Halibut are among the most prized of all fish for the table. These critters are colossal – the largest of all flat fish, and one of the largest fish species of any kind. As such, they yield four firm, sizeable fillets per beast, and it is that that makes them a popular catch. The biggest halibut ever caught was landed at Dutch Harbor, Alaska in 1996 by Jack Tragis. The fish was over nine feet long and weighed 209kg (459lbs).
Halibut, however, has a big fat problem. Over fishing has made it an endangered species. Their size is an element in this too. At the age of 2 years, a halibut is 12 inches long, but they need to be four times that size before they can reproduce. This means that even if fishing is stopped (as it has been in fish-mad Iceland) stocks can take an age to recover.
The Icelandic halibut fishing ban has an interesting twist. Even though halibut like to live on the bottom of the sea in depths of up to 2,000m, they occasionally swim into mid-level waters where pelagic trawlers (of which Iceland has an awful lot) inevitably catch them while fishing for something else. This is known as ‘by catch,’ and is perfectly legal. If by-caught halibut is landed in an Icelandic port, then 100% of the proceeds of the sale of the fish goes to towards Icelandic ocean research and fish conservation. This is exactly the sort of scheme needed to save the halibut from extinction. Other countries would do well to learn from the Icelanders while halibut recovers (which would take about 20 years).
We obtained halibut off the RG Morris (Buxton) van before we realised it was an endangered species. The recipe we have provided is by Alison Roman of Epicurious. After making it, we realised that this is a classic ‘capers with brown butter’ sauce that pops up all over the place.
Halibut steaks with capers
- 4 200g halibut steaks, or 2 400g ones with the bone in
- 2 tbsp vegetable oil
- 50g unsalted butter
- 4 sprigs thyme
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
- 3 tbsp capers, drained
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Season halibut. Heat the oil in a large pan over medium-high heat until beginning to smoke. Cook the halibut until golden brown, 6–8 minutes. Turn and cook until other side of fish is golden brown (about 4 minutes longer).
Add butter, thyme sprigs, and garlic to pan and cook, tilting pan and spooning butter over fish, until halibut is opaque throughout and butter is brown (2 mins). Add the capers and toss in butter to warm through.
Divide halibut among plates and spoon butter sauce over.
The pan needs to be very hot to start with to prevent the fish from sticking too much.