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Today: How to get more out of seared scallops -- and cook them perfectly every time.
Why don't more of us sear scallops at home? Let's change that.
Scallops are the world's friendliest mollusk: they (usually) aren't sold with shells to wrangle, or wiggly innards to catch grit. They look like big marshmallows, but taste much better for dinner.
Are they intimidating because, once cooked, they look so fancy and precise, with that flat-top of crust and implied technique? Or because they're more expensive than, say, a block of tofu? (It's true, they are.)
That doesn't stop us from ordering them in restaurants, but at home we feel safer roasting a chicken or grilling a steak. This makes no sense to me.
The truth is: large sea scallops take roughly 3 minutes to cook, and are incredibly easy to get right. If you follow a few general rules of searing (we'll get to those), they will taste better than what you'd get at most swanky seafood restaurants.
Tom Colicchio's recipe is a perfect place to start. If you've nerded out on his Top Chef critiques, you already know: what Colicchio established at his restaurant Craft wasn't intensive cooking with a lot of pomp. It's what you could make and would make in your home kitchen, if you had a functioning hearth and served every dish in a shiny copper vessel.
Colicchio doesn't crowd his ingredients; he handles them carefully and cleverly -- adding herbs at the end of simmering stock to keep them bright, serving fava and cranberry beans in sauces made of more of themselves.
So naturally, he has a way to not just perfectly pan-roast scallops, but to get even more out of them.
We're taught to pull off and throw away the side muscle -- the little flap that hugs the side of the scallop -- because it seizes up and goes tough when cooked. It can also trap grit. But even though it's a textural blight, it's full of sweet, briny flavor we should be more hesitant to lose.
So Colicchio simmers the lot of them with aromatics and broth to make a scallop jus, a cheffy-sounding name for an economic sauce. You're making a rich, concentrated stock from the cooking detritus you would normally trash, like we've seen with shrimp shells and corn cobs and vegetable peelings. What else could we be eating more thoroughly?
Here's how to get more scallop out of your scallop:
As you're organizing your scallops, pull off each one's little side muscle (if it's still there) and gather them in a bowl. Pop the scallops back in the fridge.
To make your jus, sauté onion, fennel, and celery till soft before adding the bowlful of muscles.
Splash in white wine, then chicken stock, and throw in some herbs.
Let this reduce down by half, then strain and swirl in some butter. Jus is done, and dinner will be there in 3 minutes.
Time to revisit those searing rules: 1. Dry the scallops well -- this also means going out of your way to buy dry scallops (ones that haven't been preserved in sodium tripolyphosphate, which makes them bloated and strange-tasting and gets in the way of a good crust).
2. Get the pan super hot (with a high smoke point oil like refined peanut) and give them lots of space, to keep the surface from cooling down and leave plenty of room for steam to escape.
3. Once they're in, leave them be for a minute before lifting one up to peek. If they're gorgeous on the bottom, they're ready to flip.
4. Not strictly required for a good sear, but a quick butter baste (i.e. tilting the pan and spooning foaming butter over the goods) is never a bad way to end this process. It helps finish cooking the scallops evenly, bathes them in browning butter and thyme (or garlic or shallots or mint), and looks really cool when you do it.
Adapted slightly from Craft of Cooking: Notes and Recipes from a Restaurant Kitchen (Clarkson Potter, 2003)
2 1/2 pounds large sea scallops
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 small white onion, peeled and chopped
1 small fennel bulb, cored and chopped
1 celery stalk, chopped
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup dry white wine
2 cups chicken stock
1 sprig fresh tarragon, 1 sprig fresh thyme, and 1 fresh bay leaf tied in cheesecloth
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons peanut oil
2 sprigs fresh thyme
Got a genius recipe to share -- from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected].
The Genius Recipes cookbook is here! (Well, almost.) The book is a mix of greatest hits from the column and unpublished new favorites -- all told, over 100 recipes that will change the way you think about cooking. It'll be on shelves in April, but you can pre-order your copy now.
Photos by James Ransom, except Tom Colicchio by Bill Bettencourt