Wild Mushroom Risotto & Halibut in a Clay Pot

It was late summer. The sound of the ocean rushed in its ebb and flow from outside, hypnotic, soothing. I made this aphrodisiac dinner with great amounts of affection and care. The sky was changing from its cerulean blue into deep violets along the horizon. I went to the Malibu Farmers Market that afternoon, marveling at the beautiful baskets of wild mushrooms; chantrelles, maitake, cremini, and other assorted, freshly picked mushrooms that enticed me with their earthy fragrance and colors in raw siennas and umbers, all the fruit of the soil. It was a hot day in August, mid-day. There they were in their baskets, overflowing. My two hands went out towards them, just the same as when one sees a sweet baby, and I nearly clasped these beautiful things in my arms as if they meant the world to me.

The August heat was pleasant, but the height of the sun around noon made things seem hotter, and my gauzy sundress was damp with sweat. My sunglasses were sliding down my nose from the slick of my skin. He tried to keep me from buying the largest basket of mushrooms, which for some reason, I couldn't imagine leaving out of my canvas shopping bag. It was the color and the smell of them, the sight of their tangled glory. I wanted those lusty mushrooms.

A smaller basket made its way into my canvas bag. We tasted olive oils, fingered through the piles of carrots, celery, round bulbs of red onion and garlic. The buttery flavor of the olive oil from the Malibu Olive Oil Company was delicious.

We poured glasses of wine while creating this meal; its delightful taste spread along my tongue, permeating my senses. I felt happy and a little tipsy, warm with the wine and the pleasure of cooking a meal. A little taste of the sharp parmigiano cheese mingled in my mouth while preparing my sly seduction. Culinary scents are provocative and sensual, as chopping the cloves of garlic, the juicy red onion, adding spices, and quickly rinsing the wild mushrooms smelling of soil--- it all conjured some kind of pleasure within me. I knew as I was stirring up my pot and pan full of butter, olive oil, pine nuts, herbs, spices, the heated aromas layering the air, that this risotto would be made with good measures of comfort and love.

I took my time in creating this dinner, still having no idea what I would make with the freshly caught halibut. Improvisation was on my side. I had begun the slurry of olive oil, white wine, spices, garlic, and red onion in my clay pot. It was warming up and smelling delicious.

I can't quite remember measurements at this particular moment, nor do I keep them. When making certain dishes, I refer to a menu or two, but create my own version. I will try to give my best when writing a recipe, but I'd expect my recipe might inspire one to create yet again another cook's own improvisation.

My clay pot was simmering with red onion, garlic, olive oil, butter, white wine, dashes of spices, herbs. Warming the spice in the pot gives the kitchen a lovely scent. Cutting up slices of lemon, chopping basil, wondering about what to do with the halibut.

As a young girl, my grandmother has been connected to my earliest memories of food, but I can't remember ever watching her cook. I do remember her in the kitchen with our housemaid, Irene. The steadfast Irene, wide-shouldered, smelling of fresh ironing, her plum-black and radiant skin shining as she smiled benevolently down at me, tending to the preparation of things my grandmother and her Joy of Cooking cookbook put together by adhering to recipes. My grandmother was born in England, and therefore the only association I had with halibut was Fish and Chips. Fish 'n chips was the way we said it, and who doesn't? I only remember the battered fish, hot and fried, doused in tartar sauce, or at least my understanding of tartar sauce which most likely isn't true tartar sauce but some sort of whitish, mayonnaise-like substance that passed for sauce. As I had no idea that the halibut was truly fish, it was so heavily laden with dipping and batter that the center of the fried fish was just this mysterious flaky white flesh that melted into my mouth without much notice. The taste of the fish was so disguised that by the time I finished off the bitefuls, I had eaten mostly fried batter and mayonnaisey glop. But as children prefer flavors such as that, I didn't give it much thought, and now faced with what to do with the halibut, many years later, in a kitchen, wearing a polka-dotted apron.

I prepared the clay pot with roughly chopped circles of carrots, those fresh and new bunches of carrots from the farmers market, and slices of celery, stirring it together with the wine, olive oil, and buttery mixture, placing the filets of halibut delicately on top, after washing them cleanly with a bit of the white wine I was cooking the risotto with. I had garlic paste and slathered on a touch of that on the flesh of the filets, then decoratively arranging the inside of the pot with slices of lemon around the edges. I imagined the lemon slices would lend a fragrant and bright flavor to the fish. Chopped chives were ready for plating, fresh leaves of basil. I wasn't sure of how to cook this simple fish, but I knew that if I kept it simple, the freshness of the fish would stand out, and the flavor would be light to balance the richness of the risotto.

The risotto began to get creamy as I added the cheese and herbs, stirring, dashing in more broth. I took a few more sips of the white wine I was drinking, which was supposed to be the cooking wine, but not truly 'cooking wine' at all. The pine nuts had toasted well and I added some more. Sometimes when in the kitchen, the fluid way things mingle and blend just come together naturally, and effortlessly the pleasure of cooking makes you feel right in your soul. This was one of those moments. I wasn't bashing around and cursing at things, nor was the effort to put something together pressing upon me, hoping it would come out good or become something magnificent and then overdoing the whole dinner, ruining it with my high expectations. I was quite happy in my apron, as I am most times, just chopping up the chives and imagining what the halibut will taste like. The risotto tasted cheesy with good parmigiano and fresh herbs, a little dried Herbs de Provence in a sprinkle, and dollops of broth, white wine and butter. The wild mushrooms were just glorious and lively within the risotto. As the screen door to the patio let in the cool briny air of the night, the hush of the ocean making its hypnotic sounds, I felt as though evenings like this were the kind that required little else but an awareness, appreciating the moment as it was.

The saying that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach just may be true, so if you desire to create a loving meal for your lover, try a comforting and earthy risotto with a clay pot baked halibut. Add some candlelight and see what happens.

Salad was served although I just tossed spring mix with a quick olive oil and balsamic cream dressing, dash of herbs and not much else.