I carefully sipped my mug of hot tea as the boat slowly swayed back and forth, back and forth. Try not to spill, try not to spill…okay…sip now! At least this mundane task was enough to distract me and keep me awake. Even though everyone in the boat had groggy ‘woke up at five in the morning’ eyes, the Alaskan summer sun had beaten us all having already been up for hours. The soft yellow rays shined through the small cabin windows and we were headed in the direction of their source on the outskirts of Kachemak Bay. Avery stood outside on the deck prepping all of our equipment and assigning group numbers to everyone on the boat. After about a two hour ride, it was finally time to catch some of that famous Alaskan Halibut.
I had envisioned a more or less peaceful morning of fishing; comfortably standing at the edge of the boat, taking in the scenery as I would casually reel in my line as we cruised through the water. There would be a gentle tug here and there when a fish became curious, and after a few assertive reels the halibut would practically jump into the boat with a happy smile saying “Thank goodness you’ve found me! I’ve always aspired to be your dinner!” Ha! What a daydreamer I was.
I quickly realized my false foresight when the rod took on a life of its own with my first bite. I was holding on with all of my strength; panting, grunting, even starting to sweat. You’d think I was trying to pull in a bucking wild stallion for goodness sake. I was determined to stay in the game though and any style or grace that was in me were the first things to go. I aggressively leaned back with all of my weight whilst fighting the not so willing or friendly halibut on the other end of my line. “We’ve got a fighter!” I exclaimed as the end of my rod gouged into my abdomen. This was said mostly to myself though, as everyone else on the boat was fighting the same fight. Apparently there was a lot more work ahead to win these ocean delicacies.
‘Ha! Ha! I win!’ I said as I pulled the fish over the side of the boat onto the deck floor. The newfound difficulty of reeling in the fish had of course become an instant challenge in my mind, and my competitive spirit drowned out any remorse for the innocent fish who had no idea what the heck just happened to him. “Ehh, I’d say around 20 pounds,” Avery estimated as he held the goofy looking flat fish upside down by its tail. “I would keep searchin’, plenty more out there that’ll be much bigger.” I wiped my brow and took a deep breath as the product of my hard work flew over the side of the boat and back into the ocean. Ding! Ding! New bait was hooked on the end of my line and Round 2 commenced.
Many rounds and many sea swells later, both Sandra and I, along with the rest of the people on the boat, had reached the 2-fish-each quota. Sandra had also won her own contest of turning the most unique shade of green towards the end of our time out in the open waters. “Just keep breathing that fresh air!” I told her, avoiding any comment hinting to her chameleon-like state (she thanked me later that day for not mentioning it in the moment). She held it together like a champ though, unlike the little boy also on board with us who unfortunately had to revisit his breakfast over the side of the boat. They weren’t lying when they said the afternoon would bring some large swells right into our fishing zone. That boat was rockin’!
As we rode back to Homer’s harbor into calmer water, Avery filleted each and every one of the 30 or so fish that we had reeled up onto the deck. I stood there in awe, watching him slice through each of the four filets and two cheeks of each fish as though it was with a table knife through a softened stick of butter. “Once you’ve done your 10,000th or so, it kind of becomes second nature,” he joked. “Your turn now, Lizzy.”
He extended the handle of the knife towards me. “Me? Really? Really??” I asked, pointing to myself in excitement and disbelief like an actor who had just unexpectedly won an Oscar. I stepped up to the fillet table and slowly sliced the prize meat off of one of my catches under Avery’s careful instruction. The knife was unbelievably sharp, and with an assertive slice at the perfect angle, the meat practically fell off the bone with one swift motion. There I was, breathing Alaskan air while filleting my own caught Halibut on a charter boat in the open ocean. Not bad I thought, not bad at all.
Once we arrived back to the harbor and finally got our land legs back, we headed straight for the packing company to have our fillets processed into individual one pound pieces. Some fillets were to be left whole to bring back to our Aunt and Uncle and cousins to have for some of our dinners in our remaining days of our trip, and the rest were to be immediately flash frozen and sent all the way to Massachusetts where we could share this northwestern treat with everyone back home.
That was early August. Now it is December. Really though, where does the time go? With our recent snow storms and drop in temperature, winter has definitely nestled in to stay and now I can only dream of those warmer days and long summer sun. Yet, the other night as I rummaged through our freezer trying to put something together for dinner, I spied a frozen pack of fish under a bag of peas in the bottom drawer. Jackpot! Through the wonders of freezer food preservation and our postal system, I was able to go back to August and to Alaska in one fell swoop.
Per usual, I browsed the web for any inspirations or ideas on how to justly prepare this delicious piece of fish. I became intrigued by a particular recipe named Thai-Style Halibut with Coconut-Curry Sauce. Heck, with Alaska already on my dinner itinerary, why not go to Thailand too!
The whole dinner came together quickly and easily. I stood at the cutting board delighted by the few ingredients and tasks that stood before me; chop a few shallots, boil rice, cook some spinach, simmer liquids in a pan and there was dinner! Can’t beat it. In some cases few ingredient recipes can equate to a dull dish, but here each one had such a powerful flavor that no other additions were necessary. It also meant fewer steps with still no sacrifice of flavor or dish complexity.
As the sautéed shallots simmered in the broth of chicken stock, curry powder, and coconut milk, I boiled the rice and heated the chopped spinach. I nestled the halibut fillets into the broth and covered the pot for about 7 minutes at a simmer, just enough time for me to set the table and chop the final touches of cilantro, scallion, and a squeeze of fresh lime juice. The aroma of the broth was intoxicating as I spooned it over my layered mountain of cooked spinach atop of brown rice, with a hearty piece of poached halibut at the summit.
With the first bite I was back in Alaska, tasting that subtle sweetness and melt-in-your-mouth texture of the white fish. That, paired with the punch of the curry, the creaminess of the coconut, and the brightness of the lime…my chopsticks were doing a little happy jig in my bowl! From the waters outside of Homer, Alaska to the inspired spices of Thailand to our kitchen table in Massachusetts, my dinner was a world tour in itself. Just another affirmation that you can eliminate miles, time, and space, all through the wonders of food and cooking. Happy Travels!
Thai-Style Halibut with Coconut-Curry Sauce
- 2 teaspoons vegetable oil
- 4 shallots, finely chopped (about 3/4 cup)
- 2 1/2 teaspoons red curry paste*, or 2 teaspoons curry powder
- 2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
- 1/2 cup light coconut milk
- 1/2 teaspoon, salt, plus 1/4 teaspoon, plus more for seasoning
- 4 (6-ounce) pieces halibut fillet, skin removed
- Steamed spinach**
- 1/2 cup coarsely chopped fresh cilantro leaves
- 2 scallions, green part only, thinly sliced
- 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 2 cups cooked brown rice, for serving
*Available in the Asian section of most supermarkets
**Steam or microwave 5 cups of washed baby spinach for 2 minutes
In a large saute pan, heat the oil over moderate heat. Add the shallots and cook, stirring occasionally, until beginning to brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the curry paste and cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the chicken broth, coconut milk, 1/2 teaspoon salt and simmer until reduced to 2 cups, about 5 minutes.
Season the halibut with 1/4 teaspoon salt. Arrange the fish in the pan and gently shake the pan so the fish is coated with the sauce. Cover and cook until the fish flakes easily with a fork, about 7 minutes.
Arrange a pile of steamed spinach in the bottom of 4 soup plates. Top with the fish fillets. Stir the cilantro, scallions, and lime juice into the sauce and season, to taste, with salt and pepper. Ladle the sauce over the fish and serve with rice.
Ellie Krieger, 2006