Monday, June 11, 2007

Even more flavor and How to sear scallops

You might be wondering why I haven't posted since last week's spirited discussion on flavor. No, I didn't have the baby yet (4 more weeks to go), but we were celebrating my husband's graduation, entertaining family from out of town, and partying for 3 days straight :)

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) 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.

thanks (and sorry to hijack this very interesting thread).
Dear Jeffrey,

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):
  1. Start with "dry" scallops (follow the link to find out how to buy scallops and what "dry" means).
  2. Dry the scallops very thoroughly with paper towels. Yes, there is a lot of drying going on. Moisture is the enemy of browning.
  3. Crank up the heat under your pan to as high as possible and wait for it to get hot.
  4. Season scallops just before placing them in the pan to avoid drawing moisture out of them.
  5. 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").
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
Of course, the type of pan makes a difference too. You want a heavy pan that heats evenly. Aluminum with stainless steal lining (like All-Clad) or cast iron pans are great. The only time you want a non-stick pan is when searing fin fish. You can get away with a regular pan for really dense ones like tuna and swordfish, but most fish need a non-stick or cast iron pan (the grandfather of non-stick cookware that provides unbeatable browning without sticking).

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.


Katerina said...

Interesting! I have been following your advice on searing fish and it has been going so well for me I will definitely try this. Out of curiosity have you ever done halibut cheeks, and would you use the same technique? I love the little things but I can't get them quite right at home. All the fishmongers tell me to just "treat them like scallops" but I am not convinced. Congratulations on the grad and the impending newborn!

Helen said...

Hi Katerina,

I LOVE halibut cheeks, though they are hard to get in Boston for some reason. Searing is definitely a way to go with them (pretty much the same technique as with scallops).


Katerina said...

Thanks! Yeah they are the best right? I am lucky to be up in the pacific northwest where they are easy to come by and they haven't seemed to hitthe mainstream yet. (That said, I have yet to be able to find any of that bluefish you rave about.)

I really like them lightly battered and deep fried too. I will try your searing technique on them. Thanks.

Helen said...

Yeah, bluefish doesn't seem to make it off the east coast. I guess the reason is that it's a cheap fish, so the transportation costs might not be worth it.

Pam said...

Hi Helen,

Congrats to your husband!

You've now earned a T-shirt like mine: "I survived my husband's PhD"


Alex M said...

From what I've read on umami/msg is that it is the essence of not savory, or meaty quality, but "freshness" (chemically isolated by a Japanese co).

Supposedly it can restore some of the freshness balance to meals that are spiced/cooked in such a way that the original essence of such is inadvertenly masked. Although similar effects can be accomplished naturally by adding fresh herbs or spices when heat is removed from a dish.

Also, it is present in a lot of canned foods, which leads me to believe that it is used to give "old food" a fresh tasting quality.

Peter M said...

Great looking scallops! If I may ask, What sauce & garnish is with them in the photo?

Helen said...

Hi Peter,

The sauce is sauteed mushrooms and shallots finished with a little cream and sprinkled with chives.


N P said...

Hi Helen,
I love your ideas and food knowledge. I have worked in a Japanese restaurant and can offer this info.

MSG is a natural chemical found in the kelp called 'kombu'. Isolated from the kombu in a laboratory, MSG becomes less assimilatable. A lot of the sensitivity one hears about (or experiences) with MSG is due to consuming the partial component rather than the whole kelp.

Jeff said... first personal shout-out. thanks! i'll definitely be searing up some scallops soon. i'll let you know how it goes.


Anonymous said...

Congratulations to you and your husband, Helen. You both earned that PhD, you know. And good luck over the next four weeks!

Katerina said...

Okay, soo... I sort of tried this on my stove at home (electric) and ended with a pan of olive oil on fire. Tee Hee. I then conceded to a non-stick pan on just under medium and got the results I was looking for.. I guess my stove is hotter then it thinks it is?

Helen said...

Hi Katerina,

Oil on fire. Oh-oh -- that's not good. I hope you and your kitchen are ok. I am curious, did you add the oil and then wait for the pan to heat up? I heat and empty pan first, and then add oil just a few seconds before adding the food. This way you don't have oil burning in the pan for several minutes.

And you are absolutely right -- what is "high" on one stove is "medium" on another.


SteamyKitchen said...

jinx! We both posted scallops!

Katerina said...

Nope I waited for the pan to heat up first. I added the oil and it sizzled smoked and alighted in about 10 seconds. I guess the pan was simply too hot. :)

Helen said...

Yup -- it sounds like the pan might have been too hot. Though you could pretend you did it intentionally and call them scallops flambee :)

Anonymous said...

I too have heard umami associated with savory, though I wouldn't dispute if it means something else. To the extent that is correct, I'd toss in another suggestion other than MSG for adding a savory bang to some dishes.

Buy packages of dried mushrooms. Some stores have wonderful selections of up to a eight or ten different varieties from which to choose. Use a mortar and pestle, or a coffee grinder if you have one dedicated to spices, and grind the heck out of it until it's all powder. Add that into soups, stews and sauces to kick the savoriness up a notch or two. I keep little ziplocks of the powder in my freezer to have on hand.

Some people use mushroom soup, canned or powdered, to add flavor, but this is more flexible and doesn't come with lots of salt which might not be needed. Sometimes just a pinch or two can add a depth to a sauce without having people notice and call it mushroom gravy.

Helen said...

Hi rhapsodyinglue,

Great idea with mushroom powder. It makes a great coating for fish, pork, chicken, etc. I've made a bass dredged in porcini powder and seared once and it was fabulous :) Haven't tried adding it to soups and sauces though. It's on my list.


Lewis_Family said...

Awesome looking scallops! I've tried cooking scallops on a crappy pan, so now I know where I've been going wrong. Love the mushroom/shallots/cream and garnish too! Thanks for the tips, will def use them next time around (this Sat!). =)

Some Guy said...

Thank you so much for this entry. I'm a restaurant cook myself and this is a very direct and correct way to get across how to accomplish an important task.