It's been almost two weeks since I posted, and I apologize. I was sick last week. It's no fun to be sick on Thanksgiving! Sore throat, stuffy nose... trouble swallowing, reduced sense of taste... just not a blast on the great eat-a-thon of Turkey Day!
But I'm back. And not just back, but back with one of the most delicious things I've cooked in a long time.
I discovered this recipe when paging through Dorie Greenspan's Around My French Table, which I will review in depth soon. I might have found it improbable - caramel with scallops? - if I hadn't been introduced to the idea of savory caramel sauces by Vietnamese cuisine. (Since Vietnamese and French cooking are so linked, I suspect the Vietnamese got the idea from France - but it could be the other way around.)
In any case, I first tasted a savory caramel sauce at Albuquerque's stellar Cafe Da Lat, in their incredible claypot catfish. I then made a similar dish at home, with tilapia. Though Vietnamese caramel sauce is luscious, its savory richness is undercut a little too much by salt from the fish sauce used to thin the caramel. You really need the rice that's served on the side!
This sauce uses orange juice where the Vietnamese version uses fish sauce, and it makes for a much more delicate dish. The scallops are also quite a bit easier to handle than the bone-in catfish pieces served at Da Lat. (Despite these concerns, I urge adventurous eaters to give Da Lat's version a try.)
The sauce is not at all difficult to make. The one hurdle is fear of making caramel. I have suffered from this fear for quite a while, and am just getting over it. The most important thing is never to use a dark-colored pan. You need to be able to see the color change as it happens. A stainless steel pan works great.
Once you've conquered the fear of caramel, this sauce is a snap to make - it only has four ingredients. You can make it ahead of time and let it rest until you're ready for it, just swirling in the butter at the last moment. And scallops are one of the easiest proteins to cook. The secret to getting a beautiful sear on a scallop is the same as on a steak: Use a stainless steel or cast iron pan, get it really hot, and don't move the scallops until they have released from the pan.
This dish is truly spectacular; the sauce is velvety and complexly flavored, with a gentle sweet-sourness that plays beautifully on the scallops' sweet, tender, slightly minerally flesh. I wouldn't be shocked to find a similar dish at a fancy restaurant for almost $30 a plate. But it's really not hard to make - and even better, it's complex enough to beg for simple side dishes. I served it with microwave-wilted, olive-oil-drizzled arugula and spelt tossed with feta cheese, lemon juice, and olive oil.
If there is a real hurdle to this dish, it's the price of sea scallops, which can easily be more than $25 a pound. But next time you find some gorgeous scallops at a reasonable price, this is what you want to do with them.
Serves: 2 (Dorie says 4, but Arne and I ate it all!) Time: 40 minutes
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup dry white wine
Juice of 1 large orange (about 1/3 cup)
1 tablespoon cold butter, cut in 3 pieces
1 pound large sea scallops (about 8)
Salt and pepper
1 tablespoon olive oil
Place the sugar in a small stainless-steel or other light colored saucepan and place over medium-high heat. As the sugar warms it will start to melt and change color. When you see the sugar start to turn brown, pick up the pan and gently swirl it over the flame. When the sugar is fully melted and deep brown (3 minutes or so), set the pan down, stand back (it may splatter!), and pour in the wine and orange juice. Stir and bring to a boil. The caramel may seize up and solidify; worry not, it will melt again.
Let the sauce boil rapidly, stirring occasionally, until it is reduced by half (to about a third of a cup), which could take 10 minutes or so. At this point, if you aren't cooking the scallops immediately, you can remove the sauce from the heat and set aside. You can even store it in the fridge for up to two days - just make sure it's warm before you start the scallops.
Pat the scallops dry with paper towels; sprinkle with salt and pepper. Pull off the little muscle attached to the side of each scallop. (I sometimes forget to do this, and it's not a big deal, but they are tougher than the rest of the scallop.)
Place a heavy stainless steel or cast iron pan over medium-high and let heat for 5 minutes. Drizzle in the olive oil and swirl the pan to coat the bottom. Place the scallops in the pan and don't move them for 2 minutes. Gently try to pick up one of the scallops. If it's good and stuck to the pan, let it cook another 30 seconds and try again. If it lifts pretty easily, peek at the underside. Is it gorgeously seared? Turn it. If not, give it another 30 seconds. Flip the scallops and let cook another 90 seconds to two minutes, until they release easily.
Meanwhile, swirl the butter into the warm caramel sauce a piece at a time. The sauce should be beautifully glossy.
Remove the scallops to warm serving plates, and pour the caramel sauce on top. Serve warm.