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Dec 11, 2016

Scallops 101

I came up with this easy recipe the other night for two reasons: 1. I had scallops that I needed to use up and 2. I wanted to do something quick and easy. What resulted was a delicious dish that will not only end up on my keeper list but will likely be an entree in one of the SdJ Cooking Classes. 

Brown Butter Scallops with Tomato Puree and Pancetta
It also occurred to me that almost everyone I know (except for Hates Everything) love scallops but not many of those people actually ever make them. For that reason I've decided to post a step by step fail proof method. Scallops for Dummies, if you will! 
     Scallops are one of the most challenging seafoods for many home cooks to perfect, but once you get the hang of it they are quite simple. While fast and easy, they are equally as easy to overcook. But fear not...once you get the method down you'll make perfectly seared scallops every time. Are you up for it?  If so read on...If not, crawl back under your Velveeta covered fish sticks.

First off, here's what you need to know: 
Wet, dry or diver:  What's the diff, you ask?

• Wet scallops are shucked right on the boat shortly after being harvested. They are put directly into a container of cold water, which preserves them for a longer period. A preservative called sodium tripolyphosphate is added to the water to help preserve them and keep them from spoiling. The scallops will absorb water and plump up, which also means when you buy them you are paying for that extra water weight ~ up to 30%. The solution will dilute their natural pure flavor, giving them a soapy taste and a tougher texture. They also tend to be very white in color, which is another clue that they are wet. You've been in a restaurant and had those rubbery-chewy-disappointing scallops right? Now you know why. Plus, these scallops tend to be older by the time they get to the seller. My advise: ask the grocer/fish monger if they are "wet". If so, keep moving, nothing to see here folks.

 Dry scallops are also shucked on the boat and immediately after they go into a dry container with no water or preservatives, which means that their flavor is more pure and concentrated (read: sweet and natural) and their color will have a slight pink or beige hue to it. The downside to this method is that they have a shorter shelf-life and cost a bit more. But, in buying dry scallops you are getting what you pay for because you aren't paying for water weight. Another bonus is that dry scallops are always going to be fresher when you buy them and with all seafood, fresher is ALWAYS better and dry scallops are ALWAYS better than wet scallops. Got it? Good!
Wet Scallops on the left / Dry Scallops on the right.
Notice the liquid, plumped up look and color difference. (web photo)
• Diver scallops refers to a method, not a type of scallop. They sound fancy, and they kind of are when you understand the way in which they are harvested. While most scallops are collected by dredging (dragging nets on) the ocean floor, diver scallops are harvested by hand by actual divers. This process is incredibly labor intensive, but it's far less damaging to the ocean environment. For this reason diver scallops are the most expensive scallops and you will likely only find them on a menu at a swanky restaurant. That being said, if you are dining at the Dead Red Lobster or a chain restaurant or some restaurant in a state that is not within 1000 miles of the coast, and the menu says, "Diver Scallops",or "Day Boat Scallops" feel free to turn your nose up because it's *coughbullshitcough*. 

• Bay scallops are just small scallops harvested in the shallow waters. Because of their size they are best prepared sauteed and are usually served in soups, salads or pastas.
An opened scallop. The adductor muscle - the one that
opens and closes the shell, is the "meat" (web photo)
No matter what you've heard, size does matter. You want the biggest, which are U-10s, meaning there will be "under 10" scallops per pound. This is the plump, perfect size for a seared scallop. They brown beautifully while the inside stays rare to medium rare, keeping them melt-in-your-mouth tender. Smaller ones will likely be overcooked (rubbery-chewy) in the middle by the time the outside is seared, so it's U-10's all the way! Two can easily be an appetizer serving, three a first coarse, and four an entree. With scallops it definitely go big or go home.

U-10's - these four scallop equal about a half pound
So now to prep and cook them. If you've planned ahead, thaw them overnight in the refrigerator. If you're like me and come home and rummage through the freezer looking for dinner to magically appear, then put them in a baggie and put the baggie in a bowl to thaw under cool tap water. I know it seems crazy, but scallops are sensitive to water, so don't put them directly under running water to thaw. Not only will you wash away that natural yummy-ness, but you will cause them to soak up some water. When thawed, place them on paper towels to soak up any liquid (changing the towels often, as necessary) and pat dry. 

My "dry" scallops - notice the pinkish-beige color, 
especially noticeable against the white plate.
"Wet" scallops would be bright white.
These are patted dry and ready for the pan.
Keep it simple with such beautiful scallops. A little olive oil and salt and pepper is all you need.

The secret to a beautifully caramelized scallop is a smokin' hot pan. Add a small amount of oil and when you see it shimmering you'll know the pan is ready. If cooking them in butter (which we are for this recipe) I don't add the butter until the pan is already hot, or the butter will burn, so adjust when to add the oil by the smoking point of whatever oil you are using. (Grapeseed, avocado, palm, canola have high smoking points and can be add at the beginning because they won't burn. Coconut oil, extra virgin olive oil have medium smoking points, and butter, safflower oil, sunflower oil all have a low smoking point, so will burn more easily).  For a great chart click here.

As with all seafoods (and meats) you want the scallops to be room temp when they hit the pan so that the interiors aren't cold when you serve them. Brush the scallops with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. When the  the pan is screaming hot, add the butter to melt. When it gets bubbly add the scallops and then DON'T TOUCH THEM!!! Ma'am, put your hands up in the air and step away from the pan!!! When they are ready to be flipped over they will tell you and release themselves from the pan; about 1 to 1-1/2 minutes in. 

Using tongs turn them over and cook the other side. If you have enough butter in the pan, use it to baste while the second side cooks. If not don't worry about it...take this two minute to drink that bottle glass of wine that's been breathing. The top of the scallop will start to split a little and you can see the inside glisten. Again, it will release, so remove it from the pan, even if you don't think they are quite done, and hold on a warm plate (tented with foil) while cooking the remaining and making the brown butter sauce. You should have about 3-4 minutes max cooking time. 

Remember they will finish cooking even after pulled from the heat, so error on the underdone side because if you over cook them you will have a tough scallop. Note: If using wet scallops you won't be able to get that nice sear because when they hit the pan the water and preservatives will release and you will be poaching them instead of searing them. Go ahead and pop some popcorn for dinner because you aren't going to want to eat the rubbery gumball that resembles a rocky mountain oyster, that's in your pan.

The brown butter ~ getting all rich, foamy, brown and nutty
I recommend doing the brown butter in a separate pan. The first time I made these I did it in the same pan that I had cooked the scallops in and by that time, the butter was more black than brown, from all the heat. Also the scallops had more time to cool off (and continue to cook) while the butter was browning. By doing it in a separate pan I could do it while they cooked so it all came together at about the same time. 

OH MY GAWD! Just look at that bubbly brown butter.
When this marries with the tomato puree and bacon,
the decadence is like fireworks in your mouth
Fry up the pancetta or bacon ahead of time or while making the tomato puree. The puree can be made in about 30 minutes or can be made a day or two ahead and rewarmed. It's super easy and most of the time is for the simmer, so all in all this dinner can be made in less time then it takes for your wine to breathe. 

To serve: Either put smear or a circular dollop of tomato puree on the plate, top with scallops and drizzle a spoonful of brown butter directly over the scallop. Add the pancetta or bacon and some fresh basil. Serve immediately.

You can find the recipe under the "Recipe Index" or the "Seafood" tab or just click on the link below.