Halibut is one of the stars of the sea. It is low in fat and calories but is an excellent source of good quality protein. It is considered a lean fish and does contain some heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. A 6-ounce halibut fillet is also chock-full of vitamins and minerals. It is a source of calcium, iron, zinc, thiamin, riboflavin, folate and vitamin A. This same serving will provide 40% of the RDA for magnesium, 36% for phosphorus, 135% for selenium, 71% for niacin, 37% for vitamin B-6 and 91% of that for vitamin B-12. All this for a mere 223 calories and 4.7 grams of fat!
Even so, there have been consumer concerns of late with the presence of contaminants such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), particularly in farmed salmon. Fish and many other foods are tested by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) for contaminants, including PCBs. The current guideline on PCBs is 2 parts per million for all fish. This is consistent with guidelines established by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the World Health Organization. Health Canada has recently determined that the levels of PCBs present in fish do not pose a risk to humans.
The benefits of eating more fish with their heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids outweigh any risk that may exist from PCBs.
Halibut is a fish that has a very large size range. It is a member of the flatfish family and has been recorded as large as 8 feet long and 700 pounds. Generally halibut used for commercial purposes are a fair bit smaller. Halibut is also the most expensive flatfish variety.
Halibut weighing in at more than 100 pounds are often called "Whales", "Soakers", or even "Barn Doors", while smaller halibut, less than 20 pounds, are often called "Chickens". Halibut have a large mouth and forked tail, with a long flat body. It is greenish-brown to dark brown on its upper side (remember it's flat) and ranges from white to gray or mottled gray-white on its "blind" or bottom half. Its eyes are on the upper side making the fish appear rather odd. Halibut is fished through the deeper waters of the western Atlantic from Labrador to the Gulf of Maine.
You will generally find halibut sold as steaks or fillets. Occasionally, halibut cheeks can be found in specialty fish markets. They are prized for their delicate sweet flavour, snow-white colour and firm flaky meat. They are a bit denser in texture but every bit as flavourful. They vary in size from that of a half-dollar to as big as a hockey puck.
Halibut is generally found either fresh or frozen at the fishmongers or grocery store.
The first rule of thumb is that if the fish smells "fishy" then it is not fresh. Good quality fish smells sea-fresh. Fillets and steaks should be bright in colour with no discolouration or dryness. When buying fresh or thawed halibut from the seafood counter, let your eyes and nose be the judge.
When purchasing frozen halibut look for solidly frozen packages. Do not choose packages that are stored above the chill line of the refrigeration case. Avoid halibut with freezer burns or icy white discolouration.
Fresh or thawed halibut should be stored immediately in the refrigerator until you are ready to cook it. It should be wrapped in moisture-proof paper (often the fishmonger will package the fish in this) or in an airtight container. Do not store the fish wrapped only in waxed paper or plastic wrap.
Already frozen halibut can be stored up to 6 months in the freezer.
If frozen, the halibut will need to be thawed before use. It's best to do this overnight in the refrigerator. Put the wrapped package on a plate or a shallow pan to catch any liquid that drips out. Place the fish on the lowest shelf possible so that the risk of it dripping on and contaminating other food is minimized. Most cuts should thaw in about 8-10 hours, while extremely large cuts may take longer.
Do not try to speed up the thawing process. Do not allow the fish to thaw at room temperature or run warm water over it. Flavour and texture are both lost by doing this. It may also encourage bacterial growth and become a food safety hazard.
When preparing halibut, be careful not to overcook it. It has little oil and can be dried out easily during cooking. It is done when the flesh is no longer opaque and you can just start to flake it with a fork.
The fairly mild flavour of halibut makes it amenable to a wide variety of flavourings. From Asian influences such as sesame oil and ginger, to classic French poached in white wine with herbs, to Italian with tomatoes and peppers, halibut is a great culinary canvas to work with. Experiment and try your favourite flavourings on the fish.
A general rule of thumb is ten minutes per inch of thickness in a hot oven (400°F or more). These cooking directions are just general instructions. Obviously if you are following a specific recipe then those particular directions would apply.
Baking: Preheat oven to 350°F. Place halibut steaks or fillets in a nonstick baking dish. Brush with butter or marinade or whatever the recipe calls for. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes. Check frequently for doneness as baking will quickly overcook lean, non-oily fish like halibut.
Broiling: Preheat broiler. Place fillets or steaks on greased broiling pan. The surface of the halibut should be 3 to 4 inches from the broiler, but no closer. If you are using a marinade, brush the fish often. Broil 10 to 15 minutes or until halibut barely flakes with a fork. If it flakes easily then it is most likely already overcooked.
Grilling: This is probably the quickest way to cook halibut. This also means it is very easy to dry it out if you're not careful. Place fillets or steaks in a hinged-wire grill. If you just put the fish directly on the grill, you run the risk of drying it out and having it stick to the grill. Cook over medium coals until fish just starts to flake and is no longer opaque.
Microwaving: Arrange fish in a microwaveable dish with the thicker portions pointing to the outside of the dish. This will help the fish to cook evenly. For plain fish and most recipes, you will need to cover the fish with plastic wrap. To allow steam to escape, turn back a corner of the plastic wrap or put small holes in it. If your microwave doesn't have a rotating turntable, rotate the dish halfway through the cooking time - anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes depending on the size of the pieces and how many you are cooking.
Pan Frying: Perhaps not the healthiest way to prepare halibut, but maybe one of the tastiest. Slice halibut into bite-sized or serving-sized pieces. Dip the pieces in milk or beaten egg and then roll in flour seasoned with salt and pepper and any other herbs or spices you like. Heat a generous amount of frying oil or butter in a skillet until very hot. Fry halibut pieces on each side until golden brown and crispy. Drain excess oil on paper towels.
Steaming: Use a collapsible vegetable steamer, a wooden Chinese steamer or a steamer appliance. Use 1 to 2 inches of water as the cooking liquid. You can add fresh vegetables, and herbs such as fennel or dill to the water. Bring the water to a boil; place the halibut in the steaming basket, cover tightly and steam until the fish tests done. Time will vary depending on thickness.
Stir-frying/sautéing: Chunks of halibut can be stir-fried as you would poultry or beef. Heat oil in a wok or deep skillet until it is hot but not smoking. Cook the fish first, stirring constantly, removing the chunks to a plate as they are done. Then cook any vegetables or other ingredients. Return the fish to the pan and toss is quickly to reheat just before serving.
Halibut, with its lean and mild tasting flesh, is suitable for almost any manner of preparation. It is great for soups, chowders, kebabs, bite-sized bits, pasta dishes, stir-fries and on its own with a variety of flavourings.Healthy Ways to Enjoy Halibut:
- Serve gently steamed halibut fillets flavoured with lemon and herbs as part of a brunch spread.
- Think of adding halibut pieces to egg dishes such as omelets and bakes.
- A steaming hot bowl of fish chowder, including chunks of halibut, is a hearty and filling lunch.
- Quickly reheat some leftover halibut bites that have been breaded and pan-fried. Accompany them with a low-fat yogurt and dill dip.
- Enjoy fish burgers or a slice of fish loaf made with halibut in place of ground beef.
- Add halibut pieces to your favorite stir-fry recipe instead of the usual beef or chicken.
- For a healthy change, prepare pasta dishes that call for halibut.
- When guests are over for a barbecue, don't forget to try some halibut kebabs.
- Poached halibut makes an elegant and low-fat main dish anytime.
- Try halibut steaks instead of the usual salmon steaks.
- Use fresh halibut in casseroles.
Did You Know - Halibut cheeks actually come from the "cheeks" of the fish.
FYI: Halibut is available year-round so enjoy!
- Halibut website - http://www.halibut.net
- Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute - www.alaskaseafood.org
- FishermanÃ¯Â¿Â½s Express site (more recipes) - www.fishermansexpress.com
- Cooking Light Fish and Shellfish, edited by Oxmoor House, 2003.
- Fish Grilled and Smoked: 150 Recipes for Cooking Rich, Flavourful Fish on the Backyard Grill by John Manikowski, Storey Books, 2004.
- Fish: The Complete Guide to Buying and Cooking by Mark Bittman, Hungry Minds, 1999.