I am intimidated by fish.
Oh, not in their natural habitat (despite having watched Jaws at much too young an age), or when they’re swimming around in aquariums.
Rather, I’m intimidated by the prospect of cooking fish — I’m always worried about overcooking it and wasting a bunch of money. I’ve been avoiding the prospect altogether, which means I’ve been leaving an important and healthy source of protein out of my diet on a regular basis. I do eat fish when I’m dining out, but of course that costs a lot more than making something at home. I’m also trying to limit how often I head to restaurants, and as a consequence, I’m eating less and less fish.
Ultimately, cowardice means I’m shortchanging myself. It’s really not justifiable anymore.
So, I braced myself last weekend, and popped by the Whole Foods on Cambie to pick up some halibut.
Now I know the pop moniker for Whole Foods is “Whole Paycheck”, and I don’t shop there all the time for that reason, but I will say in certain circumstances, I do think you get what you pay for.
If I’m searching for something common, there’s no additional product information needed, and I don’t mind a ding or a dent or two, sure, I can head to pretty much any grocery store out there. But if I’m looking for something special and might have some questions, Whole Foods is a much better bet.
Such was the case on the weekend, when I encountered fishmonger Cavan Hua.
He had answers to all of my queries.
Q: How do I know this fish is Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified?
A: There’s a pink tag on the unprocessed fish with a unique ID number; you can go online and check out exactly where and how it was caught.
Q: How fresh is this fish by the time it gets to the store?
A: It’s put on ice right after it’s caught and only came in today, so it’s probably two or three days from the ocean. You can see that pearly sheen on it, and smell it, that’s how you know it’s fresh.
Q: How big of a fish is it?
A: The head’s been removed, but probably when it was caught it weighed about 25 pounds. That’s a good size.
Q: How would you cook this? I was thinking maybe something with a salsa, like this recipe here suggests? (I point to a nearby display.)
A: It’s so fresh, I wouldn’t cover it up with a salsa. I would suggest some sea salt, black pepper, and lemon zest, pan searing it and then finishing off in the oven.
I mean really, right? When was the last time you went to [name redacted] and had someone working the seafood counter who would take the time to discuss recipes?
Cavan cut me a gorgeous hunk of halibut – dinner for five that night – and wrapped it up.
After I got it home, I revised his suggestion. There was a kid dining with us, and I didn’t know how well the black pepper would go over. Aesthetically, I also didn’t think I wanted to have the black showing up all over the white of the fish.
Instead, I melted some butter in a pan while giving the fish a quick brine in some coarse sea salt. Then, I added some sugar to the butter, and the zest of a whole lemon, sort of a take on the salted/preserved lemon that you see in Vietnamese cuisine (and some Italian too, I think.) While that was melding together beautifully, I turned the oven on to 325F.
I seared the halibut to a gorgeous golden brown in the pan, and then squirted the juice of the whole lemon over it, before setting it in the oven.
Leaving the piece whole, rather than cutting it into individual portions, gave me some more leeway on roasting time. I left it in for fifteen minutes, let it rest for five minutes, and then cut it into two finger thick portions.
The results? Super delicious, and not as scary as I thought.
I can’t say that I’ll be re-creating this recipe all the time – halibut, after all, is slightly on the pricey side – but it is nice to know that I don’t have to be such a fraidy-cat about fish, and that I can make something half-palatable of a piscine nature when I have guests over.