Often improvisations are fueled by memories of dishes past; they're attempts to recreate a singular set of flavors or a dish's particular pleasure. When I found myself yearning for two classic fish dishes I used to eat in France years ago, I made an amalgam of the two, to capture the crispiness of goujonettes—fillets of sole cut into strips, dusted with flour, and deep-fried, and the comforting delicate butteriness of sole meuniére—whole or fillets, flour-dusted and panfried in butter.
Here I use flavorful white-fleshed fish fillets, from striped bass, red snapper, or halibut, season them, and dust them with Wondra, a finely granulated flour, or white rice flour; both flours produce much crisper crusts than all-purpose flour. I panfry the fish in butter and olive oil until it has a thin, crisp exterior shell and tender flavorful flesh. It's good as is, with just a squeeze of lemon, or with a brown butter and vinegar sauce made in the same pan. This dish is a perfect casual supper, utterly straightforward and satisfying, one I make often for myself.
Note: Some fish options in this recipe may be unsustainable. Check Seafood Watch website for information and alternatives.
1-1/2 pounds meaty white fish fillets, such as striped or black bass, red snapper, or grouper, preferably skinned
Freshly ground black pepper or a scant 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
4 to 5 tablespoons Wondra flour or white rice flour
1-1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
Lemon wedges (optional)
Brown Butter Vinegar Sauce (optional)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons sherry, balsamic, or Banyuls vinegar
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Pinch of sugar
1. Prepare the fish. To skin the fillets, if necessary: Place 1 fillet skin side down on the work surface. Starting at the thin end, slide a thin sharp knife under the skin to loosen a small flap. Hold down the flap with one hand and, with the other hand, saw the knife between the skin and flesh, angling the blade against the skin, until they are separated. Repeat with the remaining fillets.
If the fillets are thin—3/4 inch or less—slice them in half lengthwise, along the center seam; then cut each half in halves or thirds on a diagonal. For thick fish fillets, use a thin sharp knife (a salmon slicer works best) to slice them on a slant from top to bottom, to make wide 1/2- to 3/4-inch-thick slices. Alternatively, divide them along the center seam, then slice them in half horizontally.
2. Season the fish. Pat the fillets dry with paper towels. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
3. Dust the fillets with the flour or another fine coating. Pour the flour onto a dinner plate. Dredge the fillets in the flour until they are completely coated.
4. Panfry the fish. Heat a large, heavy nonstick or well-seasoned cast-iron skillet over moderately high heat. Add 1 tablespoon of the butter and the olive oil and swirl to coat the pan. When the butter has stopped bubbling and the pan is hot, tap the fish lightly to knock off any excess flour and arrange in the pan. Cook until the bottom side is golden, about 1-1/2 minutes. Adjust the heat so that the fat bubbles and sizzles around the fish and smokes only slightly. Turn, add the remaining 1-1/2 teaspoons butter to the pan as you do, and cook until golden on the second side, 1 to 1-1/2 minutes longer. Drain briefly on paper toweling and transfer to dinner plates.
5. Serve with lemon wedges or make the pan sauce, if desired. Quickly rinse the pan and wipe it out with a paper towel, return to the heat, and add the butter to the pan. When it begins to turn golden and smell like roasting nuts, add the vinegar, salt and pepper to taste, and sugar. Drizzle the sauce around—not over—the fish.
Excerpted from The Improvisational Cook by Sally Schneider (William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2006). Copyright 2006 by Sally Schneider.
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