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Chat Leftovers: Wan, woeful scallops

And another Wednesday dawns. You know what that means: It's Free Range chat day, our weekly chance to hang out together. You ask culinary questions, we try our best to answer them.

Recipe Included

Should be a busy chat, with -- count 'em -- four guests. They will be: Real Entertaining columnist David Hagedorn, who writes today about a diet dinner in disguise; Gastronomer columnist Andreas Viestad, who examines the pros and cons of raw food; and Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs of the Web site Food52, who figure prominently in today's story about who can produce better recipes: Web communities such as Food52 or professional test kitchens such as the one that supports Cook's Illustrated. We asked the Cook's folks to participate, but they can't make it because of other obligations.

So be on hand at 1 for a lively hour. With so many fingers and keyboards here, we should get to a lot of your questions. Not all of them, of course: Never happens. For example, here's one from an earlier chat that we couldn't get to:

I bought my first pound of scalllops because they’re on sale today. The guy at the fish counter told me to cook them in olive oil on medium-high heat, 2 minutes on each side. I have to say they were not terribly exciting. They didn’t brown, and I’m not sure if they were fully cooked, but my 4-year-old thought they tasted like chicken. How can I make good scallops that taste like the restaurants do it? And what are these things served with?

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That's a perfect question for today, because a lovely scallop recipe is part of David Hagedorn's menu for guests. More about that later. First, more about scallops themselves.

I'm wondering whether you bought wet-packed sea scallops, which have been packed in a liquid that tends to make them watery and soft. During cooking, they release moisture that impedes browning. Dry-packed scallops cook up firmer, and they brown more easily. When you're preparing to sear or saute scallops, pat them as dry as possible before they hit the pan. Some cooks like to set the scallops on a plate or cooling rack in the refrigerator for an hour or so before searing to let the surface dry out even more. I've never tried that technique, but I know people who swear by it.

Also, you can't crowd scallops in the pan, or they tend to steam -- again, something that will make it hard for them to brown. And the oil you're frying them in must be hot or, again, they'll sweat and steam in their own juices.

Finally, nothing is tougher and more rubbery than an overcooked scallop, so don't overdo it. In fact, you can undercook them a little, knowing that the cooking will continue for a brief time after they come off the heat.

Scallops are delicious with pasta or greens or lapped with simple sauces. The first recipe I'll offer is the one in today's paper. It's made with a chipotle pepper, and I note that you have a 4-year-old, so for the tot you can cut back on or eliminate the pepper unless heat is not a problem. But here's a better idea: Scallops are quite amenable to being served on a small bed of buttery mashed potatoes, which your 4-year-old might really like. Put the child's scallops on the potatoes and put yours on the spinach.

The second recipe is more child-friendly; the scallops are served over salad greens with a sweet-tart lime and honey sauce.

-- Jane Touzalin

Seared Sea Scallops With Chipotle Spinach Sauce
6 servings

(James M. Thresher for The Washington Post; tableware from Crate and Barrel)

For this recipe, it's best to use diver or dry-packed scallops, which are dry and firm rather than soft and wet.

MAKE AHEAD: The asparagus, peppers and creamed spinach/sauce can be made several hours or a day in advance, then briefly reheated when you prepare the scallops.

1/4 cup olive oil
18 medium (18 ounces) asparagus spears, trimmed and cut in half crosswise, then lengthwise
1 medium red bell pepper, stemmed, seeded and cut into very thin strips (julienne)
Medium-grind sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
12 ounces baby spinach (9 cups; no need to stem)
2 medium shallots, finely chopped
8 ounces cremini mushrooms, chopped (stemmed if necessary)
1 chipotle en adobo, chopped, such as La Morena brand
1 cup half-and-half
1/2 cup fish stock or clam juice
2 pounds large (U-10) dry-packed scallops (see headnote)
2 tablespoons canola oil
Chopped chives or parsley, for garnish (optional)

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees. Line an ovenproof plate with several layers of paper towels.

Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat, until the oil shimmers. Add the asparagus and red bell pepper; cook for about 3 minutes, stirring often, until the vegetables soften and begin to brown. Season with salt and black pepper to taste. Transfer the vegetables to the paper-towel-lined plate, then place the plate in the oven while you prepare the rest of the dish.

Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the spinach and blanch for about 1 minute or just long enough for the leaves to wilt. Drain the spinach and rinse in cold water. Working in several batches, use your hands to squeeze as much water as possible from the spinach. Transfer the spinach to a cutting board and chop it coarsely.

Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat, until the oil shimmers. Add the shallots and cook for about 2 minutes, stirring constantly, until they have softened. Add the chopped mushrooms and chipotle pepper; stir to incorporate, and cook for 1 minute. Add the half-and-half and the fish stock or clam juice, then the drained, chopped spinach; mix well. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Transfer to an ovenproof bowl, then place the bowl in the oven (with the vegetables) to keep warm.

Generously season the scallops on both sides with salt and pepper. Heat the canola oil in a large cast-iron or nonstick skillet over medium-high heat, until the oil shimmers. Add the scallops and sear until they are nicely caramelized, which will take about 2 minutes. Turn the scallops over to sear on the second side for 1 to 2 minutes. They should be plump and firm, but not hard, when you press on them. Remove from the heat.

When ready to serve, divide the spinach evenly among individual wide, shallow soup plates. Place 3 or 4 scallops in the center of each portion and surround them with equal amounts of the asparagus and red bell pepper mixture. Garnish with chopped chives or parsley, if desired.

Seared Sea Scallop Salad With Honey-Lime Dressing
4 to 6 servings

Scallops do need just a little something to impart oomph. Put away pungent spice rubs and cloying sauces. A drizzle of this sweet citrus dressing does the trick. Toss the remaining dressing with whatever salad greens are in season, whether mild pea shoots or peppery watercress.

Adapted from "The Cooking Club Cookbook" by Katherine Fausset, Sharon Cohen Fredman, Rebecca Sample Gerstung, Cynthia Harris, Lucia Quartararo and Lisa Singer (Villard, $19.95).

For the dressing
About 1/3 cup freshly squeezed lime juice (from 2 to 3 limes)
5 teaspoons honey, or to taste
1 tablespoon white wine or rice vinegar
About 1/8 teaspoon salt

For the scallops
About 2 tablespoons grapeseed or peanut oil
1 1/2 to 2 pounds sea scallops, patted dry
Mixed greens (such as pea shoots, watercress or arugula mixed with mesclun)
2 handfuls chopped vegetables, such as orange bell peppers and jicama

For the dressing: Whisk together the lime juice, honey, vinegar and salt in a medium bowl until the honey is completely incorporated. Taste, and adjust accordingly.

For the scallops: Heat the oil in a large cast-iron or nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add a few of the scallops to the skillet, being careful not to crowd the pan (if the scallops are too close, the moisture they emit can't escape, and the scallops will steam, not sear). Cook until the scallops are golden brown on the outside and can be turned easily, 2 to 4 minutes per side. Turn and cook just until the scallop is opaque throughout (remove 1 of the scallops and cut it open to check). Transfer to a plate; repeat with the remaining scallops.

To serve, arrange the greens and vegetables on individual plates. Place the scallops on top, whisk the dressing to recombine, then drizzle sparingly over the top.

By Jane Touzalin  |  April 28, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Chat Leftovers  | Tags: Chat Leftovers, Free Range, Jane Touzalin, recipes  
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