Why is it that simple tasting French food is always the most difficult to prepare? For years I wondered why the classic fish dish, Sole Meunière always commanded high prices in restaurants, sometimes higher than filet mignon and always wads of euros more than salmon. It's just a whole fish cooked in brown butter with a squeeze of lemon and some chopped parsley thrown in!
Now I know better.
Just trying to skin sole will teach you why it's so darned pricey. But more than that, the art of cooking it to perfection is just that: ART. I know because I just attempted with three expensive whole fillets that all ended up mushy. Not crispy on the oustide and flake-a-licious on the inside. Not lightly browned and opalescent white. Not nutty brown butter-ish with lemon saliva bursting sauce. And not all together served in one piece, but instead falling apart fish fingers. Bummer.
However, my fourth fillet I got right. And I will share with you my findings with the hopes that you will not waste your time and money as I did mine.
But first a little story on sole and how it took the soul of one of France's most revered cooks, Chef Vatel.
Before the Roi de Soleil's extravagant palace of Versailles was constructed in 1682, the King traveled around the country with his aristocracy. Wherever he went they were required to go too. In this way he kept an eye on his scheming court and also kept them in dept paying for their travel expenses and hosting lavish parties in his honor.
In 1671, the king traveled to Chantilly to meet with his commander, Prince Condé before waging war on Holland. A great feast was planned hosted by the Prince for the King and his court with the aid of his "Master of Cooks", François Vatel.
The first night of feasting, a light supper was provided of turtle soup, creamed chicken fried trout (whatever that is), and roast pheasant. Seventy-five extra guests attended the party. Vatel was horrified that some of the tables at his super did not receive enough pheasant roast. (I think I would have been happy not to receive one of his roast pheasants) Although his staff assured him that he wasn't to blame for the shortage of food and unknown quantity of royal guests, he was humiliated by this blunder.
No doubt his fear of failure was doubled with the failed firework show that was ruined by cloud cover and the desire to prove himself as a master chef in the absence of the King's Chef, the god father to Haute Cuisine, Varenne.
At four o'clock in the morning after what he considered to be a failed first diner, Vatel was still hard at work desperately trying to secure enough food for the next day's gala event, an even more extravagant and opulent menu of anchovies sevigne, melon with Parma ham, lobster quenelles with shrimp sauce, and filet of sole.
He met with a fish monger in the early hours of morning who arrived with an inadequate amount of fish. He asked the purveyor, "Is this all"? and the man replied back to him, "Yes sir" not knowing that Vatel had also ordered more from several seaport towns in France. Vatel waited hoping that more would arrive. Nothing came.
Exhausted from twelve sleepless nights of preparing for Prince Condé's feasts and unable to see a way out of total disgrace, he went to his room and fixed his sword to his door. He ran into it several times. The first two times only wounding himself, the third thrust he pierced his heart. Some say he ran upon it another five times.
Fifteen minutes after his suicide fish poured in to the royal household and assistants came running to find Vatel so that he could distribute it. Too late, Vatel lay dead in a pool of blood.
The dinner went on as planned minus the filet of sole course, and all agreed – the Roi de Soleil included – that his death, although tragic, only proved Vatel's code of honor. Vatel traded his soul for sole.
(Even more tragic none of his recipes survive today with the exception of a famous dessert topping he created called Chantilly cream, a mixture of whipped cream and sugar. Perhaps you've had some on a hot fudge sundae?)
No need to trade your soul for sole. The recipe's on the following page!
2 (8 ounces) sole fillets
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
8 Tablespoons clarified butter
1 cup flour
4 tablespoons finely chopped Italian parsley
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
Lemon slices, for garnish
1. Season fillets with salt and pepper.
2. Heat 2 tablespoons clarified butter in each 2 large sauté pans on medium high until butter is nut brown. Make sure your pans distribute heat evenly (very important). It is possible to cook the filets in the same pan, but I wouldn't recommend it because they need space.
3. Dredge fillets in flour, shaking off any excess flour. Do this step right before placing fillets in pans. This ensures a crisp crust.
4. Place fillets in hot saute pans and cook over medium heat for 2 to 3 minutes per side, until golden brown and crispy. Do not turn fish until it is golden brown and do not move it around too much in the pan or it will not brown. I like to give the saute pan a jolt in order to flip the fish in one piece, but if you're not comfortable with this use the widest spatula possible so that the fish doesn't fall apart.
5. Remove fillets from pans and transfer onto a platter.
6. Dump out old clarified butter from one saute pan and wipe clean with a paper towel removing any pieces of fish. Don't rinse it! Add remaining clarified butter and heat on medium high until golden brown. Take off the heat and add lemon juice and a big three finger pinch of chopped parsley.
7. Place fish on plates and spoon over nut butter lemon sauce.
8. Garnish with lemon slices
1. The fish can be made ahead of time and reheated in the oven, but the brown crust will get mushy
2. For clarified butter, melt 1-2 sticks on low heat. Then line a strainer or chinois with a paper towel and pour slowly through it. Or just let the milk solids settle to the bottom and skim the oil off the top. Clarified butter is used because it does not burn as easily due to the lack of milk solids.
3. Keeping the bone in the fish will allow for easier turning, but it's not necessary if your fishmonger has already removed it.
4. Play with the heat. Make sure the butter is hot when you add the fish – it should sizzle – but if you feel it's too hot and the fish is burning, then turn it down a little after the initial contact is made.