Tuesday, May 2, 2006

Halibut Basted with Bagna Caoda (Anchovy Garlic Sauce)

My parents used to joke that if you mixed my brother and me up, stirred really well, and then divided the mixture into two part, you’d end up with two perfect kids: responsible, but not obsessive; willing to explore the world, but always sure to return home; extremely career-driven, but putting family first. Too bad there is no way to achieve such perfection when it comes to people. People come with their strengths and weaknesses and there is not much you can do about that. But when it comes to cooking – anything’s possible.

Take fish for example. Some, like halibut, have exquisite texture – firm, supple, and silky smooth. Some, like anchovies, have oodles of flavor – rich with the taste of the sea. I don’t mean to be picky, but here is the thing: halibut has as much flavor as a skinless chicken breast and the texture of salted anchovies is not that different from little strips of leather. Most of the time, my perfectionist tendencies get me into trouble (at least they do in real life), but in the kitchen, who is to stop me from playing God (or Goddess in my case), and trying to fix nature’s little shortcomings.

So when I ended up with too many anchovies this weekend, I decided to infuse the halibut with their flavor for tonight’s dinner. “Infuse” sounds like a more involved process than it really is. I simply made bagna caoda (an anchovy-garlic sauce from the Piedmont region of Italy, literally meaning “hot bath”), and pan roasted halibut basting it with this sauce. The result was simply “wow!” I never noticed how juicy halibut can be until I cooked it this way. Since halibut juices don’t have much flavor, they are not usually as noticeable. But as the garlic and anchovy oil seeped into halibut, they made each bite mouth-watering and succulent. In other words, this halibut dish is to regular halibut like whole roasted chicken to baked chicken breasts.

For the juiciest results, use bone-in and skin-on halibut steak since all of halibut’s fat is clustered around the bone. Ask your fishmonger to cut it in half so that it’s easier to fit in the pan.

Salt-packed whole anchovies (available in French or Italian specialty stores), are the best kind to use for this or any other dish that calls for anchovies. Rinse all the salt of them under cold running water, and pull the fillets off the back bone (don’t worry about the little bones). Dry fillets well with paper towels before using. Alternatively, use anchovy fillets packed in oil.

Fish substitutions: halibut fillet, cod, haddock, hake, pollock, or any other white mild fish

Serves 4

6 anchovy fillets, dried well on paper towels
1 garlic clove, mashed into a paste
3 Tbsp olive oil
2 Tbsp butter
2 Lb halibut steak (1” thick), cut in half crosswise
1/4 tsp fresh lemon juice
1 Tbsp finely chopped parsley

To make bagna caoda:
  1. Preheat the oven to 400F.
  2. Chop anchovies very finely, then smear them on the board with the flat side of your knife. Alternate mincing and smearing until they turn into a smooth paste. This is the same technique you’d use for mashing garlic into a paste with a chef’s knife. Shortcut: If you have an immersion blender, you can use it to puree garlic, anchovies, and oil, thus avoiding doing it by hand. But don’t use a regular food processor or blender since these quantities are too small.
  3. In a small saucepan, combine mashed anchovies, mashed garlic, olive oil, and butter. Cook over low heat stirring occasionally just until butter melts. Don’t let the mixture boil. Take off heat.
To make halibut:
  1. Season halibut with salt and pepper on both sides.
  2. Set a large oven-proof non-stick or cast iron skillet over high heat and wait for it to get hot (if your skillet is not oven-proof, have a baking dish ready as well). Add a tablespoon of bagna caoda to the skillet and swirl to coat. Add halibut and cook without disturbing until golden brown, about 2 minutes.
  3. Pick halibut up with tongs, add another tablespoon of bagna caoda to the skillet and flip the halibut on the other side. Cook for 1 minute on the stove top.
  4. If you skillet is not oven-safe, move halibut to a baking dish. Top halibut with another tablespoon of bagna caoda, and place the skillet in the oven for 7 minutes or until you can slide a butter knife all the way through when you pierce halibut along the bone. If using a fillet, you can check for doneness by separating the flakes with a fork in the thickest part of the fillet. A trace of translucency should still remains in the center when you take the fish off the heat. Estimate for the total cooking time (stove top and oven) to be 8-10 minutes per inch of thickness.
  5. Return the remaining bagna caoda to medium-low heat. As soon as it simmers, add lemon juice and parsley. Pour over halibut and serve.


Anonymous said...

I know the joys of bagna caoda ... well done, Helen!

Boston Chef said...

Looks - and sounds - delicious. We are always looking for new recipes like this, and we LOVE anchovies. As we get back into the swing of things in the kitchen, we'll definitely try this!

Dianka said...

What a great idea! I too agree that halibut tends to be prepared quite dry but this sounds delicious!


Anonymous said...

Sounds delicious Helen! And Halibut is one of my favorite fish. Do you remember the name in French from last weekend? ;-)

Helen said...

Hi Bea,

I believe halibut in French is flétan.


Anonymous said...

Sounds yummy!

Thanks for sharing it. I've been meaning to try anchovies anyway.

Erin Eats said...

I tried making a Bagna Caoda sauce once, but I went with anchovy paste instead of anchovies... blech! Yours looks lovely.

G said...

sounds superb.

Gia-Gina said...

I love this dish, it was invented in Piemonte and is a traditional dip for vegetables. There are many, many ways to make it, with milk, with wine but all are great.