2005_07_bittman_cookbook.jpgHow To Cook Everything: Bittman Takes On America's Chefs by Mark Bittman (Wiley, 2005)

Last week, we began our first ever two-part "Gothamist Cooks" column so that we could do justice to Mark Bittman's new book in which he, Minimalist-style, challenges various chefs. Gothamist wanted to test his claim that his homecooking style could go the distance versus full-on chef cuisine (with its major time investment of chopping and prepping inherent).

To be fair to both Bittman and the chefs, we cooked both sides of one of the "challenges." Last week Gothamist made Bittman's quick take on seafood and legumes: Seared Scallops with Curried Lentils; therefore, this week had to be James Boyce's Halibut with White Beans. There's two things to say about Boyce's recipe: (1) it takes a long time to prepare, and (2) it's worth it. As much as we loved Bittman's strongly seasoned lentils and scallops, there's a slow, deliberate, building of flavors that Boyce creates through layering bacon fat, white wine, (homemade) chicken stock, and slow-cooked fresh herbs. Yes, beans take longer to cook than lentils do, and yes, it's best to pre-soak them, which means remembering to do so in the first place. But for those with the patience for such tasks, there's no reason not to try this recipe. Everything's clearly explained and easily executed. No impossibly difficult techniques or trickery involved.

If you won't have an entire day to make this recipe, it's best to break it up over the course of two days. We decided to make a chicken stock and soak the beans the night before we wanted to actually eat this meal, which made the rest of the preparation much more manageable.

Be sure to get high-quality ingredients, and if you can't find fresh halibut, some other good substitutes would be black sea bass, red snapper, or grouper. Preserved lemons might take a little more work to track down, but they give a very distinct flavor to the garnish that makes them well worth it. And be sure to cook the beans slowly--a gentle flame will keep their skins from bursting. Further, you might need to add more time to their cooking if the beans have any hardness remaining.

2005_07_halibut_cannellini.jpgHALIBUT WITH WHITE BEANS

Makes: 4 SERVINGS Time: 45 minutes (plus overnight soak)

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra as needed
2 ounces slab bacon, cut into 1/4-inch cubes
1 shallot, peeled and sliced
1/2 cup diced onion
salt and black pepper to taste
1 pound white beans, rinsed and soaked overnight, or for at least a few hours, then drained
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley leaves
sprig fresh thyme
1/2 cup white wine
2 to 3 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade
4 (6-ounce) halibut fillets
handful frisée, trimmed, washed, and dried
1 preserved lemon, skin only, sliced as thinly as possible (optional)
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter
2 teaspoons sherry vinegar, or to taste

1. Put 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large saucepan and turn the heat to medium; a minute later, add the bacon and cook, stirring, for 2 to 3 minutes, until the bacon starts to color and render. Add the shallot and onion, season with salt and pepper, and cook the mixture a few minutes more, until the shallot and onion are softened but not colored.

2. Turn the heat up to high and add the beans, about half the parsley, and the thyme sprig. Cook, stirring, without any additional liquid, for 1 minute or more, until you hear the beans start to sizzle. Add the wine and reduce by half. Add enough stock to barely cover the beans and bring to a boil; reduce the heat to low. Cook the beans, partially covered, at a steady simmer for 20 to 30 minutes, until soft, replenishing the cooking liquid with stock or water, if necessary.

3. When the beans are nearly done, put 2 tablespoons of the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Pat the halibut fillets dry with paper towels and season with salt and pepper. When the oil shimmers, add the fillets (skin sides down, if they have skin) and sear for 5 to 7 minutes, until nicely browned, then flip and sear on the second sides. Meanwhile, make a small salad to garnish the dish by tossing the frisée with the remaining tablespoon oil, the preserved lemon skin, and a pinch of salt.

4. Add 3 tablespoons of the butter to the pan and, once it has melted, baste the fish with it almost constantly until the fish is just cooked through, about 3 minutes longer. Add the remaining 1 tablespoon butter to the beans along with a splash of olive oil if you like and the sherry vinegar. Taste and adjust the seasonings, then finish with the remaining parsley.

5. Arrange the fillets on a large platter with a mound of the beans between them and perch the salad on top of the beans. Garnish the plate with a few additional strands of preserved lemon zest, if using, and circle the plate with a drizzle of olive oil if desired. Serve immediately.