Flat Finned Friends: Sole, Flounder, Halibut, et al

May 23, 2009

Finger licking good bottom dwellers. These two recipes display rather classic, yet embracingly simple, French culinary approaches. Pourquoi? Because our gallic friends across that watery expanse—long not crossed but which later became a migratory route for immigrants—have long had the fundamentals down on these denizens of the ocean floor.

Flatfish are an order (Pleuronectiformes) of ray finned fish, sometimes classified as a suborder of Perciformes. The scientific name means “side-swimmers” in Greek, so in many species both eyes lie on one side of the head, one or the other migrating through and around the head during development to create their characteristic assymetry. Evolution forever awes me.

Numerous species of flatfish are regularly caught in the Pacific with common market names such as sole (from gray to lemon to Dover), sanddab, turbot, plaice, fluke, flounder, and halibut. The name “sole” comes from its resemblance to a sandal, which in Latin is solea. A caveat emptor: in many markets, some species of flounder, especially the Atlantic species, are incorrectly labelled as lemon or gray sole. The true soles, Soleidae, include the common or Dover sole (Solea solea), so a trusted fishmonger is crucial…and there should be no fear in kindly asking about species identification or freshness.

On the other side of the world, Atlantic flatfish have not fared so well. Populations have experienced heavy fishing pressure by both domestic and international fleets over the last half century, and many species have been depleted to very low levels, particularly Atlantic halibut and some populations of yellowtail flounder. Efforts have been undertaken to revive the declining Atlantic flatfish populations, but until they have been reestablished, it may be prudent to avoid these species.

In this first recipe, fillets of sole are rolled to form what are termed paupiettes. Rolled beginning at the thickest end, the paupiettes will not unfurl as they cook. Sweet as candy.

SOLE PAUPIETTES WITH MUSHROOMS & WINE

2 lbs skinless and boneless sole fillets
2 C mushrooms, sliced
1/3 C scallions, sliced
1/3 C shallots, sliced
1/2 t sea salt
1/2 t freshly ground black pepper
1 C dry white wine, such as Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc

1/2 C unsalted butter
1 T fresh chives, chopped, for garnish

Cut each fillet in half lengthwise, removing and discarding the small strip of sinew from the center of the fillets. With the white side that touched the bones on the outside of the paupiettes, roll up the fillets, starting at the thick end.

Gently place the paupiettes on end with the scallions, shallots, salt and pepper, in a medium heavy saucepan and bring to a boil over medium high heat. Cover, reduce the heat, and boil gently for about 3 minutes.

Holding the lid so the paupiettes remain in the pan, pour the cooking liquid into a small saucepan and place it over high heat. Boil for a few minutes, or until the liquid is reduced to about 1/2 cup. Slowly add the butter and vigorously whisk mix until well blended. Bring to a gentle boil for a few seconds more.

Divide the paupiettes and mushrooms among plates, spoon sauce over the top, and sprinkle with chives.

In this next recipe, the fillets are poached gently in the oven.

SOLE POACHED IN WHITE WINE

2 lbs skinless and boneless sole fillets
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 T shallots, finely minced
3/4 C dry white wine
1/3 C fish stock or chicken broth

Freshly squeezed lemon juice
Fresh tarragon, minced

Preheat oven to 350 F

Dry the fish with paper towels, then remove any existing bones. Season lightly with salt and pepper.

Butter a 9 x 12 baking dish. Strew half of the shallots in the baking dish, and then lay in the fish, skin side down. Sprinkle the remaining shallots over the fillets, and pour in enough wine and broth to come up just under the top of the fillets. Cover with waxed paper.

Place the dish in the lower one third of the preheated oven. The liquid should begin to bubble, and the fish will be done when it has turned to milky white, around 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and carefully drain the cooking juices into a heavy small saucepan over medium high to high heat on the stove.

Tent the fish as you make the sauce. Reduce the juices until thick, syrupy. Vigorously whisk in lemon juice, little by little, than add parsley while stirring. Spoon the juices over the fish and sprinkle with fresh tarragon.

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