When our firstborn came onto the scene he was a terror. Not the misbehaving kind of terror, which usually does little more than wreck your sense of personal dignity and bury your life’s dreams under a three-year blanket of hard domestic labor. For one, he rarely slept. Entire nights might be passed watching the moonbeams glide across the deep space blue of his staring eyes, which seemed preternaturally aware of his surroundings, calling every move we made into question.
But most insidiously — he ate. He ate early and he ate often, with unflappable abandon. One night, not more than a few handfuls of months into life, sitting in a baby chair clipped onto the side of the table, he watched as I put the finishing touches on a romantic meal for my honeybunny and me. Wine chilled, candles lit, salad tossed, baby staring with evil innocence from his edge of the table, I served up filet of sole with herb butter, scattered with a luscious French fleur de sel. Honeybunny and I clinked glasses. Her eyes twinkled. The aroma of fish, herbs, and butter filled the air. Then the baby lunged for the closest plate, and devoured the fish before our eyes.
Fleur de sel has no higher purpose than to grace the buttery-moist flesh of sole. The excellent fleur de sel from Ile de Ré, France, with its mineral sheen of a full moon, underscores the perfection of each of the other elements in the dish, defining their features in the most loving light. Sole is so delicate that the grassy pungency of fresh herbs must be suffused in butter to preserve the balance of the fish. The fundamental soleness of the sole is truly a wonder to taste—full to bursting but hard to grasp—like insomnia that set you dreaming as you stare at a child’s moonlit face.
Sole with Fleur de Sel Recipe: Makes 4 servings
2 tablespoons unsalted butter (the best you can get), 15 minutes out of the fridge
3 tablespoons medium chopped fresh herbs, such as tarragon, parsley, dill, thyme, sage, chervil, savory, and/or rosemary
Finely grated zest and juice of 1/2 lemon
4 sole (or flounder) fillets, about 6 ounces each
Coarsely ground mixed peppercorns
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 two-finger pinches fleur de sel de I’lle de Ré
Blend the butter, herbs and lemon zest together. Gently roll into a cylinder about the size of your thumb and cut into 4 disks, set aside.
Pat the sole fillets dry with a paper towel and season with pepper.
Put 2 large skillets over high heat until very hot. Add a tablespoon of oil to each skillet and swirl to coat the bottom of the pan. Put 2 fillets in each pan, whiter side down and sauté until the edges of the fillets are opaque, about 2 minutes. Turn carefully and cook on the other side until the surface is dry but the flesh is still moist in the center, about 2 more minutes. Transfer to plates.
Remove the pans from the heat and deglaze with the lemon juice. Pour over the fish. Top each fish fillet with a pad of herb butter and season with a pinch or two of fleur de sel or other French fleur de sel (don’t substitute sea salt!). Garnish with more herbs and lemon zest, if you want. Serve right away.