The classic French preparation for fish known as “à la meunière” rings of simplicity. The name translates as “in the style of the miller’s wife,” which frankly doesn’t mean a whole lot to the modern cook, but it refers to the fact that the fish is dusted with flour before cooking. I suppose it could equally well be called “in the style of the dairy wife” (though I’m not sure how to translate that one), because the fish is sautéed in clarified butter until it’s crisped and golden, and then it’s finished with a bit of brown butter, as well as lemon and parsley.
The simplicity of sole meunière is illustrated by the list of ingredients. They are six: the fish (which doesn’t have to be sole—other white-fleshed fish work beautifully, as do scallops and even frogs’ legs), milk, flour, butter, lemon, and parsley. With so few elements in a dish, it’s critical that each is of the best possible quality. We can take for granted that the milk, flour, parsley, and lemon are acceptable (as long as you’re using a real lemon, not ReaLemon), but the remaining players in the recipe need some attention, as does the way you set up your work station before you start to cook.
Whole sole are traditional, but fillets are easier
In France, this dish is made using a whole sole, usually weighing about a half-pound. Left whole, the fish doesn’t break up during the cooking, and leaving the flesh on the bones adds to the flavor. In most parts of the United States, however, it’s difficult to find a whole sole or other flatfish that’s small enough, so I just use fillets. What you lose in impact, you gain in ease of preparation.
Look for firm fillets that seem moist but aren’t weeping liquid (a sign of having been poorly frozen). If possible, give them a sniff—you want pleasant ocean smell, not “fishy” odor.
Clarified butter can take the heat, while brown butter adds nuttiness
To achieve its characteristic flavor, fish meunière must cook in butter, and since milk solids tend to burn at the temperatures required for sautéing, the butter must be clarified. Don’t worry—this isn’t a complicated process (see the sidebar below), and you can clarify a quantity of butter ahead of time and keep it in the refrigerator for many other cooking uses. Use a good-quality unsalted butter, but certainly not the most expensive.
How to make clarified butter
Heat 1/2 pound (two sticks) of unsalted butter in a small, heavy saucepan over low heat. As the butter slowly melts, it will separate into a small amount of milky liquid at the bottom of the pan, a large quantity of clear liquid, and a bit of foamy white residue floating on the top. All you want is the clear liquid, which is the clarified butter. Spoon off the residue from the top and discard it. Without disturbing the white liquid (the milk solids) on the bottom, spoon or pour the clear liquid into another container.
If you have time, you can refrigerate the melted butter until the clarified part is solid. The milk solids, contrary to their name, will remain liquid. Pry the solid clarified butter off and pour away the milky part.
“Ready, set, cook” is right
Sole meunière must be prepared at the last moment, and the actual cooking of the dish is quite fast. It’s easy to enjoy this last-minute dish as long as you’ve done some advance preparation. I like to work backward, from serving through cooking: Get your serving plates ready, ideally in a warm spot. Have your chopped parsley and lemon juice easy to grab. Have your whole melted butter in a small pan on the stove, ready to be browned. Arrange your milk, flour, and paper towels so you can do a quick lift-blot-dredge-and-sauté. This small organizational effort will pay off when you present your fish, fragrant with brown butter and foaming with parsley and lemon juice, to the table.