I have always been intrigued with the idea of cooking Sole Meunière, the classic French dish first tasted by Julia Child on her arrival in France in 1948. However, I always thought the dish might be a bit too simple (a piece of fish pan-fried in butter!) and also thought it would be difficult to photograph to look good on the plate.
However, after re-reading my copy of Julia’s book, My Life in France, I realized that this recipe was much too important to pass by. After all, this was the dish that re-awakened her gastronomic senses to transform the experience into “the most exciting meal of my life.” Prior to this meal eaten at Rouen’s La Couronne restaurant, Julia had experienced only mundane fish dishes of “broiled mackerel for Friday dinners and codfish balls with egg sauce.”
However, Sole Meunière became a real epiphany for Julia. As she ate the sole “perfectly browned in a sputtering butter sauce with a sprinkling of chopped parsley on top,” she experienced “fish and a dining experience of the highest order than I’d ever had before.” After reading this, I realized that I now had to take the plunge and try this recipe.
In French, a meunière is a miller’s wife, so Sole Meunière literally means sole cooked the way a miller’s wife would prepare it. More prosaically, it refers to fish that has been floured and fried in butter. If you can’t find any sole, you can use other thin fillets such as flounder, John Dory, trout or whiting- I used John Dory fillets.
There are a few tips and variations for this recipe. Julia Child recommends using unsalted clarified butter for frying the fish. This is butter where the milk solids have been removed, thus preventing the butter from burning. You could also use a combination of cooking oil and butter (1:3 ratio) to achieve the same result, although I prefer the clarified butter option.
In order to test whether the fish is cooked, Julia recommends pressing your finger tip against the fish; it should feel ‘springy rather than squashy.’ If it has turned flaky, it is over cooked. She also recommends seasoning the fish with ground white pepper, otherwise it might look like the fish has ‘fly specks.’ You can use black pepper if you wish, but just season the ‘non-presentation side’ to avoid viewing the fly specks.
After you have readied all of your ingredients, this dish is very quick to prepare. The decorative lemon pieces are optional, but I recommend including them; they really dress up the plate. And as for my previous comment about Sole Meunière being too simple a dish to try- this is not true. It turns out that the simpler dishes are often the most delicious!
In order to make this dish, I recommend starting by preparing the decorative lemon slices, using a ‘channeller’ to make grooves in the lemons. First you carve grooves in the lemon going vertically, spacing the grooves about 1/4 inches apart. Then slice the lemon in half horizontally to make ‘star shapes’- then slice these in half.
After preparing the decorative garnish, the rest of the recipe goes quickly. Please note that the recipe says to fry the fish in 3-4 tbsp clarified butter. The amount you use depends on the size of your frying pan and the amount of fish you cook; obviously you would use a smaller amount of butter if using a smaller fry pan, etc. Bon appétit!
This classic French dish transformed Julia Child from a person who loved to eat into a woman who loved to cook!
- 4 – 6 Sole fillets or other thin fish fillets without skin
- Salt and white pepper for seasoning
- 1 cup or so white flour
- 3 – 4 tbsp clarified butter for cooking the fish
- 3 tbsp minced fresh parsley
- 4 – 6 tbsp additional butter for the sauce
- Juice from ½ lemon for the sauce
- 2 lemons to decorate the plate
- Prepare the decorative lemon slices as illustrated in the photos above.
- Season both sides of the fish fillets with salt and pepper. Place the flour on a plate and lightly coat each side of the fish with the flour; shake off any excess.
- Over high heat, place enough of the clarified butter in a fry pan to form a thin film about 1/16 inch thick. Heat the butter until it becomes very hot, but not turning brown. Reduce the heat slightly and then fry each fish fillet in the butter for about 2 minutes each side; cook only as many fish at one time that will easily fit into the pan. The fish should feel ‘springy’ to the touch when finished rather than ‘squashy.’ Remove the fish from the pan and keep warm while the remaining fish are cooking.
- After all fish have been cooked, wipe the pan clean with a paper towel. Over high heat, add the 4- 6 tbsp unsalted butter (not clarified) and heat until it bubbles and starts to turn a nut brown color. Be careful the butter does not burn and turn black. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the juice from ½ lemon. Pour the sauce over the fish fillets, sprinkle with the diced parsley and then arrange the lemon slices decoratively around the plate.
- The amount of butter used in the recipe should be adjusted to both the size of your fry pan and also the amount of fish you are using. If you don't want to use clarified butter, then use a combination of 1 tbsp cooking oil (vegetable or olive oil) to 3 tbsp unsalted butter.
Adapted from 'The Way to Cook' by Julia Child
Adapted from 'The Way to Cook' by Julia Child
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