Weeknight Cooking

Halibut with Basil, Garlic and Tomatoes

June 27, 2011

Halibut with Basil, Garlic and Tomato by April380

- Jenny

Let me say this about halibut: Cook it correctly, and it is a gorgeous flowing silk thing. Overcook it, and it’s the polyester pants I wore for my first job at Wendy’s. This is the truth about all fish of course, but with halibut, a bland guy to begin with, I seem to have too often gone the wrong way. 

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I came across Halibut with Basil, Garlic and Tomato because I was looking for a use for all the basil that is growing in my garden. I did have a certain amount of fear, but April380 offers a very simple road map to victory with careful browning and soft poaching in the lovely lemon, wine and tomato liquid. To the recipe as written I have very little to add, except that you should feel fine about using the best canned tomatoes you can find if your local farmer’s market has yet to provide you with fresh ones. 

But after a very satisfying and surprisingly easy go at this, I started to wonder if I could somehow translate this weeknight meal into dinner party fare. The one thing I knew is that I had no desire to stand over the stove browning fish between courses for nine.  So how to make it in the oven without losing any of the lovely texture? 

Two simultaneous emails ensued, one with fisheri, who insisted that if I did not at least brown the fish on the stove it would be boring mush, and one with MrsWheelbarrow, who suggested that the key rested in roasting the fish at a fairly high temperature for a rather short period.

It should be said that fisheri was stern and taskmastery, striking fear in my heart three hours before my guests walked in (Plan? Who plans?), while MrsWheelbarrow was the cheerleader on the other end of the keyboard. It was all very Bridesmaids, without the Irish guy whose green card status I never really sorted out. 

In the end, I started my tomatoes (obviously I am a little more than doubling here) and young garlic on the stove about an hour before serving the fish course, letting it all simmer at a very low heat. As my guests sipped their soup, I salted the nine halibut filets and tucked them into the oven at 425, per MrsWheelbarrow. Friends, you know I set that oven timer, lest I lost track of time as one dinner guest explained the history of Atlanta’s economy. 

About 17 minutes later, I had nine luxurious slabs of fish, which I set on a bed of fresh sorrel, then topped with the tomato sauce, which I finished with several handfuls of Thai basil, as that is what was abundant that day. I forgot to add the lemon wine. These things happen after several drinks and a mishap with fresh linguini that unmoored me well into the night. Oh well. That’s for another fish, another night. 

Of five courses, this was by far the most popular. Why was this, I asked my husband. “I don’t know; it was just really good. Moist. Juicy. I’m not a food writer.”

Works for me. 

Serves 4
  • 1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • Season fish with salt and pepper
  • In heavy skillet, heat olive oil over med-high heat
  • Sear fish on each side, until golden color forms. Remove fish from skillet, set aside.
  • Lower heat to medium. Add tomatoes and garlic, cook a few minutes (do not let garlic brown and bitter).
  • Add wine and lemon juice. Let reduce by 1/3.
  • Return fish to skillet, add basil. Cover and let cook until fish is cooked through.
  • Serve over orzo and spinach. Garnish with lemon wedge and fresh basil to taste.

By day, Jennifer Steinhauer, aka Jenny, covers Congress for The New York Times. By night, she is an obsessive cook.

Jennifer Steinhauer

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Written by: Jestei

The ratio of people to cake is too big.


monika May 24, 2016
Hi, just to clarify, you only roasted the fish in the oven, no searing prior? Also 17 minutes total? Did you flip it over half way thru?
Equator180 January 30, 2012
Hi Jenny, this sounds like a very interesting dish but for me there are a few flags going up. I have been always doing something with fish and other Seafood/shellfish from all over the world for 30 plus years. Some of what you are saying about Halibut is true...some other ...well. In any event given the state of the industry and level of knowledge you may not have even used halibut in this dish! Halibut in your area of the world could be from two areas (if it is true Halibut) the Atlantic from Labrador south to N. Carolina or Pacific, from the most Northerly and Westerly part of Alaska south to California. Although both of these are Halibut they do differ, the Atlantic species has higher moisture content than the Pacific if equal in size. The smallest fish legally taken in the Pacific is 32 inches from nose to tail, in the Atlantic it is by weight, 12 pounds. So when you say 4 Halibut fillets with sides to serve 4 it gets a bit large! A fillet is usually the side of a fish from the nape to the tail cut along the backbone. The smallest halibut fillet from a 12 pound fish after cleaning, head removal etc. would be two fillets of between 4 and 4.5 pounds each! A good portion? The pacific would be roughly the same. This is why I question the species you are using although in the photo it does appear to be Halibut but it also could have been a portion of a halibut steak, which is cut across the fish, perpendicular to the backbone. My guess is that this is the portion you are using. Halibut have value according to the size of the individual fish because of a few different factors. The smallest, called a Chick on the Eastern Seaboard is the most valuable it has a weight of 12 to 15 pounds. The reason for the value is that a whole steak cut across the whole fish is the perfect portion for the best restaurants in New York. Any Atlantic Halibut over 50 pounds is the lowest in value (for the Atlantic species) mainly because it has to be “Fletched,” (filleted) and usually portioned. In my opinion this is probably what you got and also personally I prefer the larger Atlantic above all others. The Pacific species by volume is perhaps 4 or 5 times the total catch so it is less expensive and also mostly frozen, not all but most. It is also portioned for the fish n’ chip market in central Canada. Over all Atlantics are mostly caught and sold fresh..Some other fish which have been known to show up “as” Halibut are Atlantic Turbot, (not the eastern Atlantic species) AKA Greenland Halibut and the Pacific Turbot which is actually an Arrowtooth Flounder and the worst imposter ever…as well I have seen Chilean Sea Bass / Patagonian Tooth Fish show up in a few displays as Halibut as well (don’t know why because it is an absolute great fish) ..wish you well in your fishy pursuits…
saltandserenity July 5, 2011
The polyester analogy cracked me up! I always start my halibut on the stove and then finish it in the oven, but I will now have to try oven only at high temp. I love reading what you write!!!
Jestei July 8, 2011
thank you so much!! this high temp thing is the way to go, i think.
judy G. July 3, 2011
I use this with any thick filet (no bones) using Halibut, Cod, Red Snapper. I saute in butter and olive oil sliced onions, garlic, tomatoes, pinch of sugar, lemon, rinsed and slightly smashed capers, chopped black olives, and cilantro. When onions are soft take off heat. Dust fish filet in flour seasoned with salt and pepper. Saute fish filet only for a minute or so on both sides. Top with onion and tomato mixture and put in oven to bake. Do not overbake. Before serving top with more chopped cilantro and lemon slices on plate. Side dish...spanish rice, garlic smashed potatoes and green peas. I love this!!
Jestei July 8, 2011
sounds great
TiggyBee June 29, 2011
Polyester cloaked halibut, complete with bad shoes. A former forte of mine. Made the silk last night! Thanks Jenny!!!
Jestei July 8, 2011
I hope it lived up!
phyllis June 28, 2011
I've been roasting fish for quite sometime. Time is the key. I forget to add/serve things all the time when I have guests. They never notice. Thanks to you and April380 for this lovely dish.
Jestei June 28, 2011
its true. they're too busy talking!
MrsWheelbarrow June 28, 2011
I bow to your chutzpah. Fish for nine would make even Eric Ripert sweat bullets and you pulled it off no problem. I love the sorrel bed, and must make this soon, with your additions, but perhaps for just the two of us.
Jestei June 28, 2011
Yes, though yours will always be better.
mcs3000 June 28, 2011
Five courses - nice! Alas, I have turned a beautiful piece of fish into polyester pants - will try to avoid that w/this recipe.
Jestei June 28, 2011
I can still smell those pants. They melted a little under the cheese that I dripped on them.
mrslarkin June 27, 2011
sounds very yummy. and easy! this is a must-try. Thanks Jenny and April380.
Jestei June 28, 2011
I hope you enjoy it!!
Big P. June 27, 2011
The delicious photo does look like it has that nice, cooked-to-order, restaurant-kitchen sear, but moist, juicy, tomato & Thai basil halibut works very well for me (and my dining companions!) very well indeed.
Jestei June 28, 2011
yes my dishes never look quite as good as these photos, but they do inspire one don't they?
lorigoldsby June 27, 2011
While your husband may not be a food writer, we are so happy that you are! Thanks for sharing again this week.
Jestei June 28, 2011
I am but a pretender. But I hope you cook this fish.
mklug June 27, 2011
Five courses AND fish for nine?
I totally want to be you when I grow up!!
Jestei June 27, 2011
you really don't. because i over cooked the pasta and my cake was, well, pudding.
Bevi June 27, 2011
I made a similar dish a few weeks ago, and also forgot to add the wine. But I did not have a house full of dinner guests, so I have no excuses.
Jestei June 27, 2011
i do this often. it just becomes a new take!
boulangere June 27, 2011
Fresh fish for 9 - very brave of you. Sounds heavenly. Another thank heaven for food 52.
boulangere June 27, 2011
And I love that you forgot the lemon wine. I've gotten so multitaskish that I've forgotten to add yeast to bread dough. More than once, unfortunately.
Jestei June 27, 2011
honestly what i discovered with this is that fish on a sheet in the oven is easier to deal with than anything stove top as long as you watch the time.