Looking back on my years growing up in the kitchen, I have to give a lot of credit to these pan seared scallops as the turning point where I really started to experiment and assert my own tastes.
While my mom was the fish queen, she never really made shellfish. For all those New England summers on Martha’s Vineyard, I don’t think we ever baked clams, shucked oysters, or steamed lobsters at home. Crustaceans just weren’t really her bread and butter in the kitchen (even if the bread and butter came in the form of a mayo-heavy lobster roll).
But my dad and I were all about summer seafood, especially the fried clam rolls at the local fish shop. So it was probably sometime after I’d mastered my mother’s seared salmon and started branching out into foreign cooking territory that I noticed the fresh meaty sea scallops in the case and decided to have at em.
I’ve since perfected my pan sear on these bad boys more so than on any other protein. Here’s the trick: after removing the small muscle on the scallop (it looks almost like a Bandaid on the side, and peels off even more easily), pat the scallops dry with a kitchen towel, making sure not to smush or crush the meat. Get a large cast iron or non-stick skillet hot hot hot (I like this one). Season the scallops with sea salt. Pour a thin layer of olive oil (I like this brand) just to grease the pan and add a small pat of butter. This is key. You don’t have to use much, but the butter will help with the browning effect in the pan.
Once the skillet is smoking hot, carefully place the scallops in the pan clockwise. Resist all urges to touch them, perhaps even finding a purposeful distraction like switching your songza playlist from Cowgirl Kissoffs to a something more appropriate for your dinner guests. After about a minute, you should start to see a beautiful brown crust forming on the bottom. Now you can flip. It’s pretty hard to undercook fresh seafood, so don’t be afraid to only cook the scallops for 30 seconds or so on the second side. There’s nothing worse than a rubbery over-cooked scallop. I know, because I ate plenty of them during those early days of seafood experimentation.
I’ve tried these scallops on my most loved and feared critics. It was one of the first things I made for Ina Garten when I was in college and she came to visit us on Martha’s Vineyard one summer. I made this version with fresh summer corn and tomatoes. Weirdly it took me until last month, when we were on the island for Memorial Day, to finally make them for Charlie. I did a springtime version with sautéed asparagus and snap peas, some crispy prosciutto, and a side of this delicious carrot Romesco that I saw in the pages of Bon Appétit. When we were reminiscing in Greece about our shared meals, he mentioned the scallops as among his favorites.
I’ve paired down the recipe below without all the bells and whistles – just seared scallops on a bed of smokey carrot puree. Because even if she didn’t teach me how to make lobster rolls or pan seared scallops, if there’s anything I’ve learned from my mother, it’s to keep things simple, hold the bread, and add just a little bit of butter.
Seared Scallops with Carrot Romesco Sauce
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. On a parchment lined baking sheet, toss the carrots with 1 tablespoon olive oil and season with salt. Roast in the oven until soft and caramelized, about 30 to 40 minutes. Transfer to a food processor and puree with the almonds, garlic, vinegar, paprika, chili, water, ¼ cup of olive oil, and ½ teaspoon salt until smooth. Taste for seasoning.
Pat the scallops dry and remove the muscle on the side. Season with salt.
Set a large heavy skillet over high heat. Add a thin coat of olive oil followed by the butter. When the butter is beginning to bubble and brown, carefully add the scallops in an even layer. Cook, without moving, for 1-2 minutes, until a dark crust has formed. Flip and cook for another 30 seconds. Remove to a serving platter browned-side up and serve alongside the romesco.
The romesco can be made up to a week in advance.