For my next trick, I return to a technique that I am much more familiar with: pan-searing and sauteing. This was inspired by the thank-you gift provided by my landlords for helping to take care of their cats while they were away last week. It’s like they read my mind, because they brought back two of my most favorite beverages: Yuengling Lager and Yuengling Porter. I was trying to think of something relatively simple to cook that paired nicely with the porter (a dark, flavorful beer), but I decided to go with something lighter that paired a bit better with the lager. I know that Yuengling isn’t the highest quality beer, but where I grew up in DE near south-east PA, Yuengling is the go-to standard beer, so I thought that I would pair it with a more New England-style dish, since, you know, I live in New England. I love scallops, and it’s the tail end of sea scallop season, so I figured I’d give it a go.
I didn’t really have any ingredients handy, so I made a quick trip to the Shaw’s down the street and picked up the majority of the ingredients. I swung by their seafood counter, but they only had bay scallops. I forgot how tiny bay scallops were (diameter about the size of a dime) in comparison to sea scallops (diameter roughly the size of a half-dollar coin). When I saw the bay scallops, I decided that it was time to go big or go home unsatisfied, so I made the 15 minute trek back up to Whole Foods to splurge on some sea scallops.
I saw the rather exorbitant price tag on the sea scallops ($28.99 per pound, yikes), but I couldn’t resist, so I bought 10 scallops, which was slightly more than 1 lb. Above is a picture of 5 of the scallops after I patted them dry and seasoned them. I was concerned that I had over-seasoned them, because the pepper shaker that I used poured out the pepper quite a bit faster than I hoped (oops) but there wasn’t much I could do about it, so I surged onward.
I have made sea scallops before, and I tried to remember the few things that I had done correctly in the past. They are very easy to overcook, which makes them rubbery and tough. The big things to remember are:
1: Temperature is everything. Medium to medium-high heat is desirable; you want to slightly sear the top and wait until the scallop turns from translucent to slightly opaque before flipping them. Depending on the size of the scallop, you only need to cook one side for 1.5 to 2 minutes.
2: Don’t mess with them. Don’t stir them, and don’t poke them too much. You want the scallops to be tender and slightly juicy, but they are extremely fragile when cooked correctly; the more you mess with and move them, they more juices they lose into the bottom of the pan. Sit them in the pan, flip them at the right time, and remove them with tongs or two forks.
The recipe that I used (see here) called for sautéed asparagus (easy) and a white wine butter sauce (a little more scary). I know from my limited experience with wine (at least with pairing wine to eat with dishes) that seafood and shellfish call for dry crispy white wine, like a pino grigio, so I stopped at the liquor store and picked some up. SIDEBAR: I miss living in Nevada where I can buy all my booze and wine in the grocery store. I miss it very much. Anyway, I had never really made a sauce like this before, but it didn’t seem horribly complicated. I have a habit to burn butter when I melt it (somehow), and my careful approach to the sauce overall hindered the outcome of the dish, as you’ll see in momentarily.
Anyway, I started by drying and seasoning the scallops with salt and pepper as shown above, and I chopped and prepped the asparagus. I’m sort of a doofus, and I always forget to wash vegetables before I cook them, so hopefully in future posts I don’t get contaminated with Round-Up or other yummy pesticides! Asparagus requires you to break off the woody root part at the base of the asparagus (I did it by hand), as shown here:
I chopped the asparagus into small pieces and tossed it in the pan with some olive oil that I had already begun to heat up. I also pre-heated the oven to around 220 degrees in order to keep the asparagus warm after I cooked it while I cooked the scallops and sauce.
Part of the point of this dish is that the scallops get cooked in oil with traces of the moisture that escapes from the asparagus in the pan, so I didn’t wipe the pan out between the asparagus and the scallops. I may have undercooked the asparagus a bit, as I wish it was a little more well done in the center of the pieces, but I figured that the oven would help to cook the asparagus a little bit more after I sautéed it. I wasn’t really correct in this assumption, but slightly underdone asparagus was the least of my worries.
My main concern was getting proper temperature in the saute pan for the scallops, as I know that they are extremely easy to overcook. After I cooked the asparagus, I loaded it into the oven in a bowl to keep it warm…
…and I proceeded to mess with the temperature dial on my electric burner until it seemed like the correct temperature. I knew that I didn’t want the oil to be smoking as I put the scallops in the pan, so I brought the temperature down to an appropriate level to cool off the pan…
…and I carefully placed the scallops in the pan with the oil that I heated up for about 30 seconds before hand.
There were a few things that didn’t sit exactly right with me about this situation, so I cooked the scallops on high alert. First, I hate electric burners. I despise them. I learned everything I’ve ever known about cooking on a gas stove, and I have much less trouble when I can actually see the flame. Second, the pan that I was using was a sort of crappy non-stick pan that belongs to my roommate. It is not flat. As you can see in the picture above, the oil was collecting on the handle side and sizzling a little bit more around one of the five scallops. I counteracted this by trying to manually move the oil around the pan by slightly tilting it to make it more level without taking it off the heat, moving the oil to the scallops that seemed neglected by the cruel fate of gravity. In hindsight, I think this worked pretty well, but I had to be extremely vigilant. You can’t really walk away from scallops when you’re cooking them anyway, but this helped me to pay extra attention and not totally screw it up. I had a moment of panic when I flipped them over, because the relatively heavy seasoning that I put on them beforehand looked like burned spots at first. At second glance, they actually looked perfect. They were browned at the edges, and starting to slightly split open. My roommate, who had stepped away from his Netflix movie to watch the exciting moment, can attest to my initial horror, and then my rescinding back into joy. I’m pretty sure I said something like, “That’s f*cking money.” Here is a picture of said money:
They had turned from translucent to opaque, just as I expertly (haha) mentioned above in my initial tips. It was now time for the sauce. I set the scallops aside (small mistake! as I will get into below in more detail) and charged onward.
I poured a third cup of pino grigio and a few splashes of white wine vinegar into the pan. They started to boil and dissolve the brown residue left from the scallops. I let it reduce down to about 2 tablespoons (as per the recipe I was using! Look at me, following the rules) and reduced the heat to low before I started adding the butter a little bit at a time. Part of me is extremely impressed that I remembered to lower the heat, as I am a world champion butter-burner. I attribute this to my long stint as a vegan and my inexperience with butter as a whole. Up until my mid-twenties, I didn’t even like butter. I know, that’s blasphemy. Let’s move on.
I took a video of the awesomeness that was the consistency of the butter-wine sauce (is there a proper name for butter-wine sauce? I’m sure there’s a fancy French name for it), but because I’m a cheapskate, I can’t upload it to wordpress, and I’m too lazy to put it on Youtube. You’ll have to get by with my meager verbal description:
It was thick, marbled, and smelled delicious. It smelled like warmth, in the same way that I remember my paternal grandmother’s kitchen smelling when I was a boy. Except she couldn’t really cook. At all. The Thanksgiving turkey was dry like chalk at her house.
In truth, I was going to season the sauce with a bit of thyme and garlic, but I completely forgot and didn’t remember until I was ready to plate, so I went on without it.
I took the asparagus out of the oven, attempted to plate it in an elegant way on top of my scallops, and poured on the sauce directly from the pan. I must say, I think it looked pretty good. I was griping afterwards that I should have used a clean plate, but my roommate commented that it would have given an inaccurate illusion of high-class. We are certainly not high-class. Pictures of our classlessness will be displayed below. But first, the finished product.
(note the high class Nalgene water bottle, AA batteries, and ball-point pen on our dinner table)
I bit into a scallop, and I was pleasantly surprised. They were tender, fragile yet solid, and incredibly flavorful. They were slightly salty and peppery, but to my surprise, the seasoning didn’t overpower the mild flavor of the shellfish. The sauce added a tiny bit of sweetness from the butter, but just enough to compliment the taste of the fresh scallops. SUCCESS! My ONLY issue was that they weren’t quite hot enough. I took too long preparing the sauce. The asparagus was, as I expected, not quite cooked enough either, but it was close enough for my simple tastes. I took a sip of the wine, which, coincidentally, I had tried while I was cooking the asparagus and didn’t really care for at the time. However, when paired with the seafood, the bitterness and dryness was nicely balanced out by the taste of the scallops. Yay! My first actually successful food-wine pairing on my first attempt. Hallelujah! It also tasted pretty good with the beer, but I wasn’t struck nearly as much by the balance as I was with the wine.
Overall, I would call this a success, despite the lukewarm scallops and the slightly undercooked asparagus. I accomplished the things that I really cared about: properly cooking the shellfish, and making a sauce that was functional and not overpowering. The best news is that as I write this, my mouth is watering for the remaining 5 scallops that I’m going to cook tonight!
This dish is a perfect example of why I love cooking. It involves careful temperature adjustment for the shellfish, casual sauteing for the asparagus, and interesting chemistry in preparing the sauce. I learned the basics by tossing things into a saute pan with olive oil, and I’ve come to understand a few details about the more advanced techniques involved with the stovetop and the saute pan. I managed to make a “gourmet” dish with relative ease, and I’m confident that anyone could do the same, and easily improve on what I did. But I am by no means a “gourmet” chef or amateur cook. Here are a few shots of my very bachelor-y kitchen in it’s usual resting state:
I make no promises to always keep things gourmet, but I do promise to keep it real. Always. Bye for now.
Prep time: ~8 minutes
Cook time: ~10 minutes
Eating time: 5 minutes
Drunk Roommate Seal of Approval: YES!
Mood: salivating heavily like my landlord’s cat
Music playing while preparing: OSS 117: Cairo, Nest of Spies on Netflix in the background