Food & Drink

Need a classy New Year’s Eve dinner? Scallops are the filet mignon of the sea

Scallops in a sherry and creme fraiche pan sauce. Seared sea scallops shine when you prepare them like steak au poivre.
Scallops in a sherry and creme fraiche pan sauce. Seared sea scallops shine when you prepare them like steak au poivre. New York Times

Sweet, meaty sea scallops are best in winter, and like many other luxury foods, they appear in abundance during the holiday season. Though it doesn’t come cheap, the splendid sea scallop is exceedingly easy to prepare.

To find the best product for your money, get yourself to a good fish market. Ask for fresh large or medium day-boat scallops, also called dry-packed – frozen scallops do not qualify here. (Frozen scallops, instead of browning, just weep in the pan, flooding it with their juices; most are dipped in a preservative solution before freezing.)

When you have scallops that are freshly harvested, you can serve them raw for a delightful first course. Make a scallop crudo, thinly sliced and adorned with just a speck of coarse salt, a dribble of extra-virgin olive oil and a drop of lemon. Or use raw diced scallops to make a ceviche, doused very briefly in lime juice and sparked with hot green chile, onion and cilantro.

When cooking your scallops, pan-seared or grilled is the tried-and-true method. Getting the surface of the scallop crisp and brown helps emphasize its natural sweetness and provides a textural contrast to the luscious tender interior.

Some cooks sear scallops nearly entirely on one side, turning them over for only a minute or so to finish. Many like their scallops rare in the center; I prefer to cook them all the way through, keeping them juicy, but not overcooked.

For this quick recipe, I take cues from the saucy, peppery French classic steak au poivre, usually made with beef tenderloin and pan-cooked. Reimagining the scallops as miniature filets mignons makes sense, non?

The dish gets a boost from three types of peppercorns: green and black (both true pepper), and rose or pink peppercorns (not really pepper – they are the fruit of a different plant – but peppery nonetheless, and pretty too). Crush the peppercorns in a mortar or grind them very coarsely in a spice mill.

The whole affair comes together in less than 30 minutes. The scallops are generously dusted with the three-pepper mixture and sautéed on both sides in butter over medium-high heat. A splash of sherry and a good dollop of crème fraîche make a rich pan sauce; use brandy and heavy cream if you prefer.

To add brightness, a shower of citrus zest and fragrant mint just before serving tempers the lavish sauce. To add cheer, may I suggest a crackling fire and a bottle of bubbly?

Sautéed Scallops With Crushed Peppercorns

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Total time: 30 minutes

1 1/2 pounds large dry-packed sea scallops, about 24 pieces, tough muscle (foot) on the side removed from each

Kosher salt

1 teaspoon black peppercorns, crushed

1 teaspoon green peppercorns (dried, not canned), crushed

1 teaspoon rose (pink) peppercorns, crushed, plus a few whole for garnish

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 tablespoon amontillado or other dry sherry

6 ounces crème fraîche

1 teaspoon freshly grated lime zest

1 teaspoon freshly grated lemon zest

1 tablespoon chopped mint or tiny mint leaves

Place scallops on baking sheet or large plate and season lightly on both sides with salt. Mix together crushed black, green and rose peppercorns and sprinkle liberally over scallops on both sides.

Put oil in a skillet large enough to hold all scallops without crowding (or use two skillets or work in batches) over medium-high heat. When oil is hot, add scallops in one layer.

Let scallops brown on one side, about 3 to 4 minutes. (Don’t rush or they will stick to pan and won’t brown properly.) Add butter and sherry, turn scallops and sear until cooked through, about 2 minutes more. Remove scallops to a serving platter and keep warm.

Finish the sauce: Leaving skillet over medium-high heat, add crème fraîche. Simmer until slightly thickened, 2 minutes, then taste for salt.

Spoon sauce over scallops and sprinkle with lime zest, lemon zest and mint. Garnish with a few whole rose peppercorns.