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.

Curried Yogurt Dip with Basil, Serrano, and Lime

Nom nom nom nom nom nom.

For once in my life, I’m supposed to consume more calories: I’m pregnant! This insatiable incubator needs fuel! I have to eat every two hours or my body starts to freak out.  I feel like T-Rex in the kitchen, stalking my prey. (Minus the vestigial arms.)

As I clean a fistful worth of salt-n-vinegar chip residue from my keyboard, I realize that even though I’d like to use pregnancy as an excuse to get fat on ice cream, I have to balance my indulgences with good nutrition.  I must pack my newly re-purposed body with mostly fruit and veg.

Enter this cool curried yogurt sauce — it makes an outstanding veggie dip.

The warmth of toasted curry powder, the brightness of fresh basil, the heat of a serrano chile, and the citrus kick of lime zest are all stirred into your favorite plain yogurt.  The flavors might seem a little odd (Indian curry and basil?), but the combination works.  This dip’s got enough going on to keep yet another bag of baby carrots interesting.

Try it with carrots, sliced red bell peppers, cauliflower florets, broccoli florets, or sugar snaps.

If you’re not into spicy food, substitute a milder jalapeno for the serrano, seed it, and use just a little. You’ll need the fresh flavor from the chile but you’ll be omitting much of the heat.  You can also use a mild curry powder.  (I use a hot variety.)

This dip also makes a great sauce for fish.  I haven’t tried it yet, but I imagine it would be awesome with grilled chicken kebabs piled atop basmati rice.  If you find another good use for it, leave a comment and let me know!

Curried Yogurt Dip with Basil, Serrano, and Lime
Thick Greek yogurt warmed with curry and chilies and brightened with fresh basil and lime zest. Serve cold as a veggie dip or as a sauce for seared fish or grilled chicken.

Serves 2

Adapted from Sally Schneider’s The Improvisational Cook

1 cup thick Greek-style yogurt, see *note
1 tsp. yellow curry powder
1 Tbs. fresh basil, minced
1 tsp. lime zest
1 tsp. serrano pepper, seeded and minced
1/4 tsp. sugar
salt, to taste
black pepper, to taste

Toast curry: In a small saucepan over medium heat, warm the curry powder until fragrant, about 1 minute, swirling pan occasionally to prevent burning.

Seed the serrano: Wear gloves when handling chilies. Remove stem end. Cut serrano lengthwise into fourths.  Use a paring knife to scrape out all seeds and attached membranes.  Mince.

Mix yogurt, toasted curry powder, basil, lime zest, serrano, sugar, salt, and pepper.  Refrigerate for 15 minutes to let flavors meld, then adjust seasonings if needed. (Sauce will get slightly spicier as it sits.)

Serve cold.

Keeps up to one week in the refrigerator.

*Note: If you cannot easily find Greek yogurt, you can thicken American yogurt for a similar result.  Drain yogurt in a sieve lined with cheesecloth, set over a large bowl.  Refrigerate for 2-3 hours, until most of the liquid has drained away. Start with twice the volume of yogurt you’ll need once it’s thickened.


Citrus and Daikon Salad with Champagne Vinaigrette

Some of you are still covered in snow.  Here in Texas we are simultaneously basking in and complaining about 80 degree temps. For us, it’s the perfect time to use winter’s seasonal citrus in gorgeous, light salads. It’s only “winter” in that the Rio Grande Valley grapefruits are still piled high and cheap in the grocery store.

This bright citrus and daikon salad with a tart champagne vinaigrette is another creation from Catherine Walther’s Raising the Salad Bar. Like the previous Apple and Pomegranate Salad, which involved seeding a pomegranate, this recipe is a great excuse to learn a new kitchen skill may teach you something — how to suprême citrus fruits.

If you’ve ever had canned mandarin oranges, you know what a supreme of citrus looks like — succulent sections of fruit, free of all bitter pith and membrane, with no toughness to chew through, the juicy fruit presented without distraction. With a sharp knife, it takes only a couple of minutes to supreme any citrus, giving you nice wedges to place atop fish, salads, or alongside eggs at your next brunch.

To supreme any citrus fruit:

1. Remove the round top (stem end) and bottom of the fruit by making horizontal slices.
2. Place the fruit on a newly flat side.
3. Run your knife down the sides to remove the rind and outer white pith.
4. Holding the skinless fruit in one hand, working one section at a time, cut closely along the membranes that radiate out from the center.  As you are about to cut a section free, you may need to give your knife a slight twist at the center of the fruit to loosen the section.
5. Squeeze the cut peel and membranes over a small bowl to collect any juices.

You’ll be left with stunningly pretty fruit that bursts in your mouth.

Are you new to daikon? These radishes are long, white, and mild, with only a slight kick of earthy bite. They are normally found in the Asian produce section; look for radishes that are firm and resist bending. If yours come with their leafy green tops, save them for sautéing or roasting like kale until crisp. If you can’t find daikon, substitute jicama.

This salad is sweet, earthy, crisp, and juicy. Serve it on a plate instead of a bowl to show off your new skills — the blushing pink grapefruit supremes will look so lovely next to their vividly orange cousins.

Citrus and Daikon Salad with Champagne Vinaigrette
Rosy pink grapefruit and bright orange supremes tossed with a crisp julienne of daikon radish and a bright, tart, champagne vinaigrette.

From Catherine Walther’s Raising the Salad Bar

Serves 4 to 6

2 grapefruits
3 navel oranges
1 section (about 3 inches long) daikon radish, peeled and cut into matchsticks
6 to 8 cups lettuce, washed and dried (I used butter lettuce, frisée, and radicchio.)

for the vinaigrette:
1/3 cup leftover juice from oranges and grapefruit
2 Tbs. champagne vinegar
1 tsp. shallot, minced
5 Tbs. olive oil
salt, to taste

Supreme the citrus as described above. Squeeze the peels and membranes over a small bowl to collect excess juice.

For the vinaigrette, mix the reserved juice, vinegar, and shallot in a small bowl.  Whisk in the oil and season with salt.

Toss the daikon and lettuce with just enough dressing to coat. Transfer to serving plates and top with citrus sections.