Living down the shore has me flatfish confused. Going into the local fishmonger for some flounder, can end up with a consumer leaving the store with their head swimming from terminology that is as muddied as the back-bay at low-tide. I see the terms fluke, flounder, sole, Dover sole, and lemon sole but all the fish look the same, when filleted, even to my professional eye. The price per pound can vary greatly as well as the quality of fish. All of the aforementioned names belong to the family of fish commonly referred to as flatfish. This classification also includes turbot and halibut, along with 500 other named flatfish.
Most experts agree that there is only one true sole and that is the European species Dover Sole. There are no true sole on America’s Eastern seaboard. Dover Sole acquired its name from the ability of the English town of Dover’s fishermen’s ability to provide more sole to London’s Billingsgate fish market than any other village. Dover sole can be found from the North Sea to the Mediterranean Sea. America’s West coast Dover Sole is really a flounder whose name was poached by well-seasoned marketing people. Lemon Sole is a corruption of the French word Limande, which simply means flatfish.
There are many other types of flounder and I am sure that many marine biologists and fisherman can passionately point out the differences and the unique qualities of the different varieties. As a culinarian, the taste differences are less marked. True Dover sole, when fresh, has an elegant quality and excellent flavor, but is expensive and rarely available this side of the pond. When buying flounder or sole, make sure it is truly fresh, not refreshed, the new marketing term for previously frozen. The marketing of flounder has become Orwellian in its double-speak. It seems the only real difference between sole and flounder in disreputable fish stores is about five dollars a pound.
These flat denizens of the deep do have one major similarity besides both eyes on one side of the head and that is that they all can be cooked interchangeably in recipes. This allows the cook to try different species, then decide for themselves which they prefer.
The sole/fluke/flounder, hereafter referred to as the fish, generally is a white, flaky, lean, mild tasting fish perfect for people with a palate that dislikes fish that tastes fishy. The thin nature of the fillets does have a tendency to easily become over cooked. Sautéing and poaching are my preferred methods for cooking these fish. The bones of these fish are also excellent for making fish stock which can be used as a base for the poaching liquid or turned into a flavorful sauce.
The shallow pan poaching technique is the best for the delicate and flaky fish. Simply butter a shallow baking dish, lace the fish – skin side down – then cover with wine/stock/ liquid and aromatics and bake at 300° for 10-12 minutes. An alternative with such a thin delicate fish is to roll the fish, skin side on the inside, into little bundles then poach them. The liquid can then be strained and reduced, then finished with butter or cream to create a rich sauce. The sauce variations can be made endless by changing the types of herbs and flavorings used. The ingredients may change, but the technique remains the same. This is how professional chefs seemingly create thousands of dishes without recipes in front of them.
Sautéing also offers quick results and a multitude of variations. With such a delicate fish we want to lightly coat it with either a lightly seasoned flour or egg batter. The latter technique requires dredging the fish in the flour first, then the egg batter. This is used to make the Jersey Shore staple Flounder Française. Making a pan sauce from the sautéed flounder can be as simple as brown butter, lemon and parsley, a la meunière, or you can deglaze, add a stock and aromatics, reduce, then finish the sauce with whole butter or add cream and reduce until thickened.
Cooking fish solefully doesn’t need to be difficult. Achieving the desired result takes practice, but doesn’t have to be a fluke. Just for the halibut, this month try these flat-out delicious recipes with sole. Poached Sole Veronique and Flounder Française. Until next month, Bon Appetit.
Poached Sole Veronique
- 4 5-6 ounce sole/flounder fillets,* seasoned with salt and white pepper
- 1 cup green grapes, peeled, seeded and split
- Wine to cover fish or half wine, half fish stock (The amount will vary, depending on the size of your baking dish)
- 2 bay leaves
- 6 peppercorns
- 1 leek, white part only julienned
- 4 slices lemon
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1 cup cream
*Thinner fillets are best for poaching
Preheat oven to 300°. Butter baking dish. Roll fillets into bundles. Cover with wine/stock. Add leeks, bay leaves, peppercorns, and lemon. Cook 10-12 minutes. Strain liquid into sauté pan. Reduce by half. Add cream. Reduce until sauce is thickened. Add grapes. Warm slightly. Serve fish on top of sauce.
- 4 6-ounce flounder fillets
- 1 cup seasoned flour
- 4 ounces oil
- 6 eggs, whipped well
- 1 cup cream
- ¼ cup white wine
- 4 tablespoons chopped parsley
- 3 tablespoons grated Parmesan
- Salt and pepper
Whisk all ingredients for the Batter.
Heat sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add oil. Dredge fish in flour. Shake off excess. Soak in egg batter until coated well. Lace fish, skin side up, in sauté pan. Cook 3-5 minutes per side. Remove cooked fillets to another dish until all fillets are done. Hold in 250° oven while you make the sauce.
- 2 shallots, minced
- Juice and zest 3 lemons
- 1 cup white wine
- 3 tablespoons parsley
- 6 ounces butter, cubed, kept chilled
Remove any excess oil and debris from sauté pan. Over medium heat add shallots and wine. Reduce by two-thirds. Add juice and zest while whisking vigorously. Add butter, a piece at a time until all is incorporated and the sauce is emulsified. Finish with parsley. Plate fish and pour sauce over the top.
Jon Davies is a graduate of Johnson and Wales University of Culinary Arts. His work as a chef has taken him to Aspen, Colorado; Cape May, NJ; and the odd private jet for culinary gigs for the rich and famous.