Smaller flatfish such as lemon sole, dabs and flounder are vastly underrated compared to their posher cousins and usually very good value for money. Their flesh is delicately flavoured and best suits a simple treatment. I like them lightly seasoned and floured, then fried in brown butter, with a good squeeze of lemon juice and a scattering of parsley. Real fast food. But they adapt well to being stuffed and rolled.
Here, I’ve taken inspiration from a Nigel Slater recipe for mackerel and wrapped them in pancetta, which helps stop them drying out as they bake. I didn’t want to overpower them with a rich top dressing, so I opted for a barely cooked fresh tomato sauce in homage to my recipe’s Italian influences. It’s a lovely, light dish.
Serve two stuffed lemon sole fillets per person, three if you have a big appetite. Try them with a lemony couscous (super quick), or with baby potatoes and French beans or peas or simply with wilted spinach. You can pre-prep both fish and sauce a few hours ahead of eating, if that suits your timings best, then cook at the last minute.
Ask your friendly local fishmonger to fillet and skin the sole, but take the heads and bones home, too. They make a good, light fish stock and after all, you’re paying for the total weight, you might as well get your money’s worth. Fish stock freezes well and is great for soups, stews and risottos. I used mine to make my couscous.
Increase all quantities pro rata for extra servings.
Stuffed Lemon Sole with Fresh Tomato Sauce
3 small lemon sole, skinned and filleted (check for stray bones)
3 tbsp pine nuts, toasted
30g fresh white breadcrumbs
Zest and juice of 1 unwaxed lemon (or scrub a waxed one under the tap)
1 banana shallot, peeled and grated or very finely chopped
4 tbsp chopped parsley
6 thin pancetta slices (mine was from Fruit Pig)
Salt, pepper and olive oil
For the sauce:
500g fresh tomatoes (not cherry tomatoes)
1 clove of garlic, peeled and crushed with a pinch of sea salt
Small squirt of tomato puree (optional)
Small pinch of sugar (optional)
Heat the oven to 200C/180 fan/400F/Gas Mark 6.
Toast the pine nuts in a dry pan, stirring often to stop them catching. Place in a bowl with the breadcrumbs, shallot, lemon zest and juice and parsley. Season with plenty of pepper and a little salt.
Lay a pancetta slice on your board, top it with a sole fillet and pat down a heaped tablespoon of the stuffing at the thicker end. Roll up the fish first, then roll the fish in the pancetta. If you roll all in one go with much of the pancetta INSIDE, the chances are the fat won’t render and it’ll be less than stellar.
Place in a deep-sided baking dish. Repeat with the remaining fillets. Scatter any remaining stuffing over the top and drizzle with olive oil.
Bake for 15-20 minutes until just cooked. (They won’t brown much but you don’t want to overcook the fish, so either give them a quick blast from a kitchen blow torch or just drizzle them with some of the sauce when you serve up.)
While the fish is baking, prepare the sauce. Grate the tomatoes into a pan using the coarse side of a box grater, discarding the skins. I purposely made the sauce quite thin: if you’d like it thicker, squeeze out some of the seeds and juice before grating.
Crush the peeled garlic with the salt and add to the pan. If your tomatoes are a bit pallid and British, squirt in a small amount of tomato paste but please don’t overdo it – this sauce should taste really fresh.
Drizzle in a slug of olive oil, season to taste with salt and pepper and add a pinch of sugar if necessary. When the fish is cooked, gently heat the tomato sauce. Stir through a handful of basil leaves, torn if large.
Divide the sauce between two warmed, shallow bowls, set the fish on top and serve.