Cooked sea scallops can be silky or stubbornly chewy. When cooked to perfection they are lusciously tender, almost leaving the impression that chewing is just a formality. Karl Pfleider, executive chef at The Blind Pig in Rancho Santa Margarita, knows the specifics of how to cook the plump bivalves to show off their best taste and texture.
In my home kitchen, Pflleider showed me each meticulous step to insure cooking scallops well enough to please the most discerning palate. He started by heating the pan, explaining that the pan should be piping hot, but to prevent sticking, initially the oil should be room temperature. The scallops, salted and patted dry, weren’t added willy-nilly. Working clockwise and using a gentle touch, the first was placed at the 6 o’clock position, the next at 9, and so on. He could easily keep track of their order, insuring that the first one in would be the first one taken off the heat.
After two minutes of cooking, each scallop was rotated a quarter turn, the heat, by this time, reduced to medium. Only the deeply caramelized side, the side that hit the oil first, would be exposed to direct heat. The bed-sheet white tops weren’t turned to face the fire; instead they were basted with warm melted butter, both to heat them and infuse them with the subtle nuttiness of browned butter.
Smooth and crunchy elements teamed with the shellfish, a colorful puree of purple cauliflower and crisp puffed rice. The sweet-sour spark of gastrique was drizzled over a small mound of made-in-house kimchi.
At home, you may prefer a simpler approach. Cook the scallops using this technique; perhaps top them with a simple vinaigrette amped with fresh herbs, a bed of arugula nested underneath. Garnish with a few kernels of puffed rice if you like. Easy and delicious.
His Ride: Harley-Davidson sportster motorcycle, beige and black.
The Hangout: Honda-Ya, Tustin, for yakitori and sushi, sometimes ramen.
Favorite Breakfast: a cold-brew from Starbuck’s plus half of a breakfast burrito from The Trough, Rancho Santa Margarita.
Most underrated ingredient: Vinegar. It’s his go-to source for brightness or a needed flavor accent.
Stats: Single, 25, lives in Rancho Santa Margarita, born and raised in Tustin.
The Blind Pig, 31431 Santa Margarita Pkwy, Rancho Santa Margarita
Sea Scallops with Cauliflower Puree, Kimchi and Crisp Puffed Rice
Yield: 2 first course servings
3/4 cup cooked rice
Rice oil or grape seed oil, enough for deep frying, see cook’s notes
1 cup small cauliflower florets, purple cauliflower preferred, washed
Water to cover plus 2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons butter, added when reheated
Grape Soda Gastrique:
8 ounces grape soda
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
8 ounces distilled white vinegar
Peel of 1 lemon
4 plump sea scallops
2 tablespoons rice oil or grape seed oil
Kimchi, about 1/3 cup, store-bought or homemade
Garnish: sliced fresh chives
Cook’s notes: Rice oil is notable for its high smoke point (450 degrees) and its mild flavor. Grape seed oil can be substituted; its smoke point is slightly lower.
1. Place a single layer of cooked rice on baking sheet and leave out to dry overnight. In medium-sized deep saucepan heat about 2 1/2 inches of oil on high heat. Place a plate lined with paper towels next to stovetop. Bring oil to 400 degrees (check with thermometer – he used a cool infrared thermometer). Working in batches, cautiously add about 1/4 cup rice. Once it puffs up, use a slotted spoon to remove from oil and place on paper-towel lined plate. Repeat until all rice is used. (You will have more puffed rice than needed to garnish; it makes a lovely snack.)
2. Prepare Puree: In a small saucepan, combine florets and enough water to cover; stir in salt. Bring to boil on high heat; reduce heat to a simmer and cook until cauliflower is fork tender. Process strained florets in blender or food processor, adding about 1 cup of cooking water about 1/4 cup at a time, just enough to make a smooth puree. Be careful not to add to much water or puree consistency will come out too runny. Set aside until serving time. At that time reheat and stir in butter. Taste and add salt if needed.
3. Prepare Gastrique: Combine soda and sugar in small saucepan. On medium high heat, whisk until sugar dissolves. Add vinegar. Cut strips of lemon peel, about 1-inch wide; add lemon peel strips to mixture. Reduce heat to medium and gently reduce by half in volume. Strain and cool. You will have leftover gastrique.
4. Prepare scallops: If scallops have foot (adductor muscle on side) attached, remove by pulling it off (chef said he uses these adductors in fried rice); pat scallops dry and season with salt on both sides. Pat dry with paper towels. Heat skillet on medium-high heat. Add oil. Add scallops, gently placing them clockwise in a single layer starting at 6 o’clock position. Cook 2 minutes, reducing heat to medium as edges brown. Check first scallop to see if it releases from pan. Give scallops a quarter turn. Add butter; when it melts, spoon melted butter over each scallop, basting them repeatedly. Once you can smell the nuttiness of the brown butter, the scallops are ready. Place on paper towel.
5. Plate: Reheat cauliflower puree and stir in butter. Smear about 3 tablespoons on each plate. Place kimchi on side of smear. Drizzle a small portion of gastrique over kimchi and puree. Top with scallops. Sprinkle with puffed rice and chives. Serve.
Cathy Thomas is an award-winning food writer and has authored three cookbooks: “50 Best Plants on the Planet,” “Melissa’s Great Book of Produce,” and “Melissa’s Everyday Cooking with Organic Produce.”