Seared Scallops with Champagne Tarragon Sabayon
We’re all about sexy food this week, at the Choosy Beggars. That’s okay though, right? This week is officially the aftermath of Valentine’s Day, when the sheets are still warm and only the dead soldiers in the recycling bin dare to whisper covertly about what may or may not have transpired on the 14th. The stink of love still hangs heavily in the air as the department stores desperately try to sell off the last of their hackneyed (and often horrific) V-Day merchandise. Oddly, I seem to be enjoying the whole charade.
I was never really a fan of Valentine’s Day, possibly because I was a perennial singleton every year during this brash celebration of coupledom (even when I was in a miserable three year relationship, he and I broke up each year in the first week of February. No word of a lie. If nothing else, that should have been a good indicator of what was to come). However, apparently Cupid got hammered one night at the pub and shot me with an arrow thinking he was just playing darts. Eventually, after years of contrasting misery and hilarity, I somehow managed to push past the lineup and finagle myself entry into The Ubiquitous Smug and Happy Couples Club. In honor of that fact, I am officially ready trying to turn over a new leaf and find my softer, sweeter side. This year, even more than last, I embraced Valentine’s Day with all the waxy over priced chocolate, sparkly heart shaped cards, and scandalous innuendos that the season had to offer. Woot!
It was a challenge, I’ll admit, because I’m not particularly romantic. Truth be told, all that soft voices and feelings stuff kind of gives me the heebie-jeebies. This year I bought Mike an assortment of local hand made chocolates, flowers and cards, and treated him to a romantic Valentine’s Day dinner complete with champagne and slow dancing. He bought me new hardware for my bathroom. It was totally a win-win. Man, that guy just gets me.
But enough about frilly thoughts and violins, let’s get down to the food. Trying to figure out what to make for a ‘special’ dinner is always a frustrating challenge for me. If it is going to be special, it has to be something that I wouldn’t normally make. That, sadly, is the biggest challenge. For Valentine’s Day, instead of putting the focus on exotic ingredients or novel preparations, it was all about the texture. Luscious meats, frothy sauces as light as air, crispy greens – these are the things that my dreams are made of. While Mike sipped on aperitifs I made the starter of fat sea scallops pan seared in butter and nestled into an ethereal champagne and tarragon sabayon sauce. There was a wee pillow of micro greens in the mix and a garnish of whimsical roasted red peppers. But the best part: it was dead easy. I promise. Lest you think that a luxe and elegant appetizer means hours of toil, sweat and tears, I present you with what can be done in 10 minutes of active cooking time:
The techniques are delightfully basic. You do some whisking, a bit of searing and assembly, with just the teensiest bit of chopping and slicing thrown in for good measure. The only real key for success here is timing, but if you have a stove with at least two elements side by side (and please tell me that you do, because those little European kit-kitchens just break my heart) it’s a cake walk to whisk on one side while keeping an eye on the other. A little bit of multi-tasking never hurt anybody, and it’s not like we’re juggling flaming turkey thighs while whistling Flight of the Valkyries on a unicycle. We’re whisking eggs and searing scallops. However, you cannot make sabayon in advance and it should really be served within 5 minutes of cooking, and reheated scallops which are dense and chewy just make me want to weep into my dirty herb-stained hands, so aim to make both at the same time and serve them immediately.
So what’s the deal with sabayon, you ask? Well, basically it’s a sauce made from egg yolks whipped with liquid (usually wine) and cooked gently until you have a light, frothy and delicately flavored sauce. Traditional sabayon (also known as zabaglione or zabadjone, depending on the culture) is dessert sauce, frequently made with Marsala or Prosecco (and occasionally thickened with ricotta or cream) but I love to use it in savoury applications instead. For example, if you were to pour this tarragon sabayon over asparagus, I would eat it as a meal. Every day. For the rest of my life. The savory sauce is akin to hollandaise, but slightly milder, with a texture that is fluffy and airy rather than creamy and rich. So…maybe not that much like hollandaise after all. Huh.
Seared Scallops with Champagne Tarragon Sabayon
- 6 large diver scallops (~ 1/2 lb)
- 2 tbsp Pernod, optional
- 1 tbsp butter
- 1 tsp oil
- 2 egg yolks
- 1/4 cup dry champagne *
- 2 tsp finely chopped fresh tarragon
- 2 small bunches tender sprouts **
- 1/4 roasted red pepper
- salt and pepper to taste
* You can splurge on a bottle of Veuve, which would delight me to no end because I’ve been a Veuve-girl since the first time I sipped those sparkling bubbles, but there really isn’t any need to break the budget. You could use an extra dry Prosecco or sparkling wine, but really pay attention to the sugars. A sweet sparkling wine that flies in at a 3 would be cloying and overwhelming, so opt for a 1 or a 2 if you must. One of my favorite budget bottles is the Jacob’s Creek sparkling Chardonnay Pinot blend which is dry and refreshing with an even friendlier price tag at about $13 CAD in Ontario.
** I used broccoli sprouts, but pea shoots would be lovely as well.
Toss the scallops with the two tablespoons of Pernod and leave them in the fridge to marinate for 1-2 hours.
Drain the scallops and discard the Pernod. Pat the scallops with paper towel until they are as dry as possible and then season with salt and freshly ground pepper on both sides. Leave the scallops uncovered and on paper towel while you prepare the sabayon, because the key to a nice caramelization when you pan sear scallops is making sure there is as little liquid as possible.
Separate the eggs (I like to reserve the whites for other uses or breakfast the next day) and place just the yolk in a medium sized heat safe mixing bowl. Pour the champagne over top.
Before you get started on the sabayon, finely chop the tarragon and cut the roasted red pepper into 6 small (3/4″) heart shapes. Or, if that’s too cheesy for you (which I would completely understand), cut the pepper quarter into fine strips about 1″ long.
Whisk the egg yolks with the champagne, and delight in how frothy it gets almost immediately. Fill a small pot with about 1″ of water and bring it to a simmer over medium low heat. Set the bowl on top as the water heats. The bowl should be able to fit snugly on top of the pot with only the lower quarter actually inside, because you want to be sure that the bottom is not directly touching the water. Continue whisking the mixture frequently as the water heats up.
When the sabayon has been cooking for about 5 minutes it is time to heat the butter and oil in a fairly large frying pan over medium high heat. Let the butter start to froth and then carefully lay your scallops into the pan. After about 2 minutes the bottoms should be browned and caramelized, so flip them over to cook the other side for another 1-2 minutes. While the scallops cook, don’t forget about the sabayon! Reach over and give it a good whisk every opportunity that you have.
Please, for the love of all things holy, do not over cook your scallops. There is no redemption to be found in tough, rubbery seafood. As soon as the scallops are completely opaque and fairly firm (but still have some spring left in the center), remove them from the pan and tent them loosely with tin foil to stay warm while the sabayon finishes cooking.
After 10 minutes of cooking with regular and frequent whisking, the volume of your sabayon will be roughly doubled from what it was when you first whisked it. The texture will have thickened and when you lift the whisk it should leave a streak and form soft peaks, just like a gently whipped cream.
Stir in the finely chopped tarragon and season the sabayon with salt. Taste the sabayon and adjust the seasoning if necessary. It should be airy and light but have a surprisingly luxe flavor, heightened by the bright and herbal tarragon.
This is the perfect time to call your lover to the table and remind him or her that there is the better part of a bottle of champagne in the fridge, it would be such a pity to let that go to waste, and hey! Look! Two empty glasses…..
Divide the sabayon between two plates, dolloping it down in a round “O” shape. Lay three scallops over top and tend to the empty center with a wee little handful of fresh and tender sprouts. Lay the red pepper shapes/slices on top of the scallops, and scatter a few leaves of tarragon into the sabayon sea for garnish.
Et voila. Now that wasn’t so bad, was it?
Serve the dish immediately while the seared scallops are still warm and the sabayon is positively ethereal.
Now this is what I call a recipe for romance.
When you think about what makes food sexy, it’s all about the balance of flavors and textures. The density of supple and succulent scallops provide a contrast to the light creamy froth of the sabayon and watery crunch of the sprouts. We’ve got buttery seafood, smoky bitterness from the peppers, and the fresh licorice scent of tarragon. The best word for this starter is just luscious.
If you’re aiming for Food To Get You Laid, look no further. This is it, my friend. Although, if you did want to go that extra mile, come see us again tomorrow when we talk about braised lamb shanks in a red wine and chocolate sauce…..