February 18, 2011

Something Fishy: Halibut with Meyer Lemon, Olives and Fennel

It’s a funny thing about seasonality. We tend to associate that with the abundance of summer and fall, when Nature spoils us with an
embarrassment of riches. Winter is a crueler time, stoic and practically begging for the hearty dishes that fill and nourish us. But even now there's a seasonality uniquely of the moment that makes lighter dishes and tastes possible and welcome.

I’m thinking about Meyer lemons a lot these days. I hope they won’t become a year round thing; foods should be savoured for their fleeting appearance, valued because they are that much more uncommon. And there’s something about these sunny lemons that makes me think of the Mediterranean: of lazy afternoons, warmth and indolence. I'm thinking of myself sitting at a cafĂ© table for one, the mysterious woman with the fabulous hat and Jackie O shades, delicately eating a light and tasty fish dish that’s drenched with lemons, olives, fennel. I’m thinking I just might make this for dinner again tonight.

Halibut with Lemon, Olives and Fennel
serves two

1 lb halibut fillet
2 Meyer lemons, thinly sliced
1 fennel bulb, trimmed and thinly sliced, fronds reserved*
½ to ¾ c assorted good quality Mediterranean olives
2½ c olive oil
Fine sea salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
A good finishing salt, such as Maldon (optional)

Poaching firm fleshed fish in olive oil and cooking in a low heat oven is a wonderful way to prepare halibut. Surprising, the oil doesn’t absorb into the fish at all.

1. Preheat the oven to 250F°. Rinse and pat the fish dry and season with salt and pepper. Use a light hand with the salt; the olives will add to the dish's saltiness. Set aside.

2. Line a shallow glass baking dish with fennel fronds. Top with a layer of the lemons and then a layer of fennel slices. Place the fish on top.

You can't have too many fronds at the bottom of the dish; supplement with the celery-like stalks in a pinch

3. Sprinkle the olives on top and around the fish. Add another layer of lemons and fennel slices. Carefully pour the olive oil into the dish until the fish is almost completely submerged.

Don't worry about the olive brine getting into the dish

Note the the oil is not covering the lemons and fennel, but is covering the fish

4. Bake in the middle rack of the oven for one hour, or until the fish is flaky. To serve, remove the fish from the dish with a slotted spoon and divide amongst two plates. Garnish with the lemon and fennel slices and the olives.  Add a pinch of Maldon salt to finish the dish, if desired.  Just be careful about the overall saltiness of the dish.

5. Pour a glass of Alsatian Pinot Gris, don your most fabulous hat and dream of the Mediterranean while you eat.

*Regarding fennel fronds. I got lucky when I went to Fiesta Farms for the fennel; Serge in produce was just trimming a big crate of fennel for restocking. If you can sweetly wheedle a bag of the discarded frond tops, they make an excellent lining for fish dishes, as I've used them here, or to stuff into whole salmon. If you really want to capitalise on an unexpected bounty of fronds, mince and measure the feathery greens into three tbsp portions and freeze in little baggies to have ready to make Fennel-Olive Oil Quick Bread.