If I ever leave New England, it will be the taste of a freshly seared Atlantic sea scallop that brings me back. Big, meaty, packed with marine flavor. When people talk about regional American cuisine and they trot out Texas or North Carolina barbecue or Virginia hams or Alaskan salmon, I always ask if they’ve ever tasted a genuine New England sea scallop. Most haven’t. This week: Sea Scallops, Peas and Chervil. The sea scallops are large, they take a thin edge of delicious sear while remaining moist and rare in the center, and they hold a delicious court with butter, peas and chervil.
Before I get down to the complicated business of buying scallops, a couple of pieces of fun arcana about this week’s ingredients. One: the scallop you buy is a small portion of the scallop animal. Scallops propel themselves across the sea floor by expelling water via the rapid opening and closing of their shells. The scallop we eat is the muscle that releases and contracts the two halves of the shell. Two: chervil, sometimes called “French parsley,” is a relative of ordinary parsley, but has a more delicate flavor and is one of the fines herbes (with tarragon, chives and parsley) you hear so much about in traditional French cuisine. Secondly (and I got this from Jody, who got it from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, the English celebrity chef, BBC figure and food activitist) chervil is derived from the Greek chaerophyllon, meaning “herb of rejoicing” or, as you or I might put it, “the happy herb.” So if you’re shimmying around your kitchen while listening to Pharrell Williams, you might bear in mind that chervil is the ideal accompaniment.
On to rounding up your sea scallops. Sea and Bay scallops are different species. Their most obvious difference is size, but there is no official size designation that separates them, unlike say, quahogs and littlenecks. Scallops are sold by the pound, sized according to one of two systems. In one system you might see scallops listed as U30 or U50, meaning that under 30 scallops or under 50 scallops of that particular size would make a pound. In the other system the scallops are categorized with a fractional listing like 20/30 or 50/70, meaning that a it would take 20 to 30 scallops (in the first instance) to make a pound. Obviously the smaller the numbers, in either system, the larger the scallop. When I’m looking for sea scallops I’m generally seeking examples that are between 1.5 and 3 inches wide, with most of what I see around 1.5 to 2 inches. I want U12’s or U15’s. You’ll know them when you see them–they’re big. And they’re not cheap.
Why is all of this important?
Because you may be tempted to try this recipe with an equal amount of Bay scallops (they’re on sale!), and that, alas, would be a mistake. You’d write to us and tell us the recipe was a goopy snafu, clearly not worth all the gassy rapture I expended on it. The majority of Bay scallops marketed in the US come from China. In the early 199o’s the Chinese developed an enormous scallop-farming industry, which is now a scallop-farming export industry. If you’ve ever purchased “Bay scallops” from a large supermarket chain, there’s a better than even chance you’ve eaten Chinese scallops. This is all perfectly legal. Just as it’s perfectly legal to preserve these scallops by immersion in water laced with a phosphate compound. As soon as scallops are harvested they begin to lose some of their water. Scallops treated with a phosphate solution absorb water. The look plump–and they look white. American consumers seem to prefer their scallops white in the same way they prefer their hot dogs red. Untreated scallops range in color from white to a pronounced tan. Aside from my disinclination to eat seafood that has been chemically treated it means that up to 30% of these scallops’ weight is water. Once heated, the scallops release this water, causing them to steam, rather than sear. Enter goopy snafu. Ugh.
By law, scallops must either be labelled as “processed” or “dry.” “Processed” indicates the use of a phosphate solution. Buy only dry. If the scallops aren’t labeled as dry or processed, ask. Good scallops are never cheap. No matter what the sign says. Cheap = inferior scallops. American sea scallops have recovered from a state of decline by strict management of fishing areas, which in turn has lead to a restricted supply. Market scarcity drives the price up.
But oh, the flavor. Enjoy. Ken
Sea Scallops, Peas and the Happy Herb, Chervil
- Kosher salt
- Pinch sugar (optional)
- 1 cup fresh English peas, about 5 ounces
- 16 large sea scallops (about 1 – 1.25 pounds) abductor muscle removed (the tiny muscle on the side – it peels off)
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 6 tablespoons unsalted butter (or substitute a tablespoon of a high-heat oil for a tablespoon of butter)
- 2 tablespoon minced shallot
- 1 cup dry vermouth
- ¼ cup chopped chervil
- Handful of pea tendrils, Claytonia, or other mild tender spring herb
- Bring a small pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pinch of sugar, if the peas aren’t sweet, with the peas and cook until tender, about 1½ 1minutes. Scoop out the peas and transfer to an ice bath. Cool and drain.
- Season the scallops with salt and pepper.
- Heat 1 tablespoon butter of oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Adjust the heat lower if the butter is getting too brown. Add the scallops in a single layer with at least half an inch of space between each scallop and sear until golden brown, about 3 minutes. Flip and cook on the second side about a minute. Transfer the scallops to a warm platter or 4 warm plates. At this point you will see the caramelized outline of the scallops in the pan. Work quickly so the caramelized bits don’t get too dark.
- Add a tablespoon of butter to the pan along with the shallots. Cook 30 seconds, stirring constantly. Add the vermouth to deglaze the pan, scraping the bottom of the pan to dissolve the crusty bits. Cook until reduced by three quarters, .
- To finish the sauce, remove the pan from the heat and whisk in the remaining butter, 1 tablespoon at a time.
- Add the peas to the sauce and heat through. Stir in the chervil. Spoon the peas and sauce over the scallops, garnish with pea tendrils and serve.
In the spirit of trying to keep the list of ingredients as simple as possible, I decided to use whole butter for cooking the scallops. I knew it would brown more in the pan than clarified butter or oil, which I could live with. But then I cooked the shallots too long–and allowed the crusty bits in the pan to get too dark. Aaaaarrrrrggggghhh. You can see in the pictures that the finished sauce is dark. Cook the shallots just 30 seconds before adding the vermouth. If you sear the scallops in a tablespoon of high-heat instead of butter you’ll have an even lighter sauce.