SOLE is maverick, the renegade in a sea of sameness. Like a kid wearing rouge and a black beret in a class full of uniformity, it’s not the same as the others. It looks different, it wants to be treated differently, and it probably feels different too. How would you like to be the funny-looking flat fish that all the other fish point at while sniggering behind their gills?
If it were a sheep, a sole would be the one that went the other way. If it were a bird, it would be the lone seagull in a flock of pigeons, secure in its own feathers. But it’s not. It’s a fish, and one of the most delicious there is.
In the mid-20th century decades, when we were young and life stretched to a far horizon, sole was the fish ordered by women on dining room menus. Not solely (sorry). But mostly. We kids were encouraged to try it too. But I don’t remember any dads ordering sole. Especially Sole Bonne Femme. Which is not surprising really. “I’ll have the Sole Bonne Femme” doesn’t have quite the same masculine ring as “Old Man steak please, rare, just slap its bum and send it out”.
Bonne femme means “good woman”, so it did feel a bit odd being the man in the kitchen cooking a dish named for the tradition of the good wife being a good little woman in the kitchen cooking her man – exhausted from his hard day at the office – his supper in a simple, homely manner while he takes off his slippers and pours his first whisky of the evening.
Not that I was really making Sole Bonne Femme. That’s usually simply poached sole served with a white wine and butter sauce, with mushrooms and baby onions.
But my dad taught me as a lad how to make what he called “fish au gratin”, i.e. gratinated under the grill with onions and cheese. And he once taught me to make creamed mushrooms. I spliced these two recipes.
We were in Mossel Bay, where the seas are home to beautiful soles trawled and sold in the fishery huts in the harbour. I bought two “large” soles which were filleted for me. Filleting a sole is not the same as filleting most other fish – the bone has to stay in unless you’re poaching the slim fillets and serving them rolled up on a bed of mash in that very cheffy way. That’s lovely too. But filleting here just means skinning the fish, and at the hut where I bought mine the lady did this beautifully, ending up with a clean and tidy specimen ready for the pan.
“Large” in sole language means one reasonably-sized fish per person. I panfried them in butter until tender, seasoned them and then spooned over the leek and mushroom sauce I had made earlier.
No onions were involved. Instead, I sautéed sliced leeks in olive oil and garlic until soft, added white wine and simmered until tender. Season with salt and black pepper. Separately, sauté sliced button mushrooms in butter. Let the fat and liquid completely cook away until the mushrooms release their juices, then cook these away too. This concentrates the flavour. Now add a glass of dry white wine, a glass of fish stock if you can (reduce fish bones and/or crustacea shells in water with a couple of peppercorns and a bay leaf and some roughly chopped onion, then strain), and season with salt, pepper and half a teaspoon of grated nutmeg. Reduce to a fairly syrupy consistency, add as much cream as you’d like you and your guests to consume, and reduce to a pouring consistency. I wouldn’t get too carried away with the cream, but don’t be too stingy either as there’s some gratinating to follow.
Now combine the cooked mushrooms in their sauce, and the leeks. Spoon half of this over each piece of fish, all the way down the spine, grate cheese of your choice (parmesan is good, but I used a very mature cheddar) and grill until the cheese is golden and the sauce is bubbling. Serve with the rest of the vegetables on the plate, garnished with wedges of lemon and parsley sprigs. Beautifully old-fashioned.
I’ll call this one Sole Bonne Homme, in honour of my dad’s unsung early influence on his son’s cooking life.
First published in Weekend Argus March 2011