Have you ever tried to sear scallops– to recreate the way they are served in the best restaurants, with a beautiful golden brown crust on top and moist, sweet, tender, juicy flesh– only to be rewarded with what appears to be a skillet full of foaming white blobs?
It is not your fault. It is the scallops’ fault.
Actually, that is not fair. It is the fault of the people who sold you what are called “wet” scallops. You want to buy DRY scallops. Wet scallops have been soaked in liquid containing something called sodium polyphosphate (STP)– a sodium-heavy substance that helps them retain moisture. It is like some of us who bloat up when we eat salty food– the scallops plump up from all the retained moisture. The liquid they’re holding supposedly keeps them moist– but that is laughable. It makes them weigh more at the fish counter, (read: more expensive) but when you cook them, all that moisture comes foaming out.
That foam prevents a nice golden crust from forming. You end up with steamed scallops that bear a striking resemblance to a frothing rabid animal. Lovely.
It is perfectly legal to sell “wet” scallops– but the fishmonger must inform you they are wet when you ask. What you really want to ask is “Do you sell dry scallops?” Walk away if the answer is no.
You can buy terrific dry scallops at a really good fish market– and also at Costco*. The large frozen scallops we have gotten there have been sweet and tender, with just the right amount of subtle sea flavor. I wish I could tell you they were a bargain, but good, dry sea scallops are expensive– even at Costco.
Okay, so now you have dry scallops, and you want to sear them. It couldn’t be easier– or faster. Pat the scallops dry, season them with salt and pepper and heat 1 tablespoon of canola or olive oil in a pan. You simply want to cover the pan surface– you don’t want to fry them– so go easy on the oil.When the oil shimmers but is not smoking, it is medium high. Place the scallops in the pan using your hands or tongs. Be sure to place them with a flat surface (not the curved edge) facing down, and leave room between them. Once they are in the pan, do not move them until they readily release from the surface. That will take about 2 to 3 minutes. At that point, they should be golden brown on the underside. Turn them and again cook until they readily release from the pan surface and are golden brown.
If you were to press lightly with your fingertip on the scallop, it would yield a bit, because the inside is tender. When you cut in to a perfectly cooked scallop, it will be slightly translucent in the center. By the time it makes its way to your table, it may no longer be, but it will still be delicate and not chewy. When you look carefully at the photo below, you will see the sides of the scallops are still quite white– if I continued to cook them, they would take on a more golden hue on the sides. That may sound nice, but it signals the scallops will have lost their subtle flavor and toughened up.
Okay, you are ready. Just remember to have everything else for your meal done in advance, because the scallops cook in 4 minutes, and they don’t hold well.Make your side dishes and sauce ahead of time, and be ready to sit down to a wonderful meal the minute the scallops are cooked.
Scallops with Fig Balsamic Sauce
Fig balsamic vinegar is available at many specialty stores, such as Whole Foods and Fairway– but also at many nicer grocery stores. It is wonderful on salads, reduced and drizzled over meat, poultry and seafood, and lightly sprinkled on fresh and grilled fruit.
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 finely minced garlic clove
1 cup cherry grape tomatoes, quartered
2 tablespoons drained capers
1 tablespoon fig balsamic vinegar
1 ½ pounds dry sea scallops
½ teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
- Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium high. Add the garlic and cook, stirring, 15 seconds. Add the tomatoes and capers and cook, stirring, 2 minute. Add the vinegar and cook, stirring, until the liquid becomes thick and syrupy, about 2 minutes. Transfer to a bowl.
- Pat the scallops dry and season them with the salt and pepper.
- Wipe out the skillet with a paper towel, and add the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil. Place it over medium high heat and add half the scallops in a single, un-crowded layer. Cook until the scallops readily release from the pan surface and are golden brown on the underside, about about 2 to 2 ½ minutes; turn and cook until again golden brown on the underside, another 2 to 2 ½ minutes. Transfer to a plate and add the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil to the skillet; when the oil is hot, add the remaining scallops. Repeat the process. Serve the scallops with the tomato mixture.
Makes 4 servings
Nutritional analysis for each serving: 217 calories, 11 g fat, 2 g saturated fat, 21 g protein, 8 g carbohydrates, 1 g fiber, 686 mg sodium
* I learned this from my friend Amy, who brought them to the house one day for us to cook. Prior to that, I had a snubby ‘tude about fish from Costco, but I learned my lesson. Costco, because it has such great turnover, is actually a decent place to buy meat, fish and poultry– as long as you can use it in the quantity in which it is sold.