By Joëlle Laffitte
Olive Oil Times Contributor | Reporting from Paris
I spent a large part of my childhood on or near the ocean. I watched fisherman pulling in boats filled with marlin, turbot, snapper and cod, and in those days (not that it was so long ago) no one spoke of over fishing or mercury riddled tuna, or if they did it didn’t reach my young ears. I loved most seafood, and inherited my love of crab legs and raw oysters from my father, who was known to wear a shirt sporting the slogan “eat it raw.” I won’t comment on that, but I will say that the smell of briny oysters fresh from the Atlantic and a sweet lobster roll are among my most cherished childhood food memories.
Unfortunately, my mother did not share our familial passion for all things from the sea, and even though she did allow an outdoor clam bake, when we enjoyed fish it was usually in a restaurant. And maybe that’s part of the reason I learned to love dining out. I can still remember the taste of the glorious clarified butter I dipped my morsels of white crab meat into, and felt sorry for my mother that she didn’t share in my joy.
But the truth is, my mother’s aversion to cooking fresh fish was passed on to me, not in the form of distaste for it, but in that I never learned how to properly prepare it myself. I consider this a tragedy for a serious cook, especially when I have access to some of the best fish markets, where fresh catches are brought in only a few hours after being reeled in, and the smell of the coasts of Normandy and Brittany fill the Parisian air.
Recently I delved into the two-volume set of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which I believe is a rite of passage for any serious cook (especially an American cook in Paris) and I decided that I just couldn’t live with myself until I overcame my timidity and perfected a classic: Sole Meunière. This was Mrs. Child’s first meal upon arriving in France in 1948, and it is a dish she later proclaimed was the most exciting of her life. I can easily understand why this experience prompted her love for French cuisine. Cooked in the meunière style, where tender filets of fish are dusted with flour and the glory of butter is checked delicately with lemon and fresh parsley, sole is heavenly. A glass of white wine never had such a legendary companion.
However, Sole Meunière is the fish recipe that Mrs. Child did not include in what is, I have to say, her very laborious first publication, and so I was forced to make this journey alone. At first I felt like a stranded wanderer on a deserted beach, and faithful to my nature, I was making the journey too complicated. There are hundreds of recipes for sole, but I wanted to make sure I found the original, the classic, the version that Julia Child fell head over heels for over 63 years ago. I wanted the perfect sole.
In the end I followed the advice of my fishmonger, who is always happy to see me and always willing to advise on proper seafood cooking techniques. He of course had a basic recipe for sole meunière, which I happily noted since, other than a mishap involving a live spider crab, I can usually trust his expertise.
It turns out making this yourself at home can be quite easy to do, and it always surprises me how it is often the simplest recipes with so few ingredients that create such bold, yet nuanced flavors. It is deceptively straightforward, and I love that this dish is mostly about technique, yet it is a technique that almost anyone can learn. A few simple steps will yield a moist, tender fish with just the slightest golden crunch, blanketed in a harmonious blend of flavors that will make you feel like a celebrity chef. No Parisian restaurants required.
The key to the sauce is the browned butter, which can be tricky as it tends to burn if you aren’t precise with the timing. Use one part extra virgin olive oil for the fish, which helps to keep the butter from browning too quickly and, of course, for its flavor.
It should be noted that you can cook the fish whole, which is just as easy and a more attractive presentation, but filets are nice if you don’t want to deal with bones. To fully savor the flavors, serve with white Burgundy and a few boiled potatoes or a baguette. In the true French style, a salad or other vegetable is eaten afterwards, but never at the same time.
For the fish you will need:
2 whole skinned and cleaned sole,
or the filets, de-boned
¼ cup flour
2 T lightly salted butter
2 T extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
For the sauce:
¼ cup butter
1 or 2 T chopped flat leaf parsley
2 T lemon juice
Rinse the fish under cold water and pat dry very well. Sprinkle with salt and a small pinch of pepper and rub all over with the flour. In a shallow frying pan that is large enough to hold both fish or all of the filets, add the olive oil and turn burner to a medium-high setting. When the oil is hot, add the butter and wait for the bubbling to subside before adding the fish to the pan. The fish should be allowed to cook without being disturbed for 3 minutes, or 2 if the filets are very small. At this point, using a metal spatula, carefully check to see if the underside is golden brown, and if so, gently flip to the other side. When both sides are golden (this should take no more than 3-4 minutes per side) remove and keep warm on a covered plate (or place on a tray in a warm oven). Now make the sauce. In a small stainless steel or ceramic bottomed sauce pan add the butter, and allow it to cook until just golden brown. This is an important step and will need careful watching, as it will brown in only 2 or 3 minutes. Add the lemon juice and whisk together briefly. Plate the fish, pour the sauce over and sprinkle with the parsley. Serve right away. Bon appétit!