You know how sometimes there's that restaurant dish that you really enjoy and that you really wish you could figure out how to make at home without having to employ an army of sous-chefs? Occasionally, I actually manage to deconstruct one of those meals to reproduce in my own kitchen. It doesn't happen very often, and it's always an approximation of the real thing. On the other hand, it's generally easier on my wallet than going out to eat when a craving for a particular meal hits.
The first time I ate this dish was at Public restaurant in Nolita. My mother and I had gone to try it out as we'd both heard of it when it opened. The space is very industrial with several different spaces carved out of it. The menu reflects the seasons but is also adventurous, with items and flavors from New Zealand and Australia on offer. In the several times I've eaten there, I don't think I have ever had a bad dish, and I've often had something unique and wonderfully delicious.
One dish with which I fell in love and have ordered every time it has been available is the Grilled Scallops with Sweet Chili Sauce, Crème Fraîche and Green Plantain Crisps. I'm not sure the origin of the recipe, but I found something similar in a Peter Gordon cookbook that I had from when I lived in England. His Sugar Club restaurant (now closed) was also one of the places I've really enjoyed eating. Unfortunately, I found the list of ingredients to be too long and not so easy to come by to make this dish on my own. That made me sort of sad.
Then, after taking a seafood-fish cooking course with Carl Raymond at Astor Center, earlier this summer, I decided to revisit my ambitions of making this at home. For me, this is the perfect starter to serve for a party or elegant meal à deux. It is simple, with bright clean flavors, a bit of creamy and punch of spicy chili to offset the meaty scallops along with a peppery crunch of the salad. The trick was how to get around the seemingly-daunting sauce recipe.
I don't usually promote using pre-made ingredients, especially as many of them contain too much added salt and sugar. In this case, I decided to give myself a time-saving, sanity-preserving exception and go with a Thai-style chili sauce that I found at the grocery store. With scallops purchased from P.E. & D.D. Seafood bought at the Greenmarket (a line worth standing on and they will give you a bag of ice to keep it cool while you transport it), along with microgreens and crème fraîche (also from the Greenmarket), I could forgive myself for the little bit of cheating I'd have to do to make this dish work. One word of advice, however, if you do make it to Public to order the original for yourself, definitely save some room for dessert. The Hokey-Pokey ice cream with Passionfruit caramel and Gingersnap is worth every bite.
Scallops with Crème Fraîche-Chili Dressing
Serving Size: 2 portions (can easily be doubled)
Prep Time: 30 minutes
8 sea scallops, dry variety*
2 Tsp. flour
1/4 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. black pepper
1/2 tsp. canola oil
2 tsp. crème fraîche
2 tsp. Thai-style sweet chili sauce
1/2 c. microgreens or 1 bunch watercress
Pat scallops dry with a paper towel. Put flour, salt, and pepper on a plate. Dip the scallops in the flour mixture and coat until covered. Shake off any excess flour and set aside. The flour will encourage the brown crust on the scallops when they are cooked.
In a large saucepan (or small one if you prefer to work in two batches), heat the canola oil. When the oil seems to be very hot, which you can test by seeing if the oil creates ripples when you tip the pan (this will take a few minutes), place the scallops in the oil, starting the furthest from you and then working in a circle. Take care not to crowd them in the pan, otherwise they will not brown and will steam instead.
When there's the hint of a brown crust on the bottom of the scallop, it is just about ready to turn over. You can also see how cooked the scallop is by the flesh changing from translucent to milky-white opaque. When it is not quite halfway up the side of the scallop, flip it over. Then, watch carefully to see the ring of the crust forming on the second side.
These should cook about a minute on the first side and a bit less on the second side. Remove and let cool briefly on a paper towel. If cooking in two or more batches, place on a plate tented with aluminum foil to keep them warm.
Place four scallops on each plate. Dollop each one with 1/8-1/4 tsp. of the crème fraîche. Drizzle the same amount of Thai-style chili sauce (or less depending upon your spiciness comfort zone) over top of that. Divide microgreens or watercress among the plates and place in the middle of the scallops. Serve immediately.
*Kitchen Witch Tips:
Aside from knowing your fishmonger, which is the best way to ensure that you are getting the highest quality product, another thing to do is to ask questions of your supplier. Scallops are sold "wet" and "dry." "Wet" ones have been chemically treated to extend their shelf life and will shrink dramatically when cooked as this process also means they absorb extra water. "Dry" ones are usually fresher and more-recently caught and have not been treated with chemicals. One rule of thumb is not to buy scallops unless you can get the "dry" ones. They should be kept on ice, not frozen, and cooked within the day of purchase or the day after that.