Cook Like a Pro: Searing Scallops

By now, my readers have probably noticed that this is not a recipe-focused blog. When it comes to cooking, understanding the process makes you a better cook–adept at improvising and adjusting. If you learn and hone techniques and develop your palate for flavors and combinations, you can create an endless array of dishes to suit your tastes. And that, my friend, is how you can eat well and eat for both flavor and health.

Take scallops, for example. As long as you know how to sear them properly, you can serve these succulent, buttery morsels at home for a third of the price you would pay in a restaurant. Scallops are a delicious source of lean protein, choline, and selenium. I’ll even throw in a few other “cooking school” techniques to round out this garden-inspired dish: seared sea scallops with bacon, garden pear tomatoes and summer squash.

Our first flush of chocolate pear tomatoes have ripened to a deep chocolatey red and green, so I wanted to use those. Scallops go well with bacon (think bacon-wrapped scallops), bacon goes well with tomatoes and chives (BLT and baked potato with chives, right?), and tomatoes go well with basil and balsamic (caprese salad). Throw in some scalloped (clever coincidence) summer squash

scallop squash

from the garden for additional color and you’ve got your supporting cast of ingredients. You can also think in terms of flavor: with those ingredients, we have a medley of sweet, salty, smoky, tart and herbaceous.

Timing is also key. Scallops only take a few minutes to cook, so preparing your mise en place (French for “putting in place”) ensures smooth production. I started with putting 2 slices of frozen bacon in a cold pan and turned the stove to medium high heat. (I freeze bacon slices in 2’s and 3’s because I usually use it as a flavoring component like this.)

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With scallops being buttery soft when cooked properly, I didn’t want any thick tomato skin to detract from that texture, so I decided to peel my tomatoes. I put a small pot of water on the stove to bring to a boil, and proceeded to make X’s on the bottom of each tomato with a sharp paring knife.

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I prepared a small ice water bath. Once the pot of water came to a boil, I put all my X’ed tomatoes in for about 5 seconds and quickly transferred them directly into the ice water to stop the cooking process.  This is called blanching.

tomato in ice bath

Now, the tomato skins effortlessly peel off with a paring knife. (The skins can be composted or saved for stock.) Slice each tomato in half.

tomato peeled

I flipped the bacon slices in the pan, lowered the heat to medium, and ran out to my garden to snip off some basil and chives. Once the bacon is done, remove them and put them on a paper towel. Turn off the stove. I then chiffonade the basil, which is a fancy name for a simple technique. Basically, you make a pile of basil leaves with the largest on the bottom, roll them up the long way like a cigar, and slice thinly across the roll. I also chopped the chives finely and put aside. I then diced the summer squash into 1/2-inch cubes and roughly chopped the bacon, and most of my ingredients have been prepped. (There’s more squash than shown in the picture.)

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Time for the sea scallops.

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Yes, they are pricey. (My husband bought 10 scallops here, which made 3 servings.) But like I said earlier, a dish of 3 large sea scallops easily costs about $15-25 at a restaurant. They are perfect for an impressive date night or special occasion meal. Their price also is good motivation to learn how to cook them properly. The key to developing flavor is caramelizing, or more technically, browning created via the Maillard reaction. To do this well, you want to make sure the scallops are dry and take care to not overcrowd your pan. My 12-inch cast iron pan works well for this. Preheat the same pan that had the bacon in it to high. It should have some bacon grease in it. You can cook the scallops in it or pour it off and drizzle with canola oil or another oil with a high smoke point if you wish. I seasoned the scallops with salt and pepper on one side and placed that side down into the hot, searing pan. Now, STOP. Please do not move them around like an amateur. (Yes, I get a little bossy in the kitchen.) Let them brown in peace as you salt and pepper the other side until they develop color like this.

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Once you get nice browning, flip them over for another minute or so. You want to remove them to a dish before they are completely cooked through. To the same pan, add the diced summer squash (adding a little extra olive oil if the pan seems dry) and sauté for a minute. Then toss in the tomato. Season the vegetables to taste with salt and pepper.  Saute for another minute and put in a couple rounds of balsamic vinegar, turn the heat off, and deglaze all the brown bits that have developed on the bottom of your pan. Notice how we’ve been building layers of flavor along the way. Place the vegetables in serving dishes, top with 3 scallops, and garnish with bacon, basil, and chives. Spoon some of the balsamic pan reduction on top and lightly drizzle with a finishing extra virgin olive oil if you like.

scallop plated

To make it a meal, you can serve it with a quinoa pilaf, noodles, polenta, or edamame.

As long as you have the searing down, the scallops are lovely on top of salad (like peppery watercress) or soup (green pea or sweet corn, perhaps). Sub in another source of saltiness (like soy sauce) and acid (like yuzu), and you’ve got an entirely different, yet delicious flavor profile.

Have you been afraid to cook scallops before? Doesn’t seem that hard now, does it?

 

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