Fish night: Seared halibut aiolli garni

Memories of Friday night fish night inspired this nostalgic and tasty dish.

We Are Never Full
Pan-roasted halibut with aioli garni and butter beans.

I’m not very old, but for much of my youth in the north west of England, it was almost impossible to find fresh foods that weren’t local. Today such a statement seems like an echo of Victorian times, but, literally, that’s how it was until a supermarket was built behind the Knutsford courthouse in the late 1980s.  

I often tell my wife about the cheese stall at the weekly market only kept five kinds of cheese – Cheshire, Cheddar, Lancashire, and sage Derby were ever present, with perhaps a Wenslydale reasonably common, too. If anything as unusual as a Stilton, from distant Nottinghamshire, appeared, it would generate as much commotion among the town’s housewives, who elbowed their way to the front of the queue to catch a glimpse of this highly perfumed foreigner, as if Julio Iglesias showed up sporting his tennis shorts. My wife usually responds that I should count myself lucky because when she was young there were only four kinds of cheese at her local supermarket: white American, yellow American, cheddar, and Swiss and had anything else been available it would have been looked upon with extreme suspicion. Touché.

Making our weekly Tuesday rounds of the covered (indoor) market (the outdoor market sold mostly fruit and veg, bric-a-brac, and live pets, believe it or not) with my mother, on the cheese man’s left was the egg man, or “mister Chookie” as I knew him, on account of his perennial sales pitch “come tek a look at these lover-lee chookie eggs I’ve got for yuh!” Unlike his fellow stall-holders, whose wares fell within a particular genre, the egg man also sold milk, orange juice, and yogurt due to him being one of the younger siblings of the Sheldon family that owned the local dairy, and who, excepting market days, delivered these provisions to the doorsteps of the town’s residents.

Beyond Mr. Chookie was the fish man, Mr. Scales, as my mother used to call him, although at the time her pun was lost on me. Above his stall ran the legend “fresh daily from Fleetwood, Lancs”, referring to the port just north of Blackpool where much of Britain’s catch was landed. That his stall was only open Tuesdays and Thursdays didn’t seem to matter. Whether it was due to her upbringing in Blackpool where there is – rightfully – a great deal of local snobbery about the quality of the fish that goes into their fish 'n’ chips, or whether because of an innate suspicion of fishmongers, my mother always eyed Mr. Scales’s wares closely, casting a wary eye over his glossy fish, as if trying to discern if there was anything untoward hiding among the cockle-shells.

Because we rarely had fish except on Fridays when we weren’t allowed anything else – even in our lunchboxes at school we had to mark the end of the week with evil-smelling “salmon paste” sandwiches – and because Mum worked a full day on Thursdays, whatever we bought on Tuesdays had to last on ice in the bottom of the fridge until then (freezing fish made it taste all woolly, she always said), so freshness was absolutely crucial otherwise it/we wouldn’t survive.

Typically, the fish was cod, but often halibut or hake did service in the flaky white fish department. This was usually broiled and served with oven-baked chips, since as a nurse my mother couldn’t countenance deep-frying at home lest it give the townies the impression she was a hypocrite in her dietary exhortations, and homemade mushy peas, flecked with mint and tangy with a splash of malt vinegar. Apart from a distinctly nontraditional and rather dodgy-looking “curry” she made every so often, Friday night fish suppers were my dad’s favorite – he still demands it to this day and he is about as agnostic an Anglican as you’ll find.

Instead of waiting for Friday, and going against my mum’s rubric of no-frying, but keeping with the buying of white fish on a Tuesday, we made a version of the Provencal classic, aioli garni, with a pan seared halibut fillet, steamed fennel and butter beans. Rather like much of the cooking I experienced growing up, it doesn’t look like much on the plate – the pale colors and the two sauces lapping against one another may seem bland – but the sharp tang of the garlicky aiolli with the surprising hot peppery-bite of the brown sauce against the muted flavors of the white fish and butter beans makes for an unusually rewarding dish. I am convinced that my mum would’ve enjoyed this dish a great deal, even though she would have asked why we didn’t save it for Friday night. As for my dad, well, sadly, he wouldn’t touch it on account of it humming with garlic. Too bad for him.

Pan-Roasted Halibut with Aioli Garni and Butter Beans
 Serves 2
 Adapted from Rick Stein’s Coast to Coast, BBC Books, 2008

1 8-ounce can butter beans
1/2 red onion, sliced finely
1 fennel bulb, sliced into 1/2 inch slices
2 fillets (white fish, halibut, code, hake, flounder)

For the brown sauce:
2 carrots, 1 large stick celery, half Spanish onion, 1 leek, all chopped finely
1/2 stick butter
Handful of dried mushrooms
1 medium hot dry chile, whole
1 teaspoon Thai fish sauce
1 pint fish stock
1/4 cup cognac

For the aioli:
4 cloves garlic, peeled
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 medium or 2 small egg yolks
2 teaspoons lemon juice
6 ounces best olive oil

In a small saucepan on medium heat, sweat the red onion gently in olive oil until soft, but still pink and with some texture.Add butter beans, season with salt and pepper and some chopped fennel tops, and another good jigger of olive oil. Keep warm until service.

To make the brown sauce, in a saucepan, sweat the carrot, leek, celery and Spanish onion together in some butter until soft. Add hot pepper.

Increase heat to high and add cognac. Allow to reduce by half before adding fish sauce and fish stock. Simmer for 30 minutes.

Strain and stir in remaining butter, keep warm.

Either boil or steam fennel until soft – 5-8 minutes depending on technique.

Preheat oven to 360 degrees F/180 degrees C.

Crush and finely chop garlic with a sprinkle of sea salt. In a large bowl, mix with egg yolks and lemon juice, then whisking constantly, (or with a stick blender) begin adding the olive oil slowly. When you’ve got an emulsion going, you can add the oil more quickly, but if the whole thing breaks, start over again from scratch.

In saucepan over medium-high heat, add two or three tablespoons of olive oil, and, having seasoned the fish fillets with salt and black pepper, place them skin-side down in the pan.

Cook until skin releases from pan, 3-5 minutes depending on size of fillet, turn and place in oven for a further 5 minutes.

Plate beans, fish, fennel together with aioli and brown sauce. Soft boiled egg optional. Garnish with fennel tops.

Related post: Livornese Fish Stew

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