Tuesday, March 29, 2011

somewhere beyond the sea

I grew up on a remote island in Southeast Alaska, where talk of the latest catch, kill or top secret blueberry picking spot were all part of our daily vernacular.  My hometown boasts a bevy of forests overflowing with wild game and an endless ocean teeming with abundant sea life.  For the most part, fellow Alaskans devour fresh king salmon, halibut, crab and venison like they were going out of style.  Practically everyone knows someone who fishes or hunts.  In fact, three of my dad’s best high school pals became successful commercial fisherman.  Needless to say, the idea of paying for fish was unheard of.


The sole exception to our ‘never buy fish’ rule was when mom would take me out for fish and chips at the Bayview Restaurant.  Those were no ordinary fish and chips.  They were hearty strips of just-caught halibut, delicately battered and deep fried to golden brown perfection.  The fish was always accompanied by a generous serving of piping hot waffle-cut fries, two dainty cups filled with ketchup and tartar sauce, a sprig of parsley and three jelly beans.  To top it off, there really was a sparkling view of the bay and harbor below.  In fact, had the halibut been any fresher, it might have writhed its way off of my plate and flopped back into the water, just across the street. 

Mom grew up in Portland, Oregon.  She moved to Alaska as a young woman and up until that point, the closest thing she knew to seafood was canned tuna.  This duly explains why she rarely cooked fish.  Now and then, we had clam chowder, the occasional salmon burger, and a dish I will never understand called Halibut Olympia (more on that later), but those fish-centered meals were few and far between.  Mostly, we ate a lot of hamburger, pork, roast beef and the ever-popular Cornish game hens.

In this regard, I have a greater appreciation for seafood than friends who ate fish day in and day out.  I still salivate when I recall barbequed king salmon glazed with brown sugar and lemon, enormous spot prawns dipped in drawn butter, tender, salty slabs of still warm smoked salmon and oversized bowls mounded with just steamed king crab legs.  Granted, those memories are diamonds in the rough.  Not everyone who wields a fishing pole knows their way around the kitchen. 

The most appalling, yet surprisingly prolific fish preparation I’ve encountered is one which varies from family to family but never ceases to repulse me.  I am continually amazed by how many Alaskans consider it appetizing and I am equally horrified by its lack of semblance to anything remotely delicious.  The dish, called ‘Halibut Olympia’, consists of halibut smothered in a mixture of chopped white onions, sour cream and mayonnaise, topped with bread crumbs or shredded parmesan and baked in a casserole dish until bubbly and golden.  I have never understood why fresh halibut routinely ends up in this tragic mess of an excuse for dinner. 

In an attempt to thwart the aforementioned glop, I swore off salmon and halibut for many years.  It was easier to feign total disdain than partial acceptance.  The absence of seafood during my childhood never really struck me as unusual until I moved to Seattle and realized how lucky I had been to grow up with unlimited access to the bounty of the sea.  I was astounded to discover that people routinely paid for the same fish I had turned up my nose to on countless occasions. 

In my early twenties, I lived in the heart of downtown Seattle, just three blocks from Pike Place Market in a high rise with a fully equipped barbeque deck.  It was then that I relented, swayed by deep orange filets of wild king salmon, beckoning me from the nearby fish stand.  The temptation of fresh Alaskan king coupled with the lure of a hot grill and a deck with a view, sufficiently halted my longstanding salmon strike. 

A few years later, I landed upon a recipe for fish in parchment or ‘poisson en papillotte’ as the French call it.  It was one of those recipes that almost wasn’t, it was so easy.  Though any fish would do, I opted for halibut and knew at once I had rediscovered an old friend. 

Parchment has a similar effect to that of the tempura-style batter on the fish and chips of my youth.  It seals in moisture, essentially poaching the fish in its own juices; which is a whole lot healthier, yet no less flavorful.  Halibut is a fish people tend to overcook and this method couldn’t be more versatile or foolproof.  My seven year old daughter loves to make her own ‘packet’ and this is easily one of her favorite meals.  Although the recipe below showcases halibut, the same preparation would work for a wide array of fish and vegetable pairings.  

‘poisson en papillotte’ or ‘fish in parchment’

yields 4 servings


3 cups short grain brown rice
6 cups water
2 – 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 – 1/2 teaspoons salt

fish + vegetables
16 ounces fresh halibut, tilapia or salmon, as desired, skin removed
8 medium-sized sea scallops, optional
12 medium-sized wild shrimp or prawns, optional
1 bunch carrots, peeled and sliced in 1/4 inch rounds
2 medium crowns broccoli, florets cut in bite-sized pieces
2 small zucchini, quartered lengthwise and cut in 1/2 inch pieces
12 crimini mushrooms, quartered, stems trimmed
2 –3 leeks, white and pale green parts only, sliced in 1/4 inch rings
1 lemon, cut in 4 wedges 
1 bunch fresh dill

2 – 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
crisp white wine such as chardonnay or pinot gris, nothing too fruity
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
coarse sea salt

4 large sheets parchment paper (15 x 20)



Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.

Place water, rice, butter and salt in a medium pot with a lid.  Bring to a boil.  Stir once.  Cover and reduce heat to simmer.  Cook for 40 – 50 minutes.  When water is absorbed, remove from heat and fluff with a fork.  

fish + vegetables
Rinse fish, scallops and shrimp with cold water and pat dry with paper towels.  Divide the fish into four servings.  Set aside.

Place the prepared vegetables in separate bowls.  Be sure to rinse the leeks well to remove all sand and grit. 

Place a piece of fish, off center, on the right side of the parchment, leaving a 3-inch border to the right.  Surround the fish with two scallops, three prawns and a handful each of carrots, broccoli, zucchini and mushrooms.  Place a sprig of dill over the center.  Scatter leeks over all.  Dot with one tablespoon butter, drizzle with olive oil, add a few splashes of white wine and season with coarse salt.


Fold one side of the parchment over the fish and vegetables, so that the corners meet.  Fold over the edges several times to seal the packet.  If personalizing the ingredients in each packet, use a sharpie to write initials on one of the folded-over edges. 


Place the packets, folded edges up, on a rimmed baking sheet.  Bake for 15 minutes at 425 degrees.  Carefully tear open the packets to retain the fragrant juices inside.  Pour fish and juices directly over a bed of brown rice and serve while hot.

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