When we really want to treat ourselves to a ’special dinner’ at home, the first choice is usually scallops. Although not inexpensive, they are not so expensive that we can’t splurge once in a while for their delicate flavor. And yet, they are pricy enough that when we have them, they do feel like a luxury. And when we have them, we tend to keep the flavors simple and let the scallops shine through on their own. They are always pan seared and served either plain or with a simple sauce like today’s meal. Scallops with Lemon Caper Sauce are our way of treating ourselves to a fancy meal with not a ton of effort.
Before I jump into the post, I want to catch you up a bit. It has been a few months since I’ve posted here. It has been quite busy in my world. That has gotten in the way of my posting regularly. But it was the result of some challenging and rewarding work I’ve been doing for the last six months. I want to share a bit of it with you.
Catching up with John
Since the first of the year, I have been working in a kitchen preparing meals for essential Covid 19 workers. I have been on a team of five chefs embedded in company that manufactures ventilators. We have been preparing meals for women and men building some of the most essential medical gear for fighting Covid. It has been both rewarding and tiring.
For a long time, we were preparing and serving about 500 meals a day. Near the end, we were doing about half that much. I was up at 3:30 each morning to get to work for 5:00 AM. That would begin a cycle of cooking food for today, packaging up todays meals into individual containers, then preparing all of the food for tomorrow. On a typical day, we might prepare 200 lbs of proteins, 80 pounds of vegetables, 120 pounds of a starch, and a dozen gallons of sauces. By the time I got home, I was exhausted, and didn’t want much to do with food until the next day.
Our executive chef reviewed some stats with us last week, and the amounts of food we prepared for this were staggering. Since the beginning of Covid. We cooked and served nearly 15,000 pounds of chicken breasts (let alone the amounts of chicken thighs, tenders or ground chicken we prepared). Over 42,000 eggs. Tens of thousands of pounds of rice, pasta and potatoes. Our twice weekly food deliveries would come in on multiple pallets. It was literally tons of food. But it was for a good cause.
That chapter came to a close last week, and it is back to a more normal pace. Soon, my own kitchen will be re-opening. That should allow me more time to keep the blog fresh and updated weekly.
Scallops with Lemon Caper Sauce
It only seems apropos that completing this work would lead to a celebration of sorts here at mezze & tapas World Headquarters. And that leads directly to today’s post. I made us a plate of Scallops with Lemon Caper Sauce and a Lemon and Pea Risotto. I will cover the risotto in another post, and focus on the scallops today.
Scallops with Lemon Caper Sauce could just as easily be called Scallops Piccata. The lemon caper sauce is essentially the same sauce for Chicken Piccata. But I vamp on it a bit to pair it with the fish. On of my favorite things about scallops is the wonderful browned crust that forms on the outside when pan seared. Add the slightly lemony, slightly briny, slightly buttery sauce and it is the perfect complement. And like chicken piccata, this dish will come together quickly! Be sure to have your side dish(es) well in hand before you start the scallops. They need your attention and the whole thing is done in about 10 minutes.
Careful Selection of Scallops
As you may remember, the Elegant Baker has a serious crustacean allergy. This forces us to be highly selective when choosing scallops. Scallops are typically sold either ‘wet’ or ‘dry’. “Dry” scallops are packaged and transported without added liquid. If there is any liquid present, it is only what comes from naturally from the scallops. On the other hand, “wet” scallops are packaged and transported in an added liquid, which typically includes seafood stock. Seafood stock is often made from the shells of shrimp, lobsters and crabs. That makes ‘wet’ scallops completely off limits for the Elegant Baker. She never eats them in a restaurant (we have no idea if they use ‘wet’ or ‘dry’ and most servers can’t tell you for sure). She only eats them when we make them at home.
To make them at home, we seek out a source that can sell us ‘dry’ scallops. Unlike a server in a restaurant, a good fishmonger can tell you if their scallops are ‘dry’ or ‘wet’. We know which local fish markets we can find ‘dry’ scallops at. Even then, we have to be careful. It seems that every fish market (even the good ones) puts the scallops in their case right next to the shrimp. That creates a strong possibility of cross contamination. We do not by scallops out of the case. We explain the crustacean allergy, then we ask if they have any unopened in the back. Without exception, the fish markets have been understanding and accommodating. If they don’t have any outback, we pass, and they understand why. But the best is when they do have scallops we can get.
Wet scallops also won’t get that nice browned sear because the added moisture makes it nearly impossible to achieve. Another reason to avoid ‘wet’ scallops!
Pick the Right Scallops and Treat them Well!
Be sure to go for the larger sea scallops. Bay scallops are much smaller, and don’t make much of a meal. That, and they are nearly impossible to find ‘dry’. We just don’t buy them. Instead, we stick to the sea scallops. We generally find that four scallops makes an suitable portion for dinner. So we buy eight, and that is usually somewhere in the neighborhood of a half a pound total.
We try to buy the scallops the day that we are going to make them. Like most fish, I don’t want it sitting around in my fridge for too long. Get the scallops the same day, and put them right in the fridge when you get home. Scallops are not meant to sit on a counter all afternoon before you cook them. As the star of the show, you want them in the best shape possible when you are ultimately ready to cook and eat them. Leave them in the fridge until about 30 minutes before you are ready to cook them. Then take them out, unwrap them, and set them on the counter for a few minutes so they can start to warm a bit.
The key to getting a nice, crusty, restaurant quality sear on your scallops is for them to be dry before you put them in the pan. I generally take them out of the refrigerator, un wrap them and place them on a plate lined with paper towels. This will absorb some of the surface moisture on the scallops. I take another paper towel, fold it up a couple of times, and dab the tops of the scallops to dry the rest of them. The more moisture you can get from the surface, the better crust you will get on your scallops.
Mise En Place
Before your go any further, get all of your ingredients ready for the lemon caper sauce. You will not have time to be scrambling once the scallops are in the pan. They will take just a few minutes to cook, and you really can’t just walk away. Although you won’t touch them in the pan, you need to pay attention to them. There is a fine line between delicious brown crust and acrid, bitter black burnt crust. You don’t want to cross that line
The other trick to getting a good crust is to use a pan without a non-stick coating. Yes, I love my non-stick pans, and they work for a good many tasks. But they just don’t cut it when you are more concerned with creating the brown crust. It just won’t form in a non-stick pan because, well, your food won’t stick to the pan. In fact, you want it to ‘stick’ to the pan a bit with the scallops.
Put your pan over a medium high heat. While the pan is heating, take a moment to add some kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper to your scallops. They will benefit from the seasoning. When the pan is nice and hot, add a couple of tablespoons of olive oil and a tablespoon of butter. Swirl it around to get a nice coating. Once the butter is fully melted, it will bubble and foam a bit. That is the water leaving the butter. When the foaming starts to subside, that is your cue to add the scallops.
Cook the Scallops
Working quickly, I add the scallops to the pan one at a time without crowding them. I typically think of the pan as the face of a clock, and place the first scallop at “12”. With this in mind, work around the pan in a clockwise direction until all the scallops are in — the last one being somewhere between “10” and “11”. I do this so I can keep track of which order I put them into the pan, so I know which order to turn them in.
Once you put the scallops down, do not touch them. Leave them alone. Set a timer for two minutes, and start it. Use this time to get a clean plate ready to put the scallops on while you cook the sauce. You’ll want that ready.
If you watch carefully, you will notice the bottom half of the scallop starting to change. It will go from the translucent gray of the uncooked scallop to an opaque milky white of the cooked scallop. After about two minutes, you will notice that transformation has traveled about half way up the scallop. This is good.
When the timer goes off, starting at “12”, turn the scallops over one by one. You should see the nice brown crust formed. If the scallop is ‘stuck’ to the pan, move to the next and come back to it. It will become ‘unstuck’ on its own when the crust is nicely formed.
Once all your scallops are turned, set the timer for another two minutes. Again, leave the scallops alone. When the timer goes of a second time, remove them one at a time and place on the clean plate you just pulled out.
Lemon Caper Sauce
Before you move on to the lemon caper sauce, loosely place a piece of foil over the scallops to tent them and keep them warm. You can also use an inverted bowl if you’d like.
I like to turn the pan off as I begin the next step. You will turn it back on, but a bit of cooling is OK at this point.
Once the scallops are resting, add the white wine to the pan to deglaze it. Add the wine and begin to scrape the pan with a spatula. You’ll want to get those bits of browning and scallop left in the pan and incorporate them into your sauce.
Add the chicken stock, turn the heat back to bring it to a boil and reduce to a simmer. Let simmer for a minute or two, until it reduces to about half. Add the capers and lemon juice and stir to combine.
Remove from heat again, and add the remaining butter. Swirl around the pan until melted — it should thicken the sauce a bit. Return the scallops to the pan, add parsley, and turn the scallops around in the sauce to fully coat.
Move the scallops to your serving plate and spoon a bit of the sauce from the pan onto your scallops. Add your side dishes and your done.
I am excited to be back on the blog and looking forward to sharing more great dishes with you that are inspired by the flavors of the Mediterranean. I hope that you give the scallops with lemon caper sauce a try, and if you do, let me know what you think in the comments!
Scallops with Lemon Caper Sauce
- 8 Large Sea Scallops about 1/2 lb
- 2 TBS extra virgin olive oil
- 2 TBS unsalted butter divided
- 1 clove garlic minced
- 1/4 cup white wine
- 1/2 cup chicken stock or broth
- 1/2 tsp lemon zest approx 1/2 lemon
- 1 TBS Fresh squeezed lemon juice
- 1 TBS capers
- kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste
- Chopped parsley for garnish
- Heat 2 TBS of extra virgin olive oil and 1 TBS of butter in a large skillet over medium-high.
- When the foaming of the butter starts to subside, add the scallops to the pan one by one.
- Leave the scallops undisturbed for about 2 minutes. A deep golden crust should form on the bottoms
- Turn each scallop over and cook on the other side and cook an additional two minutes
- Remove the scallops from the pan and transfer to a clean plate. Loosely cover with foil to keep warm
- Add garlic to the skillet and cook, stirring often, until golden brown (about 2 minutes). If necessary, reduce the heat to keep garlic from burning.
- Add wine and bring to a simmer. Swirl the pan and scrape up any browned bits stuck to the bottom of skillet, until liquid is almost completely evaporated, about 3 minutes.
- Add chicken stock, turn the heat back to bring it to a boil and reduce to a simmer.
- Let simmer for a minute or two, until it reduces to about half. Add the capers and lemon juice and stir to combine.
- Remove from heat again, and add the remaining butter.
- Swirl around the pan until melted — it should thicken the sauce a bit.
- Return the scallops to the pan, add parsley, and turn the scallops around in the sauce to fully coat.