It may be true that in the eyes of God, all soles are equal. But on the California dinner plate, petrale is king.
There are other regional seafood specialties that are equally compelling in their own way and in their own time -- Dungeness crab in dead winter, wild salmon in the spring, fresh sardines, squid, sand dabs and anchovies whenever they’re running.
But although other fish may compare with petrale, none surpass it. Petrale sole is as good as it gets. The flesh is fine-textured and delicately nutty. There’s a tinge of sweetness. And call me a wine geek, but I think there’s a subtle minerality to the flavor.
Now is the time to enjoy petrale. Though it is available year-round, the fish, primarily caught from Monterey north, have moved into shallower waters for spawning and are practically volunteering to be caught. They are at their most plentiful from January through March.
As with any other great ingredient, there is a ladder of preparation you should follow. The first time you fix it, start on the bottom, most basic, rung to best appreciate the flavor. In the case of petrale, brush it with a little butter, broil it and serve it with lemon wedges on the side.
Once you’ve got the taste in your mouth, you can move on to more complicated recipes. The next step I’d recommend is breading it and pan-frying it in butter. Simple as it is, this is a dish to swoon over. I served it last weekend with some tender little turnips that I’d braised with minced shallots. It was incredible with a 2001 Clos du Val Chardonnay, one of the crisper California whites.
Breading food for frying is one of those things that makes some people a little nuts. If you’re doing it right, it’s messy, and if you’re doing it wrong, it’s awful. You wind up with chunks of coating floating in the fat and nothing left sticking to the fish.
The first thing you need to know is that there’s more to breading than bread crumbs. You need something to make the bread crumbs stick. The best glue is an egg wash -- just a whole egg and a little water beaten smooth with a fork.
But it doesn’t matter how much egg wash you use, the crumbs still won’t stick if the surface of the filet is wet. You’ll just wind up with slightly bigger clumps in the pan.
To make sure the surface is good and dry, you need to dredge the fish in flour. That will absorb any surface moisture and ensure a good bond with the egg wash and bread crumbs.
It’s a three-step process: flour, egg wash and bread crumbs. The pros use just one hand for dipping in the flour, egg wash and bread crumbs, leaving the other free (and clean) to press the coating into place and transfer the food to the fryer. That’s a bit too much like rubbing my belly and patting my head at the same time for me, so I just resign myself to having to wash my hands as soon as I’m done.
The other trick is to make sure the fat is hot enough before you add the food. If it’s not, the coating will soak up all the oil and wind up gloppy and unappetizing. It’s easy enough to check: Just touch a corner of the breaded food to the fat. If it’s hot enough, you’ll hear a delicious sizzling sound. If it’s not, wait 20 or 30 seconds more and try again.
Frying in butter makes a difference in flavor, but if your conscience won’t allow it, peanut oil or corn oil will work well too.
There are dishes more complicated than this, but none that taste better. The French culinary lexicon is full of names for sole filets poached and garnished in different ways. Petrale is the best West Coast substitute for any of those.
In fact, though we call petrale a sole, it is not. That is only a term of, shall we say, commercial convenience. In the early days, it was a way of selling an unfamiliar product to a transplanted audience, just as red wine from Modesto used to be called Burgundy and blue cheese from Petaluma Roquefort.
True sole is a family of North Atlantic fish (Solea) that is not found on our coast. Our flatfish are members primarily of the far-flung halibut and flounder clans.
So even though we now have English sole, gray sole, lemon sole, rock sole, yellowfin sole and rex sole (another really good fish, very close to the sand dab), they are all pretenders.
This is a matter of more than ichthyologic interest. Perhaps the grossest example of misnaming is the so-called West Cost Dover sole.
Now there is a true Dover sole and it is quite a fish -- connoisseurs consider it the king of all flatfish. But unless you’re paying more than $20 a pound, that is not the fish you’re buying in West Coast fish markets. West Coast Dover is Microstomus pacificus while the Atlantic is Solea solea (so good they had to name it twice!).
But you’ve got to admit that “Dover sole” is far catchier than its other name, slime sole, even though the latter is probably closer to the truth. This sole, particularly when it is caught in deep water, has a tendency to turn to jelly when cooked.
I know this from personal experience. Many years ago I was hosting a dinner party and thought I’d do a little Dover sole en papillote -- steamed with aromatic vegetables in individual handmade paper sacks to be opened at the table. When my guests cut open those painstakingly prepared bags, the fish had melted into ... well, we’ll leave the description to your imagination.
That would never happen with petrale. It may not be a true sole, but it sure knows how to act like one. And in California, that’s what counts.