Monday, June 30, 2014

Halibut with Carrot Puree, Early Summer Vegetables, and Pistou

Apologies for this single, hasty, unfocused photo. I just snapped a quick record for my own documentation, figuring I'd never blog something that required such an insane amount of preparation. And then I tasted it. And oh my. I thought about going back and getting the camera for proper pictures, but really, I couldn't leave my plate.

This deliciousness came about because I was tasked the other day with bringing dinner (and moral support) to a friend who was spending a first day on solo infant duty. I thought about cooking up a big load of freezer-friendly food — perhaps spanakopita and tomato biryani, or a few pints of carrot coriander vinaigrette. But then I saw a new restaurant cookbook waiting for me at the library. And I thought about just going fancy instead.

A freezer full of food is a wonderful thing. But you know what? So is a little luxury. And the latter is in woefully short supply when you're waging a sleep-deprived battle to meet basic life needs. So I set aside my casserole plans, and went to the farmer's market for bushels of early summer bounty — fat carrots, curly green garlic scapes and pea shoots, juicy spring onions and the first fragrant basil. And then, after just a few insane hours of cooking, and washing nigh everything in the kitchen (steamer basket and Dutch oven and mortar and pestle and pot and frying pan and food processor), the elements were ready. And all that was left was to sear the fish, bring the dish over, and whisk the baby away for a miraculously tearless diaper change while this perfection was savored.

In some ways, this meal reminds me of my beloved butterscotch budino — multiple elements (each with significant levels of fuss), requiring more time than a usual few days' kitchen efforts combined. But the end result is just transformative. It's like the best restaurant meal you've ever had. It's like a dream about food.

In this case, the dream rests on a bed of carrot puree (carrots first steamed with basil stems before browning in olive oil, natch). The resulting smoothness has a clean flavor, but also a roasty sweetness from the caramelization. And the glug of olive oil doesn't hurt either. This is topped with a buttery saute of spring vegetables — the recipe called for asparagus, but since we're just past the season, some garlic scapes made for a nice substitute. And then pea shoots, lending their adorable tendrils and green flavor (plus a fun little play on peas and carrots, which is always a good time). On top of this saute rests a marinated and seared halibut fillet, and then a dollop of creme fraiche (or, in my case, the last little bit of sour cream mixed with a bit of yogurt), then, finally a simple pesto of basil, garlic and oil. Each element alone is perfect. And together, as they mix on the fork and plate? It's just beyond. It's a celebration of this early summer moment. It's something to helps you forget about those sleepless nights, and drink in how delicious it all can be.

Halibut with Carrot Puree, Spring Vegetables, and Pistou

adapted from The AOC Cookbook by Suzanne Goin
serves 4

As stated, this is an insane amount of work. But you can break it down — I'd recommend making the carrot puree and pistou the day before (the latter will darken, but it'll still be delicious). This would make a show-stopping dinner party dish, and could likely even be made vegan by swapping the seared fish for some seared cauliflower and omitting the dairy. Goin's original recipe pairs this amount of accompaniment with 6 fillets instead of 4, but it's so delicious that 4 seems a bit more accurate.

For the carrot puree:
2 pounds carrots, peeled, cut into 1/4-inch rounds
handful of basil stems (from the basil you're using for the pistou)
~1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1 cup diced white onion
1 1/2 teaspoons coarse salt

For the pistou:
1/2 clove garlic
1/4 teaspoon coarse salt
1 cup tightly packed basil leaves
2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

For the fish:
4 Alaskan halibut fillets, 5 to 6 ounces each
zest of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon thyme leaves
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped parsley
salt and pepper
olive oil for cooking

For the spring vegetables:
1 1/2 cups sliced spring onions, plus 1/2 cup sliced spring onion tops
3/4 pound asparagus, sliced into pieces, or a handful of garlic scapes
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
3 tablespoons butter
4 ounces pea shoots (a few big handfuls — they wilt down)
lemon juice to taste

To finish:
1/4 cup creme fraiche or sour cream
flaky salt

To make the carrot puree: Steam the carrots with the basil stems for about 20 minutes, until nice and tender.

When the carrots are almost done, heat a heavy pot over high heat for 1 minute. Pour in 1/4 cup of the olive oil onions, and season with the salt. Cook for about 5 minutes, stirring often, until the onions are translucent. Add the carrots, and continue to cook, stirring and scraping up the bottom, until the carrots are lightly caramelized, ~8 minutes.

Transfer the mixture to a food processor, and puree until very smooth, drizzling in a few additional spoonfuls of olive oil. Taste to adjust seasonings. Set aside.

To make the pistou: If using a food processor, press the garlic clove, then add that and 1/3 of the basil leaves. Pulse until well combined, then add the rest of the basil and parsley. Slowly add the olive oil as needed to make a pourable mixture, and season to taste with pepper and more salt if desired.

If using a mortar and pestle, start by pounding the whole garlic clove and salt until broken down. Add 1/3 of the basil, pound until well broken down, then add the remaining basil and parsley. Pound pound pound pound, then add the olive oil as needed to make a pourable mixture, and season to taste with pepper and more salt if desired. Set aside, making sure the mixture has enough oil on top to cover. Set aside.

To start the fish: In a small covered container, season the fish with the grated lemon zest, thyme, and parsley. Cover and refrigerate at least 4 hours or overnight.

To make the vegetables: Heat a large Dutch oven or enormous saute pan over medium heat for 1 minute. Add the 2 tablespoons olive oil, let heat for a minute, and then add the sliced spring onions, asparagus (or garlic scapes), salt, and a pinch of pepper. Cook over medium heat for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring, until onions are translucent.

When the onions have cooked, add the butter and 1 tablespoon water. Swirl the pan, and when the liquid comes to a simmer, toss in the pea shoots and onion tops. Immediately remove from the heat, stir, and squeeze a little lemon juice over everything. Taste and adjust seasoning.

To finish the fish and assemble the dish: Remove the fish from the refrigerator, and let it sit out for about 15 minutes to come to room temperature (one of the keys to even cooking).

Heat a large saute pan over high heat for 2 minutes. Swirl 2 tablespoons olive oil into the pan and wait 1 minute. It'll be hot!

Season the fish on both sides with salt and pepper. Carefully lay fish in the pan and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, until it’s got a nice lightly browned crust. Turn the fish over, lower the heat to medium low and cook for a few more minutes. When it’s done, the fish will *just* begin to flake and separate a little, and the center will still be slightly translucent (it will continue to cook as it rests, so err on the side of under-cooking). Remove from pan and let rest.

To assemble the whole thing, warm up the puree (if made in advance and refrigerated). Spoon plops of the warm puree onto 4 plates, forming a nice little bed. Tumble the vegetables over the puree, then place a fish fillet over the top. Top each fillet with a dollop of creme fraiche, then spoon the pistou over the creme fraiche and the fish and around the plate. Eat in rapturous pleasure.


  1. Oh this is so lovely and SO on my list. Also that vinaigrette recipe? I need this in my life!! I love that book - read it from cover to cover and once the dust settles, I can't wait to cook from it!

    1. I seriously considered making THIS ENTIRE DISH AGAIN the next day. That's how good it is. But then decided to, you know, do my work/leave my house instead.

  2. Great recipe and very well explained.