Flat – but full of flavour

Seafish’s Andy Gray provides an insight into the various species of flatfish to be enjoyed by UK diners

When describing the myriad of fish and shellfish found in the oceans and seas of the world, such species can often initially be placed into some very simple groupings, describing where they are found or how they look – for example cold water round fish (cod, haddock and hake), or shellfish (lobster, crabs and prawns), or warm water exotics (pomfret, mahi mahi and snapper). Another important grouping, especially here in the UK, is that of flatfish – so let us take a look this month at the various species of flatfish caught and consumed in the UK.

Many of the waters around the UK are shallow, with sandy seabeds (such as found in the North Sea), providing an ideal habitat for a variety of species of flatfish, many caught by and readily available from, our own domestic fishermen.

All flatfish are born round in shape and, as they mature, the eyes move to either the left or right side of the fish, enabling them to see all around when lying on the seabed. Left-eye fish are called ‘sinistral’ (species such as turbot, brill and megrim) and right-eye fish are referred to as ‘dextral’ (all other commonly found species).

Fillets from flatfish do not possess any pin bones and are relatively easy to prepare and cook. The larger species, such as halibut, turbot and brill, can also provide excellent boneless suprêmes.

Halibut 

The largest member of the flatfish family, Atlantic halibut (Hippoglossus hippoglossus) are true leviathans of the deep and have been known to grow as large as 300kg and attain lengths in excess of 4 metres in the waters that they inhabit in the wild. This is a highly esteemed and very tasty fish, with creamy-white, firm, meaty flesh. Most people agree the best way to cook halibut is simply poached in a good fish stock or white wine, with the cooking liquors used as a base for a superb sauce (delicate flavours work best). Suprêmes are also good for pan-frying – but take care not to over-cook and dry them out. 

Turbot

Like halibut, turbot (Psetta maxima) is a highly prized species – often regarded as the best of the flatfish with great flavour and firm, white flesh. It has an almost circular outline, studded with bony tubercles on its dark side. Colour varies from light to dark brown, spotted with green or black, and a white blind side. Turbot ranges in size from 400g–10kg. The texture is similar to halibut, but it has a slightly more pronounced ‘fishy’ taste, so requires little to enhance the flavour. It is also a chef’s dream, retaining plenty of moisture during cooking, which means it doesn’t readily dry out. 

Brill 

Brill has an excellent flavour and firm, meaty, succulent and slightly sweet flesh with a yellowish tinge. It has a slightly sweeter taste than turbot and tends to be less expensive to buy. Recipes using turbot can easily be substituted with brill. The fish should be scaled before cooking and most methods are suitable for cooking, including baking, grilling, poaching, shallow frying and microwave cooking.

The bones and trimmings from brill make an excellent gelatinous stock. A smaller brill is best cooked on the bone, while larger brill can easily be filleted or will yield great steaks. As with other flatfish species cook until the flesh is just opaque and still slightly firm to the touch. To enjoy the full flavour of brill it benefits from simple cooking and to be served with some fresh chopped parsley, a knob of butter and a squeeze of lemon juice.

Dover Sole

The ‘king’ of the soles, this superb fish (Solea solea) has inspired many classic dishes such as poached sole bonne femme, sole veronique and sole à la meunière. With a dark brown skin and a longer and narrower shaped body than other flatfish, Dover sole has a crisp white flesh, firm to touch, with an almost sweet taste.

Lemon Sole 

‘Lemons’ (Microstomus kitt) have an oval body, more rounded than a Dover sole, with a lighter, yellowy-brown dark side. Ranging in size from 230g–1kg, this sole has a sweet, delicate flesh, ideal for any sole recipes, and works especially well with creamy white wine sauces. As well as being a great fish cooked on the bone, fillets are always popular, and are great for rolling around a filling, then steaming or baking.

Plaice

Unlike Dover sole, plaice (Pleuronectes platessa) is best eaten as fresh as possible, as the flavor quickly fades. It has as pronounced a flavour as lemon sole, but it takes sauces and other flavours very well, and is great for battering – as evidenced by its frequent appearance on fish and chip shop menus. Cook on the bone (with the black skin removed) to get the best from the flavour, or use fillets with a sauce or filling. Best avoided when post spawning (around February to April), as the flesh then tends to be thin and watery.

Megrim

Also known as ‘whiff’, megrim (Lepidorhombus whiffiagonis) is more appreciated by the Spanish than in the UK. It has an oval body similar to lemon sole with a sandy-brown dark upper side but is actually from the same family as turbot and brill. It has a softer flesh and a thin skin which can be readily crisped.

Witch

Also known as Torbay sole, witch (Glyptocephalus cynoglossus) has a similar appearance to Dover sole, and is from the same family as Lemon sole and plaice. Both megrim and witch are generally fished off the south-west coast of the UK and down the Atlantic coast of Europe. They range in size from 225g–900g and can be a good buy when at their freshest. Best cooked on the bone and requiring careful cooking to
avoid drying out.

Flounder and Dab 

Also known as ‘fluke’, flounder (Platichthys flesus) has brownish-green skin with faint red spots on the dark upper side and is bright white on the lower side. Flounder are similar in shape to halibut – though that is where the similarities end – and range in size from 350g–900g. Dab (Limanda limanda) tends to be smaller, and is rarely caught bigger than 680g. At their best, both dab and flounder are similar in flavour and texture to plaice, and can be a good value buy.

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