Baked halibut steak with sage

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La Capannina is an Italian restaurant on the corner of Frith Street and Romilly Street that has been catering to the Soho film trade since time immemorial. I don’t believe the main menu has ever changed in a quarter century, but this didn’t matter to those in the know because we never ate from it anyway. The daily specials have always been what to go for, particularly the home-made pasta, the braised or boiled beef, or the halibut. Regular customers would scan the menu outside and if one of their favourites was there, then lunch was sorted. The halibut steak was introduced to you before being whisked away to be cooked with sage and butter. (San Lorenzo did an identical dish at that time, one of the few edible items on their menu.)

La Capannina was going strong until very recently, but business seems to have declined in the last year or so, probably due to sheer old age. I hope Gianni and Linda, the proprietors, manage to sell their business for an absolute fortune and enjoy a happy retirement rather than soldiering on and losing whatever they have made out of it over the years. The thought of them retiring does, however, seem a little strange: they work alternate nights, never seem to see each other and, rumour has it, have scarcely addressed two words to each other in twenty years. Speculations about the state of their marriage and business relationship were often a major source of conversation whilst eating there. Faithful customers formed partisan attachments to one or the other, Gianni adherents like myself preferring to eat on his nights. Linda had her regulars as well, and on the rare occasion when the quality of the specials offered outside tempted me more than her husband’s absence deterred me, she was charm personified.

Halibut has always been an expensive fish and one requiring careful cooking, so prone is it to drying out. It is also increasingly difficult to find, but any fishmonger with a high percentage of Jewish customers will generally stock it or be able to get it for you. Selfridges Food Halls are a fruitful source, but the best I’ve ever had came from Marks and Sparks in Oxford Street. Steaks from really big fish are considered the best, but are enormous, so don’t buy individual ones, share a big slab.

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Ingredients

  • 2 halibut steaks, 200-300 g each, or 1 steak from a bigger fish
  • about 100 g plain flour
  • salt and pepper
  • 75 g butter
  • 6 sage leaves

Method

Preheat your oven to its maximum.

Put the flour in a soup plate and season it well with salt and pepper. Select a metal roasting dish that will accommodate the fish quite snugly. (Cast iron is the best to go for as it won’t warp in the oven.) Put the roasting dish in the oven to heat up for 2 minutes or so.

Dredge the steaks on both sides in the seasoned flour, pull the hot dish out of the oven, throw in half the butter and all the sage, and as soon as the bottom of the dish is greased with the melted butter, lay the fish in and put to roast. It is almost impossible to give an accurate cooking time because it will vary according to the thickness of the steaks. Thin ones will require less than 10 minutes, a jumbo steak needs twice as long, but you should start checking after 10 anyway. I prefer to give the fish 5 minutes then turn it over, basting it at the same time. If the steaks appear to have stuck to the dish don’t try and turn them. They will normally free themselves as the cooking continues.

Serving

When you have decided the fish is done, carefully transfer to a serving platter or individual plates. Melt the remaining butter in the hot roasting dish and pour it, the sage and any other juices over the fish.

Ideal accompaniments are a wedge of lemon and some boiled new potatoes.

Baby or ‘Chicken’ Halibut

Fishmongers sometimes have relatively small halibut, under 2 kg, that are a little small to be cut into steaks. ‘Chicken’ halibut like these can be filleted and grilled very successfully. Place the fillets skin side down in a buttered grill tray, heat your overhead or in-oven grill to very hot, dot the fish with butter and season generously. 5 minutes will be about right. This was the fish that my mother usually prepared when I was a child, and it still remains a favourite.

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