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Sole in Wine Sauce

by Jay Harlow

One of the fundamental dishes of French cuisine, and one that should be in every seafood cook's repertoire, is delicate fillets of sole or flounder poached in a wine-flavored stock, which is then reduced and enriched with a little butter for a sauce. Master this dish and a few variations and you can always put out a delicious fish dinner in less than an hour.

A number of popular food fish, variously known as sole, flounder, fluke, dab, plaice, turbot, and halibut, share a distinctive shape adapted to life on the sea floor. In the larval stage, these fish look like other fish, swimming with their bellies down and one eye on each side of their heads. As they develop, however, the juvenile fish flop over onto one side, and their heads twist around until both eyes are on top. As they grow into their adult form, they develop into the typical exaggerated shape that gives them the common name "flatfish" and yields especially wide, thin fillets.

True sole, an Atlantic fish that is especially identified with the English port of Dover and is also important in French cuisine, is not found on our side of the Atlantic. Virtually all of the commercial North American flatfish commonly known as "sole" are one form or another of flounder. Atlantic and Gulf Coast varieties are mostly known as flounders, but some have alternate names: larger specimens of blackback flounder, a.k.a. winter flounder, are called lemon sole; summer flounder is also known as fluke.

On the West Coast, sole is the more popular name for many kinds of flatfish. The best of the genre is petrale sole, sometimes just called petrale. My personal second choice in sole fillets would be English sole, or lemon sole as it is known in the Northwest. Starry flounder is the only flounder sold as such in the West. Pacific Dover sole, no relation to the true Atlantic sole landed in England, is abundant and popular, but I find it mediocre at best.
The "white wine with fish" mantra notwithstanding, the classic French version of this dish uses red wine. The effect may surprise you, as long as you use a red that is not too tannic: domestic Pinot Noir or Gamay, Zinfandel made in the lighter style, Beaujolais, Côtes du Rhône and other inexpensive southern French reds are all good choices. If you prefer a white wine, stay away from heavily oaked Chardonnays; Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, or dry French whites like Sancerre are a good bet.

For good body, the stock should be based on fish bones and heads. If your fish market cuts its own fish, ask them ahead of time to save you some heads and bones of lean white fish (preferable to salmon and other rich fish). Of course, if you have some fish stock on hand, you are ahead of the game.

Larger flatfish fillets do not have to be rolled; they can just be poached flat in the skillet. In addition to flatfish fillets, this will work with similarly shaped fillets like tilapia and orange roughy, or cuts of larger fish like halibut and grouper. Another option is the delicious West Coast flatfish known as rex sole, which is generally too small to fillet, and instead is usually sold and cooked pan-dressed (headed, gutted, and trimmed, essentially the two fillets attached to the central bone). Adjust the timing according to the size, form, and density of the fish; just remember to take it out of the pan when slightly underdone, as it will continue cooking on the warm platter.

Flounder or Sole in Wine Sauce
Serves 2

1-1/2 to 2 pounds sole or flounder fillets
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup dry red or white wine
2 cups water, unsalted fish stock, or unsalted vegetable broth
1 onion, sliced
4 to 5 sprigs parsley
6 peppercorns
1 teaspoon fennel seed
Heads, bones, and trimmings of lean fish (optional; see note, page 00)
Large pinch of salt and white pepper
A few grains of cayenne (optional)
Lemon juice, if needed
3 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, in small pieces
Chopped chives, for garnish

Remove any pin bones from the fish; reserve the trimmings for the stock. Sprinkle the fillets generously with salt and set aside.

Combine the wine, water, scallion tops, peppercorns, and fish bones if used in a nonreactive saucepan or skillet. Bring just a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer 30 minutes. Meanwhile, lightly butter a deep skillet just large enough to hold the fish rolls in a single layer. Warm a serving platter or individual plates in a very low oven.

Rinse the fillets and pat dry. Divide into 8 portions, doubling the smallest fillets or splitting the largest as necessary. Roll up the fillets skin side inward and place in the skillet, seams down. Bring the stock just to a boil and strain it over the fish rolls, pouring some directly over each roll. Set the skillet over low heat, cover, and cook at a simmer (do not boil) until just a trace of raw center remains when fish is probed with a skewer, 2 to 5 minutes depending on variety and thickness. Spoon some hot stock over any exposed parts if necessary for even cooking.

Transfer the barely-cooked fish rolls to the platter and keep warm in the oven. Pour the poaching liquid into a measuring pitcher and return 1-1/2 cups to the skillet (reserve the rest for another use). Bring to a boil and reduce by two-thirds. Whisk in the butter and season to taste. Pour or dab away any liquid from the fish platter and pour the sauce over the fish. Garnish with chives and serve immediately.


Jay Harlow is a Bay Area cookbook publisher and author of ten books including Once Upon a Bagel, The California Seafood cookbook & Beer Cuisine.

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