Just For the Halibut: Bad Pun, Great Fish

06/03/2010 02:31 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Neil Zevnik Private Chef, Food Writer, Wildlife Rescue Volunteer

So you're at your local fishmonger's, and you've been trying to get your family to eat more fish because you know it's good for them, and you're eyeing that wild-caught salmon yet again, and your littlest one pipes up beside you, "Mommy, I hate that fishy fish!"... What's a concerned but caring mother to do? Just point instead at those mounds of snowy-white, gleaming filets labeled "halibut" and your problem is solved - excellent nutrition and a sure crowd-pleaser every time.

Halibut has been around (and presumably happily consumed) for as long as humans have been snaring their meals from the sea. These are big puppies - the largest of all the flatfish, they can reach up to 700 pounds! Since they don't reach reproductive capability until they're eight years old, they must be over 30 inches in length to be legally taken. Even so, the Atlantic halibut is seriously over-fished, so be sure you buy only Pacific halibut; those coming from Alaska are especially desirable. They often dwell at great depths, and the cold water contributes to the plenitude of omega-3 fatty acids to be found in their largely bone-free flesh - another plus for the finicky eaters at the dinner table.

I'm pretty sure you're all familiar by now with the advantages of getting plenty of omega-3's in your diet, but let's reiterate a few for when you need to convince that last recalcitrant meat-eater in the family. According to World's Healthiest Foods, one of my favorite websites, omega-3 fatty acids make multiple and wide-ranging contributions to improved health. Cardiovascular benefits include helping to prevent irregular heart rhythms, reducing arterial clotting, and improving the ratio of "good" (HDL) cholesterol to "bad" (LDL) cholesterol, as well as reducing the inflammation that causes artery-clogging plaques. And many studies have demonstrated omega-3's ability to protect against numerous cancers, including colorectal, ovarian, kidney, and digestive tract. Equally gratifying is a body of research that demonstrates omega-3's contributions to the fight against cognitive decline, conceivably helping to stave off and minimize the onset of dementia and Alzheimers.

But omega-3's are not the only benefit that can be gleaned from the delicate flesh of the halibut. Vitamins B-6 and B-12 guard against atherosclerosis; magnesium improves the flow of blood, oxygen and nutrients throughout the body; and selenium is helpful in detoxifying the liver, as well as preventing cancer and heart disease.

Bringing It On Home

The season for halibut runs from March through October, so you should be able to find it fresh for most of the year. As always, I encourage you to develop a life-long friendship with your fishmonger! Be sure the fish is recently arrived; ask to give it a quick smell - it should remind you of the sea, not your floor cleaner... any whiff of ammonia, or "off" aromas, just hand it back. I highly recommend taking a cold-container with blue ice blocks with you whenever you're planning to purchase fish; off the ice, into the cold-bag, and home to the back of the lowest shelf in the fridge is the best way to ensure freshness. And though I know some sources will say it'll keep for a few days, my personal conviction is -- use it within 24 hours, or don't bother...

Halibut is less than forgiving of over-cooking, and becomes somewhat dry when so mistreated - timing is everything; ten minutes for each inch of thickness is a reliable rule of thumb. When properly cooked, halibut is one of the sweetest, most delicious fishes ever to grace a dinner plate.

Grilled Halibut w/ roasted roma tomatoes, fennel, & sweet onions

This Mediterranean-style preparation makes an easy and delightful summer dinner...

4 6-ounce halibut steaks, one inch thick
1/4 cup + 1 tablespoon olive oil
6 roma tomatoes, quartered
2 fennel bulbs - topped & cut vertically into eight pieces
1 large sweet onion - peeled, halved and thickly sliced
2 medium cloves garlic, peeled & sliced thin
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 teaspoon dried thyme
½ cup shredded fresh basil
Salt & pepper to taste
Lemon wedges

4 small rectangles of heavy-duty aluminum foil

Preheat oven to 375. Preheat grill to medium-high.

In a large shallow roasting pan, combine the tomatoes, fennel, onions, garlic, oregano & thyme, toss with 1/4 cup olive oil and salt & pepper to taste. Roast for 30-35 minutes, until vegetables are cooked through but not soft. Remove from oven, stir in the fresh basil.

Moisten halibut steaks on both sides with 1 tablespoon olive oil, add a sprinkling of sea salt and a grind of fresh black pepper. Place each steak on a piece of the foil. Transfer the foil/halibut to the grill and cook covered for 10 minutes, until fish is just cooked through but not falling apart. Remove foil/halibut to a baking sheet.

Divide roasted vegetable mix among 4 plates; with a spatula, gently remove halibut steaks from foil and place on top of vegetables. Serve immediately with lemon wedges on the side.

Serves 4.

Halibut & Watermelon Ceviche Salad

As a substantial luncheon or a light dinner, this simple and refreshing take on a South American classic is a winner! The citrus "cooks" the fish...

1 pound halibut, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
2 tablespoons chopped red onion
2 tablespoons chopped fresh chervil
1/2 teaspoon minced red jalapeno
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon fresh orange juice
1 cup diced watermelon
6 ounces mixed salad greens
3 tablespoons safflower oil

In a glass dish or bowl, combine halibut, red onion, chervil, jalapeno, lime juice, 1/4 cup lemon juice & orange juice. Stir to combine and refrigerate for one hour, stirring once or twice while marinating.

Remove from refrigerator, drain off most of the liquid, and stir in the watermelon. Toss the salad greens with the 2 tablespoons of lemon juice and the safflower oil, plus salt & pepper to taste. Divide among four plates, top with the ceviche, and serve immediately.

Serves 4.

[A version of this blog appears in my "Eat Smart" column in the June issue of Better Nutrition Magazine.]