Until I rediscovered the delights of smoky grilled sardines, soles belles meunières have long been my absolute favourite fish dish. Barrett informs me that sole are sadly on the yellow list of the Seafood Wallet Card published by the Chicago Shedd Aquarium (meaning you should avoid them because of overfishing). Still, we only eat it a few times a year as it's expensive in restaurants or means a visit to the market to make at home. (I am so glad I found a good fishmonger at the market on Saturday!)
The classic French method of preparing them "belle meunière" is so elegant and tasty that I have never seen the point of experimenting with other recipes. Sole flesh is delicate and has a subtle nutty flavour that would be overwhelmed by anything more complicated that a light coat of butter, bread crumbs or flour and lemon juice.
Preparing Soles Belles Meunières
The first step, as always, is in obtaining nice fresh fish. If you have a fishmonger, ask him/her to remove the skin but leave the head intact. I know this puts a lot of people off, but sole is so delicate you really need the bones to hold the whole thing together. You'll coat the head anyway before you cook, so you shouldn't have the fish eyeing you reproachfully for long. And below I am giving you sure-fire instructions on how to eat fish off the bone elegantly. Trust me.
Because the fish cook so quickly and take up so much space in your frying pan it's impractical to cook more than two at a time. You could put the finished fish in a warm oven as you cook the next lot if you really want to impress your dinner guests, but I prefer to make this dish as romantic dinner for two. Luckily my sweetie loves sole as much as I do.
Once you have your fish home, rinse them off and put them in the back of the fridge until you are ready to cook them (ideally very shortly afterwards). If you are preparing other vegetables to go with the fish, you should start them now as they will surely take longer to cook.
Are you ready to cook fish now? Rinse the fish once more for good measure and pat them dry. Roll them in either flour (the classic way) or home made bread crumbs (which I find make it easier to obtain a nice golden crust). Put some butter in your biggest frying pan, enough to cover the bottom well. When the butter is all frothy, slap the fish down. They seem to eat up the butter at first; you may want to slide a little more down the sides of the pan if it looks dry. Keep the heat relatively high as you want to brown the fish quickly. The flesh will cook very quickly even at a low heat, but you don't want a soggy crust. When you can see the crust is a little brown, carefully flip it over to brown the other side. As you will see from my photos below, I'm still not expert at getting a fine, even brown crust. Remove the fish from the pan, and you will notice that there is a fair amount of brown butter left behind. Squeeze some lemon juice in the pan and stir up the crusty bits. Salt and pepper to taste and pour this sauce over the fish. Serve immediately!
How to Eat Fish on the Bone
So now you have your fish (head intact) on your plate and you are wondering what to do with it. I remember the first time my sister ordered sole in a French restaurant and she gave me a panicked look when it arrived whole. WHAT NOW?? Luckily I had been in France long enough to know what to do and for one brief moment her little sister was seen as a Sophisticated Expert. (Don't worry, it didn't last - I'm still the Little Sister.) Actually, it's ridiculously easy to eat a fish with bones in it. In fact half my readers, who already know this, have probably already murmured "tcha" and moved to a different page. For those who don't though, here goes.
First, look at your fish as an oval with a line through the middle of lengthwise. This line is where the spine of the fish is located. Basically, you have four slices of meat in the fish in front of you: one on either side of the spine on top and the same on the bottom. Logical, no? First cut a line with your fish knife along the spine on the top and slide it under the meat. You'll see that it hardly has to be cut; the fish flesh pulls easily away from the bone. Eat it. It's good. Here is a photo of my fish with a couple bites gone. You'll probably notice that the fish has fringe on the edges and that the meat ends here. Don't eat the fringe. Some fish (of the female variety) also have roe, a long pinkish sack on one edge. Some people love these fish eggs; I am not overly fond of them. They are perfectly safe to try, though, if you want to make up your own mind!
Once you have eaten all the flesh off the top of the fish, it is time to remove the skeleton. This is the fun part! Slide your knife under the skeleton and lift it. (Photo courtesy of the Critic.) You'll see it pulls away from the meat below cleanly. You'll need to hold the skeleton aloft with your fork while you use your knife to detach the meat from the head and the tail at either end. Then you can simply lift the skeleton away, either to the side of your plate or even better to an empty side plate. All you will have left is delicious fish. (See the finished product.)
Now that wasn't very complicated, was it? It actually takes a lot longer to explain than it does to show someone, but it is impractical for me to invite you all over for dinner one by one. Some fish are just fine filleted - salmon and tuna for example - because they don't have very fine bones and have dense flesh that holds together well on its own. However, for sole you really are better off leaving the fish whole and dealing with the bones once it has been cooked. You'll find that you have less of a problem with missed bones and even, maybe, that it's fun to play with your food!
If you are in Paris and would like to try sole belle meunière prepared by an expert, my suggestion would be to visit our favourite fish restaurant, Vin et Marée. There are a few of them in Paris, but our favourite is in the 16th (address below). The fish is bought fresh daily at the Rungis market and they are cooked very simply to bring out the best of their flavour. The menu changes daily and is presented on a chalkboard, although a couple dishes are nearly always there (including the sole). One other constant, which you must try if you do visit, is the baba au rhum for dessert. One day I will write a proper review of this restaurant and give you the full low-down but for the moment you'll just have to trust me. It's delish.
Vin et Marée
183, boulevard Murat
Phone: 01 46 47 91 39
Métro: Porte St. Cloud