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Throwback Thursday: Beurre blanc and beurre noisette

Throwback Thursday: Beurre blanc and beurre noisette
The Time magazine cover that alerted the world, in 2014, to the unexpected news that butter is healthy for us. (Photo: time.com)

Butter came in from the cold on 12 June 2014 when Time magazine ran a cover story headlined ‘Eat Butter’. And in small print: ‘Scientists labelled fat the enemy. Why they were wrong.’ Almost 10 years on, we’re revelling in the freedom of cooking with butter and a clear conscience. And we’re cooking East Coast sole with beurre blanc.

In the 1980s, there was what Time magazine called “a fatwa against fat”. The story is very complex and multilayered, but the overriding theme is that butter is okay again, we need it, and to some extent a reasonable intake of it is healthy for us.

Excess, as ever, is never good. We cannot tell you the whole story, but you can find it here. (Being an archived piece, it doesn’t seem to be behind a paywall, although many Time magazine stories are for subscribers only. You can, of course, subscribe.)

With this in mind, and having noted that it’s nigh on a decade since Time magazine gave us all permission to bring butter back into the kitchen, I’ve had butter sauces in mind.

A pair of butter sauces. Beurre blanc, beurre noisette. It would be easy to confuse them or think they were more or less the same thing. The difference is in the second word in their names. A blanc sauce is white, not white as snow but white in the sense of the heat not having changed the colour to brown. Noisette means the opposite. It means, literally, hazelnut, but in culinary terms it means “burnt”. (There is also a variation of hollandaise made with browned butter.)

Beurre noisette foams and slowly browns, while beurre blanc cooks without gaining colour, but does gain flavour instead from the enriching of the white wine and the sweetness of shallots.

What “burnt” means is not precisely what it says, if we think of burnt as meaning something blackened and turned to cinders. It’s much subtler than that. In fact, if your beurre noisette sauce has gone that far it’s been ruined.

There’s a perfect point when a beurre noisette is just right, and that is when you arrest its cooking by quickly squeezing in the juice of half a lemon. The only way to know when to do this is to watch it intensely as the top and centre of the foaming butter sauce slowly starts to turn a lovely hazelnutty shade of golden brown. Then a tiny bit more and a little more still. As it starts to darken there comes a point where it is clear that if you don’t halt the browning immediately it will become too dark and will have been taken too far. That point is when to squeeze the lemon in and take it off the heat.

A beurre blanc, by contrast, has no browning at all. It starts with the gentle sautéing of finely chopped shallots in butter (you can use onion but it’s worth taking the trouble to source the milder, sweeter shallot). A glass of good white wine is added and simmered, then small knobs of butter are whisked in a few at a time while the sauce emulsifies and thickens.

It was the purchasing of shallots while in Gqeberha/Port Elizabeth that recipes with shallots in them had started me thinking about what to do with them. Their sweetness is legendary. But do we keep them in the sauce, or strain it and discard them? They do cost good money…

Executed classically, the shallots need to be strained out. Your professional chef is looking for that admirable simplicity: the flavour of the shallots being well evident, but the smooth sauce being refined on the palate and pleasing to the eye.

But there’s another argument: in this world of tight pockets and wallets that have adopted a minimalist approach to things, like interior designers with no appetite for flair or bold colour because they were taught at college that restraint was everything, we prefer to use the things we’ve spent the dwindling money on. And I was not going to throw out these lovely shallots, even if they were undoubtedly visible in the sauce.

While I was in PE I had ventured down to the docks, to the Fisherman Fresh deli, and brought home a lovely East Coast sole, all for myself. The Foodie’s Wife is not big on fish, and anyway you can’t share a sole. There isn’t a great deal of flesh on them.

But what flesh there is is an absolute treat, as anyone who has relished sole will attest. And this was a beauty, which rewarded me with a satisfying amount of flesh on both sides of that beautiful spine that is left naked on your plate when you’re done.

So, following on from the beurre noisette in this week’s recipe for lamb ravioli and another for tagliatelle with caper butter sauce, a variation of beurre noisette, here’s a recipe for East Coast sole with beurre blanc in which I chose to leave the diced shallots rather than strain them out and discard them.

All you need for the sole is seasoning and fat. That’s it; there’s no need to get complicated with sole. The flavour is already there, you only need to coax it out with some gentle frying and simple seasoning.

East Coast sole with beurre blanc sauce

Pan-fried East Coast sole with beurre blanc sauce, not strained. (Photo: Tony Jackman)

A few hours before needing to cook the sole, pat the fish dry on both sides, salt it lightly, and put it on a dry plate in the fridge for three or four hours. It needs to go straight from the fridge into the hot fat in the pan. Cut 150g of cold butter into little cubes and put them on a small plate or in a small bowl in the fridge.

(Serves 1, sorry )

Ingredients

1 fresh East Coast sole (mine was about 250g)

2 or 3 Tbsp salted butter

A dash of olive oil

Salt and white pepper

For the beurre blanc:

2 shallots, peeled and very finely chopped

1 small glass of dry white wine

150g salted butter, cold, diced

Touch of white pepper (optional)

Method

Fry the shallots lightly in butter (not the cubed butter) until softened. Don’t let them colour.

Add a healthy glug or two of white wine and reduce.

On a low heat, whisk in two or three small cubes of fridge-cold butter at a time until it is all used up. Keep whisking. The sauce will emulsify as you whisk.

Stir in a hint of white pepper if you like, but this isn’t required.

Decide whether you want to be all cheffy and strain out the shallots, or be money-wise and leave them in.

Meanwhile, melt butter and a splash of olive oil in a heavy pan and fry the sole on one side until it’s cooked halfway through. When it easily lifts on pushing a spatula a little way under it, turn it over carefully and give the other side two minutes or so. Reheat the sauce and pour it over and alongside. DM

Tony Jackman is Galliova Food Writer 2023, jointly with TGIFood columnist Anna Trapido. Order his book, foodSTUFF, here.

Follow Tony Jackman on Instagram @tony_jackman_cooks.

This dish is photographed on a plate by Mervyn Gers Ceramics.

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