Food & Wine

Chef Nina Wilson Shares 20 Ways to Cook Halibut

27 December 2022 By Nina Wilson
Dishing it Up - Ways to Cook Halibut
Illustration by John Devolle

Pre-galley, Nina Wilson trained as a dive instructor and skippered sailing boats in Greece before starting her yachting career in 2013. Currently head chef on a 55-meter, her talents included telling brilliant jokes and being able to consume six cheeseburgers and feel no guilt. Follow her on Instagram @thecrewchef.

We’ve recently had a brilliant season in Alaska. A killer season, some might say. A fish-killing season if we’re going to be blunt. MY WORD.

Overall, it was a completely new experience for me and most of the crew. A foggy, craggy landscape where bears and avalanches were a genuine worry rather than a fictional plot line. No more trotting out off the passerelle for a post-work stroll; you’ve got to remember to download the all-terrain map, back it up on your watch GPS system, let the whole team know when you’ll be back, and then shrug on the bear spray holster fully loaded with its weaponry. Yes, bear spray. It’s like mace, but for bears!

Its incredible scenery almost made up for the lack of provisioning options. I’ve already detailed in a previous column how hard it was to get any fresh produce in the 49th state, but the seafood…now that’s another story. Luckily, our guests’ main goal for their Alaskan adventure was to land some monsters.

Gone were the SEABOBs and Jet Skis — in their place we acquired the kit to become a seafood-hunting machine. Crab pots, shrimp pots, electric reels worth thousands of dollars to haul up creatures from the deep. We got excited, thinking about plump fillets of salmon and sweet, juicy spot shrimp. Fear not, it was all to come our way. However, the phrase, “Be careful what you wish for” does spring to mind.

Having avid and determined fishermen on board, we didn’t have to wait long. Rockfish, spot shrimp, Dungeness crabs caught in our very own pots! It was thrilling, seeing the bounty brought aboard, and also confronting learning how to “skull cap” a crab. (Approach from behind. With two hands, grab legs on either side. Find a suitable bollard. Confidently smash the crab’s eyes onto the bollard in a swinging motion and the lid should pop off nice and easily. Break crab body in two, remove the gills, and repeat with the remaining 15 crabs.)

Initially, we galley folk were thrilled. Melt-in-the-mouth rockfish, plucked from the frigid Alaskan waters. The freshest spot shrimp — perfect when served raw and tasting so sweetly delicate with a yielding texture. At first, we enthusiastically accepted the Dungeness crab…until the toil of picking crab meat became a large time vacuum that we didn’t account for. Nevertheless, we loved having such quality produce to work with and the guests were thrilled to be eating their own harvest. Yet, there was still one delicious fish that we hadn’t seen…

Having avid and determined fishermen on board, we didn’t have to wait long. Rockfish, spot shrimp, Dungeness crabs caught in our very own pots!

Toiling away in the depths of the galley mid-trip, the news reached us. HALIBUT HO! Not one, but two giant prizes. We rushed outside, eager to catch a glimpse of the beasts. Slimy, slightly grotesque but nicely plump, they promised us divine inspiration and a way to keep within the crew seafood budget. Thankfully, two of our deck crew were keen sports fishers, and deftly filleted the halibut, delivering it to us in large, silver gastronome trays. Post-dinner service, we cleaned up the fillets, exclaiming at the pure white flesh, the heft of the fillets. Our vacuum-sealing machine became the hero of the story, safely packaging the bounty in tight, hygienic bags for our future enjoyment.

Mission accomplished! Or so we thought…

Later that same week, we heard that there had been another incredibly successful halibut fishing day. A monster, a behemoth, what they call a Pacific door halibut — literally the size of the man who caught it. One of the fillets reached from my ankles to my shoulders.

Determined, we began the packaging process again, feeling for all the world a fish processing plant. Tray after tray after tray arrived in the galley. Great, quivering mounds of translucent flesh. We ploughed through more vacuum-seal bags. Our sealing machine started protesting, as did our second engineer who we’d wrangled in to assist. Bag after bag, we kept on packaging….

Which thus formed The Great Wall of Halibut. Not visible from space, but indeed highly impressive and upon taking a moment to view it in the galley, we all felt slightly queasy and had a moment’s silence for this ancient fish that had given its life.

After keeping some of the choice pieces aside for the guests (read: halibut cheeks — have you ever had them? Incredible! The texture will blow your mind, almost like pulled chicken in the best possible way). The wall was disassembled and decamped to the walk-in freezer.

The freezer became a danger zone, full of frozen bricks of halibut. One of those, tumbling off the top shelf, could pose a serious threat to your noggin. Stuck between a rock and a hard wall of halibut, we decided the best possible option was to A) offload some on the private jet when they departed and B) serve it to the crew every single day.

Every. Single. Day.

Obviously, fish tacos were the first port of call, and then we started our journey. Pan-fried, roasted, crumbed. Poached with a ranchero sauce, poached with a creamy dill sauce. Battered, steamed, flaked into pasta, and molded into fish cakes. En papillote with garlic and cherry tomatoes and en papillote with ginger, garlic, and scallions. Fish burgers, fish sliders, fish finger sandos. Sometimes dressed in a salsa verde, other times with the simple lemon wedge. Nestled in with butter-softened leeks and tucked under crisp puff pastry. Fish curry, both Keralan and Thai (multiple times). To the crew’s credit, they never complained once. We were blessed to have a boatload of fish-loving crew, and they devoured it without delay.

Our plan was successful: within a few weeks and the guests departing (loaded with Yetis of frozen white gold), our freezer stocks were at a manageable level, and we could enter the seafood boxes without fear. It was a wild ride, those months in Alaska, and I am sad to see the halibut slowly disappear (we have a few kilos left, but I’m appropriately saving them for the guests). To taste truly fresh, cold-water seafood minus the price tag was a life-changing experience. Especially for the halibut itself. Sorry not sorry.

Courtesy of Nina Wilson

Halibut Burger

The best meal that we ever created with the halibut was a hastily thrown together fish burger on drop-off day eaten on the dock at sunset. We still had some fresh fillets kept aside, important for the flakiest, juiciest burger. Prep your fish into roughly the same size as the burger bun if possible. Whisk together self-raising flour, and ice-cold beer to make a thin batter. Flour, dip, and fry the fish. Load up your toasted buns with a good tartare sauce (equal parts mayo, shallots, capers, and pickles), shredded iceberg lettuce, and finally, the golden battered fish. Absolute joy.

This article originally ran in the February 2022 issue of Dockwalk.


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