Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Who's Got Sole

Poinsettias decorate grocery stores everywhere.  Street lamps are joined by wreaths and star shaped ornaments lighting your way home.  There are lines and tents outside shopping malls that seem to stretch on for maddeningly long blocks, filled with anxiety and helplessly blank stares.  Shopping has become a contact sport, and only the prepared survive.  Yep, it's the holiday season, and we are all subject to the season's greetings.  In a quieter corner of the tinsel wrapped world is the fish market, though, we too have our holiday specialities that seem to come around only a few times a year, like homemade cookies and peanut brittle.

Fresh Whole Dover Sole
One of the highlights of the holiday season is the reemergence of the Dover Sole from scarcity during its summer hiatus.  True Dover Sole, and there are many impostors, is shipped from Holland to the U.S. weekly year round.  However, prices usually come down to this stratosphere only during the winter months when catch is good.  Do not expect to get the real thing for any deal though, most dover sole is sold by the pound whole for much more than many of the other species fillets go for.  So why are the prices so high, what's the big deal?  Let's take a snapshot look at the real thing and learn how we can avoid being duped by a west coast alias.

True dover sole, species name solea solea, is in big demand for it's exquisite flavor and delicate texture.  The demand is one reason for its high price, the fact that it is imported from one place is another.  Fresh dover sole is landed by trawlers in the North Sea and is found in waters as deep as 1000 meters.  They are usually harvested around 5 to 8 years of age, but can grow to live up to 45 years.  The flesh has an exceptional density, with tightly packed flakes that are amazingly juicy.  The aroma when cooked can remind you of savory bacon and the flavor has a hazelnut sweetness.  There is a buttery richness and mouthfeel to the fillet, with an ocean depth that dissipates slowly in the taste.  The texture of the dover is unmatched by any of the other inferior flat fish.

So how do we tell that we are getting the real thing, when there are so many selling their soles?  You could just come to BlackSalt where we get the whole fish shipped to us once a week.  Besides that, there are clues that can help you determine which sole you are looking at.  The price is the first indicator that something may be off.  Even frozen dover sole is still pricey.  The way to spot the difference in frozen or fresh sole is to look at the color.  Is it faded?  Is it dry?  If so, then it is most likely previously frozen.  Fresh Dover sole have a beige to brown top side and their eyes face to the right.  The under belly should be glistening, bright white, with no marks or contusions.  The fillets of sole should be noticeably plump for their size and the flake pattern should be woven very tightly.  To translate, the fillets should be firm and hold together well with no breakage, with tiny almost indiscernible flakes that appear as tight as chain metal.  Most dover sole will be sold as whole fish.  There is a fish that is labeled dover sole that is sold in fish markets coming from the west coast.  These are not true dover soles, they are a completely different species and are quite inferior.  I believe they are marketed as dovers to help increase their sales.  Other 'soles' on the market, such as lemon and grey, are actually flounders and are also completely different species.
Notice the fat, white bellies on the underside and rounded head.

Dover sole is an indulgence, an experience.  They epitomize the holiday spirit.  A time for giving, a time for receiving and a time for indulging in the things that make us happy, dover sole is the nicely wrapped, super fun toy for our taste buds.  It's the G.I. Joe and Barbie for all of us grown-ups.  I recommend sauteing yours in butter and preparing it as a whole fish.  Beware of the steals you might see in the market, I would hate for you to end up with the knock-off.  We've all been there, when excitement turns to disappointment because expectations are met with bitter reality.  The holidays are when we leave a little fat on the pork chop to get that good flavor, so make sure if you are indulging in the dover, that it's the true sole.

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