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Eric Akis: Impress your guests with beautiful B.C. halibut

B.C. halibut fillets are seasoned, roasted and served on risotto, accented with bits of asparagus, lemon zest, Parmesan cheese and other flavourful things.
Roasted B.C. halibut fillet is served on a flavourful asparagus risotto. ERIC AKIS

Two of my sisters-in-law were visiting recently from Ontario and during their stay I prepared some nice dinners — including one featuring B.C. halibut.

They were keen to sample the local fish and I knew they both enjoyed risotto and asparagus, which is in season here. So I worked all three into the dish I served them.

To make it, I whipped up a batch of risotto bianco, also called white risotto. It’s a basic style of risotto where rice is lightly toasted and then slowly cooked by adding warm stock or broth in increments. At different parts in the cooking, I also flavoured the risotto with such things as shallots, garlic, white wine, lemon zest and Parmesan cheese.

My initial plan was to serve the asparagus alongside the risotto. But I switched things up and decided to slice the spears into smaller pieces, boil and drain them, and then stir them into the risotto just before it was served. The bright green bits of asparagus in the risotto gave it very appealing look.

With regard to the fish, I kept things simple and set the fillets on a baking sheet, drizzled them with lemon juice and olive oil, sprinkled them with a bit of Cajun spice and roasted them. Cajun spice may sound like an odd thing to sprinkle on the fish when you are serving it with an Italian-style rice dish. But it enhanced its colour and gave the halibut a nice hit of spiciness that worked well with the various tastes in the risotto.

As noted in previous columns about risotto, the rice used for it are stubby varieties that have a high starch content and absorb less liquid during cooking. Those qualities enable the rice to maintain a nice texture when completely cooked and cause an almost creamy sauce to form around the grains. You’ll find rice for risotto for sale at supermarkets and Italian/Mediterranean delis. It is sometimes labelled “Italian rice” or arborio, carnaroli and vialone nano.

When buying the halibut, remember that the best fillets will look firm and almost translucent, glisten with freshness and have a mild, sea-like aroma. It’s best to buy the fish the day you’ll cook it, but if very fresh you could store it, removed from its store packaging and set in a covered container, in the coldest part of your refrigerator for one day.

Halibut with Asparagus Risotto

B.C. halibut fillets, seasoned, roasted and served on risotto, accented with bits of asparagus, lemon zest, Parmesan cheese and other flavourful things.

Preparation time: 20 minutes

Cooking time: 35 to 40 minutes

Makes: four servings

16 (not overly thick) asparagus spears, tough lower stems trimmed or snapped off

5 1/2 cups low sodium or no-salt chicken stock or fish stock

4 (6 oz./170 gram) halibut fillets

1 Tbsp lemon juice

3 Tbsp + 1 tsp olive oil (divided)

• Cajun spice, to taste (see Note 1)

1/3 cup finely chopped shallots (see Note 2)

1 1/2 cups risotto rice

1 large garlic clove, minced

1/2 cup white wine

1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1 tsp finely grated lemon zest

• salt and ground white pepper, to taste

• fresh thyme leaves or chopped fresh oregano or parsley, to taste (optional)

• lemon slices and thyme, oregano or parsley sprigs, for garnish

Bring a small to medium pot of water to a boil over medium-high heat. Cut the asparagus spears, widthwise, into two-inch long pieces. Add to the boiling water and cook until tender, two to three minutes. Drain asparagus well, cool with ice-cold water, and then drain well again. Set asparagus in a small baking pan, toss and coat with 1 tsp olive oil, and then spread out in a single layer.

Pour stock into a pot and set over low heat. Preheat oven to 400 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set on the halibut. Drizzle fish with lemon juice and 1 Tbsp olive oil, and then sprinkle with Cajun spice.

Pour remaining 2 Tbsp oil into a medium pot (mine was eight-inches wide) and set over medium heat. Add shallots and cook and stir two minutes. Add rice and cook and stir another two minutes. Add the garlic and cook and stir one minute more.

Pour wine into the pot and cook and stir until it’s almost evaporated. Add 1 cup of the stock, adjusting the heat upwards or downwards so that the liquid very gently simmers. Cook until stock is almost fully absorbed by the rice. Add remaining stock, 1 cup at a time, making the next addition when the rice has almost fully absorbed the last, and cook until the rice is tender. This should take about 25 to 30 minutes. Stir the rice frequently as it cooks. You may not need all the stock.

When you are about 18 minutes into cooking the risotto, put the halibut in the oven and roast eight minutes. Now set the pan with the asparagus in it in the oven. Cook another four to six minutes, or until fish is just cooked through and asparagus is hot.

When risotto is tender, mix in the asparagus, Parmesan cheese and lemon zest. Taste and season the risotto with salt and pepper.

Set some risotto in each of four wide, shallow bowls. Sprinkle with thyme leaves (or chopped oregano or parsley), to taste, if using. Set a piece of halibut on top of the risotto in each bowl. Garnish with lemon slices and thyme (or oregano or parsley) sprigs, and serve.

Note 1: Cajun spice is sold in bottled spice/herb aisle of most supermarkets. If yours does not contain salt, season the fish with salt before coating it. If you want to make your own Cajun spice, in a small jar, combine 2 tsp paprika, 1 tsp dried oregano, 1/2 tsp dried thyme, 1/2 tsp onion powder, 1/4 tsp garlic powder, 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper and 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper. Use what you need for the recipe and save the rest for another time

Note 2: One large shallot should yield the amount of chopped shallots needed here.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.