I grew up on a family-run fishing boat in Alaska, so there was never a shortage of fresh fish on our table. My mother, Stephanie, was – and still is – a legendary cook: deckhands would line up to crew on our boat, just to be able to eat the incredible meals she somehow conjured from a four-foot-square galley and an oil-burning stove. Of all the dishes she made, this one remains everyone’s favorite. It’s not only easy and quick to fix, but it can transition seamlessly from kids’ TV trays to an elegant supper table set for grown-ups.
Its genius lies in its simplicity.
You will need:
- About 25 minutes from start to finish
- Approx. 6 oz. fresh or fresh-frozen halibut per person – too much of a good thing can be wonderful, though – you’ll want leftovers
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 1 package of saltine-style soda crackers (salted is better), dumped into a large ziploc bag and crushed with a rolling pin (a bottle of wine works just as well)
- a handful of all-purpose flour
- a couple of lemons, wedged
- salt, pepper, or cayenne, to taste
- parsley (optional)
- oil for frying
For the dipping sauce, mix together:
- ground horseradish
- ketchup (for a more interesting one, try Thai sweet chili sauce, or even Jufran – a banana- based ketchup from the Philippines, found in most Asian or Cuban markets)
- a dash of Worcestershire sauce, to taste
Optional sauce add-ins:
- smoked chipotle Tabasco sauce
- lime juice
- chopped garlic
- fresh or dried herbs – thyme, basil, marjoram, and tarragon are especially good
1. Thaw the halibut, if frozen, and rinse well under cool running water.
2. Remove any skin or bones from the fillet with a sharp knife. (Halibut skins best with the flesh side down; pull the knife toward you, and use long, careful strokes rather than sawing at it, a movement which can chew up the flesh. With your other hand, pull the skin away from the fillet as you go, so you can see where your blade is working.)
3. Cut the halibut into inch-thick chunks. Long rectangles can be elegant, although cubes have their appeal, as well. Try to make chunks that can stand on each end, for even cooking.
4. Set up an assembly line workspace: dump a handful of flour onto a large plate, and place it beside the bowl of beaten eggs; then, pour out the cracker crumbs onto another large plate. The next step is great for team work or kitchen helpers who want to get involved.
5. Dredge each piece of halibut in flour, then dip it into the beaten eggs so that it is completely covered. Finally, roll it around in the cracker crumbs until it’s well coated, and set it aside on another platter. Repeat the process until all of the fish is ready to fry. It’s okay to get your hands messy!
6. Cover the bottom of a heavy skillet – cast iron works best – with about a quarter inch of oil. Heat on medium high until the oil becomes fragrant, but not until it smokes.
7. Cook the fish in batches, letting each side turn deep golden brown before turning it. Dust with salt and pepper, and add paprika or cayenne for color. If the oil is spattering, cover it with a pan lid or a spatter screen. Covered fish will cook more quickly, so keep an eye on it.
8. Test a piece with a fork by prying it in half and checking the inside – if the fish is opaque and flakes apart easily, it is done. Fork each piece onto a sheet of newspaper or paper towel to drain; the fish can be kept warm in the oven while the rest cooks. (Never return cooked fish to the same plate on which it sat raw!)
9. Serve on a platter with lemon wedges and parsley, with a bowl of dipping sauce on the side. Be creative with sauces! Tartar sauce and ketchup are the most common, but the possibilities are endless: ginger tamari, honey mustard, lemon caper – try salad dressings, too (French, Thousand Island, and goddess are all great).
10. Leftovers can be wrapped in foil and saved in the fridge for up to 4 days. It’s wonderful cold!
If your fish is getting too dark before it cooks through, either your pan is too hot or your chunks are too thick; try turning down the heat, and cut the pieces a little smaller next time.
If your fish is too greasy, try turning the heat up, and remember to drain them on paper before serving.
Serving suggestions for kids: try an all-finger food meal, by adding carrot sticks and black olives to the menu, or steamed broccoli or green beans with butter and lemon juice. Plain rice makes a nice side, too.
Serving suggestions for grown-ups: this dish can stand up to most starches, but goes best with a robust vegetable salad – try baby spinach with roasted red peppers, grilled asparagus, artichoke hearts, canned beans (white, red, garbanzo), cubed steamed baby red potatoes, dry hard cheeses, roasted or steamed beets, or sunflower seeds. Serve with crusty bread to sop up the leftover dipping sauce, and pair the whole meal with a bottle of rosé or a strong, fruity white wine.