Weeknight Cooking

North African-Spiced Halibut

October 31, 2011

Saffron-Scented Vegetable Couscous with North African-Spiced Halibut


I can’t stop eating halibut. I probably should, because it’s seriously expensive. Plus it sort of spoils you for those times when you have to cook up some perfectly nice flounder or something. The other ocean dwellers sitting at your fishmonger start to feel your scorn, and are all like, “Dang it home cook, I can’t help it if I am not as meaty and sweet and delicate as halibut, but could you stop staring at me like I am your third choice for the Sadie Hawkins dance, because it makes me feel baaaaad!”

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Well, they don’t say that. But I get sort of an active imagination when I stare at dead fish. We should probably discuss that later.

But we’ve established here that halibut is really good and I am out to find as many ways to cook it as I can, even though garlic and tomatoes cooked slowly and dumped on top will do just fine. But for a twist on things, I checked out, Saffron-Scented Vegetable Couscous with North African Spiced Halibut just to see how it would all turn out.

In general I am a fan of all North African spices, especially when they are anchored by some decent olive oil and a dash of citrus. This recipe is no exception, and you will find it offers you that weeknight ease, especially when you do as I did and bring the couscous down to bare elements. I actually regretted that; I think the flavors included in the couscous recipe would actually compliment this fish really well and encourage you to make it as deensiebat envisioned the dish.

A few other things: you are making a paste that the author instructs you to put in a pan first, then place over the fish. In the interest of saving time, I made the marinade in a bowl and just slathered it on my halibut and let it sit on the counter in the baking dish for 30 minutes. I was too heavy of hand with this, and I overwhelmed this delicate fish a bit; it was sort of like a leather skirt when the outfit called for tulle. Don’t be aggressive.

Finally, I am not a big fan of cooking fish at 350. I say kick that oven to a full 425 and just watch it carefully so as not to overcook.  My family was a huge fan of this recipe. Why? I asked the Incipient. “Because it just tastes really good.” I have nothing to add to that.

Saffron-Scented Vegetable Couscous with North African Spiced Halibut by deensiebat

Serves 4


  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, presed or minced
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons paprika
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon cardamom
  • 1/2 teaspoon coriander
  • 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon cloves
  • 1 pound halibut


  • 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • 1 bulb fennel, trimmed and cut into bite-sized wedges
  • 1/2 small cauliflower, cored and broken into bite-sized florets
  • 2 cups Israeli couscous (also called pearl couscous)
  • 1 pinch saffron
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 cup green olives, quartered
  • 1 handful parsley, roughly chopped
  • 1 handful cilantro, roughly chopped
  • 1 lemon, cut in wedges
  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

  2. Assemble the halibut marinade: in a bowl large enough to accommodate the halibut, mix together the olive oil, garlic, lemon juice, salt and spices. Taste, adding more salt if desired. Add the halibut, spooning the marinade over the top. Marinate at room temperature for ~30 minutes (the marinade has citrus, so you don't want to over-marinate for fear of mushy fish).

  3. When the fish has marinated, transfer it into a baking dish. Scrape out any remaining spice paste from the marinade dish, and spread thickly on top of the fillets. Bake until the fish is done and flakes easily, 25-30 minutes.

  4. While the halibut is baking, prepare the vegetable couscous. Heat a large pot over a high heat. Add 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, then add the fennel and cauliflower. Sprinkle with salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables begin to caramelize and develop light brown spots. Add a few tablespoons water and cover to steam, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are tender (2-5 minutes). Remove from pot, and place in a large serving bowl.

  5. In the same pot, add the remaining tablespoon olive oil. Add the couscous and cook, stirring occasionally, until the couscous toasts and darkens slightly (just a couple minutes). Add 2 1/2 cups water, crumble in the saffron, and add the salt. Bring to a boil, cover, and lower the heat just enough to maintain a simmer. Cook until the water is absorbed and the couscous is tender, ~10 minutes.

  6. While the couscous is cooking, assemble the remaining ingredients. Add the olives, parsley, and cilantro to the serving dish with the cooked cauliflower and fennel. When the couscous is done, tip it into the bowl with the herbs and vegetables, and toss well. Scoop the couscous onto plates, and top with the marinated halibut. Serve with lemon wedges.

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

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Written by: Jestei

The ratio of people to cake is too big.


ChefGam December 6, 2022
Even though I have made this recipe several times over the years, always to rave reviews, I have 2 questions. What is the best temperature? I have made it @ 350, as per the recipe, but the recommendation is to crank the oven up to 425.
2nd question: skinless or skin left on, baked skin up?
Epiphfoodny June 18, 2016
Do you think this would work for grilling the marinaded halibut?
phyllis March 30, 2012
I cooked this tonight for four adults and two little kids. It was really good and so easy. I also cooked at a higher temperature (400) and the top got slightly crispy. The kids loved the couscous and, at least tasted the fish. Thanks Jenny and deenslebat!!
phyllis March 30, 2012
I cooked this tonight for four adults and two little kids. It was really good and so easy. I also cooked at a higher temperature (400) and the top got slightly crispy. The kids loved the couscous and, at least tasted the fish. Thanks Jenny and deenslebat!!
Jestei November 6, 2011
I am so glad. Cheating is totally up Jenny's ally.
Kara L. November 4, 2011
Sooooo delish! I cheated a bit and reached for the Berbere blend to shave some time. I also cooked some quinoa to make the meal gluten free. Thank you for posting this recipe! It reminded me to explore foods from areas that are a bit off my usual culinary path.
sayatexplores November 2, 2011
This looks like a very complex and layered recipe. I tend to think that couscous as well cauliflower sometimes need a bright punch from the wedges. The presentation is fantastic!
Panfusine November 1, 2011
Falling in love with the cous cous. Maybe paired with slabs grilled haloumi or Paneer with the same spicing..A vegetarian option!
mcs3000 November 1, 2011
Love halibut. Sounds amazing!
Kitchen K. October 31, 2011
Mmmm, these spices have my mouth watering. I am going to have to make this.
TheWimpyVegetarian October 31, 2011
I love all the North African spices too - I'm definitely making this. Thanks for finding it for all of us!!
Creative C. October 31, 2011
I had halibut at a dinner last week featuring California olive oils. It was poached in olive oil with saffron braised fennel. It was probably the best fish I have ever had.
Burnt O. October 31, 2011
I was blessed with a freezer full of halibut from my parent's Alaskan fishing trip, but it's been all used up. Sigh... I will have to invite wild salmon to the Sadie Hawkins instead. I'm sure this spice rub will be wonderful on salmon, even if it is my second choice. ;-)
KitchenLittle October 31, 2011
Best thing about my meeting-ridden Monday ... reading this while on mute.
aargersi October 31, 2011
Now I want halibut too ... my fish guy told me, about eating a particular fish that was causing me a bit of angst - and I quote - "it's his own fault for being so delicious"
ichibanbrianne October 31, 2011
On the same conflicted page about halibut; so, thanks for reinforcing my belief that it's the tastiest, sweetest, and most supple of white fishes. With halibut, I still remember my first time... Will have to try this recipe as I'm too reliant on French fish preparations.