August 19, 2012

Sole Meuniére

Famed chef and cookbook author Julia Child would have turned 100 on August 15. Child learned to cook at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris in her mid-thirties & worked for years on her tome Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the first book to bring classic French food into American kitchens.

Julia and her husband Paul arrived in France on November 3, 1948. Her first French meal, at Restaurant La Couronne in Rouen, featured sole meuniére, oysters on the half-shell, a green salad, her "first real baguette," fromage blanc, and a bottle of Pouilly-Fume.

In the opening pages of her memoir My Life in France, Julia writes:
Rouen is famous for its duck dishes, but after consulting the waiter Paul had decided to order sole meunière. It arrived whole: a large, flat Dover sole that was perfectly browned in a sputtering butter sauce with a sprinkling of chopped parsley on top. [...]
I closed my eyes and inhaled the rising perfume. Then I lifted a forkful of fish to my mouth, took a bite, and chewed slowly. The flesh of the sole was delicate, with a light but distinct taste of the ocean that blended marvelously with the browned butter. I chewed slowly and swallowed. It was a morsel of perfection.
[...] at La Couronne I experienced fish, and a dining experience, of a higher order than any I'd ever had before. [...] Our first lunch together in France had been absolute perfection. It was the most exciting meal of my life.
Julia later admits that the meal was "the standard by which [she] would now measure every eatery."

That lunch is my favorite scene in Julie & Julia; Meryl Streep as Julia Child is emotionally overwhelmed with the first bite of sole meunière, a dish that seems so delicious that she cannot express her satisfaction in words. It's a moving scene that nearly brings me to tears every time I watch it.

In "The Whole Fish Story" episode of The French Chef, Julia calls sole "one of the glories of French Fishery." Sadly, we can't get authentic Dover Sole in the United States. The fishes that are sold as "sole" here are all flounders, which is a similar fish.  Julia explained:
The great difference between the true sole and all other of the flat flounder type of fishes is that you can easily peel the skin from a sole but not flounder; They must be filleted first before removing the skin.
In honor of Julia's 100th birthday, I prepared this historic dish for myself tonight.

I carefully dredged the delicate, white filets & cooked them. I smiled as the hot browned butter made the lemon juice and parsley sizzle on the plate. I took the first bite while standing in the kitchen. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine what Julia was thinking when she took her first bite. I could instantly understand why she was so smitten. It was quite delicious. I savored each bite...the nuttiness from the browned butter, the slight tartness from the lemon juice, the freshness from the parsley, the sweetness from the fish. 

It was, dare I say it, a little bit magical...even in my midwestern kitchen on a late summer Sunday evening.
Sole Meuniére

recipe slightly adapted from The Culinary Institute of America
Serves 2
2 sole filets
1/2 teaspoon Kosher salt
pinch of fresly-ground black pepper
All-purpose flour, for dredging, as needed
2 ounces clarified butter
juice from 1 lemon
2 tablespoons chopped parsley 
1 ounces whole butter 
  • Season the fish with salt & pepper; dredge in flour.
  • Sauté the fish in a large sauté pan in the clarified butter over medium heat until lightly browned and cooked through, 4 to 5 minutes per side.
  • Transfer the fish to a serving platter and sprinkle with the parsley & lemon juice.
  • Wipe out the pan and add the butter. Heat the butter until lightly browned, 2 to 3 minutes, then pour over the fish.
The CIA says, "Dover Sole is classically served whole and filleted tableside. Steamed potatoes are an excellent accompaniment." On her cooking show, Julia recommended serving the dish with parsley potatoes, cucumber salad, and Riesling. I ate mine with a bottle of white Bordeaux and steamed broccolini to soak up the remaining buttery, lemony sauce.

And what was left, I literally licked clean...standing with my empty plate over the sink. I got butter in my hair.

I think Julia would approve.

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Here are a few other of Julia Child's recipes that I've made:

Boeuf Bourguignon
Lobster Thermidor 
Oeufs Brouilles (scrambled eggs) 
Potage Parmentier (potato & leek soup)
Soupe a L'Oignon (Onion Soup)

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