July in New England is the “everything goes better with corn” season, and that includes seafood.
Seared scallops on a bed of creamy corn spiked with poblano chiles borders on fancy food, which belies how quick and easy it is to prepare. Sweet corn with cream underlines the sweetness of scallops, and slightly spicy poblanos with cilantro provide the contrast.
This is an easy summer dish, perfect for any night of the week, but make no mistake, it’s also worthy of a weekend dinner with your favorite people. Pair it with some small, boiled potatoes tossed in parsley and butter, then pour glasses of crisp, cold white wine, and toast to good friends. Ah, summer!
Bay vs Sea Scallops
There are two kinds of scallops: bay scallops and sea scallops. As their names indicate, they come from different waters.
- Bay scallops are harvested from shallow waters and estuaries along the east coast (most famously in my neighborhood, from Cape Cod Bay).
- Sea scallops dwell in deep waters and are harvested by trawling boats with chains and nets, or from the ocean floor by licensed scuba divers. Scallops harvested by divers are called Diver Sea Scallops, and as you can imagine, they are much pricier.
Bay scallops are sweeter and much smaller than sea scallops. Sea scallops are about 1 1/2 inches in thickness and diameter, while bay scallops range from 1/2-inch to 3/4-inch wide. They can be used interchangeably in recipes, but cooking times will vary because of their size difference.
Wet vs Dry Scallops
Many scallops are sold after they have been soaked in a bath of phosphates, which makes them swell and appear larger. These are called “wet scallops” and their appearance is whiter than dry scallops. They absorb much of that liquid, which adds to their weight (which you are paying for) and when they are cooked, much of the liquid evaporates, producing a tougher texture.
“Dry scallops” are almost vanilla-colored in appearance, compared to white wet scallops. They will caramelize nicely in the pan when seared and do not release as much liquid. They are sweet, with a natural “from the sea” flavor.
I definitely recommend dry scallops.
How to Prepare Scallops
To prepare scallops before cooking, you first need to remove the side muscles (the small piece of tough meat on one side of the scallop where it was extracted from the shell). You may see very few or no muscles on the scallops you have purchased, but if you do, remove them.
If using frozen scallops, defrost them in the refrigerator overnight or a few hours before cooking. Treat them as above.
How to Sear Scallops
Getting a good sear on scallops is easier than you think. Just follow a few simple steps to achieve perfectly seared scallops every time!
- Dry the scallops well with a paper towel. When they hit the pan, their lack of surface moisture helps them brown quickly. If they are wet, they may become overcooked before they brown.
- You want your pan hot! A cast iron skillet is great for this.
- Once you get the sear on one side, remove the pan from the heat, flip the scallop and let it finish cooking with residual heat.
How to Remove Corn From the Cob
Use a sharp paring knife to shave off a few rows of corn at a time. Either set the ear on a small cutting board placed on a rimmed baking sheet to capture errant kernels that tend to fly all over the place, or (my favorite) stand the corn upright in the center of a bundt pan and let the kernels fall into the pan as you remove them.
What Is Corn Milk?
One of the benefits of using fresh corn is that you can extract the creamy liquid known as "corn milk" that lingers beneath the kernels. Once you’ve removed the kernels, slide the dull side of the knife over the cob to scrape out the pulpy juice. It’s like liquid gold; when added to the kernels, the corn becomes creamy and luscious.
Can I Use Frozen Corn?
In corn season, fresh corn is always optimal, but you could substitute frozen corn.
Unfortunately, you can’t get corn milk from frozen kernels. To mimic the creaminess of corn milk using frozen corn, try pureeing a small amount (about 1/3 cup of the kernels) in a blender to release some of the starch.
Make Ahead Tips
The scallops should be sautéed just before serving, but you could make and refrigerate the corn a day or two in advance and reheat it in a pan or in the microwave. You may need to re-season it with salt and pepper, and add a little more water or cream to restore its original creaminess.
Love Scallops? Try These Recipes!
Pan Seared Scallops with Sweet Corn and Chiles
Be sure to ask for “dry” scallops at your fish market; they release very little liquid and ensure a good sear in the pan, and they are free of preservatives.
This recipe calls for 3 to 4 scallops per person. For hearty eaters, I suggest 4 scallops per person. You can actually ask for the precise number when you purchase them from the fish counter.
- For the creamy corn:
- 5 ears corn, shucked
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1/2 medium onion, finely chopped
- 1/2 poblano chile, finely chopped
- 1/2 cup heavy cream
- 1/2 cup water, plus more as needed
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro or parsley
- For the scallops:
- 12 to 16 dry sea scallops (about 1 1/4 pounds)
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 tablespoons lime juice
- Lime wedges, for serving
- 3 to 4 tablespoons coarsely chopped cilantro or parsley, for serving
Remove the corn kernels:
Set an ear of corn on a cutting board, and working from the thick to the narrow end, cut off 2 rows of kernels. Turn and cut off 2 or 3 more rows. Continue in this way until all the kernels are off all the cobs. Transfer to a large bowl.
Scrape the cob to release the creamy milk from the corn:
After you have removed the kernels, hold one cob over the rim of the bowl of corn, and use the back of the knife to rub across it, going back and forth, to release the pulpy corn milk into the bowl.
Repeat with all the ears. You should be able to get about 1 tablespoon of corn milk per cob. The starchy liquid of the corn milk adds creaminess to the kernels.
Cook the corn:
In a large skillet over medium heat, melt the butter. Add the onion and diced poblano. Cook, stirring often, for about 5 minutes, or until the vegetables soften. Add the corn, corn milk, cream, water, salt, and pepper. Cook, stirring often, for 3 to 4 minutes, or until the kernels are tender. Remove from heat.
The mixture should look creamy. If it seems dry, stir in more water, 1 tablespoon at a time. Stir in the cilantro or parsley. Remove from the heat and set aside while you cook the scallops.
Prepare the scallops:
Rinse the scallops under cold running water. If the side muscle (the small, tough pieces of scallop that attached the scallop to its shell) is present, remove it with a sharp paring knife. Pat the scallops dry with paper towels and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Cook the scallops:
In a large skillet (preferably cast-iron) over medium-high heat, heat the oil until very hot. Add the scallops without crowding them, and turn the heat to medium. Cook for about 5 minutes, or until they are golden brown on the bottom. Turn the scallops over and remove the pan from the heat.
Let them rest for a few minutes to cook in the residual heat from the pan. They are done when they feel firm to the touch and have a slight almost frilly-looking separation on the edge of the scallop. Serve them with the browned side up.
Serve the scallops:
If necessary, reheat the corn over medium heat. Divide the corn evenly into shallow bowls. Place 3 to 4 scallops, browned side up, over the corn. Sprinkle the scallops with the lime juice and cilantro or parsley. Serve with lime wedges.