The Back Story:
I know my most recent CSA Mystery was a tough one and even you had a chance to see the plant growing, I’m sure it didn’t make it any easier to identify. If you thought it looked like spinach or some other leafy lettuce, you’d be forgiven because the resemblance is certainly there. However, it was not spinach … and to taste a leaf would make that clear in an instant is that it isn’t lettuce. The answer is sorrel ….
If you’re like me, you’ve probably heard of this ingredient before … but you may not have had much contact with it, let alone used it. I suspect in a culture filled with sugar and all things carbs, we have lost touch with some of our roots, some of those more subtle ingredients that filled out traditional French and even English cookbooks.
I picked up this sorrel plant at the end of May on whim never having eaten it or tasted it or seen it or grown it before … but I knew of it. It’s a plant that grows like lettuce and grows without much care or attention. Indeed, it’s planted between two tomato plants, under the eaves, between lawn and house. I give it no water and yet here you can see what it has grown to in two months. It is a beautiful verdant green which even most of the insects don’t seem to bother (much).
When I first tasted a leaf in the Byward Market, the taste was immediate and tell-tale: green, Granny Smith apples. Undoubtedly ‘sour’ to the palette, yes, but without the accompanying ‘acid’ you would expect from an apple or say a lemon. It is a different ‘sour’ and very palatable. The question was, what was I going to do with it when it grew up.
I thought of spreading through a tart salad and contemplated a soup which is what most comes to mind when I think of sorrel. While I will come back to the soup soon, I was in the mood for neither. I had just watched a movie titled The Trip with Steve Coogan and in one scene I watched Coogan and his chum Rob Brydon dine on scallops. And so in an instant, my craving was created and the mission became clear: I would create a sorrel sauce for some buttery scallops.
I also had in my mind that I wanted to use the plentiful array of herbs that were screaming eat me in my garden, so my aim was to use three herbs to round out the plate: sorrel, mint, and chervil. The creation didn’t end there, however. Whilst at the North Gower farmers market, I looked for ingredients to further pair with the scallops. When I found some heirloom fresh peas –purple, yellow, and green — I knew I would create a sweet pea purée. While the real intention was colour I also hoped it would add some sweetness to balance the sorrel. The challenge was that there was only one bag of peas left and in the bag there wasn’t enough purple peas (the prize that caught my eye) to create the effect I wanted … so I add the yellow thinking the worst it would create would be a muted green/purple – but the volume still lacked, so I threw in the green peas too. This is also where the mint was used. The point of this is that you have to be adaptive in the kitchen and while I didn’t get the colour I hoped for on my plate, we have to use the ingredients we have to the best effect we can … so use whatever peas you can find to do the same.
Next up was a bit of an experiment. I mean, who doesn’t love bacon-wrapped scallops? My goal was more subtle, though, because I wanted the sorrel to steal the show … but I still wanted the smokiness and saltiness of the bacon. My solution: pan fry some pancetta to perfect crispness (not burnt) and then pulverize it with a mini food processor into what I am calling “pancetta dust” and which I used as an accent on the plate. I also used the same pan, with pancetta drippings, to fry the scallops. Delicious and it worked perfectly to infuse a bit more flavor into the scallops.
The final creation was a carrot and apple slaw with fresh chervil (recipe here). The intention here was threefold but ultimately to create a unifying dish to bridge all the flavours: a swath of colour in the middle of the plate, some apple to pull out the Granny Smith flavours in the sorrel, and a vinaigrette of lemon and agave to unite the sweetness of the scallops with the tartness of the sorrel.
Cooking Notes: This is an easy peasy dish (yes, I see the pun) but easy enough to screw up. People so commonly order scallops off a menu and they are a crowd-pleaser, but fewer have the courage to make them at home. There is no real craft to it – the only thing you need to remember is HOT and FAST. Make sure your pan is heated well (almost smoking); add your scallops in batches, two at a time; don’t crowd the pan (do batches if you must); and DON’T OVERCOOK: 3 minutes per side is all it takes to create a tasty caramelized crispness on the outside and a sweet, buttery, tender and still juicy interior. In other words, a perfectly cooked scallop. You’re not going to find many other proteins you can cook to perfection in 6 minutes, that’s for sure. So don’t feel overwhelmed: go out and find some fresh (ideally ‘wild’) sea scallops and try this at home and enjoy an amazing taste of summer.
Prep time: 5-7 minutes
Cook time: 10-12 minutes
Total time: 20 minutes
Servings: 4-8 … or as many scallops as you buy
Scallops with Sorrel-Butter with Sweet Pea and Pancetta Dust
Scallops and Pancetta Dust:
- 1 lb (450g) large sea scallops (8-12)
- 3 slices of thick pancetta
- 2 tablespoons (30mL) olive oil
- Salt and pepper
Note: Sea scallops while still much bigger than “bay scallops,” they can still vary a lot in size, so aim for scallops the same size as each other for consistent cooking and plan on 2-3 per person — again, depending on size.
Sweet Pea Purée
- 2 cups of fresh sweet (spring) peas, snapped and strings removed
- 1 tablespoon of fresh mint, coarsely chopped
- ½ teaspoon ~ 1 curl of lemon zest, finely diced
- 2 tablespoons (30mL) extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon whipping cream or melted butter
- Pinch salt
- ½ teaspoon sugar (to taste)
- 1/3 (80mL) cup butter
- ½ cup dry white wine
- 1 garlic scape, diced
→ Substitute: use 1 tablespoon minced shallot instead
- 8 large sorrel leaves, chifffonade (approximately 1 cup of leaves)
- Begin by making the sweet pea purée. To do this, “snap” the tops and tails from the pea shoots and pull the ‘strings’ (front and back) as you do so. Wash the peas and place in a microwave container and ‘steam’ for 2 minutes (or, steam over a pot of water if you prefer).
Immediate fill with cold water to stop the cooking. Add to the water a half-dozen ice cubes. Set aside.
Prepare the lemon zest by slicing 1/4-inch (1/2-cm) slice of lemon. Then, using a very sharp paring knife, remove the lemon fruit … and then remove the white pith from the zest.
Finely mince the lemon and the mint and drain the sweet peas of water and ice.
Place peas, mint, lemon zest and the rest of the sweet pea purée ingredients in a small food processor or blender and blend until you have a smooth purée. Put in the fridge to keep chilled.
- Next, make the pancetta dust. In a large non-stick frying pan, place the 3 slices of pancetta in the pan and fry over medium-high heat for about 2 minutes per side, being careful not to burn.
Lower the heat to medium-low and continue to cook until the pancetta is completely crisp and all the fat in it has been rendered and cooked off.
→ Note: Do not throw away the fat in the pan. You’ll use this pan and the fat later to fry the scallops.
Place pancetta between two sheets off paper towel and soak off the fat. Place the plate in the freezer for about 10 minutes until pancetta is crisp and hard. Once thoroughly crisp, place pancetta in a small food processor and pulverize as fine as you can but before it turns into a paste. Return dust to the fridge for later.
- Now prepare the sorrel butter. This is simple and easy. Begin by washing the sorrel leaves and drying them. Cut out the stems and the centre vein, and discard these.
Roll the leaves tightly together and with a sharp knife, finely chop them “chiffonade.” Set aside.
Next, melt the butter in a medium-sauce pan.
When melted, add the diced scapes or shallots and fry for about 2 minutes until cooked/browned. If using the scapes, the butter will take on a beautiful green colour.
Add the wine now and reduce heat to medium-low and simmer for a minute or two.
Add the sorrel chiffonade and stir in. It will almost ‘melt’ in as it hits the butter and wilts. Reduce heat to low and continue to cook while you prepare the scallops. This will allow the sorrel to almost completely ‘dissolve’ into the butter and wine. Season with salt as necessary.
- Finally, you’re ready to start the scallops. Thoroughly wash the scallops under running cold water, gently opening their folds to wash away any residual sand. Completely pat dry between paper towels and set aside.
In the same pan you used to cook the pancetta, add enough olive oil to the pan and bacon fat to ensure you have 2-tablespoons. Heat the pan to high. Sprinkle the tops of the scallops with salt and pepper. Once the pan is hot, add 2-3 large scallops, seasoned-side down. Wait 30 seconds, then add 2-3 more. Don’t crowd the pan, but if there is room, continue to add in batches … or use a second pan at the same time to spread the scallops out. Sprinkle the opposite side of the scallops now with salt and pepper as well.
Fry the scallops for 3 minutes each, so remember the order you place them in the pan to make sure they’re all cooking the same amount of time before you turn them.
While the scallops are cooking, prepare your plates. I used a squeeze bottle for the pea purée to create an artistic effect; you may choose to do a smear instead. Either way, the intention is to place a small amount of purée under or near each scallop. Similarly, the pancetta dust can be scatter decoratively as well.
Once the scallops are ready, serve 2-3 per plate and place a spoonful of sorrel butter over each. Garnish and serve immediately.