It doesn't have a sleek appearance and it's homelier than many of its seagoing brethren. Nonetheless, halibut is a favorite for many seafood fanciers. Well into its harvesting season, a fresh catch of local halibut is only a seafood outlet away.
The halibut is actually the largest member of the flounder clan--any of more than 300 species of bottom-living flatfish.
Its broad, flat body is distinguished by a lack of symmetry. Interestingly, the halibut evolves into its pancake appearance as it matures.
In its larval stage, it looks like a normal fish, with an eye on each side of its head. As it matures, however, one eye moves across the top of the head and will come to rest close to the other one on either the right or left side of the head. The eyes move independently of one another. The fish's mouth remains more or less in its original position and appears to open sideways.
Ralph Shankle co-owns Cal Pacifica Seafood in Ventura, which offers a fresh catch of halibut daily.
"Here along the coast we catch the California halibut," Shankle said recently. For his money, the California is superior to other common halibut types offered at local fish outlets.
"Other types you're likely to see," Shankle said, "are the Northern, Mexican and Atlantic halibut. A lot of people think the California variety tastes better than the others."
Halibut season opened June 16 and will continue through the middle of March.
"It is an important catch for local fishermen," Shankle said. "This area supplies most of the halibut to the Los Angeles area, and we also ship up to San Francisco."
Fishermen are catching halibut as close as the Channel Islands, traveling north to the Santa Barbara Channel as well, Shankle said. Which means that halibut purchased locally promises to be extremely fresh.
"The halibut caught in Mexican or Alaskan waters normally isn't near as fresh as the take here," he said. Boats in those waters will be out sometimes for four days, "and it means most of that catch will have to be frozen."
Not so for local halibut--travel time to market is but a short boat ride to the shoreline.
"The average size for the California is basically between six to eight pounds," Shankle said. "We see them as large as 40 pounds."
Other halibut varieties, such as the Atlantic, grow much larger and can reach weights of up to 400 pounds.
Shankle prefers to broil halibut.
"Dabble on a little Worcestershire and soy sauce with some garlic butter--not too much; you'll overpower it."
Shankle warns against using a popular seafood flavoring before cooking. "Don't use lemon on it while it cooks," he said. "It makes the fish too tart. Squeeze it on after cooking."
If broiling halibut, he said, two minutes on each side should suffice.
"The local halibut isn't going to be real big when filleted. You don't want to dry it out. When it starts to flake, that's when you know it's done." Given the firmness of the flesh, Shankle said, halibut is also "great for the barbecue and is perfect for stir-fry."
"If there are any leftovers, I use it like I would for a tuna fish salad. It is my favorite of all fish."
When purchasing, he offered this tip to check for freshness:
"Fresh halibut will be almost a vanilla color. As it gets older, the flesh becomes more white. The meat will separate and any red blood lines will turn more of a brown."
Also, lightly press your finger into the flesh. "It should bounce back and be spongy instead of remaining caved in," he said.
This season has been average--not great--for halibut fishermen, so consumer prices are about average, not great. But it is the cheapest you'll find all year. Right now, local halibut fillets can run anywhere from $5.75 to $8.99 a pound, depending on where you buy them.
* WHERE AND WHEN
Cal Pacifica is at 36 N. Franklin Lane, Ventura. Halibut and other fresh catches can be purchased between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and 7 a.m. to noon Sunday. For information, call 643-2586.
SERVING SUGGESTIONBAKED HALIBUT AVOCADO
2 pounds halibut fillets
20 small fresh mushrooms or two 4-ounce cans mushrooms, drained
1/4 cup chopped onion
1/4 cup butter or margarine
1 cup soft bread crumbs
1/4 teaspoon celery salt
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 cup chopped parsley
1 egg, beaten
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 large avocado
1/2 cup shredded jack or mozzarella cheese
Cut fish into serving pieces and place in single layer in well-greased baking dish.
Saute mushrooms and onion in butter until onion is tender. Add bread crumbs, celery salt, salt, pepper and parsley.
Combine egg and lemon juice. Brush fish with egg mixture. Peel and slice avocado. Arrange slices over fish. Top with crumb mixture. Sprinkle with cheese.
Bake at 350 degrees for 35 minutes or until the fish flakes easily when tested with fork. Serves six.