Mains, Recipes

Grilled halibut with pistachio butter: A fish dinner for the family

Grilled Halibut with Pistachio Butter. Photo by Susan Axelrod

Grilled Halibut with Pistachio Butter. Photo by Susan Axelrod

One of the reasons Ted and I moved to Maine was to be closer to my parents, who after many summers on Southport Island, built a modern Maine farmhouse and retired there several years ago. It’s also a joy to be closer to one of my brothers; Andy, Ingrid and their kids live in Nobleboro, a sweet little rural town about 30 minutes north of Southport. (My other brother — I adore them both — is sadly still in New Jersey).

Southport and the surrounding Boothbay peninsula boast miles of picturesque, quintessential Maine coastline and if you like boating, easy hikes, antiquing, eating lobster and gawking at natural beauty, plenty to do and see (look for a Maine Mini Adventure there from me soon). There’s a small but reliable Hannaford, a couple of good local markets and, somewhat surprisingly, an olive oil shop called Eventide. But over the years I’ve found that what Boothbay and many other communities on the Maine coast lack is a good fish market.

Of course, you can find fish at the Hannaford (although much of it is not local), and in the summertime, Robinson’s Wharf — just over the Southport bridge and a prime spot for lobster — operates a limited fish and seafood retail shop. Neither of these, however, can match our options in Portland, so when I’m making the hour and fifteen minute drive to visit them, I often stop in at Harbor Fish Market to bring my parents fish for dinner.

On Sunday, I perused the offerings with advice ringing in my head from Barton Seaver, the chef I interviewed for a recent story in the Portland Press Herald’s Source section. He asks: “Why don’t we take what is freshest and best of the day?” instead of marching in to the fish market with a recipe in our hand and a preconceived notion of what we want to buy.

I love halibut, which was nicely priced at $11.99 a pound, and I knew it would be a treat for my parents, Andy and Ingrid. One of their young sons, Will, a reasonably adventurous eater, might try it; Vlade, who seems to thrive without eating much at all — “like an air plant,”Ingrid says — I knew wouldn’t touch it. I chose a beautiful, big steak that would feed us nicely for $24.

Barton Seaver in his South Freeport kitchen. Photo by Ted Axelrod

Barton Seaver in his South Freeport kitchen. Photo by Ted Axelrod

A month or so ago, Barton and his wife, Carrie, invited us for dinner at their home in South Freeport, where we experienced the chef’s love of wood-fire cooking, especially seafood. The wonderful meal, most of which Barton prepared on a un-fancy, Weber kettle grill, started with one of his favorite food combinations: raw oysters and grilled lamb merguez sausages. The cold, briny/sweet oysters and the hot spicy/rich sausage are an dynamic pairing that we will remember.

Barton Seaver opening an oyster. Photo by Ted Axelrod

Barton Seaver opening an oyster. Photo by Ted Axelrod

Thus inspired, I turned to his latest cookbook, “Where There’s Smoke,” for ideas on cooking the halibut. The fish I bought was marked as “wild caught Atlantic;” in the book, however, Barton recommends Alaskan halibut as a “best option” in terms of sustainability. This distressed me until I read further that halibut is in season now, and since I trust Harbor Fish Market, I convinced myself to relax.

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In one of our interviews, Barton told me that while his first cookbook, “For Cod and Country,” was pretty “cheffy,” with recipes like Wahoo Crudo with Three Different Flavors, “Where There’s Smoke” is more homespun. His recipe for Grilled Pacific Halibut (ok, ok, so mine was Atlantic) with Pistachio Butter is super easy and was something I could manage with my embarrassingly limited grilling skills. Thankfully, Andy and my Dad were on hand to supervise.

The recipe included a surprising first step: brining the fish in lieu of seasoning it before cooking. I’ve brined chicken, turkey and pork, but never fish. In the book, Barton explains it like this:

Through osmosis, the salt is evenly dispersed through the protein rather than becoming a crust on its surface. Drawn into the protein the salt helps it to retain moisture as well by strengthening cell walls.

That’s more science that I’m generally comfortable with but I’m grateful to Barton for explaining how it works. After all, the man is a National Geographic Fellow and head of a department at Harvard — and I’m not. All I know is that the halibut, brined for the specified 30 minutes, rubbed with a little olive oil, placed on my Dad’s Weber kettle grill, covered and left alone for 20 minutes, was absolutely perfect. No flipping! The next time you cook fish, brine it first — you’ll thank me, and Barton.

The brined halibut on the grill, with potatoes tucked into the embers underneath. Photo by Susan Axelrod

The brined halibut on the grill, with potatoes tucked into the embers underneath. Photo by Susan Axelrod

Potatoes, cooked in heavily salted water, tucked into the embers underneath the fish and served with a creamy scallion sauce, were fabulous too. I had planned to grill chunks of zucchini and yellow squash for another Barton recipe, but decided to saute them instead. I lightly tossed them with olive oil and salt, sauteed them until they were crisp/tender, and right before serving, sprinkled the vegetables with a little balsamic vinegar and torn mint leaves from my mother’s garden.

Sauteed zucchini with balsamic vinegar and mint.

Sauteed zucchini with balsamic vinegar and mint. Photo by Susan Axelrod

As for adventurous-eater Will: He liked the fish, but scraped off the pistachio butter.

And Ted? He’s on assignment in New Jersey … photographing cookies.

For more on Barton Seaver, see: Newly minted Maine chef spreads word on sustainable seafood in the Portland Press Herald


Grilled Halibut with Pistachio Butter

Serves 4

One, 1 1/4-pound skin-on halibut filet (I used a 2 2/3 pound halibut steak), soaked for 30 minutes in Fish Brine (see recipe below)
Extra virgin olive oil
1 recipe Pistachio Compound Butter, at room temperature (see recipe below)

Prepare a fire in a charcoal grill and let the coals burn down (Barton Seaver likes to add cherry or peach wood chips; I just used good quality wood charcoal).

Remove the fish from the brine and pat it dry.

Rub the fish lightly with olive oil on both sides.

Place the fish on the grill away from the heat. Cover the grill and cook for 20 minutes. Do not rotate or flip the fish.

Fish is done when a knife gently inserted shows that it is evenly cooked throughout.

Using two spatulas, remove the fish from the grill. Top immediately with the pistachio butter and serve.

Fish Brine

2 cups warm water
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon sugar

Mix all the ingredients and stir until the salt and sugar are dissolved. Submerge the fish in the brine, weighting it down with a plate if need be, and brine according to these guidelines:

  • Trout, shrimp, sardines and other delicate seafood: 15 minutes
  • Bass, barramundi, sablefish, and other flaky fillets: 20 minutes
  • Halibut, mahimahi, bluefish and other flaky, meaty fillets: 30 minutes
  • Salmon, mackerel, Artic char, and other meaty, full-flavored fish: 35 minutes
  • Amberjack, cobia, swordfish, and other dense, steak-like fish: 40 minutes

Note: Seaver does not recommend brining tuna.

Pistachio Compound Butter

5 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1/4 cup unsalted raw or toasted shelled pistachios, minced
Juice and finely shredded zest of 1 orange
Kosher salt (my pistachios were salted, so I didn’t use any)

In a small saute pan, heat 1 tablespoon of the butter over medium heat. When it is just melted, add the pistachios and stir to combine. Cook until the nuts begin to release a sweet aroma, about 5 minutes. Add the orange juice and zest and remove the pan from the heat. Let it cool to about room temperature.

In a small bowl, beat the remaining 4 tablespoons butter with a whisk until smooth. Season with a pinch of salt (if using unsalted pistachios) and then slowly add the pistachio mixture a spoonful at a time, whisking as you go along. Taste for seasoning – it should be just a little salty.

Let the pistachio butter sit at room temperature for 30 minutes or so (I skipped this step), then refrigerate it until ready to use.

Ember-Roasted Salt Potatoes with Scallion Cream

Serves 4

1 1/2 pounds new potatoes (red or white; I used small Yukon Golds)
1/4 cup kosher salt
1/2 bunch scallions, trimmed
1 cup sour cream (I used plain Greek yogurt)

Place the potatoes in a pan just large enough to hold them and provide a little headroom. Cover them with water and add the salt. Cook, uncovered, over medium heat until the potatoes are fork tender, 15 to 20 minutes.

Set the potatoes on the embers of a dying fire and cover the grill. Cook until the skins are blistered and the potatoes are heated through, about 20 minutes. Remove them from the coals and brush off any ash. Cut them in half and arrange them on a platter.

Combine the scallions and sour cream (or yogurt) in a food processor, puree until smooth. Add a pinch of salt if you like, but the potatoes have plenty.

Serve the potatoes either warm or at room temperature with the sauce.

Recipes adapted from “Where There’s Smoke” by Barton Seaver.

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