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I am not an ambitious seafood cook. I would rather keep it simple and fast, which is why I don’t often turn to actual recipes for inspiration. Last week, though, when I was pruning a bookshelf—a donation to the Housing Works Bookstore was in the offing—I came across Leslie Revsin’s Great Fish, Quick: Delicious Dinners from Fillets and Shellfish, and felt as if I’d found a long-lost friend. The book, published in 1997, is dated as far as some sustainability issues go, but it doesn’t matter. If necessary, you can easily adapt the recipes to whatever seafood you choose to buy*.

At my local fish market, I fell hard for the sea scallops. I love their rich, resonant sweetness, and when I saw some real beauts, I just had to have them. Marketed as local and “dry”—that is, not soaked in sodium tripolyphosphate (STP) to retain moisture—there was no reason to disbelieve the claim.

Unlike treated scallops, which are flabby and too shiny, these were firm and creamy white, with a natural come-hither bloom that was impossible to resist. They were moist yet a little sticky to the touch, so I knew they would brown beautifully. Scallops treated with STP are slippery; they can absorb as much as 25 percent in water weight (which you, the consumer, pay for) and when cooked, they “weep” and end up shriveled, not sautéed, with a soapy aftertaste.

What caught my eye in the recipe below were the herbes de Provence. A friend gave me a jar of her homemade blend—a heady combination of dried thyme, rosemary, winter savory, bay leaf, marjoram, sage, and lavender—for Christmas, and it was high time to branch out from roast chicken and lamb.

I first met Leslie in the early 1980s, when she was cooking at the Bridge Café, near the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge. A culinary star, she’d made headlines when she became the first female chef at the Waldorf-Astoria; as poissonière, she was in charge of all fish. The barricades were still up at the top French restaurants in the city, however, and after a bravura four-year run on her own at Restaurant Leslie, she cooked her heart out in restaurants such as One Fifth and Bridge Café—lucky for people like me, I suppose, who couldn’t afford anything more rarefied. After a stint as executive chef at the Inn at Pound Ridge, in Westchester, she became a consultant, a teacher, and a wonderful writer before dying of cancer in 2004, at age 59.

In Great Fish, Quick, Leslie’s voice is as fresh as it ever was, and you can’t help but get swept up in her enthusiasm. She found the fact that scallops can swim by clapping their shells together absolutely enchanting. “Scallops are the castanets of the sea!” she exclaims. It’s a fanciful image, but one that is absolutely spot-on (for a short video, click here). “The first time I startled a flock of those things,” a diver once said, feelingly, to me, “I almost had a heart attack.”

Scallops open and shut their shells by using their drum-shaped adductor muscle, which is what we eat. It’s astonishing that such a hard-working muscle is so yielding and tender. Cook scallops ever-so-slightly underdone, advises Leslie. “They’ll be like satin on your tongue.”

“She was ahead of the curve by baking scallops quickly,” Arno Schmidt told me. The former executive chef at the Waldorf who broke protocol by hiring a woman has just finished a book about his experiences cooking in grand hotels. “Up to her time, they were cooked until leathery.” He took issue, however, with her method of using a rimmed baking sheet. “Most household cookie sheets are very flimsy, and some don’t have a solid rim all around,” he cautioned. “And Leslie created her recipe before there were smoke detectors!”

I lucked out in the smoke department, and used a old heavy-duty quarter sheet pan, which handled its load just fine. But I also experimented with what chef Schmidt suggested—a large cast-iron skillet—and that worked beautifully, too. “Heat it on top of the stove, oil it lightly, and when smoking hot, add the scallops,” he said. “Then finish cooking in a very hot oven.”

Although two pounds of top-quality sea scallops are far from cheap, once you remove the tough little ligament glommed on to the side of each one, there is virtually no waste**. Because they cook so quickly, they make a wonderful meal if you find yourself having to entertain during the week. Served with potatoes, brussels sprouts, and a slice or two of crisp bacon, they are festive and homey, all at the same time.

Roasted Sea Scallops with Provenςal Herbs and Lemon Peel

Adapted from Great Fish, Quick: Delicious Dinners from Fillets and Shellfish by Leslie Revsin (published by Doubleday, 1997)

Serves 4

If you prefer, sear the scallops in a large cast-iron skillet. Finish them by popping the skillet into a preheated 450ºF oven until they’re cooked medium (about 3 to 5 minutes, depending on size), or to your taste. After removing the cooked scallops, add the wine to the skillet and concentrate the juices over a burner as described in the recipe.

2 pounds sea scallops, at least ¾ to 1 inch in height

1½ tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon dry Sherry

a generous ¼ teaspoon dried lemon peel

1¼ teaspoons herbes de Provence

coarse salt and freshly ground pepper

3 tablespoons dry white wine or dry vermouth

1. Preheat oven to 500ºF. Put a heavy-duty baking sheet rimmed on all four sides on the rack with a long side facing you. Take a look at your scallops; peel off and discard the tough ligament on the side. Rinse the scallops, pat dry, and put them in a bowl.

2. Add the olive oil, Sherry, and lemon peel. Crumble the herbs over all and season with salt and pepper. Toss gently with your (clean) hands or a rubber spatula. Let the scallops marinate 10 minutes or so.

3. Pick up the bowl of scallops, open the oven door, and pull the baking sheet to the front. Working quickly, so you don’t let too much oven heat escape, turn out the scallops and marinade onto the sheet. The scallops won’t fall into perfect position of course, but don’t try to move them unless they’ve all fallen into a pile. Push the baking sheet to the back of the oven and close the door.

4. For medium scallops, roast until lightly brown on the bottom and springy-firm when gently squeezed on their sides, 6 to 8 minutes. (They will be slightly translucent in the center when cut with a knife.) For well done, roast a few minutes longer. If the bottoms of the scallops aren’t golden brown by the time they’re cooked to your taste, they will be delicious nonetheless. No matter what, if they don’t easily release from the baking sheet, don’t try to force things, but give them another few seconds.

5. Transfer the scallops, browned side up, to a plate and loosely tent with foil. With a wooden spatula or spoon, scrape up the browned bits stuck to the baking sheet. Add the vermouth or wine and place the pan on the stovetop over low to medium heat. Tip the pan slightly and keep that corner over the heat to better to control things. Let the liquid boil for about 1 minute to thicken and concentrate its flavor. You won’t end up with more than a few drops for each scallop, but those few drops definitely heighten their flavor.

6. Place the scallops on warm dinner plates, drizzle them with the wine juices, and serve right away.


* The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch makes life a little easier—or more convenient, at any rate—with their handy smart-phone app.

** In Japan, even these odd bits are used. The masterful Elizabeth Andoh took a quick break from chronicling recipes and stories from Tohoku in the forthcoming Kibo to explain that scallop ligament, called himo, is dried into chewy squiggles, like squid jerky. It’s eaten as a snack with sake or beer. Me? I’ll stick with edamame and crisp-fried chicken skin.

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