Nothing feels more triumphant than expertly mastering a difficult dish. For me, it’s my seared scallops and fennel risotto. And I know I’m awesome at it because it’s hands down the most requested dish I make for special occasions. I’ve been making (and perfecting) it for almost ten years and I think I’ve finally got it down. As for the risotto, this one features fennel but you could easily do a butternut squash and sage one, a beet root one, a pesto one…the list goes on.
A note on the scallops, since you know, I’m like, THE expert. Searing scallops is not easy, it takes patience and a hot-ass pan. The trick is to not be afraid of the heat and to not be tempted to shake the pan or peek under the scallops before they are actually ready. The reward is crispy and tender scallops and a buttery, fragrant risotto. An important thing worth emphasizing: be sure to get “dry” or “diver” day boat scallops. Fishmongers often store scallops (and most seafood) in a salt solution to maintain freshness and make the appearance of the seafood more plump. Avoid this at all cost- and yes, day boat scallops are more expensive. If you don’t, that’s a one-way ticket to squishy, squeaky, wet scallops and you’ll get annoyed and curse me and never attempt these again.
Keep practicing with this one!
Seared Scallops and Fennel Risotto
Yield 2-4 servings
For the scallops
- 1 pound (about 12- 15) dry day boat scallops
- olive oil
- salt and pepper to taste
For the risotto
- 1 cup arborio (risotto) rice
- 1 medium fennel bulb, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
- 3-6 garlic gloves (per your preference)
- 1 onion, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
- 1 cup cheese from a block of good salty parmesan or pecorino
- 1/2 cup good dry white wine
- 6-8 cups chicken or vegetable stock
- 3T ish olive oil
- salt and pepper
- Line a cookie sheet or large platter with 2 layers of paper towel.
- Prepare the scallops by rinsing them thoroughly to remove sand and the muscle on the side of each scallop. This is a tough, fibrous piece that looks kind of like the tab on a soda can. Feed it to your cats or dog and make them happy.
- Place clean scallops on the paper towel-lined cookie sheet and dry as thoroughly as possible. They should be almost sticky they are so dry. Keep them on the paper towel and place in fridge.
- De-core and chop fennel into small 1/2 inch cubes. Fennel doesn't breakdown as much as an onion does when cooked so whatever size you chop it to, assume it will stay that size. Keep a few fronds for garnish at the end if you're feeling fancy.
- Chop onions; peel and slice or crush the garlic.
- In a dutch oven or large pot, heat a few tablespoons of olive oil. Once glistening, add the risotto rice and toast for about 3 minutes then add fennel, onion, salt, pepper and half your portion of garlic and sauté until onion and fennel are soft.
- In a separate saucepan, heat stock or broth and keep on low to simmer. More on this below.
- Take swig of wine, then deglaze pan with a good glug or 1/2 ish cup of it. Once wine has evaporated, ladle in one cup of warm broth into the risotto and continue to add a ladle at a time until each cup is absorbed by the rice. Be patient with this step. It's kind of annoying but makes the risotto really creamy and tender without the cream! The risotto will tell you ultimately how many cups it needs so don't worry if you have a little broth left over in the small pot.
- Once risotto starts to soften (about 20 mins), add remaining garlic, a huge whack of good salty cheese, about 1/2 cup and check in on your salt and pepper levels.
- Start heating a large skillet (NOT a non stick one) for your scallops on high. Coat with 2 ish tablespoons of olive oil, depending on your skillet size. Pull scallops out of fridge and sprinkle one side with salt and pepper. Note: we waited to salt the scallops until the last second to avoid drawing water out of them. Goal is to keep them as dry as possible to get the best sear.
- Wet your finger under the faucet and flick water off your finger into the oil in the skillet. It should hiss, spit and pop when you do this. If it doesn't, wait and try again once pan is hotter. Only when the skillet passes the water test, carefully place scallops seasoned side down into the pan. Let sear for about 3-4 minutes and then flip. If the scallop is properly seared, it shouldn't stick to the pan and you should see the brown carmelization creeping up the side of the scallop. This takes practice. Finish second side for 2 mins and transfer scallops to a platter or just turn off the burner.
- Check on your risotto, adding any remaining stock to finish cooking the rice. If needed, add fresh crushed garlic, salt, pepper depending on what you think it needs. Garnish with some more cheese and the reserved fennel fronds.
- Spoon some creamy risotto onto a pretty plate with 4-6 scallops nestled on top and be sure to drizzle any scallop juice from the pan or plate onto the dish before serving.