Saturday, February 28, 2009

Saturday Night Improv

Be you a romantic or not, and regardless of your "relationship status," (for lack of a better term), I think we can all agree that Valentine's day is a bit of a sham. Why should we wait for a designated day to express our love, or to tell those around us how much we care? [Also, why should we also post about our Valentine's Day meals any time close to actual Valentine's day? Mm hmm, yea...]

Nowhere is this commercialized aspect of Valentine's Day more evident than in restaurants. No matter where you're dining on this certain evening, you're going to be elbow-to-elbow with a bunch of people that don't really have any place in your relationship, and you're going to be rushed out so that your table can be turned for the next happy couple. Prix fixe menus filled with "aphrodisiacs," but what's more aphrodisiacal than just being with the one you love, tasting ingredients, creating something beautiful to share in. A meal cooked at home, with your other half, leaves a much better taste in your mouth than something carelessly thrust at you by a chef with no connection to your togetherness. And hey, we all know that a dish cooked with love just tastes that much better.

So there you have it - I am not one for Valentine's days out, a matter on which I've preached before. I am, however, one for using the holiday as an excuse to create a meal more extravagant, time consuming and complex than I would on any other Saturday night. More willing to splurge for wonderful ingredients, since the end result is still going to be cheaper, more delicious, and served in a much more inviting environment than any restaurant could manufacture.

This Valentine's day was a seafood-laden one. The second course had been planned for a little bit, and I will get back to that one a bit later. The first course was to be more of an improvisational affair. We had initially planned on some foie gras, simply seared and served with a citrusy sauce to cut the richness. However, foie gras turned out to be a bit difficult to procure on short notice, so scallops it would be, served with a salad of sorts. Andrew was in charge of the shopping, and he arrived at my apartment holding beautiful, plump sea scallops, arugula and a bag of grapes. It was time to play!

I wasn't really sure where I was going with this when I started, but I must say that it turned out quite good. Since I was just throwing things in randomly, I don't have much of a recipe, but clearly this is a dish that is open to interpretation and infinite variations. What started with scallops, arugula and grapes turned into pan-seared scallops served atop a baby arugula salad with roasted grapes and a warm lemon vinaigrette. And it was wonderful - rich and sweet from the grapes and scallops, which had achieved a wonderful caramelization from the scorching hot pan. This sweetness played wonderfully off of the tangy lemon vinaigrette, the acidity, which had been tamed by the butter added to the warm vinaigrette, cut the sweetness of the grapes.

Seared Scalloped and Arugula Salad with Roasted Grapes in a Warm Lemon VInaigrette

I started by halving about a cup of grapes, but you might want to use less for two servings - we had a LOT of grapes in our salad. The choice between red and green grapes is totally up to you - we had green, so we used green, and I really liked the tart bite they imparted. In a skillet over medium heat, I heated a bit less than a tablespoon of butter until the foam subsided. I placed the grapes, cut side down, into the pan and let them cook until they softened a bit and started to brown and caramelize a little, at which point I added a finely minced shallot and about a half-teaspoon or so of crushed, dried thyme to the pan and gave it a good stir around to make sure that the shallot didn't brown.

Now this is where I get a bit foggy on details; I think that I added the juice of one lemon, some red wine vinegar, and a couple of tablespoons of olive oil. This was still a bit acidic, so I cut another tablespoon or so of butter into small cubes and added them bit by bit until the dressing was a bit richer and less intensely acidic. I poured the mellowed-out vinaigrette over the washed and dried arugula, tossing to coat (this actually produced a bit more dressing than we needed, so don't be tempted to pour the entire skillet-full on the salad at once). Divide the salad among plates. The lesson here really, is just to play with it until you're happy with it; until it suits your tastes. After all, you're cooking for yourself.

For the Scallops
6 large sea scallops, rinsed and patted dry
1-2 Tablespoons of olive oil
Salt and Pepper

Remove the tough outer muscle from the scallops, rinse and pat dry. This is really important, since a dry scallop is the only way you're going to get a nice sear. So make sure you're patting those scallops really well. Season both sides of the scallops with salt and pepper.

Heat a heavy skillet over medium-high heat for a couple of minutes, and then add the olive oil. Heat the oil until very hot. To test the oil, flick a little bit of water into the pan, if it sizzles and jumps around, then the oil is ready. Place the scallops into the hot oil, making sure not to crowd the pan, since overcrowding will cause your scallops to be steamed. Sear the scallops for two minutes on the first side - if you're unsure whether it's going to be ready, give it a little nudge with your tongs or spatula; if it moves easily, then it's done. Flip the scallops and sear for another minute on the opposite side. Remove from the heat and place an equal amount of scallops atop each salad plate.

I apologize for the blackberry-camera quality pictures, my camera is kaput and I'm making due with what I can, and I'm pretty sure you can deal. MmmK, thanks, bye.