I am slowly getting back to Earth now and trying to remember what it was we were discussing. Oh, yeah -- flavor. First of all, let me apologize for criticizing MSG. I've never tried using it and know absolutely nothing about it. The marketing labels on food products and restaurant menus seem to indicate that it's bad for you, but I shouldn't have jumped to conclusions until I did my own research. For all I know, it could all be media hype. Jo Horner from Amuse Bouche graciously agreed to send me some info, so I'll try to get up to speed on this little taboo ingredient.
Another thing I am not up to date on is umami. Lately, it's been everyone's favorite buzz word, but I am not completely certain what this means to us cooks. From what I understood by reading the wikipedia article, it's a savory sensation provided by glutamates that we can detect with our tongue and it intensifies with the addition of sodium. MSG seems to be the ingredient that provides the most umami bang for the buck (is it because it has sodium AND glutamate all in one?). But this savoriness is also found in some vegetables, cheeses, and meats. I guess I have a lot of homework to do, so let me get to the topics about which I actually have a clue.
I got an interesting comment from Jeffrey M.:
on a quasi-related note (i.e. flavor)...how about a deeply flavorful recipe for seared sea scallops? something that really makes you moan in delight. i've been grilling scallops lately in fairly mild citrus-based marinades but want something a little richer and more moving on the palate.Dear Jeffrey,
thanks (and sorry to hijack this very interesting thread).
No apology necessary. Your question couldn't be more relevant and it got me thinking about another flavor booster home cooks can take advantage of: maillard reaction. That's just fancy speak for "browning." When I cook in class, students often ask me if the fish or meat is burning. Ok, maybe sometimes they are actually burning if I am trying to do too many things at once and not paying attention. But most of the time, they are just browning. Seriously browning.
I wish we changed our stereotype of a bad cook from someone who burns everything to someone who bakes everything (particularly with a little bit of water in the pyrex dish to prevent the food from sticking :). The fear of burning is understandable, especially if you set off your fire alarms. But if you want to make those "richer and more moving on the palate" scallops, you have to crank up the heat, get rid of marinades, and give your scallops plenty of room in the pan.
You can't be afraid of heat and smoke if you want to make restaurant quality food. You have to get rid of that stirring and checking instinct we all have. Unless you are making a stir-fry, just let the ingredients be. Here are some tips on how to sear scallops (most of these tips apply to all protein):
- Start with "dry" scallops (follow the link to find out how to buy scallops and what "dry" means).
- Dry the scallops very thoroughly with paper towels. Yes, there is a lot of drying going on. Moisture is the enemy of browning.
- Crank up the heat under your pan to as high as possible and wait for it to get hot.
- Season scallops just before placing them in the pan to avoid drawing moisture out of them.
- You don't need much fat and you can use whatever you want (canola, olive oil, butter, or some combination). Just add enough to a pan to make a thin coat (about 1/16").
- Place scallops in the pan leaving some space between them. Since we don't have a stack of sauté pans sitting by our stove the way restaurant cooks do, it's tempting to squeeze every last piece into our one pan. Please don't.
- When placing scallops in the pan, realize that that's their final destination. You can't move them once they are in the pan, or you'll prevent the crust from forming.
- Don't check them every 2 seconds. In 1.5-2 minutes, you'll see the browning starting to creep up their sides. That's when you turn them and cook on the other side.
- In the case of scallops, don't try to cook them all the way through. They should be rare in the center, so as soon as they are browned on both sides, they are done. If searing a thick piece of fish or some other food that requires more cooking, finish it in the oven to achieve even internal temperature. That's another thing, we home cooks are a bit lazy about. We don't want to turn the oven on too often. Yet, if you watch what the line cooks do in restaurants, pretty much all thick protein is finished in the oven.
So where does that leave the rubs, marinades, and secret ingredients? To tell you the truth, I think they are over-rated. The only protein that can't live without a marinade is a skinless chicken breast (because it is so tasteless). Marinades definitely have their uses, but what I often see is their misuses. This topic is a whole other can of worms, so I'll leave it for another time.