Halibut, the fish of legends

Grilled halibut steaks with nectarine and poblano salsa2 ripe but firm nectarines, pitted and chopped
2 medium plum tomatoes, chopped
1 medium shallot, minced
1/2 bell pepper, finely chopped
1/2 poblano pepper, minced
Juice of one lime
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon rice wine vinegar
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
4 six ounce halibut steaks, approximately the same size
Sea salt and fresh pepper to taste1. Preheat a gas grill or fire up the charcoal.

2. In a non-reactive bowl, combine all the ingredients except for one tablespoon of the olive oil, the halibut and the salt and pepper. Cover and let the salsa sit for at least an hour or up to four hours.

3. Pat the halibut steaks dry and brush with the rest of the olive oil. Season generously with salt and pepper. Grill over medium high heat for 4-5 minutes on each side or until opaque and flaky. The internal temperature should be about 140 degrees to avoid overcooking.

4. Serve with salsa on the side.

August 2021

By Jean Kerr

Halibut has inspired many legends over the ages. In Norway, cave paintings have been discovered that honor this impressive fish, and legends of its strength and importance are a part of Alaskan native folklore. This may be because among the flatfish – i.e. flounder, sole, plaice and turbot – it is by far the largest. Think a flounder magnified by 50 times. A two pound flounder… yup, we’re talking a rather large fish. While the average weight these days is in the 70-100 pound range, prizewinning halibut have clocked in at nearly 500 pounds.

Captain John Smith, the 17th-century explorer, never shy about extolling the virtues of the New England fisheries, wrote, “There is a large sized fish called the Hallibut… some are taken so big that two men have much a doe to hall them into the boate: but there is such a plenty the fishermen onlye eat the heads and fins and throw away the bodies.” This seems unlikely, as a good sized halibut could feed a village. But perhaps by the heads, Smith was referring to the delectable halibut cheeks.

The two main halibut fisheries in this country are the Pacific Northwest, including Alaska, and the North Atlantic. Historically, halibut were caught by fishing schooners, and wrestled aboard by crew members. Back in the day, these intrepid fisherfolk might have landed a 300 pound haddock. It might not be like reeling in a marlin, but there would have been plenty of skilled work and heavy lifting involved. And a fish of that size and strength always presents some danger to those who catch them.

Halibut is one of the best tasting whitefish you can buy, and one of the most versatile. Its lovely snowy flesh can be grilled, pan-roasted, fried, quick cured for ceviche, or chowdered, (although, in my opinion, such a gorgeous and pricey piece of seafood might get lost in chowder, even in the most expert hands). Halibut steaks and fillets are prized, both by chefs and home cooks, but if you happen to find a fishmonger selling halibut cheeks, buy them immediately – cost be damned. These are some of the most succulent and tender morsels of seafood you can buy. With a texture and flavor a bit like sea scallops, they are a true delicacy.

Brett Taylor, owner of Taylor Lobster in Kittery, Maine is one of my go-to fishmongers. According to Brett, this is prime halibut time, and he gave me the heads up that he’d just gotten in some first-rate catch. The halibut I bought there did not disappoint. There are all kinds of great recipes out there, but the one below is simple and summery. If you don’t have time to make the salsa, use your favorite store-bought brand of fruity salsa. And when you’re buying seafood of just about any sort, feel free to ask where it was caught and when it was delivered.

Jean Kerr is the author of four cookbooks, including “Mystic Seafood” and “Maine Windjammer Cooking.” She is the former editor of Northeast Flavor magazine and is a regular contributor to Cruising World magazine.