Monday, February 28, 2011

Mmmm... Scallops...

I have long maintained that scallops are my favorite "luxury" food item. (Lobster runs a close second, but it's so affordable and easy to find around here that I am spoiled enough to not really think of it as a "luxury" item anymore... Yay, New England!) I grew up on frozen scallops from Costco and thought I loved scallops then. My first fresh diver scallop (from the mussels lady at the Santa Barbara Farmers Market, sold fresh in the shell) made me realize what a fool I'd been. Since that day, I've been obsessed with high-quality dry-packed diver scallops... and I finally found a great way to always have them on hand and the perfect way to cook them.
So, this was going to be a cookbook adventure from Michel Richard's (awesome) Happy in the Kitchen (a book that I thoroughly love), but then I read in Ideas in Food about this new way to cook scallops and ended up going off on a tangent... The sauce was inspired by Michel Richard's "Celery Root Cream" (which doesn't contain any cream but is creamy and delicious). I am a huge fan of celery root, and I learned back in the day when my brother introduced me to those awesome scallops at BlueHour that celery root and scallops are a match made in heaven. You start out by peeling the celery root and cutting it into a julienne.
The four cups I needed only took one celery root. (I am horrible at estimating how many whole things are required to create a given quantity of chopped things...) The celery root is then simmered in water (or chicken stock) and a couple pinches of nutmeg...
Whole milk is added, and the whole thing goes into a blender to purée until smooth.
Why did we have to painstakingly julienne that celery root just so we could purée it, you might ask? Only Michel Richard knows... Anyway, I puréed until very smooth as instructed, and was then supposed to separate the liquid from the purée... but the entire mixture went easily through my finest mesh strainer. I guess my "very smooth" was too smooth, but I went with it. To finish the sauce I put one serving portion of the celery root purée into a pan to heat, then added a squeeze of lemon juice (brilliant!) and mounted the sauce with a tablespoon of butter just before plating. I wouldn't change a thing.
Back to the scallops! I've been having a lot of pain management issues lately, and one of the consequences is not being able to go out and do crazy grocery shopping when I want to. Thus, driving out to Wellesley to buy scallops from my usual purveyor was out of the question. After about four hours of googling, I finally found a place that could ship me fresh or IQF (individually quick-frozen) dry-pack scallops for a reasonable price. It turns out the real problem with frozen scallops you see in stores is that they're pretty much always wet-packed (treated with sodium tripolyphosphate and water), which is done to keep them nice and white and big (thanks to added water weight), and makes them impossible to get a nice sear on since they're constantly shedding water into the pan. The scallops I got were frozen, but dry-packed... and it turns out that's a pretty darn good solution if you want to have scallops on-hand on a whim and can't drive far away to get them when that whim strikes. Look how pretty:
The Ideas in Food method is a "Twice-Cooked Scallop." You start out by brining the scallops in salt solution for 10 minutes. From there the scallops are stacked end-to-end and wrapped in plastic wrap...
... then vacuum-sealed, ready to be cooked sous vide. (Ignore that packet in the front. I'll get to that one in a later post...)
After 30 minutes at 50°C, the scallops are chilled in an ice bath, ready to finish cooking any time in the next day or so. I sprinkled lightly with sea salt just before adding to the pan.
During the 30 minutes of initial cooking, I also took a few minutes to prep garnishes (as inspired by the picture in Happy in the Kitchen) of finely diced celery and fried celery leaves.
Oil is heated in a pan, then the once-cooked scallops are added and cooked over medium-high heat for 2-3 minutes (depending on pan heat) to develop a nice sear. (I did 2 1/2 minutes, and will probably do 3 minutes next time...)
Then the scallops are flipped and some (Amish) butter goes into the pan. The butter is used to baste the scallops as they finish cooking. Mmmm...
The scallops came out looking just about perfect, and serve as proof that a frozen scallop can be a beautiful thing as long as it starts out as a high-quality dry-packed scallop that is quick-frozen while super-fresh.On to plating. I added some sauce to the bowl and placed a (gorgeous) scallop in the center...
Then sprinkled with fine-diced celery and topped with the celery leaves. Pretty, no?
This would be a great portion as part of a multi-course meal, but since it was going to be my whole lunch, I shifted the plating to be a more realistic portion. (It's not as if I could just leave that second perfect scallop sitting there uneaten...)
This was absolutely amazing. The celery root purée was the perfect complement to the scallops, yet was mild enough not to stand in the way of appreciating how awesome the scallops taste on their own. This cooking method is by far my favorite way that I've ever prepared scallops. One of the things "they" talk about when you're pondering buying a Sous Vide Supreme is that in a few (dozen) years it will be a situation where people have a toaster oven, a microwave oven, and a water oven. Techniques like the twice-cooked scallop (nothing fussy, just perfection...) make me see how much it's integrated itself into my list of must-have kitchen appliances. It's worth noting, too, that (assuming you have the right equipment) this is an absurdly simple meal to prepare and also can be largely done ahead of time, with just the final searing of the scallops and the mounting of the sauce left for the last minute. I already can't wait to make this again... (and I do have that extra celery root sitting in my pantry... Hmmm...)

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