Earlier in our lives, Carolyn and I were lucky to spend a good amount of time in the Southeast, particularly the Carolinas and Georgia. We love the people, land and beaches and built a real love of the local food. Southern-influenced food, especially real barbecue, is a part of our regular family cooking here in California. We also experienced some of the “new” southern cuisine in Savannah and Charleston, and fell in love with many of the flavors. Dinner at Elisabeth on 37th in Savannah is still one of our best dining memories. So when new southern-influenced chefs emerge, we take notice. And if they have a cookbook, we often give in to temptation (addiction?) and buy it. Such is the case with Athens and Atlanta-based chef Hugh Acheson of Top Chef and Food and Wine’s “Best New Chef” award fame. He recently published a his cookbook “A New Turn in the South” and we decided to try it out.
We have been working through this cookbook for a few weeks and with very good results. Acheson has gone out of his way to create a cookbook that will work for the home cook. So far we are happy with the cookbook, with the one bummer that some of the recipes contain ingredients we will have a hard time finding locally in California. But this recipe, featuring a dual-cooking method for halibut and sugar-snap peas that are just coming into season, stood out for us and we decided to try it. And the result was a restaurant-quality dish you can make at home.
Now you might asking, “a restaurant-quality halibut dish? why halibut?” Well, Pacific halibut is a sustainable beautiful, and tasty fish, if you don’t overcook it and dry it out. Halibut is a great match with bright flavors like herbs and spring vegetables, but the key is to find a home-cooking method that keeps the halibut moist. With this recipe, Acheson gives you an easy, predictable cooking method that keeps the fish moist and then accentuates it with a sweet pan-sauce, tangy salsa verde and crispy sugar-snap peas. In the end, you get the range of textures and flavors that elevate a dish beyond the realm of regular home cooking.
We do adapt the recipe a bit for the home cook. Acheson, like many restaurant chefs, condenses the timing on making the dish (we are cooking at home, not a restaurant, we do not have to do everything at the same time) and does not encourage the use of tools like digital thermometers. But slowing down, staging the cooking and using the best tool available does help the home cook, so we reorder a few things and suggest you use a thermometer when you can. Overall, all the ingredients and the major techniques in the recipe are Acheson’s. Both the salsa verde and the sugar-snap peas are easy to assemble and can be made ahead, so we will start there.
Making salsa verde is as simple as cooking gets. Just chop a bunch of fresh herbs like parsley, mint, basil and marjoram, and then add some garlic, anchovy, capers, seasonings and olive oil. Add some acidity with vinegar and mustard (we added a dash of lemon juice). Mix, taste, adjust. Then serve the salsa verde to brighten the flavor on almost anything.
As for the sugar-snap peas, Acheson provides one of the best recipes we have ever tried. You clean and remove the strings from the peas and then slice them in half. Then blanch and drain the peas and combine with creme fraiche, lemon zest, parsley, thyme and salt. The sweetness of the peas combine incredibly well with the tart, creamy creme fraiche and the lemon zest and herbs add depth to the dish that keeps you coming back. Simple, but oh so good. If you get a little tired of fresh peas in butter, this recipe is the way to go.
Making the halibut is a bit more complicated, but worth the effort. The core of the recipe is starting cooking by searing the fish, then finishing the cooking by steaming the fish in a lidded pot in the oven. Searing provides better presentation, texture and flavor while steaming keeps the fish from overcooking and provides the base for a sauce.
The steaming liquid combines chicken stock, vermouth, shallot, bay leaf and salt. After you pull the fish, strain the pan sauce and finish by whisking in a touch of cold butter. The sauce is still light, but has the extra texture and flavor from the butter.
To serve, we poured the pan sauce on the fish and then placed a dollop of salsa verde on top. We served the sugar-snap peas on the side, but Acheson places them on top. Your choice. The fish is moist and very tasty and when the pan sauce combines with the salsa verde, you get a full spectrum of flavors- again, the key to the best dishes. The sugar-snap peas add sweetness, tang and crispness and leave you with a clean palate for the next bite.
In most cases, we know the dish is good if the kids eat it. Our eldest simply loved the dish, had seconds and was eating the peas off our plates. Well done Hugh! We will be making this dish again and using this cooking method on other types of fish. This recipe is a keeper.
Seared and Poached Halibut With Salsa Verde and Sugar-Snap Peas:
(Adapted from Hugh Acheson)
Notes Before You Start:
- Acheson suggests halibut for the fish, but this recipe would also work well with bass, cod, snapper or even swordfish. If using a different fish, simply make sure the fish filet has no skin and adjust the timing on cooking the fish based on its thickness. We look forward to trying this recipe with striped bass.
- The recipe calls for clarified butter to sear the fish. Clarified butter adds extra flavor, but a vegetable oil with a high smoke point (peanut, canola) will also work. Regular butter and some olive oils will burn during the searing stage and create bitter, nasty flavors, best to avoid these fats when searing.
- Salsa verde will keep for about 3 days in the fridge.
What You Get: A restaurant-quality dish in flavor and presentation. It is a pretty healthy dish, too.
What You Need: No special equipment required, but as with all proteins, a digital thermometer can help you cook the fish to the optimum temperature.
How Long? Expect 45-60 minutes of total time. Most of the time is spent chopping herbs for salsa verde and cleaning the peas. Cooking the fish takes less than 10 minutes. With some advance planning you can make this dish any time.
Seared and Poached Halibut:
- 4, 5 oz. halibut filets, skin-off, preferably of similar thickness
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons of clarified butter
- 1 shallot, finely minced
- 1/4 cup of dry vermouth
- 1/2 cup of chicken stock
- 1 bay leaf
- 5 springs of thyme
- 1 tablespoon of cold, unsalted butter
- Preheat oven to 375, place rack in the middle of the oven. Place a large lidded skillet over high heat. Once hot, season the filets with the salt, then add the clarified butter and then place the halibut filets in the pan. Sear on one side, without moving, for 3 minutes.
- After 3 minutes carefully flip the filets and then move the heat to low. Add the chicken stock, vermouth, shallot, bay leaf and thyme. Place the lid on the pan and place in the oven. Cook for 3-5 minutes, or until halibut is just opaque. (Or use a digital thermometer and pull the fish when the temp reaches 120-125 degrees. The fish will keep cooking to 140 degrees, in its own heat, while you prepare the sauce).
- When desired doneness is reached, pull the skillet from the oven and remove the halibut from the pan and place the fish on a warm plate and tent with foil. Meanwhile, strain the braising liquids from the pan into a medium saucepan. Add the cold butter into the liquid and whisk until combined. Keep the sauce warm while you plate the dish.
- To serve, place the halibut on a plate then add a tablespoon, or two, of the sauce. Add a healthy dollop of salsa verde to the fish. Serve along with the sugar-snap peas, if you like.
- 1/2 cup italian parsley, finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon basil, finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon mint, finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon marjoram, finely chopped
- 1/2 teaspoon thyme, finely chopped (optional- we like thyme)
- 3/4 cup good-quality olive oil
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 1 pinch of red pepper flake
- 1 tablespoon capers, finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon anchovy filets, rinsed and finely chopped
- 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
- 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
- 1 teaspoon lemon juice (optional- we like the citrus)
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- Place the herbs in a medium bowl and then add the olive oil. Stir to combine.
- Add the garlic, red pepper flakes, caper and anchovies. Stir to combine.
- Finally, add the mustard, vinegar and lemon juice (if using). Stir to combine. Add salt and pepper, to taste.
- 8 oz. fresh sugar snap peas, strings removed and sliced in half lengthwise
- Zest of one lemon
- 1 tablespoon of Italian parsley, finely chopped
- 2 tablespoons of creme fraiche
- Kosher salt, to taste
- Place 3 cups of water to a boil in medium saucepan. Place the peas in the water and cook for 1 minute. Drain the peas and place them in a medium bowl.
- Add the lemon zest, parsley and creme fraiche to the bowl. Stir to combine. Add salt, to taste.
- Serve as a side for the halibut, or just on its own.