Hallelujah, time for halibut

My husband fishes with Captain Joe Brewer aboard the boat Hey Jude II. A traditional lobster boat, this fishing vessel is rigged with lines and hooks every May to “hook” for halibut. On May 18, opening day of Maine halibut season, they were fortunate to land a 45-inch, 34-pound, delicious flatfish from the family of right-eyed flounders.

Halibut fishing was once a highly anticipated spring fishery in Maine. The large fish, a relative of the flounder, would come into the coast just before most lobstermen started fishing, providing a tidy sum of money in a season when money tended to be scarce. During the 1950s, halibut landings in the state routinely totaled more than 100,000 pounds. During the 1960s, that number dropped although annual landings of over 100,000 pounds still occurred occasionally even as late as the 1980s.

Here in Maine state waters, the halibut season runs this year from May 18 until June 13. Recreational fishermen may harvest five halibut per boat per season, whereas commercial fishing vessels may land a maximum of 25 halibut per year.

Halibut are demersal fish; they live and feed on the bottom of the ocean floor. Because of the nature of their feed and habitat, they contain little fish oil (between 1 to 4 percent). Their flesh is firm and dry, and often cut into “steaks.”

Halibut is prized by home cooks and restaurants. When I lived in Bangor, the chefs at Pilot’s Grill invited me into their kitchen to observe the fileting and cutting of a freshly caught halibut from Stonington. Today my husband cuts up the fish, which is silver-gray on one side and white on the other. When packed in a vacuum bag, halibut maintains its quality and freshness in the freezer for at least six months. 

Halibut is delicious baked, broiled, poached and grilled. We particularly enjoy it marinated and grilled, with a salad of freshly harvested spring greens. The recipe for Romagna Grilled Halibut is adapted from Marcella Hazan’s “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.”

Hazan’s native region of Romagna, on Italy’s northern Adriatic coast, is famous for its fish, and its fishermen are unsurpassed in the art of grilling. Their secret, aside from the freshness of the catch, is to steep the fish in a marinade of olive oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper, rosemary, and breadcrumbs for an hour or more before broiling.

The simplicity of her recipe appealed to me. Why disguise the flavor of a fish so fresh that the flesh quivers with heavy spices and sauce? This delicate marinade sweetens the natural sea flavor and the fragrance of cooking the fish on the grill is beguilingly aromatic.

I served up our Romagna Grilled Halibut on a bed of fresh greens and pea shoots, harvested from my garden, and garnished with edible flowers and garlic — grilled toast. Savoring every of bite this delicious, melt-in-your-mouth meal reminded me that the best food comes not from a fancy restaurant, but from a local fisherman and prepared in the home kitchen. 

Cheryl Wixson lives and cooks in Stonington. She welcomes food-related questions and comments at [email protected]

Romagna Grilled Halibut 

Makes about 4 servings

1 Halibut steak, about 1½ lbs. 

Sea salt

Black pepper grinder

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

2 Tbsps. fresh lemon juice

Fresh rosemary finely chopped, about 1 Tbsp. 

1/3 cup fine, dry, unflavored breadcrumbs

Bay leaves

Assemble ingredients and tools. Wash the fish in cold water, then pat thoroughly dry.

Finely chop the rosemary and squeeze the lemons.

Lay the fish in a shallow pan. Sprinkle both sides liberally with sea salt and freshly grated black pepper.

Add the lemon juice, olive oil and chopped rosemary. Turn the fish two or three times to coat it well.

Add the breadcrumbs, turning the fish once or twice again until it has an even coating of oil-soaked breadcrumbs. Marinate for an hour at room temperature, turning and basting the fish from time to time.

Preheat the grill at least 15 minutes before cooking. Place the fish about 4 inches from the heat and lay the branches on the grill. Grill on both sides until done, turning the fish once. Depending upon the thickness of the fish, it may take between 5 and 15 minutes. While cooking, baste the top of the fish with the remaining marinade. 

Serve piping hot from the grill.

Nutritional analysis per 6-ounce portion: 195 calories, 9 grams protein, 7 grams carbohydrates, 14.5 grams fat, 95 mg. sodium, less than 1 gram fiber.

Cheryl Wixson
"Maine Dish" columnist Cheryl Wixson lives and cooks in Stonington. Her passion for organic Maine products led to the creation of her business, Cheryl Wixson's Kitchen. She welcomes food-related questions and comments at [email protected] or www.cherylwixsonskitchen.com.
Cheryl Wixson

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