Equally impressive as a starter or main course, quickly seared sea scallops nestled on a colorful, lively slaw. The whole thing is topped with a big-flavored, slightly spicy cilantro sauce. Recipe below.
Yeah, life is unfair, but sometimes that works in your favor. Take scallops, for instance. How can something so simple to cook [and in fact, so hard to screw up] be so unfailingly impressive? Maybe it’s their distinctive drumlike shape that is made for presentation. Or the anticipation of their rich, slightly sweet flavor. Whatever it is, even knowing that they were most likely just lightly seasoned and sautéed for a couple of minutes on each side [how much easier can things get?] doesn’t lessen their impact.
Scallops are versatile too, a blank canvas if there ever was one. Their mild, meaty flesh takes on flavors beautifully, and they play well with a whole host of cuisines. Here at Blue Kitchen, they’ve been cooked with tarragon and brandy and served over garlicky sautéed spinach. And paired with shiitake and oyster mushrooms to create a romantic Valentine’s Day dinner. Today, they’re taking on the bright Asian flavors of a slaw macerated in rice vinegar and a cilantro sauce that packs just a little bit of heat.
First, a word about the slaw. I was intrigued by the ingredients when Marion first showed me the original recipe, but I was a little concerned that some of their individual big personalities might take over. An entire Granny Smith apple, for instance, and raw carrot. I was less concerned about the daikon, an Asian radish—it’s milder in flavor than Western radishes. But marinating the julienned ingredients in a rice vinegar/sugar/salt mixture unified their flavors. It also slightly softened them, taming some of their insistent crunch.
The cilantro sauce was another perfect element, combining cilantro, lime juice, Serrano pepper and Asian fish sauce into a mysterious and necessary addition to the dish. We’ve talked about Asian fish sauce here before. As Marion said about it recently, “If you have never tried fish sauce and are not used to Asian flavors, you may be startled at first by the pungent aroma. Don’t be put off. Fish sauce adds a mysterious, intense extra that nothing else can and in the finished dish, there is nothing fishy about it.” In mixing together the ingredients for this cilantro sauce, at first I forgot to add in the fish sauce. When I tasted it, I thought, “This is it?” Then I remembered the fish sauce. The transformation to something special was immediate.
Seared Scallops with Asian Slaw
2 main course servings [six first-course servings]
adapted from Gourmet magazine
1 large carrot, peeled and cut into julienne [see Kitchen Notes]
1/3 lb daikon radish, peeled and cut into julienne
1 scallion, cut into julienne
1 unpeeled Granny Smith apple, cut into julienne
3 tablespoons rice vinegar [not seasoned]
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
For cilantro sauce:
1/2 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 to 2 teaspoons minced fresh serrano chile
1 teaspoon Asian fish sauce
3 tablespoons canola oil
1 teaspoon sugar
1 pound sea scallops [or about 1 dozen—see Kitchen Notes]
1 tablespoon canola oil
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Make slaw. Toss together carrot, radish, apple, scallion, vinegar, sugar and salt in a bowl. Let stand, tossing occasionally, 15 minutes to soften. NOTE: Slice the apple last and immediately add the vinegar to keep it from turning brown.
Make cilantro sauce. Stir together cilantro, lime juice, chile, fish sauce, canola oil and sugar.
Prepare scallops. Rinse scallops carefully to remove all grit [see Kitchen Notes]. Pat scallops dry. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Heat heavy, nonstick 12-inch skillet over moderately high heat. Add 1 tablespoon canola oil and sauté scallops until browned on one side, about 2 minutes. Turn scallops, reduce heat to medium and cook until just cooked through, about 2 minutes more. Don’t overcook—they will become tough.
Drain slaw, discarding liquid. Divide among plates and top with scallops. Drizzle with cilantro sauce. Serve.
Julienning. This is one of those knife skills I keep meaning to master. Mainly because I never remember to buy a decent mandoline to do the job easily. Essentially, you’re slicing your vegetables [okay, and fruits] into 1/8-inch to 1/4-inch matchsticks about 2 inches long. If you’re not using a mandoline, you’ll need two things—a really sharp kitchen knife and patience. With round vegetables like carrots, cut the 2-inch sections in half lengthwise to give you a flat edge to place on the cutting board to keep them from shooting out from under your knife blade. Even a quick glance at my photo above will show that I need lots more practice in julienning. That’s okay, it was actually kind of fun once I got into the swing of things.
Scallops. First, having an equal number of scallops for each serving is more important than an exact weight overall. Usually, I get about 10 to 12 scallops per pound. But with these monsters, a mere six of them weighed in at nearly a pound. In cases like this, you can also slice them in half and cook them for a shorter time.
To clean scallops, I rinse them under cold running water while gently brushing a finger over all surfaces, feeling for grains of sand. It’s a mostly successful method, but occasionally you may bite into a teeny grain that escaped your attention. Big deal. Unlike the euphemistically named “vein” in shrimp, this really is just sand.
Here’s a trick to ensure proper browning of scallops. If your scallops were previously frozen [and if you bought them in the Midwest, chances are good they were], they may not brown properly, no matter how much you blot them dry. So immediately before plopping them in the skillet to brown, dredge the flat tops and bottoms lightly in flour. Use a very light touch. You’re not trying to batter them—you just want to give the fat in the pan a nice, dry, brownable surface to work with.