technique and texture: tips for composing an elegant entree

When I think elegant entree, one of the first things that comes to mind is scallops. Some call these fleshy nuggets the "candy of the sea." I very rarely cook scallops because they seem too fancy and advanced for a home-cooked meal in front of the television. But while at Whole Foods this week, I couldn't help myself when I saw the large diver scallops on sale.

My first tip for composing an elegant entree is to spend the money on the key ingredient - in this case, the scallops. If you skimp on the main component of your dish, you will be able to tell right away. The most common kind of scallops that you see at the store are wet-packed sea scallops; you may also find diver-caught scallops which are higher quality and larger in size, but also more expensive. If you are cooking for a smaller group and you can find the diver scallops, you won't regret it! They should be plump, even in size, and very white in color.

I knew I wanted to make something light and fresh to pair with the richness of the scallops. One of the best ways to balance a rich protein like scallops, salmon, or a steak filet is to pair it with a light and acidic sauce or a fresh blend of vegetables. You commonly see scallops paired with citrus (think lemon or grapefruit) and fresh herbs. For this recipe, I decided to buy a large fennel bulb and a grapefruit, as well as fresh figs, which are just starting to appear in the market as summer approaches.

My second tip for creating an impressive entree is to find ingredients that contrast in flavor and texture, to create excitement and intrigue in each bite. The crunch of fennel, the burst of juice from the grapefruit, and creaminess from crumbled goat cheese help to balance and complement the creaminess of the scallop flesh, which on its own can seem very rich and heavy. This approach can be applied to any rich protein - for instance, pairing steak with sauteed spinach, lemon and garlic.

Finally, I would recommend mastering a few key techniques for cooking your delicious protein ingredients. Searing scallops or steak in a very hot metal skillet is a great way to seal in flavor and get a beautiful golden crust on the outside. You should be sure to baste the protein in butter while it cooks over high heat. If you tilt the skillet and use a large spoon to scoop up the melted butter back onto the scallops, they will develop a more even golden crust; this is also true for a good steak filet.

With a high-quality protein, a fresh and exciting combination of ingredients with varying textures, and a few cooking techniques under your belt, you too could whip up an elegant entree any night of the week! It's hard to beat butter-basted scallops...