Dover sole, the aristocrat of the deep, benefits from restraint. “Never better than when plainly grilled,” wrote Alan Davidson in his masterly “North Atlantic Seafood”. “However, it is also very good when cooked à la meunière.” Usually this method involves coating the gutted, skinned fish in flour (meunière means “miller’s wife”) and frying in butter; but Arnaud Schon, the French chef who cooks for The Economist, goes one stage better by omitting the flour.
“It doesn’t add anything,” he explained. “You just pat them dry and fry one at a time in butter at a medium heat. About three minutes or so each side until they’re golden-brown, then place the fish on a tray in the oven at 180°C to keep them warm. I’m doing very, very little to the fish.”
Recipes for Dover sole from the heyday of haute cuisine involving fancy sauces or stuffing with foie gras and truffles get short shrift from both Davidson (“Pooh to all that”) and Arnaud. “Haute cuisine is decadent. Even now, people have a tendency to overdo it with beurre blanc or lobster sauce, which can overshadow the fish.”
I agreed. The best piece of fish I’ve ever eaten was a plain grilled Dover sole that I had a few years ago in Whitstable. “The flesh had a slight taste of shrimp. It would be a sin to lose that.”
Arnaud was astonished when I told him that I’d recently bought Dover sole on the Yorkshire coast at £2.50 a time. “They can be £10 wholesale in London and £35 in many restaurants,” he said. “Even then they don’t make much money. Restaurant profit doesn’t come from main courses. It’s more from desserts, coffee and wine.”
I gave Arnaud another fishy surprise by suggesting that very fresh Dover sole should hang about for a bit before cooking. “In the ‘River Cottage Fish Book’, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall says he cooked some straight off the boat and they were ‘rubbery and curiously tasteless’. They need a couple of days in the fridge.”
“Really?” said Arnaud. “I always thought fish must be fresh, fresh, fresh. But then I’ve never lived at the seaside.”
Moving on to which vegetables to serve alongside the sole, he expressed a passion for cooked Little Gem lettuce leaves. “I’ve done it many times.”
“I can’t remember ever cooking it.”
“Oh, but you should. It’s a nice garnish with a very distinct flavour. You cut off the outer leaves and blanch for 30 seconds in boiling water, just to soften it. Then you squeeze the water out and fold it to make a nice oval shape. Using a large saucepan, sweat some chopped shallots in olive oil with a dash of white wine and chopped garlic—I love my garlic—along with thyme and rosemary. Put the lettuces in and cook covered for five minutes. Take the lid off, baste with the cooking juices and cook for another five minutes.”
Cauliflower is another favourite. “I love it, especially when its strong flavour is mellowed by butter and cream. Cauliflower purée is really nice. Just boil the cauliflower florets in salted water until soft, then drain and let them stand in the colander until they are steamed-out and dry as possible. Then place the warm florets in a liquidiser with a knob of butter and a bit of cream, blend for a couple of minutes until you have a smooth purée. Transfer to a dish and season. Stir in a bit more butter or cream and it’s ready for service.”
Arnaud explained why he decided on a simple sauce of sorrel butter for the Dover sole. “Like lemon, its acidity goes well with fish.”
“I really like sorrel. I tried growing it, but the snails got to it first.”
“Snails would be nice with sorrel.” I filed this suggestion away as Arnaud returned to the sauce. “You make a really, really light beurre noisette [butter cooked until it’s golden brown and has a nutty flavour]. Then drop a chiffonade of sorrel—chopped into long, thin filaments—into the butter. Put the fish on a plate and dress it with the sorrel butter. Maybe a couple of tablespoons. Not too much. Then add the baby gem lettuce and cauliflower purée. Et voila!”
The day after our chat, I bought two Little Gem lettuces and followed Arnaud’s technique. The result elicited my wife’s highest term of praise: “Yum.” Delicate and sweet, the lettuce had a slight nuttiness of flavour and retained an interesting bit of crunch at the base. It worked well as a simple starter and had another advantage. At 40p per lettuce, it cost approximately 4% as much as a London-bought Dover sole.