One of the great joys of living on the Coast is the abundance of fresh, delicious seafood.
It is a big part of most people's diet, or at least it should be, and we seem to do a superb job of making use of all that salty goodness during holidays and festivals.
Perhaps the most challenging time to have seafood on the menu is Christmas, with the traditional juggernaut of turkey and ham dominating the seasonal culinary landscape. But it doesn't have to be. The Italian-American community has a wonderful tradition called the Feast of Seven Fishes, or Festa dei sette pesci. The basic idea is to have seafood, at least seven dishes, for Christmas or Christmas Eve celebration. As you might guess, the tradition is most likely related to the Roman Catholic tradition of abstinence from meats for religious occasions, but you do not have to be a good Catholic to take advantage of this great Christmas idea.
Here on the Coast, we can use more traditional local recipes, or at least from fresh seafood that is now available to us now. Let's include scallops and smoked salmon. Even though they are not local, they are delicious and wonderful for special occasions.
This is a wonderful dish that can be served as an appetizer, or if you add pasta, as a wonderful main course. Please remember just one thing: If you overcook the scallops, then all is lost. Sea scallops should be served just rare in the middle. Don't worry; if it is fresh and properly handled, then it will be just fine.
SEARED SCALLOPS IN GARLIC BUTTER
1-2 pounds sea scallops
1 stick butter
3-5 crushed cloves of garlic
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
It would be easier to cook the scallops in the finished garlic butter, but then you would have to remove the solids from the butter, clarifying it, or it would burn and make a fine mess.
So let's begin by making the garlic butter. Simply melt the butter in a pan, add the crushed garlic cloves and slowly cook until the butter is fragrant with the garlic. Remove and discard the crushed garlic cloves. Set the garlic butter aside.
Season the scallops with salt and pepper, heat the oil in a small sauté pan to near smoking hot and sear the scallops for no more than 2 minutes per side. Remove, plate the scallops, garnish with hot garlic butter and serve.
Remember to serve with crusty bread to sop up all the buttery goodness. Serve at once.
Gruyere is indisputably the best melting cheese. Yes, it is expensive, but it doesn't take much. Besides its quality of melting so well, it is delicious. Accept no substitutes.
SHRIMP AND CRAB AU GRATIN
1 stick butter
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup dry white wine
Juice of 1 lemon
Salt and pepper
1-2 pinches cayenne
1 pound peeled shrimp
1 pound crab meat
1- 1/2 cups grated Gruyere cheese
Melt the butter in a large sauté pan, whisk in the flour and cook only for 1 or 2 minutes; do not let it take on any color. Whisk in the milk; when smooth, whisk in the wine, lemon juice and then season to taste. Remember to actually taste, don't guess, and re-season as necessary. Simmer until thick. Sauté the shrimp quickly in very hot oil, but just for 2 minutes.
Chop the shrimp into bite sizes, add the crab meat and mix. Combine the shrimp and crab with the sauce. Pour into individual ramekins, then top with the cheese. Bake at 350 degrees for 20-25 minutes or until bubbly hot and just starting to brown. Serve at once. If you are a good cook you have cooked with a wine good enough to drink with this wonderful meal.
This is another simple but lovely dish that makes a great appetizer or first course. The most important points are to not overcook the shrimp, and to be a master of a good mayo recipe. If you really want to make this dish extra delicious, you will flavor your mayo with saffron.
1 pound large shrimp
1/2 stick butter
Tony Chachere's Creole Seasoning
1 loaf crusty bread
1 cup olive oil
2-3 pinches mustard powder
1-2 pinches salt
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Let's make the mayo first. Combine the egg, mustard and salt in a blender or food processor and mix well. Turn the blender to its lowest setting, and with the patience of Job, slowly, slowly dribble the oil, drip by drip at first, into the spinning blender. When the sauce (yes, mayo is a sauce) has emulsified and is thick, season to taste with the lemon juice. Scoop your wonderful batch of mayo into a container and store in the refrigerator.
Season the shrimp with Tony's. Melt the butter in a sauté pan and turn the heat to high. Cook the shrimp in small batches, no more than 2 minutes total. If the butter starts to burn, remove it and replace it with new.
Cut the bread into 1 inch thick rounds; toast quickly under the broiler. Slather each bread round with the mayo, top with a beautifully cooked shrimp and serve at once. A lovely glass of Chardonnay would be good with this, but make sure it is not over oaked.
This is such a wonderful delicacy, it requires very little fuss at all. Buy the best you can afford, with Scottish wild caught probably being the best. The classic way of serving it is to make little bruschetta-like servings, with slices of toasted crusty bread, topped with a dab of crème fraîche and a scattering of capers. It is a thing of wonder. If you want to do something a little different, substitute a round of freshly sliced cucumber for the bread. If you can't afford the good stuff, buy salmon of a lesser quality, blend it with cream cheese and you will have a wonderful dip.
Julian Brunt, who comes from a family with deep Southern roots, writes the Coast Cooking column that appears in Wednesday's Sun Herald and for a blog at sunherald.com. He is a food writer and photographer with regular columns also in magazines.