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Recipe: Halibut with carrots is simple perfection from Vitaly Paley

Kim Sunée

Food memories are always fascinating to me; those moments when a single bite is able to transport one back to a specific place and time. Recently, I was in Portland for a book event and had the opportunity to meet up with my friend, Vitaly Paley, the Russian-born, French-trained chef behind the award-winning restaurants Paley’s Place and the newer Imperial at the Hotel Lucia. Paley was hosting a reception for fellow Russian-born writer, Anya von Bremzen, author of the recently-published exquisite memoir, "Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking."

In von Bremzen’s honor, Paley set out a lovingly prepared table of zakuski, a generous spread of Russian appetizers not unlike Mediterranean mezze. And many of the recipes were foods he and Anya grew up eating from their respective Russian childhoods. Flat breads, blini, and house-smoked fish shared the spotlight with pickled vegetables, cured meats, and caviar. For me, the most remarkable was a recipe from Paley’s grandmother, a “fish under carrot marinade” or ryba pod markovnym marinadom.

Some of the best dishes are made with few and simple ingredients, and with a bit of care and love, they transform into something memorable and delicious. Take for example Paley’s combination of white fish, carrot and tomato, a trio that sounds rather run-of-the-mill but when placed in the hands of a master chef and cooked from a childhood memory of a beloved Russian grandmother’s recipe, it becomes more than the sum of its parts.

We don’t all have Russian grandmothers to rely on; although in Alaska, Russian heritage runs deep. And with white fish being abundant here, I thought it would be nice to try Paley’s recipe highlighting our local halibut and cod. When I asked him if he would share the recipe, there was one caveat: “It was always served with prepared horseradish. I remember my mom always telling our guests to not forget the horseradish when eating this fish.”

Paley also remembers eating this dish as far back as his memory allows. “It was at every holiday table, at every special event, part of every celebration. I remember my grandmother making it. Later, my mom took over. I feel like I need to carry on the tradition but I would rather still eat my mom's version. Eating this dish for me is like mind/gustatory time travel. You know when you take that first bite and the memories just rush in.”

When pressed, Paley remembers the fish being white fish, “no saltwater fish, probably carp, trout, or pike.” His freshened up version calls for halibut, which we have an abundance of here in Alaska. Cod is also a delicious substitute and what I used to test this recipe. Cooking these simple ingredients -- white fish, tomato, and carrot -- slowly under low heat helps extract so much flavor from so little. It’s a dish easy enough to make any day of the week and delicious enough to make for any celebratory occasion.

Note: If you’re in Portland, Paley is celebrating Maslenitsa, an end-of-winter celebration also known as “Butter Week” or “Pancake Week.” “It is all about eating blini and drinking vodka,” Paley says. “Appropriate for right after the Olympics.” The blini pop-up will be on February 28th and dinner on March 2nd.

Closer to home, and without a mention of vodka, a Maslenitsa festival is held annually in Anchorage at Turnagain Elementary School by the parents of students in the Russian Immersion Program. This year's event is set for April and will include an imaginary journey on the Trans-Siberian Expressway, and traditional Russian food, entertainment and performances.

Vitaly Paley’s Halibut with Stewed Carrots and Horseradish

Serves 8

For the Halibut with Stewed Carrots

About 1 cup vegetable oil, divided
8 (4-ounce) pieces halibut filet (or cod or sole)
About 2 cups all-purpose flour
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 large yellow onion, finely chopped
5 large carrots, washed, peeled and sliced into 1/8-inch round slices
1/3 cup ketchup or plain tomato sauce
2 tablespoons tomato paste
Sugar to taste (approximately 1/2 teaspoon)

For the Fresh Horseradish Sauce

If fresh horseradish is unavailable, substitute a high-quality, store-bought prepared horseradish.

1 fresh horseradish root (about 1 pound); washed and peeled
1 cup distilled white vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons salt

Directions for the fish:

1.  Heat a few tablespoons of vegetable oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Line a plate with paper towel; set aside. Dredge the fish filets in flour, shaking off excess flour. Add filets to the pan and let cook, until golden about 3 minutes. Turn and cook the other side, another 3 to 5 minutes. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Cook fish in batches if the pan is not large enough to cook all the filets at once. Drain fish on paper towel-lined plate. Place the cooked fish onto a large serving platter.

2.  Wipe out the pan and add about ½ cup of the oil; heat over medium heat. Add the carrots and the onion; season with salt and pepper. Cook, covered, stirring occasionally, about 20 minutes or until carrots are tender when pierced with a fork. Add ketchup or tomato sauce, tomato paste and sugar. Stir and cook for about 10 more minutes, stirring occasionally. Taste and add more salt, pepper, or sugar, as needed. The carrot and onion should be tender and jam-like.

3.  Spread the mixture evenly over the fish and cover loosely with aluminum foil until ready to serve. Serve with Fresh Horseradish Sauce. Note: Can be served warm, but this tastes better chilled, after marinating for 2 to 3 hours. Leftovers taste even better the next day.

Directions for fresh horseradish sauce:

Finely grate the horseradish root into a medium bowl. Stir in vinegar, sugar, and salt. Refrigerate, uncovered, for a minimum of 6 hours and up to 12 hours.

Note: If covered, the horseradish will develop a bitter taste.

Giveaway and Recipe: Celebrate Pancake Week at my website with a recipe for Russian blini by Anya von Bremzen and a chance to win a copy of her new memoir, "Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking."

More Russian-inspired recipes online:

Kirsten Dixon’s Russian Alaska Salmon Pie

Russian Cheese-Stuffed Flatbread

Russian Sweet and Sour Beef Soup

Borschtpacho by Anya Von Bremzen

Kim Sunée ate and lived in Europe for ten years before working as a food editor for Southern Living magazine and Cottage Living magazine. Her writing has appeared in Food & Wine, The Oxford American and Asian American Poetry and Writing. Sunée has appeared several times as a guest judge on the Food Network’s Iron Chef America. She is currently based in Anchorage and working on a cookbook, "A Mouthful of Stars," to be published by Andrews McMeel in 2014. For more food and travel, visit www.kimsunee.com.