Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Modern Comfort Food

(Is it obvious yet that my actual camera finally gave up the ghost, so
I've been using my phone's camera for the past couple of weeks? Apologies!)

There’s nothing like a relaxing weekend with a close friend- unwinding, telling stories, window shopping and the occasional glass(es) of wine in the afternoon. The only thing that makes this better for me is when the close friend that is visiting happens to be my mother! We attended the Newport boat show (the initial excuse for the trip), walked around down town, drove out through Ocean Point to watch the surf, had a long brunch at Café Zelda and took time to breathe and enjoy hanging out as the dynamic mother-daughter duo we are. The weather was most certainly in our favor, and we did our best to appreciate as much of it as possible, including enjoying a waterside late lunch out on the patio of The Pier.

After tooling around downtown and the boat show on Saturday, I was chomping at the bit to cook dinner, as my mother is one of the biggest supporters of my culinary obsession, and one of the most honest taste-testers I know. I had an idea for a scallop dish that had been rolling around in my head for a week or two, and since Ky isn’t a huge scallop fan, Saturday presented itself as the ideal time to make the dish. I also invited my good friend Jill (who was my supervisor at IYRS during my volunteering) over, as she and my mother get along very well, and I was deep in debt to her for all of the kindness and comestibles she had recently extended my way.

After working over the concept of the dish a few days before, we trudged up to the treehouse with gorgeous scallops and bottles of wine in hand, I put out of a couple of pre-dinner treats, and set to work on the dish. The cooler temperatures and drop in humidity had me shooting for something warm and comforting, without being overly heavy. The scallops were fresh and beautiful, as has been the case with every fish purchase I've made at the oft-mentioned Anthony's Seafood, so I wanted to be sure to highlight as much of their naturally sweet and subtle flavors- anything too heavy, and their delicacy would be completely lost. Leeks and shitake mushrooms seemed like a natural compliment- both have the same understated flavors that would work harmoniously with the scallops. I have been looking for an excuse to work with cranberry beans again, and after volleying some concepts around in my head, I figured they would make a great base for the dish, and bring a little more depth without being overpowering. As our kitchen is small, and I didn’t want to spend the rest of the night washing dishes, I used one cast iron pan to do all of my searing & sautéing, and in the end this allowed for a great layering of flavors with minimal pan usage. I’ve also added a couple of technique notes at the bottom of the recipe from things I had picked up back in my days in real working kitchens, and they are tips that can help make a big difference in the ease and consistency of the dish.

The end result of all this planning was a comforting dish that had very light flavors, but was still very satisfying. The next time (and there certainly will be one) I make the dish, I plan on cutting down on the roux a bit, as the sauce was just a touch more heavy than I was aiming for, but the flavors were right on par with what I was aiming for. I served a simple green salad upgraded by fresh tomatoes and arugula from Jill’s garden as a side, and of course a little Prosecco- it was a Ladies’ Night, afterall! Good food, delicious wine, great friends and non-stop conversation, the makings for a truly great fall night in!

Scallop Casserole with Leeks, Shitake Mushrooms & Cranberry Beans
(this recipe will easily feed 4, and could be stretched to 5-6 servings)

- 1 ½ Lbs. fresh sea scallops
- 6 Slices Pancetta
- 2 Medium leeks, sliced thin & cleaned (see note)
- 6-8oz. Shitake mushrooms, stemmed & sliced
- 2 Garlic cloves, minced
- ¾ Stick good quality salted butter (Kerrygold Irish or some other European style works best)
- ½ Cup(ish) all purpose flour
- 24 oz. Roman beans, canned or fresh (if using fresh, cook off first)
- ½- ¾ Cup dry white wine (I used Sauvignon Blanc)
- Zest & juice of one good size lemon
- 8oz. Half & Half, cream or milk
- ¾ Cup Panko breadcrumbs
- Good handful of flat leaf Italian parsley, chopped
- Extra virgin olive oil
- ½ Tblspn. seafood seasoning (Old Bay is my go to)
-Sea salt & fresh cracked pepper

Remove scallops from packaging & place in one layer on a kitchen or paper towel lined plate, removing any “foot” muscles (tough white muscle the runs along the side of scallop) and discarding. Top with a second layer of towel and press down lightly to remove any excess moisture, which will cause splattering during searing. Heat a large cast iron skillet over medium high with a little olive oil. Fry pancetta slices until very crisp, being careful not to burn, and transfer to paper or kitchen towels to drain. Melt ½ stick of butter in a small sauce pan & combine with flour to create a roux, and cook for additional 5-10 minutes to cook out flour taste (roux should be a light golden brown), turn off heat & set aside. Add a little more olive oil to cast iron pan (there should be a thin layer coating the bottom), and bring up to medium-high temp. Remove top layer of towel from scallops & season exposed tops well with salt & pepper. Place scallops seasoning side down into hot pan and sear off, about 2-3 minutes. Season exposed side of scallops, and flip to sear other side, turning scallops in same pattern as they were introduced to heat (see note). Sear for another 2-3 minute and transfer to a warm plate & set aside.

Add a little more olive oil to pan and a little butter, bring to medium heat and add in leeks, stirring well to distribute. Cook over medium heat for 5-7 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add in sliced mushrooms & continue cooking another 5 minutes, or until leeks are well softened and mushrooms take on a deeper color. Add in minced garlic and cook an additional 2 minutes until garlic becomes aromatic. Season to taste with salt & pepper and seafood seasoning. Pour in lemon juice, ½ of the lemon zest and ½ cup of wine and heat until just below a simmer and slightly reduced, about 8-10 minutes. Begin introducing roux into mixture and continuing to stir well to avoid clump formation (see note). Continue to add roux until mixture becomes thick and gravy like- you may not use all of your roux, just use your best judgement. Using small amounts, begin incorporating half & half into the sauce, until correct consistency is reached- similar to that of alfredo sauce. Once consistency is reached, turn off heat. In a small bowl, combine breadcrumbs with remainder of lemon zest, and half of chopped parsley.

To assemble: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In the bottom of a deep casserole dish (tall enough for ¼” lip above scallops & beans), layer cranberry beans in an even layer across entire bottom. Top with ½ of Leek-Mushroom sauce & place seared scallops on top in one layer. Cover scallops with second half of sauce and pancetta slices (either in whole slices or crumbled). Spread seasoned breadcrumbs evenly over top & bake off in oven for 20-25 minutes, until top is golden brown & sauce is bubbly. Serve immediately topped with chopped parsley & lemon slices. The casserole can also be made in individual ramekins or chafing dishes.


A note on leeks: Leeks are one of my favorite flavors to cook with- the problem being how to clean the little buggers without diluting the flavor! There are many philosophies on how to clean leeks, and mine has evolved from my brief kitchen training a few years back, and doesn’t call for any special equipment. Fill a deep bowl with very cold water. Slice off the last ¼ to ½” inch by the root & discard. Cut leek in half and slice thinly, about the width of a rubber band (there will be dirt in the layers- don’t panic!), and cut up until the leaves begin to turn dark green- these tops can be saved & used later for soup stock. Transfer sliced leeks to cold water and let sit for a minute or two. Lightly break apart slices with your fingers to help loosen any grit from in between the layers. Let the leeks sit, undisturbed, for another minute or two in water. Using a slotted spoon or your hands, gently remove leeks from water and place in a colander or strainer- be sure not disturb the water too much, as the sediment should have settled to the bottom of the bowl. Briefly rinse leeks with a sprayer and very cold water to remove any leftover grit. Shake to dry, and you’re ready to use!

A note on scallop searing: One of the best techniques for searing off scallops quickly & evenly came from my good friend and kitchen instructor, Ralph Smith. Once the pan has come up to temp, I place the scallops in concentric clockwise circles (evenly spaced) around the pan and then leave them untouched until I’m ready to turn and sear the other side. I use the circular pattern when turning them, so that every scallop gets the same time to sear, and you avoid overcooking- the pattern makes it easier to remember where you started in the pan as well. In some circumstances, it is a good idea to move the food around when searing, but with scallops it is imperative to let them sit once they are introduced to the heat- this is crucial for allowing the natural sugars to caramelize and achieving that lovely brown color. Scallops should only be moved once, while flipping sides, in order to sear properly.

A note on roux: While working as the lunch chef at The Chowder House, I learned an easy, foolproof way of introducing roux to liquid to avoid clumping, and have been using it ever since. For making roux, I use a bulbous metal whisk to combine & cook the flour-butter mixture so that the consistency remains smooth. After the roux has been well mixed, I cook it off for a couple of additional minutes so that any of the raw flour flavor is eliminated. When adding into liquid, I use the whisk to scoop the roux into the liquid, stirring with the whisk as soon as the roux is introduced to break up any clumps. Repeat this process with a small amount of roux until the desired consistency is released, and use the whisk yet again when adding in cream or milk to keep the sauce smooth.

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