At Mercy last weekend, I ordered the flounder with a beurre blanc sauce. As we waited for our main courses and smeared pate onto crostini, we poured wine into each other's glasses and talked grinningly about our brushes with the police and our plans for spring travel. When my entree arrived, I took two bites and decided that I liked it. I also peered down and poked at the fish inquisitively with my fork.

"Oh!" I said. "I didn't know that flounder had such a fine--"

...flake. That flounder had such a fine flake, such a short grain. But amid the rancor at the table, among my chattering friends, I remembered half a second too late for my sentence that I did know.

As I walked into the 80,000 square foot behemoth of a "natural foods" store, my eyes roved ceaselessly, seeking inspiration. It was late in the morning and hot outside already, and I shuffled through the aisles in my baggy capris and wooden sandals, gleeful about the dizzying selection of goods. After winding through one circuit of the store, I settled at the seafood counter to choose the focal point for tonight's dinner. Always a novice when it came to seafood, I hardly knew halibut from haddock and usually picked a new variety to try each time I decided to cook fish. Today, flounder was on sale. I asked for two large fillets.

Allowing ideas to spring from my brown paper parcel with pictures of happy blue fish, I wandered to the produce section. There, I hefted ruby grapefruit, choosing one that felt weighty. I combed through summer squash, looking for a few with springy, bright skin that dragged a little when I rubbed it. I sniffed at tomatoes, wrinkling my nose at the skunky, pungent smell of the freshest ones' stems.

I ducked into the salad dressing aisle to pick up a bottle of red wine vinegar infused with shallot flavor. I wondered if the shallots would even be noticeable.

On my way to the checkout, I was distracted by some sense of incompletion with regard to my summer squash when I was greeted and enticed over by the "in-house nut roaster." With his plastic-gloved hand, he extended a sample over the counter to me: tomato and basil pecans. I took the sample good-naturedly, but brightened when I tasted the pecans. They were incredible, and what's more, they would taste great crumbled into a pan of sautéed squash.

Six hours later, I had whisked a homemade vinaigrette and left it to marinate into pieces of sectioned grapefruit and hothouse tomato. I knifed the summer squash into biased slices and placed them in a medium saucepan, allowing them to cook on the back burner with a little bit of butter while I attended to the flounder. I rubbed freshly cracked black pepper and sea salt onto each side along with wisps of parsley and slivered garlic.

After a fifteen-minute rest, during which I turned the tomato salad over again in its bowl and threw some dried herbs into the squash, I heated two tablespoons of olive oil in a skillet. When the olive oil began to look volatile and somewhat irritable, I laid both flounder fillets down in the pan, careful to place both pieces away from the pan's edges. For three minutes, I let the fillets hiss and crackle in the olive oil. Always a novice when it came to seafood, I prayed that the crust of the fish had set and tried to flip one piece over with a deft flick of my wooden spatula. But the spatula got hung up hardly an inch past the underside of the piece. So I dug in, scraping a little, trying to keep it from breaking apart. As I lifted the piece, I left behind an ugly, jagged layer of exposed fish flesh, the gorgeously seared and browned underside that I had awkwardly separated from the piece balanced on my spatula.

I had turned it too soon, and I hadn't used enough oil. Besides that, the flounder had a very small, fine flake that I wasn't expecting. The texture was more delicate than I realized it would be, leaving many more places for the fillet to break into pieces or simply disintegrate into mush. Different from sea bass or tuna steak, flounder needed more coaxing to cooperate, and I had failed to deliver.

"I didn't know that flounder had such a fine..." I muttered. Now in recovery mode, I had set both fillets down to cook on their other sides, adding more oil to the pan.

"Such a what?" he drowsed from the living room couch. The hissing oil had woken him and my muttering had caught his ear. He rose from the sofa and staggered five steps over to the kitchen, rubbing his eyes as he did. Walking up behind me at the stove, he put his hands on my shoulders, leaned in to kiss me on the neck, and looked at my fishy mess.

"That smells good," he said.

"Yeah, but I screwed it up," I replied.

"It looks fine to me," he offered. "But you know me. If it's not completely charred black all the way through or emitting toxic fumes, I'll probably eat it. And even if it is like that, there's a good chance I'll at least taste it." I giggled. The fish was done, and I slid each piece onto a dinner plate. I mixed the pecans (now crushed) into the squash and added a serving to each plate. In separate salad bowls, I spooned the chilled tomato grapefruit salad. As I looked at the meal, my consternation grew.

"Looks great," he murmured.

"No. I can do better." I eyed the plates. The flounder was golden brown on each side, with bedraggled edges and little cracks here and there.

"Aw, come on. You don't need to impress me. You don't have to cook the perfect meal. I wouldn't even know what perfect is."

"I can do better," I simply repeated, and reached for the skillet. "I'm gonna try to fix it, so give me another minute or two, okay?" I held the skillet under the faucet and vigorously scrubbed away the bits of fish stuck to the bottom as he shook his head in amusement. Once the pan was clean again, I dumped in three teaspoons of olive oil, heated it on the stove, added the fish, waited two and a half minutes before turning each piece (since they were already cooked), and waited another two and a half minutes for the opposite sides. I flipped each piece onto its plate a second time.

"There," I sighed with satisfaction.

"Oh, wow, those do look way better. You're right." The flounder was now a deep, caramelized brown on each side, with a crisp clean surface and uniform edges. "This looks awesome. You are awesome. Did I ever tell you how awesome you are?" he said, and kissed me on the mouth.

I grinned and agreed, "Way better."

So, at Mercy, as I dug into the flounder with beurre blanc beside the dim lighting of votive candles, I should not have been surprised that my flounder had such a fine flake. I should not have been startled by that simple fact. But the wave of quiet, private sadness that followed--the still ache of a secret recollection--no matter my level of awareness, that part catches me off guard every single time.

Just like their bottom feeding cousins, the monkfish, our friend the flounder is in no danger of ever winning any kind of beauty contest. After all, if you were born with both of your eyes on the same side of your face, you’d get some funny looks too. They do however share something in common though. When prepared correctly, they’re both delicious.

Make that all three because when you get right down to it, there are two types of flounder, one for winter and one for summer.

Winter Flounder

Normally brown in color, the winter flounder is one of the most common flatfish in all of North America. To borrow some baseball terminology, it is what would be known as a “righty” In his or her case, since it doesn’t have arms to throw or grip a bat, the analogy applies because both of its eyes are on the right side of its head. During the summer, it spends most of its adult life wandering the ocean floor eating all sorts of smaller creatures. When the weather turns cooler, it makes its way inland towards the estuaries where it dines on worms, smaller fish and some crustaceans. Usually these guys hover around the six pound range and twenty inch length are common but catches of up to eight pounds and twenty five inches long aren’t unheard of. The underside of the fish usually starts to turn yellow as it gets older so if you’re in a restaurant and see “lemon sole” on the menu, chances are it’s the winter flounder that will be gracing your plate.

Summer Flounder

Contrary to the winter flounder, the summer flounder, to again use some baseball vernacular, would be a southpaw since both of its eyes are located on the left side of its head. Unlike the winter flounder though, the summer version is covered with black spots and its underside is almost completely white. While the summer flounder is also a bottom feeder, it further differs from its winter brethren because somewhere along the way it obtained the ability to change colors in order to adapt to the ocean floor. Its also been known to bury itself on the ocean bottom to escape predators and lay in wait for any shrimp, squid or crabs that comes its way. These guys are also usually longer in length (up to thirty seven inches) and a lot heavier than their snow bird cousins.

Let’s eat!

Usually when you go to your local fishmonger, you’ll see the flounder already filleted. Come to think of, I don’t ever think I’ve seen a whole one intact but that’s okay. I’ve hooked a few of the smaller ones in my lifetime and their nothing to write home about.

Anyway, I like to toss ‘em in a egg wash and bread ‘em and fry ‘em. I usually use plain bread crumbs because the flounder itself has a very delicate flavor and I don’t want it to get lost in a bunch of seasoning. Melt some butter and depending on their thickness, about three minutes a side should do.

For you more venturesome types, you might want to try baking them. Cover them with some melted (margarine for you health conscious folks) butter, lemon juice and maybe a sprig or two of parsley and a dash of pepper. Plop ‘em into a three hundred fifty degree (Fahrenheit) oven for about fifteen minutes or so.

I know some folks who stuff the fish with crab meat or smother it with cheese sauces and the like but to me that’s overkill. I don’t like to let the ingredients overpower the main course.

The best advice I can give is to let your palate be your guide.

Bon appetite!

lovejoyman says:but flounder are *not* born with their eyes on the same side. they are born looking like normal fishies and then one eye starts moving over as they age. ick! and i thought I had it bad growing up. all the best.

To me, that makes it sound even more strange - moving eyeballs!


Floun"der (?), n. [Cf. Sw. flundra; akin to Dan. flynder, Icel. flyra, G. flunder, and perh. to E. flounder, v.i.]

1. Zool.

A flatfish of the family Pleuronectidae, of many species.

The common English flounder is Pleuronectes flesus. There are several common American species used as food; as the smooth flounder (P. glabra); the rough or winter flounder (P. Americanus); the summer flounder, or plaice (Paralichthys dentatus), Atlantic coast; and the starry flounder (Pleuronectes stellatus).

2. Bootmaking

A tool used in crimping boot fronts.


© Webster 1913.

Floun"der, v. i. [imp. & p. p. Floundered (?); p. pr. & vb. n. Floundering.] [Cf. D. flodderen to flap, splash through mire, E. flounce, v.i., and flounder the fish.]

To fling the limbs and body, as in making efforts to move; to struggle, as a horse in the mire, or as a fish on land; to roll, toss, and tumble; to flounce.

They have floundered on from blunder to blunder. Sir W. Hamilton.


© Webster 1913.

Floun"der, n.

The act of floundering.


© Webster 1913.

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