Mollusks for Life

Germany’s nice and all, but there’s no place like home for greenmarkets, sweet corn, and sea scallops.

After a season away the Union Square Greenmarket seems so abundant that it’s a little bit embarrassing. Our summer in Germany included neither sweet corn nor anything spicy so I did my best to make up for lost time. I lugged home a dozen ears of the sweet bi-color corn with gluttonous plans, though most of it has ended up simply steamed and salted. I spent a bunch of money at Tim Stark’s farm stand on the pimentos de padron and Jimmy Nardellos we blister in a pan and toss with salt and the Caribbean seasoning peppers that add a savory, fruity sense of excitement to any and everything. But what surprised me was how happy I was to see the sea scallops at PE&DD Seafood. I asked for my usual half-dozen, then sheepishly upped the order to five per person. I’m not sorry.

Scallops have two things going for them. One is their flavor, which is sweet and briny, like all the best things about raw oysters without the awkwardness. The other is the texture, which (when not overcooked) is soft enough to cut with a fork but toothsome enough to be interesting. The classic French approach, coquilles St. Jacques a la nage (“bathing scallops”), rhymes both texture and flavor by poaching the scallops gently and serving them in a court bullion. But I like contrast, and one of my favorite little indulgences in life is a plate of seared sea scallops.

Here the excellence of the ingredients has to be matched by good technique, which itself requires nothing more than paying attention. Salt and pepper the scallops and leave them on a plate to come to room temperature. Choose a pan wide enough to hold all your scallops with generous amounts of space between them; the idea, as always, is to cook the scallops dry and not let them steam or sweat. Get the pan really hot, adjusting the flame so the temperature is steady across the surface of the pan. Then spoon in a little fat (clarified butter is best, but any neutral oil works), add the scallops one at a time, and turn the heat to medium. Now wait a couple of minutes. The scallops are ready to turn when they lift away from the pan cleanly and easily and have a lovely brown crust on the first side. (If they don’t come away easily they’re not done. Just wait.) Turn the scallops over one at a time, leave them for a moment, then remove them from the pan and put them on a plate. The center should be not-quite-cooked, so that the sweetness and softness plays against the caramelization of the surface. While the scallops are resting you can make a quick pan sauce with shallots, white wine, and butter to finish.

Three scallops on a small plate with a little sauce drizzled over makes one of the best appetizers in the world. Fill a shallow bowl with succotash in summer or polenta in winter and you’ve got main you’ll be thinking about for days.

Subscribe to Gourmet