Halibut: The Cookbook

edited by Karen Barnaby

Published by Whitecap Books

184 pages, 2007





Just for the Halibut

Reviewed by Adrian Marks


The first clue is the cover. Not an image, but a background that establishes a feeling of delicacy. You know what it is you’re looking at, even if you’re not quite sure. At a glance, you know that this is a book about understatement and maybe even about rediscovering that which was never that well known in the first place.

If you’ve taken even a single look at the cover of the book, it’s not a surprise to you that I’m talking about one of the most misunderstood and underappreciated sea creatures to grace western kitchens: the halibut. In her introduction to Halibut: The Cookbook, editor/chef Karen Barnaby tells a story that many of us can relate to; one that explains -- at least in part -- the low esteem many of us have for a lot of white-fleshed fish:

I grew up on rectangular, frozen fish. Every Friday morning the blue High Liner box was left on the counter to thaw. Before dinner, the fillets were placed in a glass baking dish and baked. Haddock, cod, or sole looked the same, was cooked the same, and tasted the same -- "same" meaning white, overcooked, and bland.

Barnaby writes that, even as her foodie tendencies developed and she became a chef, halibut failed to capture her attention:

I was enamored with sablefish and skate. Sablefish was the bad boy who rode the Harley. Skate was edgy. If skate were human, it would have tattoos and multiple body piercings. Halibut was a sissy -- too pristine to get my attention.

Eventually, Barnaby writes, halibut’s quiet charms won out. "...I slowly learned to love halibut’s simplicity. It didn’t have to be bad to be good."

If Barnaby’s words don’t convince you, a tour through Halibut will, especially if you take the time to prepare some of the recipes in this well thought out collection. As I said, Barnaby acts as editor, but the recipes come from some of Canada’s most respected chefs and foodie personalities including Susan Mendelson from Vancouver’s Lazy Gourmet; Linda Haynes of Toronto’s Ace Bakery; Anna Olson, host of the FoodNetwork television show Sugar; Noël Richardson, author of Life at Ravenhill Farm; Michael Smith, host of Chef at Home and many others including, of course, offerings from Barnaby herself.

The book is beautiful -- Whitecap’s books are always beautiful -- the recipes are appetizing and sensibly described. In short, this is a book you can cook from and with. A couple of flaws marred my usage: though they had nothing to do with the food. The first: I suspect that the recipes included have been culled from other cookbooks -- most if not all of them also published by Whitecap. I suspect this because Halibut doesn’t tell me so anywhere (or, if it did, I missed it. And I looked). Each contribution is identified by the name of the contributor and what appears to be the title of a cookbook or television show. But the book doesn’t tell me this is the case anywhere, nor is there a list of contributors along with their bios. This seems to me to be a tremendous oversight. If you’re going to create a cookbook that is, in essence, a collection, the acknowledgements should go much deeper. It’s not enough, for instance, to label a recipe "Cooking from the Hip -- Olaf Mertens." All six of those words are meaningless to me in this construction. What is Cooking from the Hip? Who is Olaf Mertens? Sure: I can Google and find out. But I don’t think I should have to.

The food styling here is wonderful and the photos both pleasingly contemporary and appealing, however the book is constructed in such a way that though the photos of food appear next to recipes, they’re not actually illustrating the recipe under discussion. This is more disturbing in some cases than in others. For instance, I see plate of something that is obviously a curry: scrumptious-looking fish in a bath of bright yellow sauce. It looks delicious. A glance at the recipe next to the photo informs that this is... Fish Tacos? On closer inspection, you can see that the photo illustrates Halibut & Prawns in Lemon Grass Coconut Curry Sauce, nearly 30 pages away. This is a quibble, of course. But it does detract slightly from the enjoyment of using an otherwise lovely book. And it is lovely. The chapters are separated by a page of pure blue with the chapter headings on one side and little halibut factoids on the other. A lovely detail, and interesting if you take the time to indulge. "Young halibut rise to the surface and are carried to shallower waters by prevailing currents. Beginning their life as bottom dwellers, most young halibut spend from five to seven years in shallow nursery grounds," and so on.

But, of course, the heart of any cookbook is the recipes. In this regard, Halibut does not disappoint. In fact, you come away from Halibut with new ideas about this fish and the many ways in which it can be used.

The recipes range from ultra-simple -- suitable for an after work slap together or for the home chef with only the most rudimentary kitchen skills -- all the way up to complicated meals for friends that will take hours of pleasurable concentration to prepare. Appropriately enough, most fall somewhere in between.

Eric Akis’ Grilled Halibut Steaks would be filed in this first category. With a clutch of halibut steaks, a few very basic ingredients, a hot grill and six to eight minutes, halibut is served. Susan Mendelson’s Halibut with Lemon Ginger Chili Marinade would fall in this category, as well. A few more ingredients, a bit more time, but this is a recipe even a child could make with great success.

On the other end of the spectrum, Dee Hobsbawn-Smith’s cioppino (actually called Lila’s Cioppino, though I don’t know who Lila is) has many, many ingredients, some requiring significant prep, and aspects of the recipe must be made several days in advance. But this is cioppino and no stops are pulled. If you’re going to knuckle down and make this dish, you’d be hard pressed to find a better and more concise recipe.

Mediterranean Halibut Stew; Cornmeal-Coated Halibut; Pancetta-Wrapped Halibut; Scalloped Halibut Cheeks; Halibut and Spinach Wrapped in Filo and my favorite from the whole collection, Sensational Seafood Lasagna that is both robust and delicate and that I know I’ll make again and again.

The final chapter, "Simple Marinades and Sauces," will be useful even for those who don’t adore fish. This is a good collection of kitchen staples that you’ll find yourself using for the preparation of all types of food. Jerk paste, teriyaki sauce, a tarragon béarnaise that’s made in the blender, a very nice roasted garlic aïoli, a good basic cocktail sauce, a salsa verde and more, all intended to enhance various of the included halibut recipes, but that you’ll find useful for serving with other types of meat and vegetables.

Halibut: The Cookbook is a lovely, well planned and executed cookbook. You’ll come away from it wondering why you’ve not spent more of your kitchen time preparing this versatile fish. | May 2007


Adrian Marks is a January Magazine contributing editor.