This dish recently captivated me with its abundance of Sephardic spices, and it wouldn’t let me go. I found myself, again and again, holed up in the kitchen grinding caraway and cumin. It’s adapted from Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem cookbook, a favorite of mine. Take note: Halibut is expensive (but worth it!). If you want to make a more everyday version, try cod. Also, please always use www.seafoodwatch.org to find the most sustainable options.
To make the spice paste, pull out a pan and toast the caraway and cumin seeds in a dry skillet until their aromas drive you crazy in a good way. This simple gesture is a prayer for the dinner hour. You will hardly be able to wait, but you still have a bit of work to do. Put these spices into a mortar & pestle (or a spice grinder) and turn them into powder. Do the same with the cayenne pepper if it’s whole. Add the paprika and cinnamon, and stir this dry powder blend all around until mixed. To form a paste, chop the garlic and jalapeno on a cutting board with a bit of salt until it starts to feel sticky. Add this to the dry spices and start to pound and push against the sides with your mortar to form a paste. Add the olive oil and continue to push and pound until it all gives in and decides to collapse into a paste. Let it meld together in a warm spot on the counter while you prepare everything else.
A word about the fish: I choose to serve this in one piece at the table and let people ply away pieces with big dollops of the sauce. If you’d like to be more civilized than that, you can certainly cut your fish into multiple steaks. Your choice, but it does make a lovely presentation as one big hunk swimming in this luscious sauce. Either way, fill a plate with flour. Add a bit of salt & pepper and mix around. Now dust your fish in this mixture.
To make the fish, heat a cast iron skillet on high to take the cold edge off. Add the sunflower oil and let it heat up a bit. Add the halibut steak (or steaks). Cook until the underside has a golden crust, about 4 minutes. Flip the fish and sauté about 4 minutes longer until the fish is cooked through, but still tender. Cover with foil and set aside for a few minutes while you finish the sauce.
Heat another pan, a large spacious one, and add 1 tablespoon olive oil and the spice paste. Cook for a few minutes until the mixture turns from a bright crimson color to something more umber. It should smell outrageous with a trade route of spices to forge a path for your hunger. Add the water, tomato paste, sugar, and lemon juice. Allow to cook for a few more minutes to let these flavors get united. Nestle the fish into this blanket of sauce, spooning a little over and around. Cover the pan for a few minutes to let it warm through, all the while warming a platter in the oven so you have a pedestal for serving this fragrant beauty. Spoon a generous heap of sauce all around your warmed platter. Place the fish on top of the sauce in the middle, spooning the rest of the sauce over the top. Garnish with fresh cilantro leaves and serve immediately. Savor with delight and gratitude.