Friday, January 19, 2007

New Scandinavian Cooking: Halibut with Herbs and Rosemary-Lemon Butter

Today, I'm featuring a delightful cooking show that airs on our local PBS station*: New Scandinavian Cooking. The show is produced in Norway and about to begin its fourth season, and rumors are that a new chef will be taking the hot seat: Claus Meyer, a Danish chef -- or gastronomic entrepreneur, as his website boasts. Although his website seems pretty firm on the details, providing stills and even a CV, the official website of the series ( says that Andreas Viestad, the beloved season one and two chef, will be back for a fourth season.
I'm inclined to believe Chef Meyer's website, mostly because the Scandcook website is kind of crazy. For example: click on the link to read Andreas's bio and you're taken to Tina Nordström's bio page. She's the host of the third season, and I dare say I like her even more than Andreas. I caught the show with her as the host, and when I stumbled upon a repeat of season two, I got pretty flustered. "Where's Tina? Her theme song is so much better!" (the theme songs for this show totally freaking rock, by the way). But I got used to Andreas and his wacky ways, and now I'm sad that neither of them will be back for a new season. But I'm excited for Danish food, which will be a new type of cooking for the series. Andreas specializes in Norwegian food; Tina, in Swedish.
The best thing about this show has to be the way that the food is made. Unless there are some serious weather conditions -- and I mean serious -- the food is prepared outdoors on a sort of fold out kitchen table/stove combination. You even get to watch the chef put together this contraption in fast motion, which is a trip. Watching it real-time would be a drag, but with the cool music and tah-dah pose at the end of the setup, it's one of the highlights of the show. When I mentioned weather conditions, I was understating dramatically. This guy makes ice cream on a glacier in one episode. He's not even wearing gloves, people. He churns his own butter, milks cows, rides horses, stays up all night and day making bread. Tina catches fish and guts them right on the boat (throwing the remains out to "his old friends -- a tasty treat!")

Halibut with Herbs and Rosemary-Lemon Butter
One of my favorite episodes of all time is Andreas's Royal White Halibut, which happens to be the first episode of the first season. They really knew how to launch this show, I tell you, because this episode has to be one of the more sensational ones (besides the glacier making ice cream escapade, which takes place later in the same season). One of the best things about the show in general is that they visit a particular area, cook some food local to that area, and offer up some interesting (I believe they call it "rich") history of the place. This episode is in Alta, which is far, far north. It's impossible to grow nearly anything in this climate, what with the rocky soil and the freezing temperatures, but the halibut is plentiful. We visit some local fishermen, who offer to let us trek onto their boat for an expedition out to sea. The theory is to catch some halibut and then cook it after returning to land; Andreas one-ups them by making them an appetizer on the boat, ten minutes after the fish has been caught. Wow, dude. Way to feed those hungry sailors! (Tina is fond of finding "hungry sailors" and feeding them her creations, by the way, and she says so in several episodes).
They soon return to land, 20-pound halibut in tow. He starts by cleaning the fish (thanks for the instructions, because next time I have a 20-pound fresh halibut in my kitchen, I'll know exactly what to do) and rubbing the skin on both sides with sea salt. He then sets to rubbing it with massive quantities of rosemary, chopped parsley, thyme, chopped fresh bay leaves (although he mentions that dry will suffice), and marigold.
Andreas sets to digging a pit in the sand on the beach; I'm sitting on my couch thinking: the hell? What's going on here? He's going to cook the fish in the hole. Sand and all. He starts by laying down some seaweed, then, some sticks and brush. He lights those on fire and covers them with a few large slabs of rock. More seaweed; then, the fish. A fish and seaweed sandwich, with rocks and sand for garnish! Tasty!
No, really, he's actually cooking the fish in the sand-pit. I'm quite impressed. Also worried about the texture of the sand, but he seems to think it will be fine. He begins to stuff the fish with more ridiculous amounts of the herbs above, and sets it on the seaweed bed. More seaweed on top; then, after it's covered, he pours a bottle of dry white wine (saving a glass for himself, which he drinks straight from the bottle immediately) over the entire thing. Then, a layer of sand is shoveled on top of the whole mess. Steam is pouring out from all directions. How will he know when the fish is ready to eat? Why, of course! A high-tech thermometer was placed carefully in said fish before cooking and the digital output rests on the mound of steaming sand. Brilliant! That's how they did it in the old days.
Two hours later, and the fish is ready to eat. Andreas and some of his fishing buddies dig their old friend out from his steaming grave and place him on a giant platter. It takes two men to carry it to the carving table and feeds a large crowd of twenty or so people mingling about. I wonder, did they see the steaming sand pit and say: look! Someone must be cooking halibut! More likely they were invited to the shoot, but still, it's funny to imagine them all happening upon the fish during a chilly stroll on the beach.

Want to make this at home? Substitute the 20-pound halibut for four 1/3 pound halibut steaks. Rub them with about 2 teaspoons sea salt, then create a bed of herbs in the frying pan out of 1 cup of parsley, 1 cup total rosemary, marigold, thyme, and 4 bay leaves. Use about half of the total amount on the bottom, the rest should cover the fish as it cooks.
Place the fish on the bed of herbs and cover with the remaining spices. Pour about 3/4 cup dry white wine ("Use wine that you would actually drink," Andreas recommends; otherwise, your fish won't taste any good) over the top and cover the dish. Bake in a 400º oven for about 15 to 20 minutes, until the fish is opaque throughout. We just made it directly on the stove, which turned out splendidly and took less time than baking. Brush off the herbs to serve.
You can make a rosemary butter sauce to serve with the fish, which I highly recommend. Reserve and cook down the liquid from the finished fish, until you have about 1/4 cup of the juices left. Put this to the side.
Heat 1 tablespoon butter ("until it bubbles enthusiastically"). Add 1 tablespoon chopped rosemary, 1 teaspoon chopped thyme, and 1 bay leaf. Cook for about two minutes, then add 7 more tablespoons of butter. After it melts, drop in 1 teaspoon chopped tarragon, 2 teaspoons chopped parsley, and 1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest. Cook for about five more minutes over medium heat. Be careful not to let the sauce boil; otherwise, the butter will burn. Add 2 to 3 tablespoons lemon juice, the 1/4 cup reduced marinade from the fish, and season with salt and pepper. Strain sauce and discard any chunks of herb that remain.
Pour the sauce over the halibut (tip: keep the fish warm by covering it while you make the sauce) and it is ready to eat.
Jättegott! (Delicious!)
If you ever get the chance to watch this show, I highly recommend it. It's really a treat to watch experienced chefs brave the outdoors and conquer food in its natural setting. It is much more informative, exciting, and delightful than anything you'll find on the Food Network Channel. Not to knock the Food Network, which has its place, but this program far surpasses most other cooking shows on-air today.

*The website says that the show is available to 347 public television stations in the US. It's also available on cable television (no stations listed) and DVDs can be purchased on the official website.

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