seared scallops and brown butter sauce, two ways
The first time I had fried New England seafood, I was probably around five. It was at Ronnie’s, a little shack of a restaurant with a neighboring ice cream shop in Auburn, MA. Auburn is one those Central Mass towns you drive through wondering if you’re watching the world pass through the Instagram “1977” filter. Let me tell you a little bit about it: there’s a shopping mall, an envelope factory, and a semi-famous nut company, just to keep things interesting. Surprisingly, there is no Walmart. It’s also the town where my mother spent many of her years growing up and where my maternal grandparents still reside. It’s very much landlocked. It screams $0.99 deal at the local Arby’s on Southbridge Street, not fresh seafood.
But the Lemansky family has a good thing going in Auburn. My uncle worked at Ronnie’s for quite some time during his teens, and it will always seem gilded to my mother and grandparents. They’re open only from May to October. There are worn, rickety picnic tables on the outside and tables fashioned with formica inside, in a semi-enclosed room, humid from the perpetually broken air condition. It’s a haven for peanut oil sniffing summer bugs, but those indoor seats are coveted. The only hint of seasoning on the food comes from the little salt and pepper packets you use yourself, but the fish is fried pretty perfectly and the clam chowder is thick and creamy.
I haven’t been for years, but I could still order without looking, as I always got the same thing. My mother and I would start off by splitting a cup of clam chowder. We’d also share a box of fried clam strips (personally, I’m now a belly girl, whereas my mom’s still stuck on strips), popping them mindlessly. We ignored the accompanying fries and instead tackled a mountain of lightly battered onion rings, dipping one in ketchup, the next in tartar sauce and so on. Artificially pink lemonade served as my palate cleanser.
I’d never steal a fried scallop from my dad’s styrofoam box (ok, maybe one). They were hard to hold when hot and less crispy than the clams. The brininess of the clam stood up to its coating and frying, while the candy-sweet, plush scallop didn’t need it. That doesn’t mean I didn’t like scallops. I loved them. During my younger years, I’d eat them — whether from bay or from sea — baked with bread crumbs and butter or broiled with lemon. Fast forward a few years, and I couldn’t end a day in the sun in Newport, RI without a serving of the mollusks that came out of the cramped open kitchen at Scales & Shells. They came twisted and twirled among linguine and kissed with white wine, served in the beat up skillet in which they were cooked. With a side of their terrific thinner-than-shoestring fries, my carb-centric meal always induced that calm, post-beach sleep. Fast forward to now, and my tastes have changed yet: I still eat my clams fried, but now they’re bellied; I still love scallops, but now they’re always seared.
I am known for a few dishes that I always make: my fruit tarts, my grilled chicken, and my scallops. My father no longer can order scallops in restaurants, claiming they never measure up to mine. That’s too bad, because Lineage and The Regal Beagle do a great job. Although that’s an honor coming from my dad, the original scallop devotee, I think it’s because he (and others, I’m sure) think they are difficult to cook. They’re not. I’m doing nothing, but I’ll take the credit. Quality scallops will always result in a quality dish. Below, I walk through the scintillating searing process and my favorite way to serve those suckers when I want to impress the impressionable. During the winter, I serve them on top of celery root purée, because it serves as a creamy bed for the scallops and a puddle catcher for any sauces without seeming heavy or without muddling flavors like mashed potatoes tend to do. During the summer, I like them over a very light risotto, barely wilted seasonal greens, or a sweet-smokey succotash. Or in pasta, similar to at Scales and Shells. That recipe is in here, too!
And the sauce. It’s inspired by a Cook’s Illustrated recipe and involves browned butter. That’s about all you need to know. The nuttiness offsets the sweetness of the scallops so wonderfully, and the whole thing is perfumed with shallot, parsley, and thyme. It’s great for pouring over the plated scallops, but a modified version makes the perfect base for a pasta dish (which would probably be pretty awesome with shrimp, too). Either way, you’re in for a winning (and easy) summer supper.
#1 Seared Scallops with Brown Butter Sauce
adapted from Cook’s Illustrated subscription needed to see original recipe
These aren’t really recipes, just methods for awesome scallop cookery. Impress yo’ friends in a flash. I’ve bolded the key words for success. Those are really the only ones you need to remember.
For the Scallops:
1 1/2 pounds dry sea scallops, side muscle removed*
Salt and Pepper
For the Sauce:
1/2 stick (56 grams) of butter
1 1/2 tablespoons minced shallot
1 tablespoon minced parsley
1/2 tsp minced thyme leaves
2 tsp lemon juice
Salt and pepper
You want to dry your scallops thoroughly so you can get a good sear: Line a platter with two layers of paper towels. Place scallops in a single layer on the platter. Cover with another layer of paper towels and let sit for 10 minutes. Pat dry once more all around and season both sides with salt and pepper.
2. Make the Sauce:
Brown butter over medium heat in a small saucepan, swirling the pan often. This will take about 4-5 minutes, and the butter will give off the aroma of roasted hazelnuts (c’est beurre noisette!). Add shallots and swirl around just until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in parsley, thyme, salt and pepper. Take off heat and cover until scallops are ready.
3. Cook the scallops:
Heat oil (about a tablespoon) in a large skillet over high heat. When it first starts to smoke, place about half the scallops in the pan so that they have room to breathe. Cook without moving on one side until well browned, 1 1/2-2 minutes**. I like a nice, brown crust — serious caramelization and flavor builds here, don’t be shy. Add a healthy pat of butter to the pan and flip the scallops, basting them with the butter. Start removing scallops when they are firm and opaque on the sides, about 1 minute**. There’s nothing worse than an overcooked scallop—beauty, wasted. Tent the scallops and repeat with the second batch of scallops.
Stir lemon juice into the sauce and pour over plated scallops.
*Don’t waste you’re time and money using wet scallops. Just don’t do it! Do not buy your scallops at any old supermarket. Go through a fish monger you trust. I cannot stress this enough. Also, I’ve gotten some great sea scallops from my Whole Foods.
**Sea scallops differ greatly in size, so this time can vary.
#2 Scallops and Pasta
Serves 4 (ravenous people) – 6
The base sauce above is altered slightly to make a great sauce for this seafood dish. Garlic (two allium? why not?) and a little red pepper flake is added, parsley ditches the thyme, and the lemon is pumped up, big time. Otherwise, it’s the same process, different pan, basically.
3/4 pound scallops, cooked as above
1 pound pasta (I have whole wheat thin spaghetti pictured. Anything as thin as angel hair to as thick as linguine would work well)
1 stick (112 grams) butter
6-8 cloves of garlic
3 tbsp minced shallot
1/4 cup (about 9 grams) minced parsley
1/3 cup (about 76 grams) lemon juice, or more to taste
salt and pepper
1/4 tsp red pepper flake
After cooking the scallops, transfer them to a plate and pour the pan drippings over them.
In a large pot or boiling, salted water, cook pasta to al dente.
Meanwhile, give the garlic cloves a good whack with the back of your knife. In the pan you used to cook the scallops, add the butter, garlic, and red pepper flake, and brown the butter over medium heat, swirling the pan often. (Since you are using your nonstick pan, it is likely to be darker in color. Check the progress of the browning butter with a metal spoon). Add shallot and swirl until fragrant. Stir in salt and pepper to taste and lemon. Add pasta to the pan and toss to coat, adding some pasta water if necessary. Add parsley and scallops and toss to incorporate.* Make sure to also pour in the accumulated scallop juices. Serve immediately.
*You could also simply sauté the scallops in the pan first or cook the scallops in the warming pasta instead of searing, which is more traditional. But I can’t pass on a seared scallop.