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Good for the sole: a seafood expert offers a short lesson in flatfish.

Most seafood consumers like white-flesh flaky fish. For many years the two most popular species of fish used for breaded-fish sandwiches in schools and restaurants were cod and flounder. Of course, times were different then. The richest fishing ground in the world for these fish was off the coast of New England, where fillet of flounder, with its mild taste, dominated the standard seafood dinner preference.

You might be surprised to know that in this unique spectrum offish known as flatfish, encompassing some 530 species, only a few dozen play an important role in the commercial food distribution network. At the top of the list, in addition to flounder, there are sole, turbot, and halibut.

First, here are the basics. Flatfish are rather strange-looking creatures. Their bodies are tightly compressed--hence the designation "flat"--with both eyes on the same side of their bodies. Some have the eyes on the right side, while others have them on the left. This type offish begins its life with one eye on each side of its head, but as it matures, its eyes move together to one side. Thus, these fish are described as being either "left-eyed" or "right-eyed," depending on the direction that the eyes face when the fish swims. The flounder or sole can be found, in one type or another, in all the oceans of the world, and most are relatively small fish, averaging between two and four pounds.

Open up the dinner menu of any classic roadside American diner or local seafood shanty, and you're likely to find "filet of sole" listed as the catch of the day. In supermarkets you might see the white fish labeled "lemon sole." This is interesting, because the one true species offish properly identified as lemon sole, Microstomus kilt, is found only in Europe. However, one U.S. species of flatfish caught off the coast of Massachusetts, the gray or grey sole, is a true sole.

Obviously; there are mislabding issues. In an effort to eliminate such occurrences, the Food & Drug Administration has set specific acceptable names for most fish. Every retailer can review this list of names by visiting seaintro.html.

Yet, in the grand scheme of things, generations of local fish towns and fish lovers are convinced that the flatfish in their restaurant or fish market are simply "sole." Perhaps it basically comes down to the words of the old song: "I say to-may-to/You say to-mah-to."

By any other label, the versatile flounder/sole is consumer-friendly. Since flounders have white meat and a flaky texture, most restaurants and supermarkets offer some type of the fish. One of the most attractive characteristics of flatfish is their bone structure. These fish can be filleted cleanly from the bone, producing a virtually boneless piece offish.

The popularity of meals in minutes or meals to go lends itself well to flounders and soles being used in conjunction with stuffing. The benefit to the consumer is a reasonably priced, healthy entree. The most popular combinations are crab stuffing, and spinach with cheese (flounder Florentine) and other flavors. Two medium-size fillets rolled around a few ounces of stuffing, commonly called "rollmops," can be attractively displayed and cook in minutes.

Retailers interested in offering good cooking suggestions to shoppers can find tips and other information on flounder at mass/seafood/flounder.html.

Here's a tip: The Sea Grant program at the University of Delaware in Newark recommends that flounder/sole isn't a good stir-fry choice, since it's so soft. "Thinner fillets (one-half inch or less) work best rolled and microwaved or poached," says Sea Grant. "Thicker fillets may be baked with a sauce, or broiled using moist heat, or fried; pan-fry lightly dusted thinner pieces, and deep-fry thicker, boneless pieces that have been dipped in an egg wash and coated."

All hail the halibut

Halibut is the largest flatfish in the sea. Another distinguishing characteristic is that the eyes of the halibut, unlike those of flounders and soles, are on both sides of the head. The fish swims by moving its tail, much like a whale. These giant creatures are fished in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

With its firmer texture, halibut tends to produce thick fillets and steaks that hold up well on the grill. It's the most popular fish on the West Coast of the United States, while in Europe it's likely to be used as the meat in fish and chips.

Visit the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute at for more information about halibut as well as other Alaskan species; additionally, you can find free retail and foodservice promotional materials.

One final fun fact: Homer, Alaska, the Halibut Fishing Capital of the World, hosts the largest halibut fishing tournament, offering $183,000 in prizes.

The top nine

The nine most common commercial flounders and soles are as follows:

* West Coast Dover sole (Pacific flounder): Pacific Ocean, right-eyed (The only true Dover sole is found in the Mediterranean and North seas.)

* Sea dab (American plaice): North Atlantic, right-eyed

* Gray sole (witch flounder): North Atlantic, left-eyed

* Lemon sole (winter flounder): North Atlantic, right-eyed

* Rock sole (rock flounder) Pacific Ocean, right-eyed

* Yellow tail: North Atlantic, right-eyed

* Fluke (summer flounder): North Atlantic, left-eyed

* Turbot: Averaging three feet and weighing up to 30 pounds

* Halibut: Largest of all, measuring up to nine feet and weighing as much as 700 pounds

Michael F. Bavota is a frequent writer on seafood merchandising and training issues, and is the author of Seafood Lover's Bible.
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Title Annotation:SUPERMARKET Fresh Food BUSINESS
Author:Bavota, Michael F.
Publication:Progressive Grocer
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2006
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