Halibut with Coconut Milk, Lemongrass, and Chilies

Even professional cooks freak out when guests are coming for dinner. Maybe even more so, because the pressure is on. How do you cook for friends who know you do this for a living but have never tasted your cooking? It’s hard, at least for me. I’ve cooked for hundreds of happy customers and yet there’s always a sense of “Will they find out I’m a total fraud?”

Couple that with my inability to do two things at once, especially if any of it is social, so when guests are coming I fall back on a few standby recipes, mostly things that can be made ahead of time and finished off at the last minute. Grandma calls that “pulling a Darla.” I call it managing to serve dinner on time while also buzzing on a second martini.

(My refrigerator has two recipe cards stuck to a magnet. One is for “Darla’s coffee”; the other is for “Darla’s martini”. Oh, how pregnancy has changed my rituals!)

This Halibut with Coconut Milk is a dish I love to cook on such occasions or on any busy day. You can completely prep the ingredients ahead of time, wrap them in individual envelopes of foil (“hot pockets” in my house, en papillote to the French, but referring to parchment), and just slide them into a very hot oven 10 minutes before dinner.

Using foil seems like the kind of cooking you would do on a weeknight but never for guests, yet it’s really perfectly respectable, even for a fancy dinner party. This method of cooking steams the fish in the oven and results in succulent, moist flesh scented with the aromatics. In turn, the liquid absorbs all the juices from the fish, making your sauce tastier as well, without having to make fish stock. It’s a win-win situation.

Here, halibut fillets are baked in coconut milk infused with the brightness of fresh lemongrass, lime, and cilantro. Slices of ginger, chilies, and garlic bring heat while a touch of sesame oil adds a deeper background note. The coconut milk gives richness without a leaving a heavy feeling on the tongue, allowing the flavor of the fish to shine through.

To serve, lift the fish from the foil envelopes and pour the juices over as a sauce. Pair it with a bed of jasmine rice or bok choy sautéed in sesame oil with garlic, red bell peppers, and shiitake mushrooms.

You can use either regular coconut milk or light coconut milk, it doesn’t matter. Let your calorie needs decide.

Halibut with Coconut Milk, Lemongrass, and Chilies
Succulent halibut fillets bake in coconut milk infused with lemongrass, ginger, garlic, chilies, and sesame oil. This method of baking in foil is perfect for make-ahead dinners.

Serves 4

Adapted from Jamie Oliver’s The Naked Chef Takes Off.
(He uses monkfish, wrapped in banana leaves.)

4 (6-oz) pieces of halibut or other white fish, skin removed
1 fresh red or green chili, thinly sliced
2 stalks lemongrass, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 thumb-sized pieces of ginger, peeled and thinly sliced into rounds
1/4 cup cilantro, minced
2 limes, zested and juiced
2 Tbs. sesame oil
1 cup light or regular coconut milk
salt and pepper, to taste
heavy-duty foil

Lay out four pieces of heavy duty foil, about 15×10″, large enough to enclose your fish.

To mince lemongrass: Cut off the root end. Cut away the woody, darker green section near the top. (You can use this for broth.) Remove the outer tough leaves from the tender lower section. Mince the inner leaves.  (See picture above for guidance.)

Combine lemongrass, chilies, garlic, ginger, cilantro, lime juice, lime zest, sesame oil, and coconut milk in a medium bowl.  Season with salt and pepper.

Use a slotted spoon to lift the solids from the coconut milk. Divide these solids between your pieces of foil, making a bed for each piece of fish.

Place the fish on top of the solid aromatics. Season with salt and pepper. Fold the foil over the top and fold tightly along the sides to make a rectangle.  Leave one end open for adding the liquid.

Pour or spoon the remaining coconut milk mixture into each foil packet, dividing equally. Seal the foil pouches completely.

Place foil pouches on a baking sheet. Refrigerate or bake immediately.

Bake at 450F for 8-10 minutes or until you hear the liquid sizzle when you jiggle the pan. Open a pouch and check for doneness. The fish will continue to cook a little after you take it out of the oven; if your fish is almost done, go ahead and take it out.  Thinner fish fillets will take less time.  Open foil immediately and serve.

To serve, lift the fish fillets out of the foil with a spatula. Spoon the juices over the fish.  Discard the large pieces of ginger.

Garnish with fresh cilantro.