Lemon Sole with Lemon Thyme and Lemon
Updated: Apr 6
"She wore lemon, but never in the daylight."
A great buddy of mine joined me on a dog walk a while back and asked me: "Why is it called lemon sole? Is it because it tastes like lemon? Surely that's bit like calling a sheep, minty!". I suppose it would be. But the naming of this fish is brought up in so many authoritative texts and all agree that it's not the flavour or the colour of the fish that has earnt it it's name, perhaps it could be argued that it is shaped a bit like a lemon but then the same could be said of other flatfish. The most persuasive suggestion is that the name came from the French limande, the word meaning sole (or other flatfish), but therein lies another curiosity - the fish we are talking about here is not biologically part of the sole family - it's part of the flounder family. So consider this: had we adopted the Spanish word for sole, lenguado, which to the extent of my etymological skills derives from a similar origin to the word tongue, we could have been dealing with a tongue flounder here.
Lemon thyme by contrast does test lemony, or certainly citrusy, so is a natural candidate to accompany fish. But it is worth noting that also, by contrast, lemon thyme is quite bold in flavour whereas lemon sole (if we can call it that) is quite delicate.
Despite there being quite a lot of recipes out there that are entitled "Lemon sole with lemon this" or "Lemon sole with lemon that", the recipe I have here has not come from any of them, but I don't mind continuing the word-play with the title. Back when I had a job that required me to work all hours of the day I was always looking for suppers I could make with the minimum of fuss, especially when it came to washing up. My local M&S Food had a mixed bag of herbs called something like "Fish Herb Mix", but also sold (sustainably-sourced!) prepared lemon sole fillets. Bunging the fish fillets in a foil parcel with some herbs and a few other simple ingredients and baking it in the oven soon became a go-to supper of mine and it was the lemon thyme in the mix that really pleased my palate. I don't think they sell the herb mix anymore so I can't find out what the other herbs were but I'm quite certain one was curly parsley and there may well have been chives. Over time I tried various additional ingredients to go in the parcel and this combination I'm proposing here became one I returned to time and time again. The inclusion of green olives with the lemon was where I really felt I was winning as it's a commonly encountered pairing for very good reason (it's very Moroccan to my mind) and a favourite pairing of mine.
It's been a real pleasure to be able to get lemon sole of late from Yorwarth's at the recently launched High Street Kensington Farmers' Market and what they bring are truly delicious to eat. I also get it from my local fishmonger who, I have to say, prepare it beautifully for me.
Despite being quite a punchy concoction the fish doesn't get lost in this recipe, despite it's genuinely delicate nature. Any green vegetables would make a fine accompaniment to this very simple plate of food, and complete a healthy and low-carb meal. But for something more substantial, potatoes cooked in your preferred method would be most enjoyable or, given the slightly North African notes on offer here, might I propose a mound of couscous to go with?
To prepare the fish it's probably best to remove the head just to keep the parcel size a little smaller but it's not essential. Again, not essential, but the 'frills', the ribbon of outer fins can be removed to achieve a nice compact piece of bone-in fish. A fishmonger will be only too pleased to do this for you. With lemon sole there is no need to remove the skin, but running a scaler over the dark side is not a bad idea but hardly necessary. However, if making this dish with a Dover sole it is certainly worth removing at least the dark skin and, again, a fishmonger will be happy to do this for you.
The dish can be made with really any boneless fish fillets if you prefer - consider gurnard, bream, sea bass and pollack for example. A fishmonger will be able to advise whether the skin should be removed or not depending on which fish you choose - just tell them you want to "bake it in a bag". For fillets the cooking time should be reduced to 8 minutes in the oven and 2 minutes resting.
"Bake in a bag" or "en papillote" recipes vary in recommending that the parcel be a foil one or one of parchment (greaseproof) paper. Personally, if using a paper bag, I tend to surround it by a foil one as I find the seal to be much more secure. As such, I recommend using the foil (whether using the paper or not) simply to ensure the timings I have given will work.
As I mentioned above, I went through a whole range of different ingredients depending on availability, my mood, and my curiosity at a given time. So the quantities I have given are just one formula that I have turned to on numerous occasions, but feel free to experiment both with the quantities and indeed the ingredients themselves.
Lemon Sole with Lemon Thyme and Lemon
Ingredients (Per parcel for an individual serving)
250g lemon sole, head removed, trimmed (200g prepared weight, see recipe intro)
½ tbsp finely chopped lemon thyme leaves
1 tbsp finely chopped curly parsley leaves
3 glugs of extra virgin olive oil (each glug being approx ½ tbsp)
2-3 spring onions, sliced on the diagonal
2-3 sun-dried tomatoes, sliced (approx 2 tbsp)
5-6 green olives, pitted if preferred (Norcaealla etc.)
2 lemon slices, halved
½ tbsp lemon juice
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Preheat the oven to 240°C and put in a baking sheet to get hot. Combine the finely chopped lemon thyme and curly parsley in a small bowl.
In the centre of a square of greaseproof or parchment paper, drizzle the first glug of olive oil and scatter the spring onion slices on top of it. Distribute half of the sundried tomato slices amongst the spring onions then sprinkle over one third of the herb mixture. Season the fish on both sides and place, dark side up, on top, then arrange the remaining sun-dried tomato slices and green olives around the fish and finally place the halved lemon slices decoratively on top of the fish. Drizzle the lemon juice and the remaining two glugs of olive oil over everything, sprinkle over another third of the herb mixture and add some final seasoning to taste. Wrap the paper parcel loosely but securely and, if preferred (my recommendation), surround the paper parcel with a wrapping of foil.
Place the parcel on the hot baking sheet and place in the oven for 10 mins, after which remove from the oven and place the parcel on a cool plate to rest for a further 3 mins. Serve in the bag or transferred to serving plates, but either way the remaining third of the herb mixture is there for a final garnish.