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Herb-Crusted Halibut with Saffron

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Chef Casey

Ingredients: Saffron, Wild Rice, Kale, Fennel, Parsley, Chives, Garlic, Eggs, Lemon


Steps/components: Saffron Aioli, Wild Rice, Sauteed Fennel and Kale, Roasted Herb-Crusted Halibut/Whitefish.

The finer things in life--cars, guitars, cameras, wines, entertainment streaming services--set a higher standard when undergoing the cost-benefit analysis.  Saffron, plant pistils worth more than gold, is one of those high-value-high-reward products of our planet.  Those painstakingly harvested little threads might not seem like much, but it only takes a few of them to radically transform a dish’s flavor, color, and aroma.  Essential in cuisines from Spain to India, Morocco to New Orleans, from the first cookbooks to today’s fine dining, saffron is an amazingly versatile ingredient.  For today, however, we’re going to keep it simple.

Before we launch into things, however, let’s take a look at another ancient ingredient--this one having roots in my home state.  Wild rice, not technically “rice” proper, is another flexible foodstuff that packs a punch--having an incredibly high protein content and loaded with plenty of essential nutrients--all within those amazingly textured grains.  Archaeological evidence from the Great Lakes, Minnesota in particular, shows that it has been harvested and consumed for centuries.  Like the rest of our dish components, the name of the game today is simplicity--to highlight the unique characteristics of these wonderful ingredients.

Today’s dish--a meal for two’s what I’m going for; scale up as you need--has a simple yet luxurious name:  Roasted Herb-Crusted Halibut with Saffron Aioli, Wild Rice, Kale, and Fennel.  Perhaps that’s too wordy and bland, so here’s another:  Estuary.  Either way, let’s get started!

Start with the aioli,  I like using a blender for this--though you can whisk by hand, most folks have technology cluttering the countertops anyway--so use it!  Take a pinch of saffron threads, gently separate them a bit, and drop them into two tablespoons of hot water to bloom for about ten minutes.  Throw one or two cloves of garlic into the blender with a pinch of salt and a splash of lemon juice, blitz, and add your saffron-water.  Blitz again before adding an egg yolk and a half-cup of oil to the blender--the timing can be hard but you’re looking for a steady stream without adding it all at once or taking so long that the blender heats up your dressing.  I like to use a two-to-one ratio of neutral oil to olive oil.  You’re also looking for a ratio of 1 yolk with 2 cloves garlic and three tablespoons liquid to one-half cup of oil.  You can adjust with more oil for a thicker consistency or omit the egg and add extra garlic and lemon to keep things plant-based.  Store in the refrigerator.

Wash your wild rice--I usually give out half a cup per person--with cold water before bringing it to a boil and simmering for about thirty-to-forty minutes.  Use a three-to-one ratio of stock or water to grain, seasoned moderately before cooking, kept covered.  Once the water’s absorbed the zizania is cooked--toss with a splash of olive oil, check your seasoning, and let it sit covered off the heat until ready to serve.

Pick the fronds from the fennel--for garnish--and clean/cut up the bulb.  While you’ve got the board out, slice up some chives, mince some garlic, and thresh-then-chop the kale.  You can roast the bulb, shave it for a salad, pickle it, or make it into a broth with some of your saffron if you’d like--I’m partial to cutting a lemon and the fennel bulb in half, charring them in a pan with a small amount of neutral oil until cooked, replacing them in the pan with minced garlic and a good glug of olive oil, then tossing kale through until just wilted, seasoning and finishing with the juice from one-half of your charred lemon.  I typically wilt the kale right as the fish comes out.

Use a food processor or proceed knife-only to chop up parsley and garlic (other herbs work well also) through half-a-sandwich-slice-sized-piece of bread.  Crumbs such as panko work well as well, tossed with a tiny amount of oil.  You’re not going to need a lot for this--just enough to cover the top of the fish.  Speaking of the fish, make sure you’ve pulled any pin-bones and, depending on the variety, skinned it.  Get a roasting tray ready with a drizzle of cooking oil and lay out your fillets on it, lightly seasoning them with salt and black pepper before covering the tops lightly with your bread-herb mixture.  Get the fish into an oven rocking at about 375 degrees Fahrenheit--the timing is entirely dependent upon the size of the fish portions, but it’ll be done when the meat flakes and the crust is toasted.

Plating up, I like to rest the fish on a bed of kale, set the wild rice beside that and rest the fennel against both; squeeze a bit of charred lemon juice over the lot and set a large quenelle of aioli in a blank space on the plate.  Garnish with chives and fennel fronds.  You can, and should, take the opportunities to stray or change this dish to whatever you’d like.  Make a light broth with fennel, roasted corn husks, and fennel scraps tinged with saffron, serve your fish on a nest of kale and make a moat of the broth in a shallow bowl.  Steam the fish in a paper packet with saffron, garlic, herbs.  Rub it down with Moroccan or Indian spices before roasting.  Don’t want fish?  Cook up some chicken, use any leftover meat and wild rice to make a great meat-and-grain salad.  Vegans--tofu dredged in starch and fried makes a lovely substitute.  If you’re looking for a good dessert, saffron goes well in a coconut-milk rice pudding; if you’re looking to put in the effort, it’s also a fantastic addition to ice cream and mangoes.

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