JohnGL vs Tre Wilcox (Round 1): Battle Scallops

Posted by johngl

Okay, so maybe that subject line is a little misleading.  The truth is, on the evening of December 11, some very gracious friends treated the most glorious one and me to an Austin Central Market Cooking Class conducted by Chef Tre.

Chef Tre's Scallop JohnGL's Scallop

Yummy scallops!


It’s probably pretty obvious already that this really isn’t a head to head battle with me pitted against Chef Tre.  It’s more like a challenge to see if I can reproduce the creations that he presented that evening.  Since there were four dishes, there will be four rounds.

Central Market's Chef Robert Jenkins and Chef TreChef Tre unwittingly threw down the gauntlet himself when he said he hated to hear is the phrase “I can make that at home” from his customers (I’m guessing he doesn’t hear that often these days).  Oddly, that came at a time just after I looked over at Susan and said “I can make this!” after cleaning my plate of scallops.

Some of you may remember my ratings system for restaurants: a) I can do that better, b) I can do that, and c) how the hell did they do that?  All of the dishes Chef Tre produced that evening were incredibly delicious and pleasing to the eye.  All fell directly into the middle segment.  Quite simply, he was showing me how he did it and I didn’t have to wonder about it at all.

Let me set something straight here, there is a HUGE difference between actually developing a recipe, testing it, and executing it compared to following a list of instructions (a recipe) and executing it.  In this case, Chef Tre was the trail blazer.  All the really difficult stuff was already done.  He is a master at balancing flavors and textures and considers these elements when developing recipes.  I am a mere follower down the trail and am very happy that he has shared his techniques.

In this particular instance, I wasn’t trying to duplicate the entire dish, just the scallops, since they are the star of the show.  Besides, I didn’t have any butternut squash or Swiss Chard around the house when I became inspired to try this thing.  One step at a time.

How not to screw up a scallop

Scallops are interesting sea creatures to work with and I am very glad I don’t have to dive into the sea and collect, clean, and package them.  Unless you live where they are collected, the ones you see at the grocery store have probably been flash frozen.  I buy them in two pound bags from Costco, who guarantees that the don’t contain any artificial “plumping” agents or funky preservatives.

The first thing you’ll need to do is thaw them out and remove a little muscle attached to the side of the little buggers.

Remove this chewy bit of muscle!

The flash freezing technique that Costco’s suppliers use leave a thin layer of ice directly on the surface of the scallop.  I wash this off immediately under cold running water.  It also thaws them just enough to be able to separate that muscle from the side.  After rinsing, I dry the scallops with a paper towel.

thawing rack

Once they were dried, I put a paper towel under a cooling rack and laid the scallops atop the rack.  To date, this is the best method I have found to get a frozen-solid scallop thawed and ready to cook inside of an hour.  Please, do not put them in a tub of water to thaw.  They can go mushy on you.

After about 45 minutes, give your scallops a light squeeze.

Now give the ones on the counter top (yes, the ones on the rack) a squeeze.  They should be cold, but not frozen.  If you don’t feel any frozen spots, you’re ready for action.  Dry them off one more time, then sprinkle a little salt on them.

Meanwhile, heat up a heavy skillet or pan containing about 1/8″ of grapeseed oil until the oil just starts to smoke.

turned over

The reason these are so nice and golden brown is that they were placed in that smoking-hot oil. That sear only takes about a minute.  Using tongs, flip them over and after about 15 seconds, turn off the heat.  The ones in the photo are finishing out the cooking process using the residual heat from the pan.  This is a Chef Tre technique and it worked perfectly on my very first try.

You will want to be in a position to serve these immediately from the pan.  Any side dishes or sauces will need to be prepared in advance.

Hitting the sauce

Chef Tre served his scallops with a browned butter sauce that was acidulated and sweetened by the addition of some pomegranate juice.  In my recent King Crab and Browned Butter post, I showed you the basics of making browned butter. Go nuts.

Once you have your quantity of browned butter fixed up, add some pomegranate juice.  I keep pom syrup in my fridge at all times.  It is great in salad dressings and such.  Juice just takes up too much room.  To make syrup out of juice, get a half gallon of 100% pom juice and slowly reduce it to about 2 cups.  If you don’t know what I mean by that last statement, you shouldn’t be here.

Anyway, you are creating an emulsion of fat and water.  Fats and water don’t mix up too readily.  Make sure you browned butter has cooled down, then whisk in a couple of teaspoons of pom juice (or less if it is syrup).  Chop up a few chives and sprinkle those in and whisk it some more.  That is it for the sauce.  No, really, it is that easy.

As I mentioned, I didn’t have any Swiss chard around nor did I have any butternut squash.  I did have some potatoes, so I made some roasted potatoes to go with this.  Obviously, it takes a while to roast potatoes, so start them at about the time you started to thaw your scallops.

fingerling potatoes

I used fingerling potatoes, peeled and cut in half lengthwise, for this incarnation.  I steamed them until they were just short of fully-cooked.  I steam potatoes rather than boiling because I like starch molecules to stay in one piece.  Boiling disrupts the surface molecules too much for my liking.

Anyway, steaming takes about 10-12 minutes.


Now comes the fun part.  Toss those hot, steamy potatoes with some olive oil, salt, and sage until well distributed.  Don’t go all medieval when tossing the potatoes.  We don’t want them broken all apart.  I used my toaster oven set on about 400 to get these golden brown in about 40 minutes.  Your mileage may vary.

Now, just put it all together

Golden brown and delicious

cuts to the chaseThe potatoes were crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside.  The scallops were perfectly cooked,  piping hot, melt-in-your-mouth tender, and covered in that  nutty-tasting brown butter sauce.  We chose a nice reisling to go with the meal.  It was crisp and clean and cut right through the butterfat, almost acting as a palate cleanser between bites.

So, how did this part of the challenge turn out?

The scallops and brown butter efforts were spot on according to my most glorious one and she doesn’t say things like that just to be nice.

I think Chef Tre might be getting a bit worried…

scallops and roasted potatoes Chef Tre:  looking a bit worried?
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About johngl

A bit of a wildman, John hails from the Midwest: A land of corn, cows, pigs, and a host of other healthfully meaty pursuits.

Born on a dark and stormy night in late Fall, John grew up as the son of a meat cutter. There was always plenty of meat at hand. While not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination, his family certainly ate well. According to his father, that was the whole point.