When it comes to seafood, halibut is almost unanimously appreciated. With its gentle flavor, firm texture, and mild flesh, it takes well to a variety of pairings and manners of cooking. And because this tender, white, sweet-flavored beast of a fish is available year-round as frozen filets, it’s easy to serve any time. However, I try to enjoy it as much as I can while it’s available fresh and in season, from around mid-March through mid-November.
Halibut’s neutral palette makes it a perfect medium for experimentation with seasonings. And even though it’s not a strong-flavored fish, it still takes well to brave spicing. That’s why it works so well in this Moroccan-inspired dish that marries the bold flavors of fiery harissa—a traditional North African mix made with peppers and warm spices such as cumin—with a tart, crunchy relish containing notes of Mediterranean cuisine. The relish holds a sweet, subtle licorice flavor from the fennel bulb and highlights another seasonal ingredient: Meyer lemons. With their fragrant citrus pop, this tangy addition lends a delicate acidity to the spices of the fish. Briny green olives provides a flavor contrast and little hits of salt, helping tie the Moroccan-Mediterranean theme together.
Quick, uncomplicated, and company-worthy, I can imagine this dish being served in a fancy restaurant, yet it doesn’t take a whole lot of effort. It’s just as suited for an elegant dinner party as it is for a low-key weeknight family meal and just as simple to make in small portions as it is large. The bright relish perfectly accents the warm spices of the fish and would be just as great in a small starter course as in a main entrée atop a pilaf of couscous, a pool of risotto, or a mound of whipped potatoes. The best part of all is that the whole dish can come together in under half an hour!
If fresh halibut is available and within your budget, take advantage of it while it’s still around, but as I mentioned earlier, frozen filets are a fine substitute. Salmon, cod, or even shellfish would make an equally delicious stand-in. And if you just don’t do fish, a quick-cooking meat such as boneless chicken breast or pork tenderloin would make excellent alternatives—just be sure to adjust the oven temperature and cooking time accordingly. Use any leftover relish in a salad, paired with your favorite protein, on a cheese board, or as a garnish for tacos, eggs, sandwiches, or burgers.
Harissa-Spiced Halibut with Meyer Lemon-Fennel Relish
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 15–20 minutes
For the relish:
1 medium-sized fennel bulb, trimmed, cored, and thinly sliced (if you have a mandolin, this is a great place to use it)
1 small shallot, thinly sliced
2 Meyer lemons, skin cut off, flesh finely diced
4–6 large green olives, pitted and finely chopped or sliced
¼ cup Italian parsley leaves, gently torn
2–3 tablespoons fruity olive oil
Salt and cracked pepper, to taste
For the fish:
3 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 small onion, thinly sliced
4 (6 oz.) skinless halibut filets
Harissa spice rub or paste (available in the spice aisle or ethnic foods sections at most supermarkets)
Sea salt, if your harissa is unsalted
- Prepare the relish: Toss all ingredients together in a small bowl and let marinate at room temperature for at least 20 minutes.
- Prepare halibut: Preheat oven to 450°F. Melt butter and olive oil in a small pot on the stovetop. Spread sliced onion in the base of a baking dish and top with halibut filets. Drizzle halibut with butter mixture, then season generously with harissa and additional salt, if necessary. Bake halibut until the fish is firm and opaque and the flesh flakes easily when tested with a fork, about 15–20 minutes, depending on thickness.
- To serve, place a little onion on serving dish. Place halibut over the onion and top with a nice pile of fennel relish.
Image from Briana Goodall.