Seared Scallops with Asparagus Sauce

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Seared thick sea scallops served with a simple asparagus and butter sauce.

Photography Credit: Elise Bauer

A few years ago my father discovered scallops, not that he didn’t know about them before, it’s just that some light bulb went off in his head one day and he decided that he had to cook them. So for a time he would madly attack any scallop recipe that seemed half-way interesting.

The problem was that he just couldn’t get them right. He had a hard time getting them browned, and more often than not, they were overcooked.

So when the-man-who-knows-more-about-seafood-than-I-ever-hope-to Hank Shaw was here the other day cooking scallops, both dad and I circled Hank like hawks, watching to see how he did it. Here’s what we learned.

You need a screaming hot pan. Scallops have a lot of moisture in them, which means you have to get the pan really hot to dry the outer edge of that moist scallop so that it can actually get hot enough to brown.

When the scallops brown, the meat pulls back a bit (contracting proteins) making them easier to turn. Now theory doesn’t always translate to practice, you might still have some sticking. But when the scallop is seared enough, it should move more easily.

An asparagus sauce is an excellent way to complement the scallops. While it looks fancy, it’s really just boiled asparagus, chopped then tossed in a blender with some chicken stock and then reheated with butter and salt. Any leftovers can be used as a sauce for pasta.

Seared Scallops with Asparagus Sauce Recipe

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  • Yield: Serves 2

Plan on 3 sea scallops per person for a light dinner or appetizer, 5 scallops for a full main course.

Many sea scallops come with a tough flap of meat attached to them. Just pull it off and either discard or use in a seafood stock.

The asparagus sauce is a great way to use the spears of asparagus in case you’ve chopped off the tips for use in another recipe. You’re just puréeing them here, so you’ll never see the tips.

Ingredients

  • 6 sea scallops*
  • Salt
  • 1 pound asparagus
  • 1/2 cup warm chicken broth (if cooking gluten-free use gluten-free stock)
  • 2-3 Tbsp butter
  • 2 Tbsp canola or grapeseed oil or other high smoke-point oil

*Sea scallops are the big scallops, about 1 1/2-inches wide, as opposed to bay scallops which are small, about 1/2-inch wide. Look for “dry pack” scallops, as they are not treated with chemicals to keep them fresh; the chemicals are not overly harmful, but they change the texture of the scallop and make them harder to sear properly.

Method

1 Salt the scallops well and set aside at room temperature while you make the asparagus sauce.

2 Steam the asparagus for the sauce. Use a potato peeler to shave the outer layer off the asparagus spears, up to about three-quarters of the way up the spear. This part is more fibrous and will not break down as well in the blender. Chop into 2-inch pieces. Boil the asparagus in a pot of salted water for 5-8 minutes. This is longer than you’d normally cook asparagus, but you want the spears to blend well later.

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3 Remove the asparagus from the pot. If you want to retain that vibrant green color, shock them in an ice bath. Put them in a food processor or blender. Add half the chicken stock and purée until smooth. (If you want an even smoother texture you can push the purée through a fine mesh sieve or a food mill.) Pour the sauce into a small pot and add the butter. Heat over very low heat until the butter melts, but do not let it boil, or even simmer. The sauce should be warm, not hot. If the sauce is too thick you can add more chicken stock. Add salt to taste.

4 Pat the scallops dry with a paper towel. Heat a sauté pan on high heat. Add a high smoke point oil like canola or grapeseed oil, and let it heat up for 2 minutes. The pan should be very hot. If it starts to smoke, move the pan off the heat. Lay in the scallops in the pan, well separated from each other. You might need to sear in batches.

If your scallops are thicker than 1 inch, turn the heat down to medium-high. Most sea scallops are about an inch. Let them sear without moving for at least 3-4 minutes. Keep an eye on them. You will see a crust beginning to form on the outside edge of the scallop, and the meat will begin to whiten upward. A good time to check the scallop is when you see a golden brown ring at the edge of the scallop. Try picking it up with tongs, and if it comes cleanly, check it – you should see a deep golden sear. If not, let it back down and keep searing.

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5 When the scallops are well seared on one side, turn them over and sear on high heat for 1 minute (give or take). Then turn off the heat. The residual heat will continue to cook the scallops for a few minutes. Let the scallops cook for at least another minute, or more if you like your scallops well-done.

To serve pour a little sauce in the middle of the plate, top with the scallops, the more browned side up.

Serve at once. Garnish with a little chopped parsley if you want, and maybe with a wedge of lemon.

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Seared Scallops with Asparagus Sauce

Showing 4 of 11 Comments

  • BigSri

    Elise,
    Fantastic picture and an informative post about how to properly cook scallops. Thanks. I have never eaten or cooked scallops. What is the texture like? Is it like flounder when well done?
    Sri

    The closest I can come to is a fresh piece of swordfish, cooked perfectly so that it is melt-in-the-mouth tender. The problem with that analogy is that most people overcook swordfish to the point that it is steak-like. So all I can say is that it is like a thick piece of fish, should be very tender, and not as fishy. ~Elise

  • Naomi

    Looks good. Question – do you steam the asparagus lightly before peeling the outer layer of the spears, and then cook them more to blender-softness by boiling them? Is it easier to peel after they are slightly cooked, or could I do this when they are raw?

    Easy enough to peel when raw. ~Elise

  • Lydia (The Perfect Pantry)

    Because I love to turn everything into soup, I’d probably take the asparagus sauce just a bit farther — a bit more liquid — to the soup stage, and serve those beautiful scallops like icebergs in the soup. Also, I’m very lucky to get freshly picked asparagus from my local farm, and when they are very fresh, they generally don’t need to be peeled, especially if they’re going into sauce or soup.

  • Martha H.Kaye

    For a further explanation of why sea scallops don’t always brown properly, Ed gave a website, which I tried, but they are moving to a new server. However, I read the following explanation by Susan Selasky in our local paper(which worked for me) and I paraphrase here:

    Fresh, dry-packed sea scallops are not treated or soaked in tripolyphosphate, which is added to increase their weight and extend their shelf life. The preservative causes them to absorb moisture, then during cooking, that absorbed water releases and almost steams the scallops, sometimes preventing a really good sear. Further, if one uses oil for searing the TREATED scallops, the resulting moisture will cause the oil to spatter.

    To avoid this buy fresh, dry-packed sea scallops…. They should be creamy light beige or off-white…. If they are stark white, they may have been treated with the preservative.

    Thank you for the explanation Martha. ~Elise

  • HankShaw

    In answer to some of the questions on which pan to use, I personally cannot recommend a non-stick pan. Non-stick pans are not meant to be put over the extreme high heat you need to brown a wet-pack scallop — the other commenter is exactly right, “dry pack” scallops are the premiere scallop, are not treated with chemicals and brown WAAAY easier. Wet-pack are more common and are far cheaper, though.

    I use cast iron mostly, but I also use a stainless steel All-Clad pan a lot. Both work fine for me. The key is to not mess with your scallops when you are getting that caramel-brown on the “good” side. Don’t flip them until they’ll lift. Then just kiss the other side; you can scrape that side with a metal spatula to remove the scallops if need be, as it will be the “down” side facing the plate, not your guest.

    Anyway, those are my $0.02.

    — Hank

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