I recently taught this dish, which is one of my all-time favorite preparations for white fish fillets, at The Spice Way in Encinitas, California. It was so popular with the class that I thought you might enjoy it, too.
I wrote an article on Piccata for the San Francisco Chronicle awhile back (before they combined the Food Section with the Home Section and did away with all the fun and educational food articles and recipes). While researching the article, I learned that piccata, the dish we think of as Italian, doesn’t come from Italy at all. You won't find the recipe in any Italian cookbook and the Italian chefs I interviewed had never heard of it. Most likely piccata was created by Italians after they emigrated to America in the 1930’s.
Piccata is most commonly associated with veal, but the dish is so versatile that it can be made with any thin meat or fish filets. It is made by pan frying or sautéing meat or fish in a skillet, removing it and stirring in 3 or 4 ingredients to make a sauce. The basic ingredients for the sauce are an acid, like lemon, something salty like capers and a small pat of that magic sauce enhancer, butter.
I like teaching piccata, because the dish is so simple, but I have found that many people are not familiar with the basics of sautéing.
FOUR ESSENTIAL TIPS FOR SUCCESSFUL SAUTÉING
Rule #1: The meat or fish should be coated with flour before cooking to help seal in the juices and create a crispy golden crust. This is called dredging. But if the flour is too thick, the resulting crust gets gloppy. I recommend using an instant flour, like Wondra. It seals the meat more evenly and ensures a smooth sauce. If you are wondering if it is really worth purchasing another flour, the answer is a resounding YES. You may not use it often, but for dredging meat or fish or thickening a sauce, it is the best. You never have to mix it with a liquid. Just pour it right into the sauce and stir. Look ma, no lumps—ever.
Rule #2: Have all your ingredients ready before you begin.
Rule #3: Heat an empty good quality, heavy skillet over medium high heat until it is thoroughly heated, about 2 minutes. Add the fat and swirl the pan to coat the bottom. Do not add your ingredients until the fat is very hot. Olive oil and canola oil are ideal fats for sautéing, because they have a fairly high smoke point.
Rule #4: Lay the meat or the fish in the pan without crowding. If they are too close together they will steam instead of brown. Do not move or turn them until they are golden brown on the bottom. Turn and brown on the other side. Timing depends on the thickness of the meat or fish.
The following recipe is an adaptation of a typical piccata. Instead of just melting the butter, I cook it until it is golden brown and has a distinct nutty flavor. I love the way the sweetness of the grapes play off of the tangy lemon and salty capers.
Tilapia, red snapper, cod, trout or any other white fish fillets work well in this recipe.
SOLE PICCATA WITH BROWN BUTTER & GRAPES
4 petrale sole fillets, 6 oz. each
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
About 4 tablespoons Wondra instant flour
2 tablespoons olive oil
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
½ cup seedless grapes, Thompson or small red grapes, cut in half
2 tablespoons capers, drained
6 lemon slices cut in half
Blot fillets dry and season one side with salt and pepper. Sprinkle with flour and pat it on lightly to cover the fish evenly; shake off the excess. Turn and coat the other side with flour.
Heat a large heavy skillet over medium-high heat until hot, about 2 minutes. Add olive oil and swirl to coat bottom of pan. When oil is hot, lay fish in pan. Sauté without moving them until bottoms are golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Turn and sauté on second side 2 to 2 1/2 minutes or until golden brown and flesh is opaque. Timing will depend upon thickness of fillets. Remove fish to a plate. If greasy blot with paper towels.
Remove pan from heat and wipe inside with paper towels. Return to high heat and add butter. Cook, stirring lightly, until the foam and small bubbles on the top are light brown, about 1 minute. Carefully stir in lemon juice (it will spatter), grapes, capers and lemon slices, cook 30 seconds. Transfer fillets to plates and spoon sauce over.
Makes 4 servings.