Sometimes the best tasting foods just happen to be the easiest to prepare. I think sea scallops fall into this category. If you like scallops (I do...they're my favorite shellfish), but have never prepared them at home, you should give it a try. The trick is in the purchasing. Scallops that are fresh and good really are quite easy to cook.
For many years, finding good scallops was not such an easy task—especially for those of us living in land-locked states. Most scallops were sold frozen. And even if they were fresh, they had been packed with added water and chemicals to whiten and preserve them. Both frozen and wet-packed scallops are difficult to cook—whether you are grilling or pan-frying—because they tend to release a lot of water as they cook. Wet-packed have an additional strike against them in that the water they have been packed in dilutes their flavor.
When you shop for scallops, you should look for fresh, dry-packed scallops. In recent years these have become widely available. Dry-pack scallops have been shucked and then packed. Nothing has been added to them. Unlike the whitened wet-pack scallops, they will vary in color from cream to ivory to pale beige or coral. Instead of being wet and slippery, they truly do seem dry and they are slightly sticky to the touch. They have a characteristic odor that can be slightly off-putting the first time you smell it. But once you have purchased scallops a few times you will be able to tell the difference between the smell of a fresh scallop, one that has a little age on it and one that is bad.
I purchase scallops that are called "U-10 Scallops" in the trade. This means that there are fewer than 10 scallops to a pound ("U" for "Under"). Ideally each scallop should weigh around 2 ounces, but sometimes they are larger. The larger ones are impressive looking—a single 3 ounce (or larger) scallop makes a striking plated appetizer—but I prefer serving 3 of the 2 ounce size for an entrée portion.
Before cooking your scallops, pull off and discard the small, crescent-shaped tendon (the “foot”) from the side. Sometimes this "foot" will have fallen off on its own, but you should still examine the scallops to make sure. Once cooked, the foot is tough and rubbery—of a very different texture from the tender flesh of the scallop itself.
To pan-sear a scallop, you need a heavy, non-stick pan. Cast-iron or French Steel are best, although a non-stick coated pan will work. Set the pan over medium-high heat. When the pan is very hot, add just enough oil to barely coat the pan. The oil should shimmer. Add the scallops to the pan and let them cook on the first side until they are golden brown. Then turn them over and finish on the other side. U-10 scallops will take a couple of minutes on the first side and another minute or so on the second side.
A scallop is "done" when it is springy to the touch (not firm or hard). If you were to insert a metal skewer into the interior of the scallop it would be barely warm. Much more than this is over-cooked. An over-cooked scallop is chewy and tough.
If you would like to serve scallops at your next dinner party, that's easy too. Shortly before your guests arrive, quickly sear the scallops on both sides in a VERY hot pan. Your goal is to quickly brown the exterior without letting the scallop cook through. When the scallops are well caramelized on both sides, remove them to a baking sheet.
At this point they should be quite rare—basically raw—in the center. When you are ready to serve the scallops, simply place them in a hot oven (400° or so) for a few minutes until they are cooked to your liking.
I served Prosciutto-Wrapped Scallops with Rosemary at a party the other evening. The salty prosciutto and fragrant rosemary are especially nice with the rich, sweet flavor of the scallops. These scallops are just as easy to prepare as plain scallops—they just require a small amount of advance work. To prepare them, lay a thin slice of prosciutto on your work surface, cut it into strips that are as wide as the scallop is tall. Place a scallop (foot-removed) on its side on one end of a strip of prosciutto and roll it up.
It's OK if the prosciutto overlaps a bit. To secure the prosciutto, simply poke the end of a short sprig of rosemary into the scallop where the edges of the strip of prosciutto overlap (remove some of the rosemary leaves so that the sprig looks a little like one of those old-fashioned frilly "cocktail" toothpicks).
I suppose you could use a toothpick instead of the rosemary, but the rosemary adds a nice flavor. If you use a toothpick, remove it before serving the scallop. The rosemary sprig may be left in the scallop, or removed...as you please.
The original recipe for these scallops was for grilling. I prefer pan-seared scallops, but if you like to grill, U-10 scallops are very good grilled. To grill the prosciutto-wrapped scallops, prepare them as described. Then, 15 minutes before putting them on the grill, season them, drizzle some olive oil over them and give them a good squeeze of lemon. (There is no need to squeeze more lemon over them when they are finished cooking.) In the summer, some produce departments carry long, sturdy sprigs of rosemary. These would be nice for making a sort of kebab of prosciutto-wrapped scallops. Simply load 3 prosciutto-wrapped scallop onto each rosemary skewer.
At the party I served these scallops on top of a Mushroom and English Pea Risotto, but a list of possible accompaniments is literally endless. They would be good as a first course with a fluff of arugula dressed with a lemony vinaigrette...topped with a little shaved Parmesan. Served with a medley of roasted mushrooms and asparagus...and maybe a creamy potato purée, they would make an elegant dinner. Later in the season, a sauté of corn, mushrooms and fingerling potatoes would be a nice pairing. In the fall, winter squash would be a good match. I'm sure once you taste these scallops, you will find lots of ways to serve them.
Prosciutto-Wrapped Scallops with Rosemary
1 1/2 pounds sea scallops (about 12 scallops)
2 ounces prosciutto, sliced paper thin
12 fresh rosemary sprigs (about 2 inches long and with a firm stem)
Juice of half a lemon
Coarse salt and black pepper
Pull off and discard the foot from the side of any scallop that still has one attached. Strip the bottom leaves off the rosemary sprigs. Cut each slice of prosciutto into 3 strips length-wise. The strips should be about as wide as the scallop is tall (3/4- to 1-inch) and slightly longer than the circumference of the scallop (4 to 6 inches).
Lay the strips of prosciutto out on your work surface and place a scallop on the end of each strip. Roll the scallop up in the prosciutto and secure the prosciutto with a rosemary sprig. Repeat with remaining scallops. The scallops may be done to this point several hours ahead. Chill until ready to cook.
To cook the scallops, heat a cast-iron (or other non-stick) skillet over medium-high heat. While the pan heats, pat the scallops dry and season with salt, pepper and rosemary (go easy on the salt, as the prosciutto is fairly salty). When the pan is hot, add just enough oil to lightly coat the bottom of the pan. The pan should be hot enough so that the oil disperses rapidly and “shimmers”. Add the scallops and cook until well browned—2 or 3 minutes. Turn the scallops and cook for another minute or 2. The scallop is cooked when it is springy to the touch—they should still be slightly translucent in the center. Remove the scallops to a plate and squeeze the juice of half a lemon over (hold one hand under the lemon, fingers together, to catch any seeds).
If you like, remove the rosemary "skewer" before serving. Serve at once. Serves 4 as a main course, 6 as an appetizer