With a Honey-Parsley Gastrique & Blue Cheese
I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.Lee Jun-fan (Bruce Lee)
You’ve handed your menu back to the waiter with a smile. You’ve read through a selection of delicious and rather complex sounding choices and made your choice. Now you wait eagerly for a bit of culinary magic, crafted carefully by the generally unseen forces in the kitchen. Your anticipation builds and builds until, at last, a plate arrives, set in front of you with care. Hopefully, you’re eyes light up as you mentally dive into the meal, excited before you’ve even had a chance to lift your fork. A good restaurant (and a good chef) will execute this game of anticipation-and-reveal time and again, day after day. When you think about it, it’s one of the best things about going to a good restaurant. Of course the food has to be good, but the excitement and suspense play an enormous role too. When that dish finally does arrive, we all love to have that joyous ‘wow’ reaction. I know I do – in fact I think the dishes that have excited me the most over the years are the ones that I have to visually and mentally ‘unpack’ as they arrive, as the excitement compounds as I consider each carefully crafted component of the dish.
You might be wondering why I opened with a Bruce Lee quote. Rest assured, you don’t need to kick anything or anyone here; I know that some restaurants have stretched the concept of fine dining to its most esoteric and surreal, but I have yet to see anyone roundhouse a mollusk. I thought of that quote because I wanted to cast aside a few misconceptions related to this recipe, and to cooking in general. Any talented chef will no doubt be capable of some pretty fancy and/or complex culinary techniques, but the practice and mastery of simple cooking methods is a more important skill by far. This brings me to a not-so-secret little secret of the culinary world: while there are absolutely some very, VERY complicated cooking techniques out there, many of the show-stoppers that impress us so much are, frankly, not that difficult. Searing scallops is a fantastic example – it might take you years to truly master the technique, but even your first efforts can be surprisingly wonderful. The first time I cooked scallops I was terrified that I’d ruin them (a fear that is no-doubt compounded by their price). But my very first effort was surprisingly good. Not perfect mind you, but good. A talented chef will be able to knock seared scallops out with perfection time after time – not because they are difficult, but because s/he has practiced. But the gap between early and late attempts isn’t as large as you might imagine. When you really think about it, this shouldn’t come as a great surprise – no restaurant could survive by serving difficult, time-consuming dishes with a high rate of failure. That would be chaos in the kitchen and miserable for the customer. Now to be clear, I’m not trying to diminish the amazing and talented work done by chefs – rather I think we should be admiring creativity and mastery rather than trickery – perfection above novelty. Good restaurants build meals creatively around well-executed techniques and superb flavours, rather than hiding uninspired or slap-dash efforts behind vocabulary and garnish.
These scallops showcase two (well, two-and-a-half) techniques that sound complicated, but are in fact easily within reach of the home cook. The first of these is searing scallops, and the true enemy of this technique is a lack of patience. A rushed sear is a ruined sear. The second technique is making a gastrique. French cuisine is rightfully held to be an art form, but I think it’s prominence in Western cooking has contributed to the perception of cooking as a complex and mysterious subject. While there are many techniques in the French culinary repertoire, there is a strong core built around a handful of fundamentals, and mastery is always valued above complexity. Chef Jacque Pepin has said that an omelette is a perfect way to ascertain the technical skill of a chef, not because it’s fancy or show-stopping, but because its mastery requires careful hands, attention to detail, and organization. Nonetheless, when French vocabulary makes its way into cooking, I think the general perception of complexity rises. Sauté, ragoût, and réchauffée sound a lot fancier that fry, stew, and reheat. But a gastrique is quite simple – in fact, it’s not so much a technique itself, as a continuation of another technique (hence my ‘two-and-a-half comment). That other technique is caramelization. Much like searing, caramelization is all about timing and preparation, but it’s not inherently difficult. I’ll continue with the technical aspects of these techniques in the Recipe Notes below.
If you’ll allow me to smash my idioms together, the journey of 10,000 kicks starts at one. It might not be perfect, but there’s a fine chance that you can execute a pretty great kick right off the bat. Best of all, at some point along your journey, you’ll be the one placing a delicious and carefully crafted meal in front of someone special. When you see that familiar anticipation and delight in their eyes – you’ll be hooked for life.
The one big take-home message for this recipe is organization. I’m not the most naturally organized person in the world, so please believe me here when I say that you’ll have a much easier time if you get all your ducks in a row. There would have been a pun there if I was cooking geoduck, but changing the recipe simply for the sake of a joke would have been… shellfish.
Wait, please don’t go. Ok, real tips.
Assuming you’re starting with shucked scallops, you don’t have to do too much prep here. Very gently rinse and pat the scallops dry and LIGHTLY salt the surface. Scallops have a fair bit of natural saltiness, so you don’t want to overdo it.
When searing scallops, the key is patience. First of all, don’t put the scallops into the pan until the butter is very well melted and just starting to brown. Once they’re in, don’t try to reposition them. Do NOT try to overcrowd the pan. The scallops should have plenty of space in the pan and should be nowhere near touching each other. If you’re new to searing scallops or you’re concerned that your pan isn’t big enough, cook the scallops in two batches, each with half of the butter/olive oil mixture in the pan.
When they’re properly seared, the scallops should release from the pan with fairly minimal effort. If they won’t budge, they’re not ready and turning them will likely rip them apart. Depending on the pan you use, you might have hot spots in some sections, meaning that the cook times may differ slightly, so don’t be concerned if one scallop seems like it’s done early. Turn the scallops and sear the opposite side, but not that this won’t take as long (the scallops is already hot). When you can see a nice crispy sear along the edges AND the center of the scallop still looks milky and semi-transparent, they’re done. It’s better to have a scallop with a tender, medium-rare center and a so-so sear on one side than an overcooked scallop with two well-seared sides.
I personally think that gas stoves make searing scallops (or anything) easier because you can control the heat more easily, but good results can be achieved on any stove. If your pan gets too hot, remove it from the heat for 10 seconds and bring the temperature down. Don’t be afraid to add a bit more butter too, especially if what you have in the pan is starting to smoke. Too little (or too-hot) butter will burn and so will your scallops. As a general and informal rule, ‘add more butter’ is a pretty common French cooking panacea.
If you’re looking for more on the subject or another great scallop recipe, check out my Seared Scallops with Asparagus and Lemon Spaghettini.
Caramelizing Honey and Making a Gastrique
I’ve talked about caramelizing white sugar in two dessert recipes before (here and here), but honey is a little different, especially give the fact that it’s already a liquid. Honey contains a lot of fructose, which caramelizes at a lower temperature that sucrose (white sugar). This means that honey will caramelize a little faster and at a lower temperature than white sugar.
As with searing scallops, you want to be prepared and patient. Sugars caramelize very suddenly, and if you realize that your honey is perfect but you haven’t measured out your vinegar yet, you’ll probably end up with a burnt mess. When the honey is bubbling a fair bit and a good shade darker than the colour it started at, you’ll want to add the vinegar to the pan. Because honey can vary so much in colour to begin with, the end colour will be up to you to interpret. A pale yellow honey will be done when it’s a nice amber, but a darker honey might need to cook until it’s a rusty brown shade. If you do take things too far and end up with blackened or burnt honey, don’t be tempted to salvage it. I foolishly tried that once with an ice cream recipe and it was a total disaster. While you will find references to ‘burnt honey’ out there, truly burnt caramel is insanely bitter and sharp tasting. Scrape out the pan, clean it up, and start over.
It’s also worth mentioning that caramelized sugars are insanely hot – WAY hotter than boiling water. Watch your hands, stand back a bit when you add the vinegar. If you’re new to this, you might be tempted to taste the honey to see how the flavour is developing in the pan, but it’s not a great idea. The sugars will be so ridiculously hot that by the time you can cool down a taster, everything in the pan will have cooked further anyway. If you absolutely must taste test, dip something non-conductive like a chopstick or wooden spoon into the honey, obtain the smallest dollop you can, and blow on it like it’s the world’s most stubborn birthday candle.
As for the gastrique itself, it’s quite easy. Once the vinegar has been added and things have settled down in the pan, simple reduce the heat to medium and simmer gently until the whole thing is reduced by about half. Remove from heat, stir in your chopped parsley and set aside. If you have extra, the finished sauce will keep in the fridge for a ridiculously long time.
I can’t believe I made it this far without ranting about parsley.
Parsley has got to be one of the most underappreciated ingredients out there. It’s so often relegated to the status of cheap garnish than many people don’t even realize that it has a wonderful flavour all its own. Flat-leaf or Italian parsley is a vibrant green herb that looks quite a bit like cilantro, and it has a surprisingly bold flavour that works with all kinds of foods. It’s frizzy cousin curly parsley can have the same flavour (though this can vary a bit), but I find it much harder to tell how fresh it is. Old parsley loses a lot of flavour, so I tend to avoid the curly. And for the record, dried parsley absolutely cannot be used in place of fresh here.
The fresher the scallops the better, but there’s nothing wrong with frozen if you know that they’re high quality. You can use very large or medium-sized bay scallops, as long as you adjust your cooking time.
Any blue cheese that you like will work here – I used a Danish blue. If you’re not a big fan of blue cheese by you like the idea of this dish you can use a nice goat cheese in its place.
No ingredient pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe. Like to see one? Let me know in the comments below or by email.
No pantry pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe. Like to see one? Let me know in the comments below or by email.
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