When I was younger, my husband and I owned a small fishing lodge in the backcountry of Alaska. This was long before the modern mix of tourism in Alaska today. In the early days, it seemed, travelers who found their way to our little lodge were rugged outdoor individuals who wanted to catch salmon. Nearly all of our guests were men, and many were German or from German-speaking Europe. They wore vintage green military sweaters and pants, brought me bags of chocolates from the Frankfurt airport, and they loved the mystique and adventure of the wildness of Alaska. One guest bought the plaid shirt from Carl’s back to wear home to Vienna.
At night, after a brilliant day of fishing, our guests would sit in our little bar and sing songs, laugh and cheer, drink endless cans of Budweiser, and listen over again to Johnny Horton’s “When It’s Springtime In Alaska (It’s Forty Below)”.
This is our first official week of spring, and it might be still well below zero in Barrow, but in Southcentral Alaska the sun is shining, people everywhere seem to be talking about the sunshine, and generally -- though we have all loved winter -- a mood has lifted.
To make this springtime particularly notable for my family, my oldest daughter Carly has just given birth to our first “third-generation fishing guide”, Rohnen Zane. Rohnen’s dad is from South Africa and Ty’s mother and brother have travelled the thousands of miles from there to here to see the new baby. They might be decked out in their heaviest winter garb, but for me, I am ready to start packing away the big down coat, goggles, mittens and other winter gear.
The South African visit coincides with the arrival of fresh halibut on the market, so I am going to cook them a dinner of pan-seared halibut and pasta primavera. The word primavera means the season of spring in Italian. Usually a vegetable-centric dish highlighting crisp spring veggies such as asparagus, broccoli, peas and herbs (I know, these aren’t spring vegetables here – only in the rest of the world), pasta primavera is a meal unto itself. Add a nice (albeit expensive) piece of halibut and it is a celebration.
We always pan-sear our halibut quickly in a thin layer of hot oil in a pan and finish the cooking process in the oven. This ensures a nice crisp exterior and a tender and moist, perfectly flaky interior. Halibut is precious these days, so we never bread it or smother it in heavy sauces. We serve it simply and just lightly seasoned.
To pan-sear fish, you might find it easier to do it in a non-stick pan, or a well seasoned cast iron pan that can tolerate high heat. Bring a small amount of high-heat oil, such as canola or grapeseed oil, to medium-high heat. Fish should be completely dried by patting with a paper towel. It’s a pet peeve of mine -- if the fish is wet or has a great deal of surface moisture, it will end up reducing the pan temperature and “stewing” in the liquid, resulting in something rubbery and dry. Sear the fish in the hot oil long enough to form a crust on the outer surface. We usually don’t turn the fish. We just slide the pan right into the oven to finish cooking. All of this takes a bit of watching, depending on how thick the fish is, how hot your oven truly runs (you might be interested in testing your dial temperatures to the true temperature of your oven some time), and other variables. Just take a poke at the fish, and when it feels firm but soft enough to compress slightly with your finger.
Using a good slotted fish spatula is essential in extracting your perfectly seared fish from the pan. Fish spatulas (or sometimes called “turners”) are thin on the leading edge and they are splayed to scoop up an entire piece at once. They come in handy for other types of cooking as well so they are a good investment. A good fish spatula can cost between $12 and $75, and generally you get what you pay for.
Unless you are on the water somewhere and fishing yourself, halibut will cost between $13 to $20 per pound -- or even more -- in retail stores. The reason for the high price of halibut in Alaska is a mystery to me but I am happy to pay nonetheless.
So, put a little Johnny Horton on the playlist, break down and pay the price for a fresh piece of halibut, and celebrate our springtime in Alaska. And, if you want to see a picture of my new grandson Rohnen, join me on Facebook for a few proud granny photos.
Cook the farfalle in a large pot of salted water according to package directions. Drain the pasta, reserving 1 cup of the cooking liquid. Keep this warm on the stove. Coat the pasta with some of the olive oil and set aside, keeping the pasta warm.
Wash the tomatoes, cut them in half, and salt them. Sprinkle the tomatoes with the vinegar. Set aside.
In separate large pots of simmering salted water, blanch the broccoli and asparagus just to al dente (tender, but firm to the bite). Drain the blanched vegetables and set aside.
In a wide sauté pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add in the zucchini, red pepper and the snow peas. Add in the garlic. Toss the mixture together for 1 minute. Add in the blanched vegetables and season with salt and pepper. Toss for another minute. Turn all the vegetables into the pasta. Add in the green onion, carrots, and reserved tomatoes. Add in enough of the reserved cooking liquid to moisten the pasta if necessary. Sprinkle the pasta with the herbs and add in the cheese. Serve immediately.
Makes 6 servings.
Kirsten Dixon is an award-winning chef who has cooked and lived the past 30 years in the backcountry of Alaska. To learn more about her, visit www.kirstendixon.com.