Queen Grits: Scallops, Shrimp, Serrano Ham, and Ouzo Cream with Chives

DSCN4681There are a handful of pseudo-cliches I could start this posting with, like “you can take a girl out of the South, but you can’t take the South out of a girl”, and “once a redneck always a redneck,” and “roots run deep” – but I couldn’t possibly do that, could I?  Instead, I’ll straight up admit it: I love shrimp and grits.  It’s a classic dish o’ mine, stemming from a season working at Jim Shaw’s on Vineville after college, where they serve their grits as a side dish, but where the perfect compatibility of shellfish and hominy first entered my consciousness.  A few years later, in the Florida pan-handle, I enjoyed the Boss Grits at Boss Oyster, the first time I’d seen OTHER stuff thrown into the bowl – like bits o’ pork and a sweet white sauce.  Tonight’s dinner is a variation on this theme: succulent shrimp and seared scallops atop cheddar grits with sauteed Serrano ham and my favorite ouzo cream.  The meal is warm and satisfying, steaming and buttery, fragrant and briny, unctuous and sweet: a perfect plate, in less than 30 minutes.  If you’ve never married grits to sea critters before, I urge you to correct that discrepancy in your gastronomic resume.  You’ll be glad that you did.


Cheddar Grits with Shrimp, Scallops, Serrano Ham, Chives, and Ouzo Cream Sauce

1 cup grits
4 1/2 cups water, salted
4 tbs butter
1/4# slab Serrano ham (about 1/2″ thick)
4 large shrimp
2 large scallops
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
1 cup cream
1/2 cup Ouzo
3 tbs chopped fresh chives
sea salt, cracked black pepper, Adobo seasoning, paprika

DSCN4669This is, at heart, a very simple meal.  I start by getting a few tablespoons of butter melting in my largest non-stick fry pan, while I get my water boiling for my grits on the back burner.

DSCN4670Once the foam has subsided, I throw my chopped Serrano ham into the lightly browned fat to saute and crisp.

DSCN4671Moving these meat bits around often, I toast them up really good.  I add a dash of black pepper and some paprika to the pan as well, which combines with the smoked pork to make a dizzying aroma.

DSCN4672Once my water comes to a boil, I stir in my grits well, lower the temperature to simmer, and cover the pan for about 10 minutes – reaching in to stir only once or twice.

DSCN4673I wish I had a flat grill, but alas.  Instead, I’m crafty.  I push all my cooked ham to one side of my pan, which I slide off the burner and balance on the raised edge of my stove – which is at the same height as the burner itself.  This leaves an exposed half of my pan directly over the heat, and allows my pork to stay warm but without the element underneath.  When you have a crappy kitchen, you learn to improvise.

DSCN4674On the exposed surface of the pan, which is still glistening with porkypaprika-y goodness, I layer my shrimp (which I’ve peeled to just the end of the tail) and my scallops, which I’ve sprinkled with salt and pepper.  I let them sear for about 3 minutes on each side, until the shrimp is perfectly opaque, and my scallops are seared to a crispy golden brown exterior.

DSCN4675Meanwhile, my grits are cooked perfectly, so I toss in 1 tbs butter and all my shredded cheddar cheese, which I mix in well.  I also add a dash of Adobo seasoning – which has garlic and pepper in it as well as salt. This I blend well until all the cheese is melted.

DSCN4676At the last few moments, I remove my proteins from the pan, and put them aside on a warm dish.  I put the pan back on the burner, add my last tablespoon of butter until it melts, then in goes my sweet sweet ouzo.  I let this reduce for about a minute over high heat.

DSCN4677In goes my cream, which I whisk in very well, leaving the heat on high so it can bubble and boil.

DSCN4678It thickens nicely.

DSCN4679A steaming mound of warm, sharp cheddar grits are surrounded by a pool of fennel scented rich cream.  Mounded on top of this tempting pile are the buttery shrimp, sweet seared scallops, and salty crispy-edged tidbits of Spanish jamon, scattered with the mild oniony tang of snipped chives.  Wholesome, delicious, and heart-warming.  What better for a weeknight dinner after a long day’s work?

Reconstructed Deconstructed Seafood Paella

DSCN4546Last week wasn’t a great one for Lolita.  While Nemo buried us in two feet of snow, the tumultuous passage of a delightful kidney stone began its painful descent through my bowels, knocking me out for almost 4 days.  Needless to say, I missed Valentine’s Day; it passed me by in a Percocet fueled haze.  I had promised the husband-man to make him whatever he wanted for V-Day, and he requested paella – something very difficult to make in the traditional way with the crappy electric stove I’ve got. But never one to back down from a challenge, I did – in my more lucid moments – ponder how I could create a paella -type meal for the ol’ man given my kitchen’s limitations.  By Saturday, I’d both birthed that stone and had figured out this dish: a deconstructed paella construct, replete with all the flavors we’d tasted that glorious spring in Barcelona when we ate panfuls of the stuff along the sparkling Mediterranean coast.  My creation contains all the seafood I could pack into the dish — scallops, shrimp, cod, clams, and lobster – along with deep roasted peppers, a chicken chorizo risotto, and a saffron butter-cream.  With a some toasted baguette served ala pa’ amb tomaquet, each bite transported us back to our Iberian adventures in a way only good food can do.


Reconstructed Deconstructed Seafood Paella

1 red pepper
1 green pepper
1 cup arborio rice
3-4 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup minced onion
1/2 cup dry sherry
1 tbs tomato paste
1 quart seafood stock
1 large chicken chorizo sausage
chili powder, hungarian paprika, black pepper, sea salt, EVOO
2 tbs butter
1 cup heavy cream
4-5 threads of saffron
4 littleneck clams
2 lobster claws
1/3lb cod
2 large scallops
4 large shrimp

DSCN4532aBecause it takes a little while, I start by roasting my peppers.  It’s easy: roll them around in EVOO, lay them on a baking sheet, and sprinkle them with salt and pepper before throwing them in a 400° oven.  Roast for about 10 minutes, rolling them over every few minutes so the skins blacken.  Remove them from the heat, toss them and all the juices from the pan into a bowl, and cover with plastic wrap until cooled.  Then you can remove the skins very easily.  Set this aside for now.

DSCN4529I make risotto all the time — just search for it here on my blog and you’ll see several different preparations.  This one was different for me, though, since I usually aim for a white risotto and not a red one, but it still started the same: I sauté my minced garlic and onion in EVOO in a small saucepan until just translucent, then I add my rice.  I stir everything to coat well with the oil, and to toast the grains of rice a bit to make them more receptive to the liquids I’ll be adding.

DSCN4530First addition is wine: a nice glug or two of dry sherry, which I stir in well, cooking over low heat, until all the liquid is absorbed.

DSCN4531Then I start adding my seafood stock, which is simmering in another pot on the stove.  You want to use warm stock, which will keep the rice cooking instead of cooling it down with each addition.  I add about 4 ounces at a time, stirring well continually, until each batch of liquid has been absorbed by the rice.  It takes about 30 minutes to stir a good pot of risotto.

DSCN4532At about the halfway point, I decide to add a tablespoon of tomato puree.  Traditional paella always has a bit of tomato in it, and this concentrated condiment gives just the right of sweetness and acidic kick to the dish.  Oh, and I keep adding stock and stirring.

DSCN4533My risotto is almost done.  It has increased in volume significantly, and when I test a grain with my tongue and teeth it is just tender all the way through, with a slightly al dente center.  At this point, I add all the juices from my roasted peppers, which have been sweating all their delicious goodness into the bowl all this time.

DSCN4536I’ve cooked my chicken chorizo and chopped it up real good like.

DSCN4537Along with my chopped roasted peppers, the chorizo adds the unctuousness needed for a good paella – where chicken and sausage definitely belong.  I keep this warm on the back burner until I’m ready for it.

DSCN4538To prepare my seafood, I create a poaching liquid, starting with butter and saffron and the last 4 ounces of my seafood stock.

DSCN4539I whisk the contents of the pan vigorously, emulsifying the butter and stock into a rich base.

DSCN4541I then add my cream, and layer my seafood into the pan to gently poach.  My cream/butter has been tinted a thrilling yellow from the saffron threads, and the scent emanating through the kitchen is divine.  I cover the pan, shaking it from time to time to encourage the fishy stuff to swim around, before using tongs to flip each piece so it can cook through thoroughly.

DSCN4543When the clams are open, and the shrimp and scallops are opaque, everything is ready to serve.

DSCN4542Here’s where the “reconstruction” bit comes in.  I’ve been obsessing about forms these days, ‘cuz I love the idea of stacked meals.  I’m too cheap to spend the $20 or so on real cooking forms, so I have a tendency to cannibalize all sorts of stuff in my kitchen to make shapes I can work with.  This is a tea canister from some swanky over-priced tea shack, but with the bottom removed it makes a decent, entree-sized form for my purposes.  I start by laying my strips of pepper out on the plate, before spooning a layer of rice into the form, followed by bits of the cooked cod, another layer of rice, then a layer with my shrimp and scallops, before topping it off with more risotto.

DSCN4547Crowning my tower of delight is my succulent lobster claw, which is flanked by eat-me clams and standing in a rich, sweet pool of saffron butter-milk.  I’ve toasted some slices of baguette, rubbed them with garlic, and served them with a tomato half doused with EVOO, garlic, and sea salt – which is scraped across the crusty bread, leaving a swathe of tasty red yumminess to compliment the dish.  All the component parts of a paella are here: fresh, tender seafood, rich, creamy rice, roasted peppers and spicy sausage, chicken, and of course, saffron.  An elegant meal in honor of a long love affair: with both my husband, and food glorious food.

Scallop, Shrimp, and Cod Skillet with Parmesan Grits and Spinach

DSCN4347Those of you wonderful people who follow my blog know I have a weakness for anything cooked in a cast-iron skillet.  There is something so old-timey about cast iron, and I love how they serve today as both cooking equipment and serving platter – as they do in my house.  Maybe it’s the weight of them; maybe it’s just the tradition of them — I don’t know, but everything seems to taste better in cast iron.  No wonder, then, that tonight’s offering is a one-pan meal: a mixed grill of seared scallops, shrimp, and cod filet, served with piping hot cheese grits and some quick wilted spinach.  Light, healthy, and warming — just the thing for a chilly winter’s night.


Scallop, Shrimp, and Cod Skillet with Parmesan Grits and Spinach

6 large shrimp, peeled
2-4 large scallops (8oz total), adductor muscles removed
1/2 lb cod filet
6 oz spinach
1 cup grits
4 tbs butter, melted and divided, plus 1 tbs butter, cold
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
1 lemon

This meal was inspired largely by the super-huge scallops on display at Whole Foods.  They were simply enormous, and my soul ached for them at first glance, but my pocketbook was unprepared for the hefty price-tag which came along with them.  So instead of doing without entirely, I purchased the two fattest bivalves I could find (they came to almost 1/2 lb on their own!), and augmented them with some more reasonably priced seafare — some large tiger shrimp and a nice codfish loin.  The shrimp I peeled while raw, and the fish I cut into bite sized pieces.

DSCN4333This is actually a *very* quick meal, and super-easy — it’s just  the expense that sort of knocks it out of the Weeknight Wondermeal category.  I started by melting my butter, which rather cooled back to room temperature before I started cooking in earnest, while I assembled everything else.  I wash and spin dry my spinach, grate my cheese, and get my grits all measured out.

DSCN4339I divide my melted butter roughly into 6ths, placing 1 dollop into each skillet, which I then position over hot burners.  As soon as the butter has begun to brown, I layer in my seafood, starting with the scallops and fish, which I let sear on one side for about 4 minutes, before flipping each piece carefully.

DSCN4340I then add the shrimp, with a dollop more butter on top to melt over them, which I cook for 2 minutes on each side, making a total of 4 minutes for the fish and scallops.  Y’see, the shrimp doesn’t take as long as the other stuff …

DSCN4341I remove the protiens briefly to a warm plate, which I cover with plastic wrap for a few minutes.

DSCN4338The skillets remain on the heat with their butter still bubbling hot.

DSCN4342In goes my spinach, which I sort of roll around in the butter and let wilt over the heat.

DSCN4343Meanwhile, I’ve made my grits according to the package directions (1 part grits to 3 parts water is the magic ratio), and have added my cold tablespoon of butter and most of my grated cheese, reserving a bit for garnish.

DSCN4344After only a few moments, my spinach is almost completely wilted, with some bits browning and crisping nicely on the pan’s surface.  I push all this to one side, and divide my grits between the two skillets, pouring them next to the spinach.

DSCN4345The fish, scallops, and shrimp get placed back into the skillets, with my last dollops of butter placed on top, before I throw both in a very hot oven for about 8 minutes to heat completely through.

DSCN4346A dash of salt, a sprinkling of pepper, a cross-hatching of shredded cheese, and a wedge of lemon are all the compliments needed for this rich, warm, satisfying seafood dinner.  Each protein brings something different to the plate: the cod is flaky and tender, the shrimp is fresh and firm, and the scallop is sweet and seared to a crisp.  Along with the stick-to-your ribs corn grits and helping of verdant greenery, this is a complete dinner in virtually no time at all.  Dig in and enjoy, my friends.  I sure did.

Brown Butter Seared Scallops, Lentilles de Puy, Dressed Cress and Scallion Oil

As I sit out on my deck this Sunday afternoon, I feel the coming autumn chill in the air.  Clayton may be in a tank top sitting in a sliver of sun, but here in the shade I actually need a light sweater.  Although I’m sad that my tan will soon fade (leaving me the color, and general muscular consistency, of tapioca pudding), I am looking forward to how the cooler weather opens up my kitchen, allowing me to cook indoors without cooking myself in the ambient heat during the process.  Last night, although muggy, was temperate, so I reaquainted myself with my stovetop.  What better way than to pan-sear some plump, juicy, never-frozen, tender scallops?  Thanks to Marcus at Whole Foods for the recommendation (even if he was talking to someone else – and I was merely eavesdropping), although their sheer size and perfection had already reeled me in.  As I wandered the aisles with my six scallops in tow, I alighted upon the bulk bar, and before I knew it I was loading up on some lovely French lentils.  After throwing a few more items into the basket, I headed home, figuring out the meal I’d make on the way.  I visualized a bed of fragrant, steaming, and toothsome lentilles de Puy topped with perfectly crisp-crusted scallops and drizzled with a verdant, herbaceous oil.  And I’ll be damned if that’s not exactly what I made…

Brown Butter Seared Scallops, Lentilles de Puy, Dressed Cress and Scallion Oil

6 very large fresh sea scallops
3 tbs butter
1lb French lentils
3 slices bacon
1 medium onion
6-10 cloves
1″ peeled fresh ginger
3-4 cloves garlic
1 medium carrot
1 qt chicken broth
zest and juice of 1 lemon
curly parsley
1 shallot
EVOO, sea salt, cracked black pepper

Remove the paper husk of the onion, cut it in half, and stud 1 part of it with the cloves.  Mince the other half.

Peel and cut the carrot into 1″ pieces, crush and remove the paper from the garlic, and peel about an inch of fresh ginger root.

Rinse the lentils several times, and pick through them looking for little rocks and stuff, which I’ve never found but I still look for (thinking the one time I don’t look I’ll crack a tooth on something).

Bacon.  I cut these three slices into, like, 4-5 pieces each.

Into my deep saucepan it goes, where I fry it to just crisp.

Add the studded onion carefully to the pan, along with the carrots, minced onion, garlic, and  ginger.

Add the lentils, and stir everything well.

Cover everything with chicken stock, bring to a boil, lower the heat to a gentle simmer, and cover the pot.  It takes about 45 minutes for the liquid to be absorbed, and the lentils to soften (but not mushify).  When their texture is just right, remove from the heat…

… remove the clove studded onion and knob of ginger…

… and stir in the minced shallot, the lemon zest, and some chopped parsley.  Set aside, tilting the lid so some steam can escape, until service.

To make the scallion oil, chop the green onion roughly, then saute it for just a moment in hot EVOO – just long enough for the green color to pop, but not to fry.  Dump into a blender with 1 cup of chopped parsley and the juice from the lemon, then whir until smooth.  Transfer to a small squeeze bottle, and keep warm.

My scallops weren’t cheap…

… but they were amazing.  I should have put something nearby to demonstrate scale; these bad boys are at least an inch thick, and even fatter the way ’round.

I melt 3 tbs of butter to foaming in my small non-stick fry pan, and set my scallops – which I’ve dusted with sea salt and cracked pepper – on the heat, leaving plenty of room between them to breathe.  I leave them undisturbed to sear for 5 minutes, or until I see the opacity of the scallop deepen halfway up its side.

Using tongs, I gently flip each scallop, revealing their caramelized, butter-encrusted faces.  Another 5-7 minutes of searing on the reverse side, and they’re ready for plating.

Fragrant lentil caviar sweetened with carrot and emboldened with bacon; fork-tender sea-sweet scallops browned with butter and encased in crisp; scallion lemon and parsley EVOO dressed watercress and daubs of herbaceous oil.  A perfect marriage of land (pig), earth (beans), and sea (scallops) – all brought together for a fulfilling and delicious dinner on a stormy late summer’s night.

Weeknight Wondermeal: Ginger Honey Glazed Salmon and Scallops, with Pear, Avocado, and Walnut Salad

This dinner is dedicated to some very special friends, for whom – to protect the innocent (and to avoid prosecution by FERPA) – I shall use a delightfully Victorian convention of referring to them by initials only (in no particular order – to avoid any implication of favoritism): AC, TP, KN, MS, CG, TD, CH, AL, SC, and SV. They not only invited me into their summer homes to enjoy lovely dinners prepared by them with affection and good humor, but they inspire me daily with their grace, wit, intelligence, youthful vigor, and general wonderfulness.  However, I am also spurred by a particular comment made by two of the above listed group —  a pair of ladies who suggested that my Weeknight Wondermeals, recipes I tout as super-simple and très-cheap, were “so fancy, and way too complicated!” What the what?  Dear girls, these offerings are the most basic of basics! If you can execute a successful Western blot, or re-engineer the severed limbs of an army of axolotl, you can TOTALLY make any Weeknight Wondermeal, if you have the right stuff in the kitchen.  To wit: tonight’s delectable dinner.  A tender, succulent, juicy salmon filet encrusted with honey and ginger oil, plus a similarly prepared but-also-soy-sauced scallop, served with a super-food salad.  I dare you, young friends, to make this dinner (note to TP: 86  the walnuts!): the effort is simple, but the reward is sublime!

Ginger Honey Glazed Salmon and Scallops, with Pear, Avocado, and Walnut Salad

.75-1lb filet of salmon
2 very large scallops (these equalled .3lb)
1 cup honey
1/2 cup ginger oil (or fresh grated ginger blended with EVOO)
1/4 cup soy sauce
1 avocado
1 fresh pear
1 small white onion
fresh arugula
baby tomatoes
parmigiano reggiano
1/4 cup crushed walnuts
sea salt, fresh cracked black pepper, fresh snipped chives (for garnish)

Since I keep honey, ginger oil, and soy sauce in my pantry, my shopping list was pretty slim.  The most expensive items were these specimens of seafood: two huge, fresh sea scallops, and a lovely bright pink wedge of king salmon.  I want them to marinate a bit before I cook them, but they need to do so in separate bags.  Let me explain…

The salmon gets 3/4 cup of honey, 3 oz of ginger oil — a product I purchased at a nearby Asian supermarket, for about $2.49 — and lots of fresh cracked pepper.

I remove the adductor muscles from my scallops (here’s a pic), and then they get the rest of the honey and ginger oil, with the addition of the soy sauce – which is going to add just the right umame to the experience.  I seal both bags up nice and tightly, after removing as much air from them as I could, then I chuck ’em in the fridge to marinate for about 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, we plug in Little Red and get him all hot and bothered.  Clayton fashions a simple tray out of some foil paper, since we want to catch and cook the marinade as well as the proteins.  You’ll see what I mean a couple steps from now.

I brush a little EVOO onto the portion of the foil that will cook the scallops, but I want to skin of the salmon to stick to the foil (it will make it easier to remove the fish-flesh (and nothing but) later), so I leave that side clean.

The salmon goes on first, and I pour the marinade carefully over it’s pink yumminess to coat it.  It doesn’t matter if it spills onto the foil — in fact, it’s good for some of it to do just that.  As it cooks, the honey will thicken and brown, making a nice glaze.  Again, you’ll see what I mean soon.

The scallops go on next, but they’re doused in less of their marinade, since the soy will have already permeated the meat.  I do save both marinades, in case I want to add more a the halfway point.  For now, though, I lower the lid and walk away for 10 minutes.

My salad tonight was inspired by the similarity between the shape of a pear, and the shape of an avocado.  I surmised that if they had the same figure, perhaps they would go well together…  Yes,  yes – there are all sorts of things wrong with that supposition, but in this case it worked.  I removed the pit out of my avocado, and removed the seeds from my pear, before slicing each half into an equal number of thin wedges.

After fanning the pear slices onto my plates, then layering a fan of avocado over that, I toss some arugula with thin slices of white onion, some shavings of parmigiano reggiano, salt, pepper, and EVOO.

After 10 minutes, my seafood is halfway done, and – as you can see – the honey in the marinade has started to caramelize.  Using a basting brush, I get as much of that honey off the foil and onto the exposed flesh of my fish – top and sides.  It’s slickery — meaning it doesn’t stick to the fish very well unless you sort of scoop it onto the brush and dab it onto the pink.  Be patient, and get as much honey to stick to the fish as you can — it will be SO worth it.

Instead of basting the scallops, I rub them into the marinade darkening on the foil before flipping them.  It’s just like basting, but this time I’m going bottom up instead of top down.

See?  Even through the foil, the scallops are taking on lovely grill marks.  I close the lid for 10 more minutes, and watch the sun sink lower on the horizon over this hot summer day.

When I lift the lid again, my scallops are done (so I remove them to a warm plate to hold), and the honey/ginger marinade for the fish has turned a deep, dark brown.  Never fear!  This is what we wanted!  Using my basting brush one more time, I transfer as much of that black honey to the fish as I can.

Like so!  I lower the lid for another 5 minutes, go indoors, plate my salad, then come back out to fetch supper.  The good thing about using the foil is I only have to pick that up and bring the whole thing inside – no muss, no fuss!  Using a long, narrow spatula, I divide the filet into two equal portions, lifting the fish right off the skin which is stuck to the foil paper.  The flesh slides right off.

After finishing my salad with a couple home-grown cherry tomatoes and a sprinkle of crushed walnuts (for crunch), and garnishing the seafood with snipped chives, we’re ready to dig in.  The whole dinner has taken about 30 minutes of activity, and it cost only about $20 (plus pantry items, like the honey, soy, and ginger oil).  But what deliciosity!

The salmon is sweetly encrusted, with tender, moist flesh and a wee snap from the black pepper; the scallops are succulent and sweet, with the additional amped up savor of rich soy; and the salad is inspired: the fragrant, firm pear is perfectly complimented by the soft, nutty avocado, and the peppery arugula, salty cheese, and crunchy nuts fill the palate with delectable complexity, richness, and freshness.  Each bite was sheer enjoyment!

As the sun sets over Hamilton Street, setting the sky on salmon fire, Clayton and I dig into our salmon dinners with gusto.  So, dear friends — and you know who you are — are you up for trying this yourselves? I promise you’ll enjoy it!

Tea-Smoked Scallops with Panzanella

This recipe is the result of several weeks of brain stewing.  You know the kind — where one dreams up an idea, and then thinks about it constantly, shaping it and sculpting it, falling to sleep with it, all before finally making it so.  Tea-smoking is something I’ve only done once before, and that time with duck legs, but I reckon’d it would be a delightful preparation technique with my favorite bi-valve.  Luckily, or unluckily as the case may be, I spent a little bundle on some peach black tea at Tealuxe in Harvard Square recently, which once brewed I found I perfectly hated.  Too much vanilla  – and I even asked if there were vanilla notes in the tea, and the scruffy dude behind the counter was all like, “Uh, no, it’s *peach* tea lady. D’uh.”  So based on his dubious recommendation, I bought it, brewed it, hated it, and then needed to find something else to do with it since I didn’t want to drink it anymore.  I also have wanted to make panzanella for a while as well, which I’ve also only made once before – so it was high time I did it again.  I imagined the sweet, slightly smokey flavor of the firm scallops would be perfectly offset by the sharp, fresh, verdant flavors of a tempting bread salad – and holy hell was I right!

Tea-Smoked Scallops with Panzanella

8oz large dry sea scallops (I used about 12 of them)
2 cups black tea
2 cups sugar
Bread, cubed (about 4 cups)
Salad fixins: Cucumber, onion, scallion, tomatoes, red leaf lettuce, green olives, radishes, fresh basil, etc.
1/4lb sharp provolone cheese, diced
1/4 cup mayonnaise
2 Meyer lemons
EVOO, sea salt, black pepper

Traditionally, Panzanella is made with only a few simple ingredients: stale bread, onions, EVOO, salt and pepper.  I didn’t have any stale bread,  but I had this lovely loaf of white perfection from Eldo Cake House in Boston’s Chinatown (where you must try their ambrosial Hong Kong tea!) I had purchased on Sunday.  It would do.

In order to approximate the “staleness” I cut about four slices of bread into cubes and chuck them into a hot non-stick skillet with a glug or so of EVOO and a sprinkling of garlic salt.

It takes about 10 minutes of tossing, and I gots me some croutons!  I throw these babies into a large bowl and let them cool.

Meanwhile, I dice my cucumber, quarter my little tomatoes and my tiny little radishes, halve my pimento-stuffed green olives, chop my scallions and onion, rip up a handful of basil, and dice my super-sharp provolone cheese.  All this gets added to the bread in the bowl, then dressed with EVOO, the juice of one of  my Meyer lemons, sea salt and cracked black pepper.  I toss everything very well to coat, and set it aside to marinate.

Scallops, baby.  These ping-pong ball sized beauties come straight from the sea, and they are “dry” – meaning they haven’t been treated with any wet preservatives that will make them rubbery.  After dinner, Clayton and I remarked that the small bay scallops might have worked for this meal, too, but I usually avoid those because they can turn tough so quickly.  Still – it might be worth a try, especially if I ever want to make this as a party offering – which I might, since it was so good.  But I’m getting ahead of myself here….

I’ve lined my wok with two sheets of foil paper and in it I’ve dumped my black tea and my  sugar.  For the purposes of this photograph, they are separate here, but I blended everything thoroughly before turning on the heat.

I set my steam baskets directly over the sugar/tea combo and press firmly down to sort of seal the bottom of the stack by virtue of crimping the foil paper.  After trimming the tough bits from my scallops, I lay them in my baskets, leaving plenty of room for the smoke to circulate.

I wrap the stack of baskets with a damp kitchen towel, and turn the heat on to high.  This will slowly melt the sugar, which will toast the tea leaves, which will start to smoke.  I keep my eye on my contraption, since I want to turn off the heat almost the minute I see any smoke seeping through the towel – which I do after about 10 minutes.  Then I let the baskets sit, covered, for another 10 minutes so that the smoke can truly permeate my mollusks.  Oh, and I open ALL my windows, even though it’s February, because I don’t want the house to fill with smoke.  Poor gimpy Clayton was so cold I had to wrap him in a makeshift Snuggie until dinner-time.

Voila!  When I lift my lid and check my scallops, they have firmed up slightly and clearly show the darkening of the smoke.  See how they are sweating?  I didn’t want to fully cook these through; I just wanted to kiss them with the flavor of sweet peach smoke, so I was *very* happy with this result.

The last step is to sear them in super-hot browned butter, which I do – about 2 minutes on each side.

I layer a few sweet leaves of red lettuce on my plates and serve up a healthy portion on each of my delightful bread salad.  Mmm-mmmm-mmmm!

After whipping up a quick lemon juice/mayo/salt/pepper dressing, which I squirt on my smoked scallops, I am ready to dig in.  The mollusks are fork tender but firm, and their uniquely sinuous flesh is redolent with sugary smoke and crisp-edged with brown butter.  The salad is tangy and filling, and each bread cube is crunchy in all the right places and sodden in all the other right places.  The provolone cheese was a stinky batch, but on the tongue its saltysweetsharpness was the perfect compliment to the peachytasty scallops, while the different bits of crudite in the salad provided a variety of welcome textures.  Light, fairly quick and easy, and absolutely delicious.  I will be making this again – soon!  And I highly recommend you do, too, dear readers.  It’s worth every bite.

Weeknight Wondermeal: Polenta with Serrano Ham, Seared Scallops, and Sweet Ouzo Cream

This is a play on one of our favorite dishes: shrimp and grits — which I’ve made many many *many* times, in all sorts of permutations.   Clayton and I spent a Thanksgiving on St. George Island in the panhandle of Florida, indulging in all the fresh cheap seafood they had to offer (this was before the BP spill — I’m not sure if they were jeopardized…), and one of our favorite places was Boss Oyster on Water Street, right against the river, in Apalachicola.  Their special — “Boss Grits” — was a heaping bowl of golden corn goodness topped with some spicy sort of ham, fresh plump shrimp, a sweet cream of some sort, some scallions, paprika, and some sort of melty cheese — if I remember correctly.  Who cares – what I remember was HEAVEN!  And heaven is good no matter how you spoon it up.  So I’ve used different sweet morsels of seafood (from shrimp to turbot to crabmeat to scallops) and different porks (from salami to pepperoni to prosciutto to pancetta to dry sausage) and different cheeses (from swiss to cheddar to robusto to gouda) – in endless combinations.  But the basics remained the same: grits, my favorite ouzo cream, and fresh scallions.

Tonight, for the first time, I’m futzing with the base by using polenta instead of grits.  We’ve always been grits sort of people, but we’ve been going polenta recently, and it feels good.  Same difference, right?  But no…  NOOOoooooo.  Polenta is creamier than grits are, but also manages to congeal more quickly – so it both absorbs sauce and holds it at bay deliciously effectively at the same time.  A firm but forkable cheesy corn base, draped in sweetly scented cream sauce, and mounded with seared scallops and savory bites of ham.  For those of you who think of polenta as porridge – I recommend you put your prejudices on vacation and dig into this easy but elegant delicious dinner.  30 minutes of cooking is a night’s delight.

Polenta with Serrano Ham, Seared Scallops, and Sweet Ouzo Cream

1 cup polenta
1/4 lb serrano ham
4 very large dry sea scallops (about 8oz)
1/2 stick butter
1 cup half and half
1/2 cup ouzo
1 cup minced scallions
3/4 cup shredded parmigiano reggiano cheese
sea salt
cracked black pepper

Scallops.  When Clayton and I first got married, he said he didn’t like them.  Oh really, I thought.  Well – that’s gonna change.  And, pouf!  After continuing to make them whenever I wanted, in the ways I liked them best, why Clayton just found he LOVED scallops.  I’m not sure how he’d been eating them before, but when they’re seared in butter, they’re just the way he likes them.  But they have to be sea scallops, and large, dry ones, too.  Just trust me on this…

Serrano ham is a delightfully intensely flavored side of cured pork, but it lacks the super-salty nature of its Italian cousin, proscuitto.   Savenor’s had to cut into a whole new haunch — and I was pleased.  The hunk I purchased was a little larger than I’d wanted, but I’m going to use the other half soon.  I cut about 1/4 pound into small little cubes.

So I melt a tablespoon of butter in my large wok.

And I throw my ham bits in.  I sautee this for a few minutes, while I…

… start my polenta.  1 cup of ground corn to 3 cups of boiling water.  I lower the heat, and stir constantly for about 15 minutes until the polenta is creamy but fully cooked.

I’ve added a tablespoon of butter, most of my cheese, some sea salt and black pepper to my polenta, have stirred it well, and have removed it from the heat so all the flavors can blend.

Meanwhile, I’ve removed my ham from the butter I sauteed it in, and I’ve brought the heat back up to high, browning the remaining butter slightly.

I’ve trimmed the membranes from my scallops, and have placed them in my hot butter to sear.  I see chefs on “Hell’s Kitchen” all the time getting yelled at by Gordon for not knowing how to sear scallops — I mean, they seem to send them out raw all the time.  These are *very* big, but they release their own brine and temper the butter, lowering the heat.  I may push them around slightly, but for the most part I leave them on the heat to caramelize for about 5-7 minutes (since they’re so damn thick).

You can see the heat searing up the sides of the scallops, turning the pale, slightly translucent pink to opaque white with a golden brown edge.  Many recipes call for you to clarify your butter before searing, to remove the quick-to-brown milk solids, but I frankly like the way the foaming butter bronzes the meat.

See?  The cooked is almost halfway through, and the seared side is crispy and perfectly kissed with caramel.  Oh yeah.

Here’s a group shot.  Them’s some beautiful babies.  I sear them for another 5 minutes or so on the other side.   When the white cooked look has worked it’s way through the sides of my scallops, and when they are firm like a medium well burger to the press of my tongs, they’re ready.  Maybe it’s some sort of 6th sense, but that’s all I’ve ever needed to know when scallops are ready.  If you’re worried — cut into the thickest one to see if it’s just white throughout.

I’ve made a nice pillow of polenta in the middle of a deep, dark bowl, and I lay my scallops in the center.  The next bit goes very quickly.

I return my pan to high heat after removing the scallops to the plate, and I add my ouzo to the already sizzling scallop and ham flavored butter.  I let this reduce for a few moments…

I then add my cream, and bring this to a hearty boil.

I add my ham back into the pan, and bring it to a boil one mo’ time.  This will thicken the sauce slightly — but not too much.  Soupy is good for this recipe, since the polenta will be so stiff.

At the last moment, I mince my scallions for garnish (along with the rest of the grated cheese).

 There’s nothing like a heaping warm bowl of hearty corn porridge, tender pan-seared scallops, and savory Spanish ham, all drowned in a sweetly scented fennel cream, blended with sharp Italian cheese, and sprinkled with snappy fresh scallions.  An ooey gooey yumtastic dinner of epic proportions — all on one little plate.  Dig in, friends.  I did.