halibut, making it an ideal match for the quieter pleasures of spring.
Like salmon, halibut is available pretty much year-round, but is at its best in spring and summer (in seafood, “seasonal” means something different than when you’re talking about, say, English peas). The fish are highly migratory, and beginning in mid-March they move from the deep ocean to shallower coastal waters to feed (salmon are taken during the same time as they gather offshore before making their spawning runs up streams).
Halibut is a flat fish, like a flounder or a sole, and it shares their fine-textured flesh. Its main distinguishing feature is size. Halibut are huge. This is a fish so big its Latin genus Hippoglossus could just as well be “hippopotamus.” Adult halibut can be up to 9 feet long and can weigh up to 700 pounds. Compare that to a monster king salmon, which at 50 to 60 pounds suddenly doesn’t seem quite so regal. (There is also a California halibut that sometimes shows up at market that is much smaller -- a big one would weigh 10 pounds.)
Halibut’s fine, close-grained flesh turns a dramatic snowy white when cooked. Its flavor, though not as aggressive as oilier fish such as salmon and mackerel, is sweet with a warm, herbal bottom note almost like bay.
Even better, you can feel like a really good person when you’re cooking it. The halibut fishery is regarded as an ecological model. It is rated a “best choice” by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program.
Salmon’s low census
Salmon prices are rising because the organization that regulates fishing on the West Coast drastically cut back salmon fishing in California and Oregon after the fish population plummeted, due to low water levels in the Klamath River, one of the prime salmon runs in the Northwest.
Although most of the big-name salmon comes from Alaska (Copper River, Kenai, Yukon, etc.), the catch in California and Oregon plays a vital supporting role. In fact, according to National Marine Fisheries Service landing statistics, those two states accounted for almost half of the king salmon harvest from 2000 until the catch started being more tightly controlled in 2004.
California-Oregon salmon are almost always the more affordable fish that we eat most often: $10 to $12 a pound rather than the $20 to $30 a pound appellation-labeled once-a-season splurge. But this spring, one seafood distributor predicts, $20 a pound might be as cheap as wild salmon gets.
Meanwhile, halibut is an example of how sound management can turn around an ugly situation. Until the mid-1990s, the fishery was usually used as an example of just how badly managed commercial fishing could be. In fact, in the 1970s, it was so awful that it was on the brink of a closure. Unfortunately, the controls implemented to protect the fish in some ways merely aggravated a bad situation. Until the mid-1990s, halibut fishing was regulated under what was called a “derby” system. There was a seasonal allotment of how much fish could be caught in each area. On a given day, a bell would ring (literally, in some places) and dozens of fishing boats would race out to scoop up as much as they could, as fast as they could. Sometimes, the total allotment for an area would be caught in less than 10 hours.
The results were predictable. The halibut fishery was among the most dangerous in the world, as overloaded boats struggled to return home in the choppy, icy waters of the north Pacific. It didn’t work for the consumer either, as the limit was reached so quickly that for all but the briefest of spans, the only halibut we could buy was frozen.
In 1991, the Canadians went to a different system, allocating each boat a percentage of the limit, depending on how much it had caught in the past. This system closed the door to new fishermen unless they bought an existing boat’s share. But it allowed an orderly, safer catch. In 1995, the U.S. introduced a similar system. Now, instead of having fresh halibut for only a couple of weeks in the year, the season stretches from early spring through the summer. This is good news for fishermen and cooks.
If you’re used to cooking salmon, though, halibut can take some getting used to. While salmon is fatty and assertive, halibut is lean and mild. It takes some time to overcook salmon; with halibut it can happen before you know it.
Because it is so lean, halibut needs to be cooked gently. And adding a little fat to the dish is never a bad idea. In general, using moist-heat cooking methods, such as steaming or poaching, delays the moisture loss. But dry-heat methods, such as grilling or broiling, will speed it up. So if you’re going to grill halibut, pay very close attention. In fact, it’s a good idea to remove the fish from the heat before it’s completely done, as the retained heat will finish the cooking.
That kind of gentle cooking makes halibut a very happy match for the fresh, delicate flavors of spring.
Make a chowder by simmering newly dug tiny potatoes in a rich milk broth scented with bacon and bay. When the potatoes are so soft you can almost crush them, slip in chunks of halibut and let them poach just until they are done -- no more than five minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in sugar snap peas and chopped fresh herbs. The sugar snaps will brighten, but not cook; they’ll still have their sweet crunch.
Even easier is baking the halibut in an aluminum foil packet. Place the fish on a bed of pea shoots and top it with a big dollop of butter flavored with tarragon, chervil and chives. The fish gently steams, flavored by the pea sprouts below and the herbal butter above.
Serve the packets still tightly closed and let your guests open them up. It’s like Christmas morning for food lovers: As the presents are unwrapped, a gush of hot, herb-scented steam will pour out.
One of the best things about this dish is that it can be made almost entirely in advance. Refrigerate the assembled packages, and when you’re ready, just pop them in the oven on a jellyroll pan. They’ll take less than 15 minutes from fridge to plate.
Just as simple, cold poach the halibut. This is a technique I learned from David LeFevre, chef at Water Grill in downtown L.A. It couldn’t be easier: Heat a broth to the boil and then pour it over the fish. Gradually, the hot stock will cook the fish, but because the stock is cooling as it does so, it won’t overcook the fish. Serve it at room temperature -- chilling gives halibut a waxy texture.
The broth doesn’t have to be anything complicated to have an effect. Try simmering the trimmings from a couple of fennel bulbs along with a smashed garlic clove or two. The fish will pick up a delicate perfume from the liquid, which you can then reinforce by serving it alongside a salad made from thinly sliced fennel spiked with green olives.
So let’s not have any weeping and gnashing of teeth over the high price of salmon this season. Remember the other thing momma always told you: There’s other fish in the sea.