by Edward Schneider
In another place, Mark recently wrote about the genesis of a dish. In some of my stories here and elsewhere, I try to describe this too, though not explicitly, and when Jackie and I are together in the kitchen I’ve been doing my best to tell her what goes through my mind as dinner is prepared. Her contribution turns our meals into real collaborations – and it palpably improves them.
Mark describes opening the refrigerator, pondering its contents and starting to cook. For me, a dish starts to come together – for good or for ill – before that, on my six-minute walk home from the office. I may not know exactly what the fridge and the pantry hold, but I have some idea of the staples and the more recent accessions – and of the scraps and leftovers that should be eaten before they need to be cast aside.
At a recent Wednesday farmers’ market, we bought a dozen sea scallops of impeccable freshness; gorgeous, gorgeous herbs (mint, parsley, dill and tarragon); peas (real shelling peas, not these eat-me-whole johnnies-come-lately); and fava beans. In the house were pretty good potatoes and all the usual rices, pastas, dairy products, sour things, fats and salted goods such as anchovies, capers, olives and so forth. I wanted to preserve the green freshness of the peas, favas and herbs, so these latter strong flavors were out.
The alternatives were many: some sort of soupy risotto? A mixed-herb pesto or salsa verde with the scallops, and the peas/favas on the side? That pesto swirled into that risotto? Pasta?
On my way home I pass a post-frat-kid bar that serves food, and they post their often misspelled daily specials on a board outside the door. One of their offerings that day was some sort of chowder, and it was that word that made our dinner menu click into place.
Pea/fava/scallop chowder made with cream: this would bring in the potatoes, too, and it could feature one of those herbs, perhaps mint or dill. Or better, scallops with pea/fava chowder – the two elements cooked separately so that the scallops could be seared instead of just poached with the vegetables. And this wouldn’t be my normal kind of chowder, as I wanted it to be lighter and more herby – and anyway I couldn’t be bothered to get a chunk of bacon out of the freezer. In fact, it wouldn’t be a real chowder at all, though it would feel like one in the mouth.
Then, when I got home and took another look at the twelve scallops, they seemed a lot bigger than they had in the market: they were clearly enough for two meals. So I had to look 24 hours ahead, and decided to save the favas and the mint for the next day.
From this point, all was clear, and it was as though I were following a recipe. Potatoes diced and steamed; pea pods juiced and the resulting bright green liquid stabilized with a little cornstarch, brought to the boil and cleansed of the scum it threw off (you could substitute some peas pureed in the blender, of course); a shallot sweated in butter in a pan; the peas added with a drizzle of water so that they would steam in the covered pan until not quite done. Then in a skillet six scallops lightly seared on a film of clarified butter, and at the same time the pea-pod juice, some cream and dill added to the peas along with the potatoes. A squeeze of lemon went into this “chowder,” which in turn went into soup plates with three scallops set on each portion, followed by an additional sprinkle of dill. Salt and pepper all the way, of course, and a piece of lemon on the table for additional brightness if needed (it was).
This is a dish I’ll repeat, for sure. It could have been made with other herbs, of course, and no doubt will be. And it could have been more chowder-like: a little bacon wouldn’t have actually damaged it. But it was just about perfect the way it was and (Jackie having shelled the peas before I got home, and apart from juicing the pods) it took no time to make once the idea had gelled – thanks to that one word on a sidewalk signboard outside a noisy bar.
(I’ll tell you about what we did with the other six scallops another time.)