Monday, June 25, 2007

Chicken satay with no national allegiances

I had some chicken thighs that needed to be cooked, a new bottle of kejap manis, the Indonesian sweet soy sauce, and, I thought, a nice big piece of galangal, a ginger-like root I've recently become crazy about. Perfect for chicken satay with peanut sauce, right? The galangal, much to my dismay, had grown a healthy coat of mold since I'd seen it last and had to be thrown away, but by the time I realized this I was determined to have satay for dinner.

I consulted several recipes, including chicken skewers with nuoc cham (Food & Wine), gingery chicken satay with peanut sauce (ditto), Balinese chicken satay (Martha Stewart), beef satay (Chez Pim; a different meat, but peanut sauce does not discriminate), and pork satay with an appealingly simple marinade (Bon Appétit). I didn't end up following any of them; instead I improvised a recipe using what I had on hand. The result was a delicious satay that was a little Indonesian (by way of the kejap manis), a little Thai (by way of Golden Boy fish sauce — the radiant baby is my new favorite kitchen icon), and a little Balinese (by way of the coconut). I wouldn't present it to anyone as an authentic rendition of the cuisine of any of these cultures, of course, although it would be loads of fun to put together a comparative satay menu someday, wouldn't it?

Golden Boy fish sauce

Adding plenty of fish sauce to the marinade for your satay will give you a radiant, youthful glow.

There is no one right way to make satay. There's not even one way to spell it; in some places it is saté, and in South Africa it is sosatie. According to The Oxford Companion to Food, satay is

a dish of SE Asia, especially Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand, which consists of small strips of meat, chicken, or fish threaded on to thin skewers . . . . Marinades vary from place to place but typically include dark soy sauce with lime juice, sugar, garlic and other seasoning. The common accompaniment for satay is a dipping sauce based on peanuts, pale brown in color. But other sauces may be used.

The entry goes on to quote Jennifer Brennan's Encyclopaedia of Chinese and Oriental Cookery on the origins of satay. Although it's often regarded as Indonesian, it did not spring up in Indonesia in a singular moment of genius:

Although both Thailand and Malaysia claim it as their own, its Southeast Asian origin was in Java, Indonesia. There satay was developed from the Indian kebab brought by the Muslim traders. Even India cannot claim its origin, for there it was a legacy of Middle Eastern influence.

A few comments on the recipe that follows: First, the only thing kecap manis has in common with ketchup, apart from the sound of the name, is that it comes in a bottle. I recommend picking up a bottle the next time you see one because it's got great flavor and a very nice texture - thick, smooth, glossy - but it is basically a sweet soy sauce, and you can substitute a mixture of soy sauce and brown sugar if you don't have it. (A low-sodium soy sauce would be preferable because the fish sauce will add plenty of salt to the recipe). Second, there isn't really a satisfactory substitute for fish sauce, and it's easy enough to come by (and versatile enough to be used up before it goes bad), so you might as well buy a bottle. Third, I used dried lemongrass, and I don't feel too bad about it - I'd rather use that than have woody bits of past-its-prime fresh lemongrass stuck between my teeth. If you have 2 stalks or so of tender fresh lemongrass, by all means use it, but if all that's readily available is dried-out and sad looking, use the dried stuff. Finally, I used light coconut milk. I do feel sort of bad about that because the flavor tends to be insipid, but have you looked at the fat and calorie content of regular canned coconut milk lately? There are some high calorie foods one can compromise on without suffering too badly, and for me coconut milk is sometimes one of them: I find it acceptable, for some recipes, to boost the flavor of light coconut milk with a spoonful or two of shredded unsweetened coconut. For a good curry, only the full-fat type will do, but for a marinade this mixture is a decent compromise.

chicken satay

I'm hesitant to suggest how many people this serves because it can be a first course or a main course or, for the industrious, a snack to have with drinks. Let's say it serves 3 to 6 people.

chicken satay with peanut sauce

1 1/4 lb. boneless, skinless chicken thighs, trimmed of fat and cut into strips suitable for threading on skewers (about 1 1/2" wide)

2 serrano chiles, seeds and ribs removed, coarsely chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
1 heaping tbsp. shredded unsweetened coconut
1 heaping tsp. freshly toasted and ground coriander seeds
1 heaping tsp. grated fresh ginger
1 heaping tsp. powdered lemongrass (see comments above)
3/4 cup coconut milk (see comments above)
1 tbsp. kejap manis (substitute 1 tbsp. low-sodium soy sauce + 2 tsp. dark brown sugar)
2 tbsp. fish sauce
peanut oil for brushing pan or grill

peanut sauce:
1 tbsp. peanut oil
2 small cloves garlic (or 1 large), minced
1 heaping tsp. freshly toasted and ground coriander seeds
1 tbsp. shredded, unsweetened coconut
3/4 cup coconut milk
1/3 cup natural peanut butter
1 tbsp. kejap manis (see note above regarding substitute)
juice of 1/2 a lime
fish sauce, to taste

crisp lettuce leaves
wedges of lime
chopped cilantro
coarsely chopped dry-roasted peanuts

wooden skewers, soaked in water for 30 min. before ready to use
a broiler pan, a cast iron grill pan or a bbq grill

To make the marinade, put the chiles, garlic, shredded coconut and spices in a food processor and mix at full speed until they start to form a paste. Add the coconut milk, kejap manis and fish paste and mix until thoroughly combined. Put the chicken pieces in a large ziploc bag or shallow dish and pour the marinade over them. Marinate, tightly covered, in the refrigerator for at least 5-6 hours.

For the peanut sauce, heat the peanut oil in a small sauce pan over medium-high heat and sauté the garlic, the coriander, and the coconut until the garlic softens and the coriander and coconut are browned and very fragrant. (This will take just a minute or less). Add the coconut milk and bring to a boil. Stir in the peanut butter and the kejap manis until the sauce is smooth and remove the pan from the heat. Once the sauce has cooled down a bit, stir in the juice of half a lime and season to taste with the fish sauce. (I was happy with just a sprinkle of fish sauce, and added a pinch of salt as well; keep in mind that you won't be able to accurately taste for seasoning while the sauce is still very warm, and you can always add more later). The sauce is best made ahead of time and refrigerated; bring it to room temperature before serving.

Take the chicken out of the refrigerator approximately 15 min. before cooking. Take the skewers out of the water, pat them dry, and thread the chicken on the skewers. Brush a broiler pan, grill pan or bbq grill with peanut oil and broil or grill the chicken approximately 6-10 minutes, turning once during cooking. (The cooking time will depend on the thickness of your pieces of chicken; the juices should run clear, and if you're in doubt about whether the chicken is cooked through, cut into one of the thicker pieces and have a look at the inside).

Serve the skewers warm or at room temperature on plates lined with lettuce leaves, and sprinkled with chopped cilantro and chopped dry-roasted peanuts if you like. The sauce is most flavorful served at room temperature and can be either drizzled over the chicken or served in cups alongside it.

unphotogenic accompaniments to chicken satay

The peanut sauce is unphotogenic, as is the red cabbage, carrot and radish slaw I made. The delicate little cucumbers I picked up at the farmers' market yesterday morning, however, were gorgeous and needed nothing more than a sprinkle of coarse salt.

two types of cucumber

Lemon cucumbers and young Persian cucumbers.


The interior of a lemon cucumber.

The recipe for the slaw needs to be refined, I think, but I'm posting the recipe anyhow because I think it's worth experimenting with. Most coleslaw recipes contain sugar and I think using kejap manis in its place is worth a try; it adds a subtle sweetness and it has a depth of flavor that white sugar lacks, almost like a savory, salty caramel. I used only red cabbage because that's what I had, but I think a mixture of green and red would look nicer and would have a more pleasing mix of textures. The recipe below makes more dressing than needed; the excess will keep in the refrigerator for a couple days in a tightly-covered container.

Red cabbage, carrot and radish slaw

2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
juice of 1 lime
1/2 tsp. Sriracha sauce (red chile and garlic sauce), or more to taste
1 tbsp. kejap manis
1 tbsp. mayonnaise (recommended: Japanese brand Kewpie)
12 oz. red cabbage, shredded (see comments above)
1 carrot, peeled and shredded or sliced paper-thin
2 large red radishes, sliced paper-thin
2 tablespoons dry roasted salted peanuts, coarsely chopped

Whisk together the sesame oil and lime juice until emulsified and then whisk in the Sriracha sauce, the kejap manis and the mayonnaise. (Dressing can be made ahead of time and stored in the refrigerator in a tightly-sealed container).

Just before you're ready to serve the meal, toss together the cabbage, carrot and radishes with enough dressing to moisten them. Toss in the chopped peanuts, if using, and serve at once.

There was a dessert too, and it didn't quite work out. I thought it would be clever to make a sort of dessert spring rolls with blueberries and the filo dough I had left over from another recipe (coming soon in its own post), and I also thought it was quite possible that the filling would leak out during baking. I tried to prevent this by stirring a mixture of cornstarch and lime juice into the blueberries, with hopes that the juices would thicken and stay put, but I ended up with a bubbling blueberry puddle on my baking sheet. Fortunately I lined the baking sheet with parchment paper rather than a Silpat (I didn't want to have to scrub a sticky mess), and fortunately the results were quite edible anyhow. They just didn't have much filling on the inside.

a dessert that didn't quite work

What was left of the filling had a terrific flavor, and I'm going to use it again to fill something a little more sturdy before the summer's over: 1 pint of blueberries tossed with 2 tablespoons of turbinado sugar, plus 1 tablespoon of cornstarch that had been whisked together with the juice of half a lime until smooth, plus a generous pinch of cinnamon. It deserves a decent pastry shell.

Monday, June 18, 2007

a new favorite cooking show

I learned of Andreas and Christina Theodoulou on Ananova, which reported that "[a]n elderly Cypriot couple from London have become an unlikely internet hit with their cookery videos," which are shot, edited and uploaded by their son, Orthodoxos.

You can watch more of their videos here.

If you are not familiar with Ananova, by the way, it's handy for catching up on news about sulking old Serbian ladies, cannabis-munching Swiss cows, and the latest trendy pets in Japan.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Committee descends into frittata madness

Frittata, constantly cooking in my cast iron pan, clarifier of my conscience. My kitchen guilt, my reluctance to rid my refrigerator of the remains of last week's farmers' market reverie. Free-tah-ta: the ragged, rapidly decomposing tops of radishes will make themselves at home in a radial swirl on your surface, a relief map of greens I brought home in a rather more fresh state, oh when? Could it have been a week ago? They'll be resuscitated with a rounded spoonful of ricotta cheese. Free. Tah. Ta. Ready recipient of any resourceful cook's remnants.

My apologies to Mr. Nabokov, who hopefully would have laughed at the sight of his prose — an enthusiastically scrambled tribute to it, at least — being retrogressively used to prod readers into cooking more rustic egg dishes. On a blog, at that.

There are several reasons to appreciate the frittata, the first being its ability to accommodate disparate vegetables hiding in corners of the refrigerator, an end of cheese reduced to a small pile of gratings, a single cold steamed potato, even half a cup of cold pasta that would otherwise be thrown away. In my experience, the longer one cooks, the greater one's pleasure in being thrifty, in not letting things go to waste. Particularly if one had plans for the produce in question — a bag of mixed lettuces that had been destined for a soufflé, until the Gruyère that was to stand in for the Cheddar accidentally got eaten, or a prodigious bundle of parsley that was to be used for a pot of green butter, which was in turn to be used to make little sandwiches. All of these things can go into a frittata, and the end result may be as harmonious as if you'd planned to use them for that purpose all along.

The second reason to appreciate the frittata is its versatility. It's great served warm from the oven, but just as nice at room temperature or even cold the next day. It can be cut into bite-size cubes and served as a snack with drinks, or it can be sliced and draped over a salad, or made into a sandwich.

The Silver Spoon, which has been referred to as "the Bible of Italian cooking" so often that my fingers type those words on their own, has, of course, instructive advice on frittatas. For starters, I had the plural wrong:

Italian omelets — frittate — are economical and quick and are among the tastiest dishes that can be made with eggs. They are also very versatile, as the basic recipe may be enriched and flavored with a wide range of other ingredients, including herbs, vegetables, fish, cheeses, salami, ham and fruit. As regards quantities, in general allow two eggs per person if the frittata is served as a main course and one if it is an antipasto. As a general rule, 1 1/2 teaspoons butter or olive oil is required to cook every two eggs.

The Spoon contemplates frittate thin enough to be flipped in the pan, and cooked on each side for just 1-2 minutes (or "2-3 minutes if there are more than four eggs"), but there are as many ways to prepare a frittata as there are cooks. If you are only using a few eggs, sure, flip it over in the pan, but if you are making a frittata that is more substantial, with half a dozen eggs or more and a pile of greens or who-knows-what, you must decide how to cook it through: Do you want to begin cooking it on the stove top and end with baking it in the oven, or do you want to mostly cook it on the stove top and just brown the top under the broiler? Are you determined to bake it in the oven for the duration of cooking? I've never tried the latter method and would be afraid it would dry out, since a frittata lacks the rich measure of cream that allows quiche to survive a long baking. I tend to make large frittate with 6-7 eggs and my method of choice depends both on what else I have cooking and what I've stirred into the eggs: If I have the oven heated up to 350-400°F for some other dish, I'll likely cook the frittata for 5-10 minutes on the stove, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon or silicone spatula during the first two minutes to evenly distribute the ingredients, and then put it in the oven for approximately 10 minutes, or until it's set (i.e., no longer liquid in the center). If my frittata has grated cheese on top rather than stirred in with the other ingredients, I'll likely cook until it's almost set on the stove top, scatter the cheese on top, and put it under the broiler for just a minute. More often than not I use a method very similar to the scramble-and-broil method described by Pim (of Chez Pim) in this post, but I heat the olive oil over high heat and then do my almost-scrambling over medium or low heat, particularly if my ingredients are already warm or hot — adding just-sautéed greens, or crumbled and browned sausage, or any other ingredients that haven't cooled down will speed up the cooking time by a minute or two, and it's better to err on the side of undercooking rather than overcooking the eggs. You can always put the frittata into the oven for more cooking if you go to cut it and find that it's disconcertingly squishy under your knife. It should be firm but springy when it's done.

There's a way of flipping the frittata by inverting it on to a plate, but you've got to be sure that you have just the right size sturdy plate clean and ready to go at the crucial moment, and that you have two oven mitts handy, and what will you have gained? A cold oven. Useful on a hot summer afternoon, or if you are cultivating the carbon footprint of a saint, but otherwise it's hard to see what the advantage of that method is.

I was going to give four or five recipes for some of the best frittate we've had recently, but I didn't measure the ingredients for any of them. I never do. So, I'm just going to give you suggested combinations, followed by one recipe for what would be my favorite frittata of all, if it were a frittata and not a kuku.

golden frittata

Ramps, spring garlic, scallions, feta cheese Despite my remarks above about the virtues of ransacking the refrigerator for bits of this and that, the best frittate are premeditated to some degree, hopefully while buying the eggs at the farmers' market. I wanted something special for a frittata made with the Araucana eggs I'd picked up, and I set aside bundles of the last ramps of the season, green spring garlic, and a few scallions (green onions), and 3-4 ounces of crumbled sheep and goats' milk feta cheese. I chopped the bulbs of the ramps and the spring garlic and sautéed them in a couple tablespoons of olive oil until they softened, added the chopped greens from all three alliums and sautéed them until they wilted, then added six eggs beaten with the cheese, salt, pepper and a bit of freshly grated nutmeg, and cooked as described above. The result was a golden frittata filled with a fragrant tangle of greens and soft, flavorful cheese.

frittata innards

asparagus, mint and tarragon frittata

Asparagus, mint and tarragon There is something about the combination of eggs and mint that I can't imagine tiring of. Both mint and tarragon are strong flavors but somehow this worked. The asparagus can be steamed, blanched, or roasted as long as it is tender but still crisp. I chopped the asparagus into bite-sized pieces but if you have more patience for adorning your frittata you could neatly arrange the whole spears on the surface before it sets in the center.

artichoke heart frittata

Artichoke hearts, red onion and rosemary I used artichoke hearts canned in water, which I rinsed under cold water and patted dry. You've got to be mindful about not adding too many wet ingredients to a frittata; otherwise it won't cook properly. For this reason, I tend to stay away from tomatoes unless they've been slow-roasted or otherwise dried out, or unless they're firm plum tomatoes. Once the artichoke hearts were reasonably drained, I chopped them into bite-size pieces and sautéed them, with chopped red onion, in a few tablespoons of olive oil until they started to brown. I added a tablespoon or so of chopped rosemary, then the beaten eggs, and cooked as described above.

dandelion greens dandelion green frittata

Aburana with grated Kashkaval cheese Kashkaval is a Bulgarian sheeps' milk cheese with a mildly tangy flavor. I thought it would pair nicely with the greens, which I found at the Japanese grocery in a bag labelled "Aburana." I thought they were dandelion greens but my Googling thus far indicates only that they might have been some type of rapini. I sautéed the greens in olive oil (with a sliced shallot and some red pepper flakes, if my memory is correct), added the eggs, and then added the grated cheese on top when the eggs were almost set; it melted nicely, and fast became crisp and browned under the broiler.

dandelion green frittata

Kuku-ye Sabsi (pictured below) is an Iranian frittata-like dish traditionally made on New Years' Day. It's loaded with herbs, and the vibrant green color reflects hope that the year ahead will be a prosperous, happy, healthy one. I'm crazy about it and make it throughout the year, in the spring and summer with as varied a mix of herbs as possible, and in the winter with spinach and parsley and cilantro. The recipe below is from Claudia Roden's New Book of Middle Eastern Food. There's a similar recipe in the Boston Post which calls for currants rather than raisins; my guess is that in Iran it would be made with currants but they're not always easy to find, and it's great with raisins too. Roden indicates that the walnuts and the raisins are optional but I urge you to try the recipe with both, even if you are not a raisin person. I'm not, but the frittata that set me on the path to my frittata-enamored madness, years ago, was made with tuna and golden raisins and who-knows-what-else. I ate it at a tiny café in Lisbon on my way to Saint George's Castle, and I probably never would have ordered it had they had anything else to serve me but it turned out to be one of the most memorable lunches I've ever had.

Kuku-ye Sabsi
serves 6

6-8 eggs
4 ounces spinach, shredded
8 scallions, chopped
1/2-2/3 cup mixed chopped fresh herbs
[In the note preceding the recipe Roden says "Any favored herbs, such as flat-leaf parsley, dill, chervil, tarragon, chives and cilantro, may be used."]
3 tablespoons chopped walnuts (optional)
2 tablespoons raisins (optional)
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons butter or vegetable oil

Lightly beat the eggs with the rest of the ingredients except the butter or oil.

Grease an ovenproof dish (about 10 inches) with butter or oil and pour in the egg mixture. Bake in a preheated 325°F oven for 45 minutes, covering the dish for the first 25 minutes, until the eggs are firm with a golden crust on top. Alternatively, cook the kuku in a large preferably nonstick skillet. When the eggs have set on the bottom, brown the top under a hot broiler.
[See my comments above for more details on this method of cooking. - TBC]

Serve hot or cold as a first course, accompanied by yogurt.

kuku-ye sabsi

The best way to prepare the yogurt, in my opinion, is to start with good yogurt and set it to thicken in a sieve lined with a coffee filter, perched inside a bowl to catch the drips. (If you're doing this several hours ahead of time, cover the whole set-up with plastic wrap and put it in the refrigerator). Once the yogurt is nice and thick, blend in some chopped mint or cilantro and a pinch of salt, and maybe a tiny bit of minced garlic. Very good on leftover frittata or with toasted pita.

The frittata pictured at the top of the post was made with puntarelle, turkey sausage and ricotta cheese. I posted a recipe for it last August, which you can read here.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

a few words on scallops

Is there a season for sea scallops? Twice in the past couple weeks I've found terrific local ones from Long Island fisheries, first from from P.E. & D.D. Seafood (which I bought at the Union Square greenmarket), and then from Pura Vida Fishery, which started selling their catch at the Tompkins Square greenmarket for the first time (I think!) last Sunday. I linked to some photos of the P.E. & D.D. Seafood crew in my Memorial Day post but I couldn't find much information on the latter aside from a podcast interview with the captain and a few photos of their stand at another greenmarket last summer, and I was so excited to see seafood at the Tompkins Square market that I didn't think to ask whether they'd be regulars until I was nearly home with my bag of scallops. We are sorely lacking decent fish markets in the neighborhood, and the thought of being able to buy fresh local seafood a couple blocks from my apartment makes me very happy.

the depths of the ocean

The natural habitat of sea scallops looks something like this.

According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch guide, bay scallops* and sea scallops are both generally fine choices in terms of sustainability and health. There are plenty of websites warning that "most scallops sold in the US" are treated with additives — specifically, with STP (sodium tripolyphosphate), which plumps them up and keeps them looking moist long after they would otherwise — but treated scallops are easy to spot and I haven't seen them sold that way in years. Then again, I live in the northeast, where both bay scallops and sea scallops are well-known and much appreciated. Let's have a brief tutorial, then, so you can take the appropriate course of action if you discover that a merchant in your area sells treated scallops: run them out of town, and agitate for them to be replaced with someone who cares about seafood.

The first tip-off that scallops have been treated with additives is if they're sitting in water. Both bay and sea scallops should be moist-looking and not the slightest bit dried out around the edges, but they should NOT be sitting in an inch or more of water. Or even half an inch. Aside from indicating that the scallops may have been treated with additives, a watery container means that a good portion of the price per pound would be, of course, water. Pan-seared scallops are good for dinner; pan-seared water, not so much.

The second (and equally-important) tip-off is the color of the scallops. Neither bay or sea scallops should be snowy white. They should be a creamy beige, or slightly pinkish, or tan, but never white. Look, I made you a visual aid:

scallop project

The colors are a little washed-out thanks to my bargain-basement scanner, but you get the idea.

Scallops have a reputation for being somewhat expensive but both of my purchases were $14/pound, roughly the same price or lower than the most in-demand types of fish, and roughly the same price as the ones I see in grocery stores, and who knows where those are from? Also, there's almost no waste with scallops; 99% of the ones sold in the U.S., whether at farmers' markets, fishmongers or grocery stores, need only to have the tiny, chewy ligament attached to their side removed before they are ready to cook.

don't eat this part

Don't eat this part; it's tough and chewy. Gently pull it off and throw it away. Don't freak out if your scallops are missing this part; your nice fishmonger already pulled it off for you.

I ended up pan-searing both of my recent scallop purchases, but other than that the two meals were very different; the first featured a beurre blanc lightened by the addition of plenty of tart sliced sorrel, and in the second the scallops were given a Middle Eastern flavor with a garnish of the spice blend za'atar. Here are the recipes:

Scallops with sorrel beurre blanc
Serves 2-4.

This recipe is an adaptation of this one from Food & Wine. The fact that the original recipe calls for bay scallops necessitated a couple of rather obvious changes: sea scallops are larger and need to cook longer than bay scallops, and because of their size it is easier to cook them evenly if they are seared on each side rather than stirred around to cook on all sides. And because I would be searing my scallops and turning them only once, it would not do to add the sorrel to their pan, where it might interfere with the browning process; better to add it to the beurre blanc instead.

I was planning to otherwise follow the recipe, but at the very last minute I realized that not only did I not have Champagne vinegar, I didn't even have 1/2 cup of white wine vinegar remaining in the house. I did, however, have 1/4 cup, and I had enough Grüner Veltliner in the refrigerator to keep the Tiny Banquet household happy for at least a couple evenings, so I used a mixture of the two. The resulting sauce was deliciously well-balanced and I'd proudly serve it to anyone.
A note on the portion sizes: Chef Vongerichten recommends 1 pound of bay scallops to serve 4. We had not eaten lunch and we ate an entire pound of sea scallops between the two of us. Obviously we are little piggies, although in our defense the rest of the meal consisted only of the fiddleheads I picked up at the greenmarket. If you are serving a first course you can certainly serve more than 2 people with these scallops. Unless they are hungry pigs.

Don't be discouraged by the fact that you'll have to clarify some of the butter; it only takes a few moments, and as I've mentioned in the past, there are important reasons for using it.

3 to 4 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into tablespoons, plus 1 to 2 tablespoons clarified butter
1 medium shallot, minced
fine sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1/4 cup white wine vinegar
1/4 cup good white wine, preferably Grüner Veltliner (or something similarly mineral and citrus-y in flavor)
1/4 cup heavy cream
a pinch of cayenne pepper
1 pound sea scallops, tough ligament removed
1/2 cup tightly packed sorrel leaves, tough stems removed and finely shredded

Melt 1 tablespoon of the butter in a medium-sized skillet or shallow sauce pan over moderate heat. Add the shallot, season it lightly with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring, until it just begins to brown, about 1 minute. Add the vinegar and the white wine and cook, swirling the skillet over the heat, until the liquid is reduced to a couple tablespoons. Add the cream and bring it just to a boil. Add the remaining 2 to 3 tablespoons of butter, one piece at a time, while stirring the mixture with a wooden spoon; the sauce will thicken. (It will taste best if you add 3 tablespoons of butter, but if the thought horrifies you, you can get away with only adding 2). Stir in half of the sorrel and season the sauce to taste with the cayenne pepper and a bit more salt if necessary.

Meanwhile, heat the clarified butter in a heavy skillet (preferably cast iron) over moderately high heat. Add the scallops in one layer and cook approximately 10 minutes per inch of thickness, flipping them once during the middle of cooking. (It will be easiest to turn them if they are not crowded too closely together in the pan). Transfer the scallops to plates, spoon the sauce over them, garnish them with the remaining sorrel, and serve at once.

sea scallops with sorrel sauce

Scallops with sorrel beurre blanc.

The other recipe is very different but no less delicious. I first discovered the spice blend za'atar a few years ago in my beloved copy of Madhur Jaffrey's World Vegetarian; I'm not sure what drew my attention to such a brief recipe in such a big book, but somehow I decided I had to try it, and I fell in love with the flavor. There's a similar recipe for it in Claudia Roden's New Book of Middle Eastern Food because, unlike other Middle Eastern spice blends, za'atar (sometimes spelled zaatar or zahtar) is simple: it's only got four ingredients, maybe just three if you want it unsalted. According to Roden, za'atar is "wild thyme. It is also the name of the mixture of this herb with sumac, salt, and toasted sesame seeds. The mix, which is popular in Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan, is sold in little paper cornets to dip into with bread." It's great on all sorts of other foods, though; sumac is made of ground tart, red berries and like lemon, it brightens every dish it goes into. In colder weather I particularly like za'atar on roasted sweet potatoes. Now I know I love it on scallops, too.

sumac homemade za'atar

Any decent spice store will sell a pre-mixed version made with dried thyme, but it only takes a couple minutes to make your own with fresh thyme and the result is much more flavorful than any blend commercially available here.

Seared sea scallops with za'atar
Serves 2-4 (see comments above regarding portion size).

This recipe makes more za'atar than you'll need but it's not practical to make a smaller quantity, and it will keep well for a few days in a tightly-sealed container.

1 rounded tablespoon thyme, leaves only
2 rounded teaspoons sumac
2 rounded teaspoons toasted sesame seeds
coarse salt, to taste
1 to 2 tablespoons clarified butter
1 pound sea scallops, tough ligaments removed

Stir the first four ingredients together in a small bowl and set aside.

Heat the clarified butter in a heavy skillet (preferably cast iron) over moderately high heat. Add the scallops in one layer and cook approximately 10 minutes per inch of thickness, flipping them once during the middle of cooking. (It will be easiest to turn them if they are not crowded too closely together in the pan). Transfer the scallops to plates and sprinkle them generously with the za'atar. Serve at once.

seared scallops with za'atar

Sea scallops with za'atar. We ate these with some chickpeas flavored with a Yemeni spice blend called zhough, which is getting it's own post here soon.

* I don't see bay scallops around Manhattan often, but if you have an opportunity to buy them there is no reason to be snobbish about their comparatively diminutive size; some people prefer their flavor over sea scallops, believing them to be slightly sweeter.