Learn the Art of Scallop Making
By Steve “Mo” Fye
High-quality, fresh shellfish can be hard to come by in New Mexico, but there are a number of crustaceans and mollusks that survive freezing and thawing with very little degradation of flavor and texture.
Most local purveyors have access to IQF shellfish. Individually quick frozen seafood is easy to process, ship and store, so it is the most readily available for the home cook. Fresh shellfish loses quality quickly unless held at very low temperatures, so frozen is usually the best bet in our High Sierra climate.
My favorite variety of shellfish is the sea scallop. These sweet and savory bits of ocean-flavored protein are the tendon and muscle holding the bivalve together. When one thinks of an iconic seashell, it’s often the scalloped shell (thus the name) of the scallop. Mussels, while related (and my second favorite), are different. We eat the body of that bivalve and leave the tough tendon behind.
Scallops are simple critters, but require care to cook properly. If overcooked, they can become tough and dry. Like many lean proteins – whether by land or by sea – they must be seared quickly at a high temperature to develop the proper crust and a moist, tender interior. Scallops are a low-fat animal protein and contain less cholesterol than crustaceans such as shrimp and lobster, so they are better for those looking to reduce animal fats in their diet.
To get beautifully seared sea scallops, buy them at the 10/20 (10 to 20 per pound) or U/10 (less than 10 each per pound) size. Get them frozen and then allow them to thaw in the fridge overnight in a colander over a bowl to reserve the tasty juices. Even if your scallops have been augmented with a preservative saline brine (usually labelled “glazed”) to protect the flesh, the juices are useful.
Once the scallops have been thawed and drained, pat them dry with clean paper towels and allow them to “slack” to close to room temperature while making a cream sauce.
Scallops have a delicate flavor that is easily overwhelmed by bold sauces. Over very low heat, reduce some whole milk (about a quarter cup per U/10 scallop) to the consistency of heavy cream, then add a pinch per serving each of saffron, white pepper and salt. Add the drained juices from the scallops and stir well. The proteins will thicken the sauce.
Heat a large heavy-bottomed, steel-clad or cast-iron pan to smoking hot. Make sure the scallops are dry all over. Add just enough oil to coat the bottom of the pan and place the scallops within. Don’t crowd the pan or you will have steamed scallops, which defeats the point of searing. There will be some smoke and noise. That’s the goal here. Once the first flat side has a crisp, golden-brown crust, turn the scallops and finish the other side; if the pan is hot enough, large scallops will take one minute to 90 seconds per side; smaller scallops will take even less time.
Allow the scallops to rest on a plate off the heat while preparing the plates. Spoon a bit of the saffron cream on each plate. Place the scallops on each plate and serve. One or two U/10 scallops will suffice for a great appetizer.
To serve as a full plated entrée, cook three to seven scallops per person, depending on scallop size and diner appetite, and add a starch such as rice, a root vegetable puree or dressed noodles, accompanied by a lightly flavored vegetable such as sautéed snow peas or wilted greens.