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.”
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.
A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).