Eric Akes: Impress your guests with this beautiful BC halibut

BC halibut fillets are marinated, roasted and served on risotto, with chunks of asparagus, lemon zest, Parmesan cheese and other savory goodies.

Two of my sisters in law were recently visiting from Ontario and during their stay I prepared some nice dinners – including one featuring halibut from British Columbia.

They were keen on tasting the local fish and I knew they enjoyed their bread and asparagus in season here. So I worked the three of them into the dish I gave them.

To make it, I whipped up a batch of risotto bianco, also called white risotto. It is a basic style of risotto in which the rice is lightly toasted and then slow-cooked by adding warm broth or broth in increments. In various parts of my cooking, I’ve also seasoned risotto with things like shallots, garlic, white wine, lemon peel, and Parmesan cheese.

My initial plan was to serve asparagus alongside risotto. But I changed things up and decided to chop the spears into smaller pieces, boil and drain, then stir into the risotto just before serving. The bright green asparagus pieces in the risotto gave it a very eye-catching look.

Regarding the fish, I kept things simple and put the slices on a baking sheet, drizzled with lemon juice and olive oil, sprinkled with a little Cajun seasoning and grilled. Cajun seasoning can seem like a strange thing to sprinkle on fish when you serve it with an Italian-style rice dish. But it boosted its color and gave the halibut a nice flavor of spice that goes well with the different tastes in risotto.

As mentioned in the previous columns about risotto, the rice used for it are short varieties that are high in starch and absorb less liquid during cooking. These qualities enable the rice to maintain its nice texture when fully cooked and cause an almost creamy sauce to form around the grains. You’ll find risotto rice for sale in supermarkets and Italian/Mediterranean dishes. It is sometimes called “Italian rice” or arborio, carnaroli and fialone nano.

When buying halibut, remember that the best fish fillets will look solid and almost transparent, sparkle with freshness and have a slight sea-like aroma. It’s best to buy the fish the day you cook it, but if it’s very fresh, you can store it, remove it from store packaging, and place it in a covered container, in the coldest part of your refrigerator for a day.

Halibut with asparagus risotto

BC halibut fillets, marinated, roasted and served on risotto, prepared with chunks of asparagus, lemon peel, Parmesan cheese and other delicious goodies.

Preparation time: 20 minutes

Cooking time: 35 to 40 minutes

Make: four portions

16 spears (not too thick) of asparagus, tough lower stems pruned or cut

5 1/2 cups low-sodium or salt-free chicken broth or fish broth

4 (6 oz/170 g) halibut fillets

1 tablespoon lemon juice

3 tablespoons + 1 teaspoon olive oil (divided)

• Cajun seasoning to taste (see note 1)

1/3 cup finely chopped shallots (see note 2)

1 1/2 cups risotto rice

1 large garlic clove, minced

1/2 cup white wine

1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1 teaspoon finely grated lemon peel

• Salt and ground white pepper to taste

Fresh thyme leaves, parsley or fresh oregano, chopped to taste (optional)

• Lemon slices and thyme, thyme or parsley, for garnish

Bring a small to medium saucepan of water to a boil over medium to high heat. Cut the asparagus spears crosswise into 2-inch-long pieces. Add to boiling water and cook until tender, two to three minutes. Drain asparagus well, cool in ice water, then drain well again. Place the asparagus in a small skillet, flip and coat with 1 teaspoon olive oil, then spread in a single layer.

Pour the broth into a saucepan and put on a low heat. Preheat oven to 400°F, line a baking tray with parchment paper and place over halibut. Drizzle fish with lemon juice and 1 tablespoon olive oil, then sprinkle with Cajun seasoning.

Pour the remaining two tablespoons of oil into a medium saucepan (mine was eight inches wide) and set over medium heat. Add shallots, cook and stir for two minutes. Add rice, cook and stir for another 2 minutes. Add garlic, cook and stir for another minute.

Pour the wine into the saucepan and cook, stirring, until almost evaporated. Add 1 cup of the broth and adjust the heat up or down until the liquid has simmered very gently. Cook until rice has almost completely absorbed the broth. Add remaining stock, 1 cup at a time, making next addition when rice is almost completely absorbed, and allow rice to simmer until cooked. This should take about 25 to 30 minutes. Stir the rice often while it is cooking. You may not need all inventory.

When the risotto is almost 18 minutes cooked, place the halibut in the oven and roast for eight minutes. Now put the pan with the asparagus inside in the oven. Cook another four to six minutes, or until the fish is completely cooked through and the asparagus is hot.

When the risotto is done, combine the asparagus, Parmesan cheese, and lemon peel. Taste and season the risotto with salt and pepper.

Put some risotto into each of the four wide, shallow bowls. Sprinkle with thyme leaves (or chopped oregano or parsley), if desired, if using. Place a piece of halibut over the risotto in each bowl. Garnish with lemon slices and thyme (or thyme or parsley), and serve.

Note 1: Cajun is sold in the packaged spice/herb aisle of most supermarkets. If your table salt does not contain salt, season the fish with salt before basting it. If you want to make your own Cajun seasoning, in a small bowl, combine 2 teaspoons paprika, 1 teaspoon dried thyme, 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme, 1/2 teaspoon onion powder, 1/ 4 teaspoons garlic powder, 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, and ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper. Use what you need for the recipe and save the rest for another time

Note 2: A large shallot should yield the amount of chopped shallots required here.

Eric Akes is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.

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