Table for One

Pan-Seared Scallops Are for Date Nights With Yourself

Table for One columnist, Eric Kim, shows us how to carve out a restful space for ourselves at home—with a really good meal, too.

by:
June 26, 2020
Photo by Julia Gartland. Food stylist: Samantha Seneviratne. Prop stylist: Brooke Deonarine.

Table for One is a column by Eric Kim, who loves cooking for himself—and only himself—and seeks to celebrate the beauty of solitude in its many forms.


For years, one of my favorite places to be alone was the Grand Central Oyster Bar. Specifically the saloon in the way back, where the lighting was dimmer, the drinks were stronger, and people left you alone at the bar.

I’ll always remember this bustling underground restaurant, now closed, as the place where I first developed a taste for raw oysters on the half shell with horseradish and mignonette, that refreshingly sharp mixture of shallots and vinegar. With a glass of chardonnay or a 50/50 martini, I could sit there for hours people-watching.

Since these resting places are no longer available to us, it’s important to carve them out at home the best we can. Because as busy as our lives can get, we still need moments of pause and recuperation. Cooking is, of course, one way to achieve that.

I’ve found that one of the greatest things to cook for myself is scallops: expensive when serving a crowd, sure, but when feeding number one? A simple, surprisingly affordable pleasure. (This week, I bought a half pound of fresh sea scallops at H Mart for about $5—though truthfully, you only really need a quarter pound, four or five of the big ones, for a substantial dinner.)

A few tricks to getting the most out of your bounty: First, make sure your scallops are bone-dry (this will ensure caramelization in the pan, versus steaming). I like to wipe them down with a paper or cloth towel, then season with salt and pepper directly on the towel.

Next, sear the ivory gems in a hot skillet with a pat of butter. That first side will always get a deeper golden-brown crust than the second (which only needs another minute for a perfect medium-rare), so really leave it be during that initial sear. As the scallops cook, the butter will also start to brown, lending nuttiness to the sauce later.

Now, carefully lean down and take a whiff. This is the oldest magic right here, what I like to call scallop caramel. When scallops touch beurre noisette, or brown butter, in a hot pan, the two combine—the former leaking its seaside saline, the latter caramelizing the seafood’s proteins, turning it into golden sweetness.

You could enjoy pan-seared scallops just like this, spooning over the gorgeous scallop caramel. But sometimes, since I’m already here, I like to go one step further and make a proper pan sauce, which for me always starts with some finely minced shallot in the hot butter. If you don’t have shallots, a tiny bit of garlic, onion, or even scallions would work; the idea is just that you’re building a savory base for the other flavors.

Speaking of which: If you have it, a pinch of celery seed will perfume that shallot-y butter with its quintessential herbal lightness. The trick with celery seed, I find, is that you really need to bloom it in fat to get the most out of it. And I don’t know about you, but nothing reminds me more of seafood than Old Bay Seasoning (a primary ingredient of which is celery seed).

Now that you’ve created your flavor base, you can deglaze the pan with some wine. The acidic liquid will help pick up the fond, the browned bits on the bottom of the pan, thus incorporating all that flavor into the sauce (and making dishes a little easier for yourself later). You could use a dry white wine here, but amontillado sherry pairs beautifully with brown-buttered scallops and adds so much honeyed depth when used in savory contexts. I like to splash in some sherry vinegar as well, for sharpness, though red or white wine vinegar would work just fine. Even lemon juice.

Photo by Julia Gartland

Prepared horseradish always reminds me of oysters, as do the aforementioned shallots and vinegar, so a heaping tablespoon of the spicy-sharp condiment goes into the pan to warm through. The horseradish won’t be so pronounced and characteristically spicy in the sauce, but you’ll appreciate that it’s there.

Finally, the fat: Rather than swirling in a pat of butter to make this a butter sauce, add a couple tablespoons of heavy cream. Whether you’re thinking “sherry cream sauce” or “horseradish cream sauce,” this dish is for you. Those pairings are classic for a reason: A splash of cream does wonders for softening the myriad sharp, sweet flavors you’ve just spent the last, I don’t know, five minutes developing in the pan.

This dish is a really nice thing to feed yourself when it’s just you for the night, and you’re looking for something quick, easy, and a little fancy for dinner.

Pair these scallops with a nice side salad or blanched haricots verts—because, let’s face it, this is beige-on-beige food. Not that I apologize for that; the flavors speak for themselves. In fact, any leftover horseradish-cream sauce you may want to sop up with one of the following beige foods: a hunk of crusty garlic bread, some pasta, or even a side of fresh white rice (my carb of choice, always).

Though I’m not enjoying this dinner alone at a bar on a Friday night, I can appreciate the pause in my day that cooking for myself brings. And though it almost goes without saying: Scallops taste great with a glass of chardonnay.


What's your favorite recipe for a date night with yourself? Let us know in the comments.

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Eric Kim is the Table for One columnist at Food52. Formerly the managing editor at Food Network and a PhD candidate in literature at Columbia University, he covers food, travel, and culture and lives in a tiny shoebox in Manhattan with his dog, Quentin "Q" Compson. His favorite writers are William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Ernest Hemingway, but his hero is Nigella Lawson. You can follow him on Twitter @ericjoonho.

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