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Quarantine Cuisine: Scallops

Updated: Apr 17, 2020

Well kiddos, as you may have noticed, the world has stopped moving. Restaurants and bars are closed, the stock market is crumbling, the virus is spreading, the sky is falling...

Things have been a bit grim here, too. Mama, with her asthma, is a prime candidate for a severe infection, so the Maestro quit his job at the wine shop in the Amana Colonies to limit his interactions with the public and entered a self-imposed quarantine to reduce Mama's exposure as much as possible. Poor Mama also got permission to work from home for her new job only to be abruptly laid off just two days later.

There was much wine.

Facing our new reality has been a slow start, and generally involves attempts in vain to avoid touching our faces while camped out on the sofa drinking screwdrivers at 11 AM and watching Judge Judy reruns. Not the worst life, until you realize that you may be going insane and seeing the same case over and over again ("It was a loan!" "It was a gift!" "It is what it is!")

After one week of this, and staring down the daunting barrel of at least another eight weeks of it, I've realized it's time to buck up and make the best of this situation, and start doing things I enjoy to keep me occupied and off of Twitter. My largest priority? Food and wine, naturally!

We are looking for ways to make our comestible life as delivery-oriented as possible, and Fulton Fish Market, while often pricey, has been a good companion offering plenty of coupons for us over the past couple of years for securing some excellent seafood sent to the heartland. They happened to be holding a timely "stock-up" sale this week, so I had a few dinners' worth of fish sent our way to begin a quarantine mini-tradition––cooking excellent things, and helping both of the regular readers of my blog also cook excellent things while they, too, must stay put.

For the first part of this little adventure, I present possibly my very favorite thing to cook: seared scallops.

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I have a profound relationship with the sea scallop. Back when I was still a "vegetarian," I finally got the gumption to request that my mother purchase a scallop for me to try. A good friend had ordered some at a local eatery at a recent dinner, and chided me for being afraid to try them. No longer––it was time to break the bondage of faux vegetarianism (really just a red herring for being picky) and venture into the world of seafood, and scallops were to be my first step. It was really the scallop that launched my foodie career.

It is important to know some things about scallops when selecting them for cooking. The first thing you must know is the difference between a dry scallop and a wet scallop. This might seem like a silly thing; duh Steven, of course a SEA scallop is wet! However, "wet" refers to the way the scallop is stored––"wet" scallops are sat in a pool of phosphates to keep them plump and "fresh" for a longer period of time. Instead, what they end up doing is sapping the scallop of flavor and preventing it from browning properly while cooking when the fluid seeps out. A "wet" scallop will often have a little pool of pearly liquid around it in a container.

Moral of the story––ALWAYS buy "dry" or "dry pack" scallops for the best flavor and easiest, most delicious cooking. You want a scallop that browns beautifully when searing. Naturally, you are also going to want to find fresh, never-frozen scallops whenever possible. "Wet" scallops are often frozen as well (boo!).

Next, the size of the scallop. Smaller scallops are prone to overcooking and often will not sit evenly against a pan when searing. For best results, seek out scallops labeled "U/10," meaning simply that there are ten or fewer scallops per pound ("under ten.") I have seen U/8 scallops before, but they are rare, though magnificently large! Four to five U/10 scallops makes an ideal protein portion for one person, so go to the best fish monger in town or check out online shops like Fulton Fish Market or Catalina OP and order a pound for two people.

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Tonight, I offer up a classic scallop preparation that is a staple in my kitchen, and can give you any number of variations to work with based on what you have in your kitchen. Sadly, I don't make this nearly as often as I'd like, because my local grocer, while often fantastic, rarely carries glorious U/10 dry pack scallops. Fulton to the rescue!

Here's what you'll need: scallops, a veggie, another veggie, some milk or cream, unsalted butter, shallot, white wine, white wine vinegar, olive oil, and salt and pepper. Easy peasy.

The four components of this dish are the scallops themselves; the sauce, called "beurre blanc;" a purée of the first veggie; and a roasted, sautéed, steamed, whatever preparation of the second veggie. See what you have, and what looks delicious in the moment!

For us this eve, I selected a basil beurre blanc, a cauliflower purée, and florets of broccoli prepared in my new best friend, the air fryer. Seeing as how we are, once again, being denied the springtime the rest of the country seems to be enjoying (30 degrees as I type), my longing for spring meant fresh white and green colors.

Best to start with the purée. This is a pretty easy process––if you feel the need to find a recipe, you can find one on the Interwebz for pretty much any veggie on the planet. My approach, however, is to generally improvise using the same framework––cook some garlic and onion in butter or olive oil until translucent, then add the veggie (in this case, cauliflower) and sauté for a few minutes. Reduce heat to low, let cool a bit, and then add a bit of broth, milk, or cream to the pan. Cook, covered, on low until the veggies are tender, then purée in a blender or food processor. Season to taste and adjust as necessary, and you've got a delicious purée that you'll just need to warm up before plating. Cauliflower is a great purée veggie that is creamy enough on its own to not need a huge dose of fat, if you would prefer to avoid higher calories.

A roasted veggie is also easy, and again might not require a recipe at all. Coat with olive oil, salt, pepper, and any other seasoning of your choice, then pop into a hot oven until cooked to your liking. If you want it more toward brown and crispy, 400 degrees is good. If you prefer it green and springy, lower heat for shorter time, or consider steaming. You can sauté, blanche, grill... anything you like. Tonight, I used the air fryer at 400 degrees for ten minutes.

Beurre blanc is the tricky bit of this recipe, and I'll start you here. Mince a small shallot (and some basil leaves, in our case this evening) and add it to a pan with about a quarter cup each of white wine and white wine vinegar, cooking over medium heat until reduced significantly and syrupy in quality. What kind of white wine? How about the one you are drinking!

You'll need a stick or so of unsalted butter, cut into several smaller pieces (1 tbsp per piece, perhaps). Over low heat, after the reduction has cooled slightly, you will mount the sauce with butter by stirring each piece in individually, stirring literally constantly. Be VERY careful with the heat, or the sauce will break. It is not a bad idea to move the pan on and off of the heat to keep things from warming up. It needs to be just hot enough for the butter to melt. Keep stirring each piece in until the sauce is a beautiful, frothy emulsion of vinegary, shallot-y butter. A true companion to scallops. You can strain off the shallots if you like, or keep them for texture.

Searing scallops is one of the easiest things you can do in the kitchen, though not idiot-proof, and it's a very impressive culinary trick to master for family and friends. I like to use a cast iron skillet to get the best "crust" possible on my scallops, and I also tend to prefer butter over olive oil for searing, or perhaps a combo of both. Heat over medium-plus heat and add fat to skillet.

In the meantime, remove the extra muscle from the exterior of the scallops and pat them dry on both sides––the dryer the scallop, the better the sear. Season with salt and pepper; I usually only season the "crust" side of the scallop. When the pan is nice and hot, drop scallops in, salty/peppery-side-down, into the pan, and try to not move them around. This gives them the opportunity to develop a nice golden sear uninterrupted. Be mindful of parts of the pan that aren't as hot as others––this can lead to unevenly-cooked scallops, or some scallops with a brilliant sear and others that look not so great. You'll see below that I didn't do a great job with this step on a few scallops!

Let the scallops sear for a good three to five minutes on one side depending on size, and check the smallest one for a golden sear. If it's looking good, flip them all, smallest to largest (tongs are best), and baste a couple of times, cooking for around 60–90 seconds on the other side.

You can plate these in many different ways. Tonight I put the cauli purée in the middle, the air-fried florets atop, and spooned beurre blanc over the scallops to create a little "pool" around the purée. Here you have yourself a classic and incredible scallop dish.

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Wine to cook by: Elouan Chardonnay from Willamette Valley. I like chard with scallops, because it has some body and can have nice hefty oak, but you want to be careful not to match a robust, richer dish with a wine that lacks acidity. The wonderful thing about the beurre blanc is it's a butter and vinegar sauce, so it has heft and tang. Pick a wine that can give you both. Chardonnay from a cooler climate, like Oregon, is a stellar choice. This one had a nice medium body, with coconut, pineapple, and tropical fruit and a moderate green acidity. Lovely balance!

And, if you put the chard in the beurre blanc, you've got an even more natural pairing!

Be mindful of the selected veggie as well, since some veggies are very wine-friendly and some are notoriously difficult to pair, like asparagus and endive. When in doubt, Google is your friend!

* * *

It's my goal to give you some quarantine recipes, two or so per week, with a couple of lingering restaurant reviews from February and early March peppered in, while we are all stuck at home. Hopefully this gives you all some ideas for meals while you, too, are stuck!

Better news still, I've been stockpiling some stellar wine from some of my favorite small producers in the U.S. to help me endure this mess, so I'll be sure to profile a few. Remember folks––always put your money to the best use in times of crisis! Robert Mondavi doesn't need more money; small producers are in trouble and your business is meaningful.

Stay sane and healthy.

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