Sole MeunièrePosted: June 6, 2011
I had asked my boyfriend for a copy of Julia Child’s My Life in France for my birthday this year, since I have been meaning to read it, and thought it would be nice to have some light, enjoyable reading during my “vacation”, before diving into exam reading. After reading Julia’s famous description of her first meal in France, sole meunière, which she calls a “morsel of perfection,” I was inspired to give this dish a try myself, and the results were lovely enough to (sort of) make up for having to spend my day wading through Hobbes.
Mark also gave me a little companion book, a biography of Julia Child, so that I could get multiple perspectives. It contains some wonderful gems from letters that are not quoted in My Life in France. I very much enjoy Julia’s moments of unapologetic snobbery towards awful examples of American cooking. One especially great letter was written to a friend who had sent her a church cookbook to see if she thought it worth trying to publish on a large scale. Julia thought it was not worthwhile at all:
“Page 75. Green beans with poppy seed dressing – canned green beans steeped in a mess of 1 1/2 cups sugar, mustard, salt, onion juice, vinegar and salad oil. Ugh. ‘Farewell to the departing minister’ is the title of this dinner, and one realizes why he left town…Page 133. Packaged lime gelatin mixed with water, melted marshmallows, canned pineapple, cottage cheese, whipping cream and nuts. This is a ghastly horrible disgraceful kind of dish that no one should hear of, even less eat. And to push this kind of food onto the American public should be considered a felony.”
I remember having dishes like these when I used to go to church dinners as a child, and they were every bit as vile as Julia makes them sound (especially the canned-fruit-suspended-in-creamy-jello desserts. ::Shudder::). Many of her early interactions with publishing houses when she was working on Mastering the Art of French Cooking involved lots of wrangling over the need (perceived by publishers, at least) to make meals quick and easy, involving lots of prepackaged, “convenient” foods, which was frustrating to someone who genuinely cared about food and wanted to show Americans how good it could be.
Cooking, of course, doesn’t have to be a trade-off between convenience and quality, and this is certainly true of sole meunière. It may have a fancy French name, but it is a very quick dinner using a grand total of six ingredients (not counting salt and pepper!). When I made it tonight, it took only half an hour to transform the pile of raw ingredients into a perfect, summery dinner of sauteed white fish with a brown butter and lemon sauce. Lemon and butter is a classic, and delicious, combination; what makes this version special is the extra step of browning the butter, which gives it a wonderful nutty flavor. It pairs very well with green vegetables like asparagus, peas, or green beans (not from a can, please!), and I recommend having some crusty bread on the side to sop up any leftover sauce.
Julia doesn’t give a recipe for this in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, so I did a bit of internet searching for a recipe that looked reliable. This one from Bon Appétit worked quite well. Things move very quickly once you start cooking the fish, so you should have everything measured out and close at hand before you begin. If you can’t find sole, another mild white fish will work (I used flounder).
For the fish
1/2 cup all purpose flour
4 sole fillets (3-4 ounces each)
Coarse salt (kosher or sea salt will do)
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
For the sauce
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces
2 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Put the flour on a plate. Rinse the fish, pat dry, and season with salt and pepper. Dredge the fish in the flour on both sides.
Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan until it shimmers (you can cook the fish in two batches if necessary). Add the butter and swirl in pan until it melts. Shake the extra flour from the fish, and add it to the pan. Cook it for 2-3 minutes on the first side, until it is golden on the bottom. Turn it and cook on the second side for 1-2 minutes, until the bottom is lightly browned and the center is opaque. Remove fish to warm plates; the original recipe recommended tenting the fish with foil to keep warm, but the butter sauce comes together quickly enough that I don’t find this necessary.
Pour out the leftover oil and butter in the pan, and wipe with a paper towel. Return the pan to the stove over medium high heat. Add the 4 tablespoons of butter for the sauce and cook until it begins to brown, about 1-2 minutes. The butter will melt and foam, then the foam will subside and you should watch for it to turn golden and little specks on the bottom (the milk solids) to turn a light brown. Remove the pan from the heat. Add lemon juice and parsley; stir, and pour over fish. Serve with lemon wedges for an extra burst of lemony flavor.
A few notes:
The only things I can really imagine going wrong here would be overcooking the fish, or burning the butter. If the latter happens, throw it out and try again. It is best to use a light-colored pan for browning the butter so that you can see the change in colors (so stainless steel is better than a dark pan). Overcooked fish has a chewy, unpleasant texture (I remember seeing it described somewhere as “like chewing a mouthful of cotton”). Once the fish has become opaque, it is ready to be eaten.
Adapted from Bon Appétit