Lobster soup with vanilla and saffron, often requested at Michael Roberts’ Trumps restaurant, used one of his favorite secret ingredients — vanilla — in a savory dish, breaking with the spice’s traditional use. The credit for combining vanilla and lobster goes to Alain Senderens, one of the forces in French cooking pushing for new flavors and methods, but Roberts took vanilla to many other exotic places.
Vanilla is native of the southern forests east of the Sierra Madre Oriental in the state of Veracruz in Mexico, where the Mexican Volcanic Belt has created towering peaks with deep valleys capped by waterfalls. There, vanilla was used as payment in pre-Columbian times by the Totonacs to the Aztecs, who used it to scent their chocolate drinks. Once the Europeans arrived, they took the combination and added milk and sugar to it, associating vanilla to sweet flavors. Senderens had broken a long tradition.
Roberts observes that any shellfish will go well with vanilla, so I decided to make caramelized scallops, which taste sweet, with a pan sauce made with vanilla.
The scallops are caramelized by pan-frying. Large scallops (15 or less per pound) could be grilled, but I have yet to succeed at it. If the scallops are small (30 or more per pound) sautéing may be easier.
Caramelizing scallops can be tricky: it’s very easy to overcook them. They are also delicate and frying them to later deglaze the pan requires a watchful eye. Scallops are often frozen at origin and packers may soak then in a sodium tripolyphosphate solution to help them retain their weight or even gain some. Avoid the scallops with tripolyphosphate and check the package for the water content, it should be below 80%, often labeled as dry scallops or dry packed, an indication that no tripolyphosphate was used.
The dry scallops will release less water when frying, helping control the splatter and keeping the pan hot (no liquids to suck the energy through evaporation). I do not have a professional stovetop with a giant burner, so I fry the scallops in small batches. I don’t dredge the scallops in flour before frying, as they will not caramelize as well. If a few weeks go by before I fry scallops again, I feel out of practice, so I fry one and try it.
The chicken broth should be salt-free or low sodium. I find that because of the vanilla, very little salt needs to be added to the recipe. The garlic should be minced, not crushed or pressed, as this will make it more pungent.
For this dish you will need:
- 1 lb of large scallops (10 to 30 per pound)
- canola oil (or other high smoke-point oil)
- 1⁄4 cup white wine
- 3⁄4 cup chicken broth
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- 1⁄2 teaspoon of vanilla extract
- 2 tablespoons of butter
Place the scallops in a colander over a bowl and then seal with plastic wrap. Keep in the refrigerator overnight if they are frozen, for an hour otherwise.
Pick a seasoned iron skillet or a heavy non-stick frying pan to caramelize the scallops. Pour half a cup of water into it and observe what it looks like. You will need to have a feel for this volume when making the pan sauce. Dispose of the water and put the pan over medium heat. Warm a dish for the scallops in the oven set to its lowest temperature (180°F or 82°C).
Dry the scallops over paper towels. Save the liquid that accumulated in the bowl (should be a tablespoon or two) for later.
Pan fry the scallops. Place 1 to 2 tablespoons of oil (butter will burn) in the pan and place a third of the scallops into it, flat side down. Watch as the scallops start to expand at the bottom and change color, about one to two minutes. Flip and fry the other side. You should get a deep brown color with little black. If you time your first batch, the second batch can be adjusted to perfection.
Remove the first batch onto the warm dish and keep in the oven while you fry the other batches. Scrape any bits from the pan and save them for the pan sauce. If they stay in the pan they will burn and turn bitter. Using a paper towel bunched into a ball carefully wipe the pan clean. Fry the remaining batches of scallops.
Pour the wine, broth, garlic, the liquid that dripped while defrosting, and collected tidbits into the pan. Bring to a gentle boil, deglazing any other caramelized tidbits from the pan. The liquid should reduce to one half cup.
Add vanilla extract to the pan and stir for 30 seconds. Remove from heat and add butter, stirring until it melts.
Serve by placing some scallops on the plate and spooning some of the pan sauce around them.