Thursday, February 27, 2014

The online chef: Hungry for restaurant-quality scallops at home, one writer turns to YouTube

Published in the Portland Phoenix

A couple years back, I decided I wanted a new challenge in the kitchen. I love eating scallops at restaurants, and wanted to learn to make them myself. It turns out that home-cooked scallops are crazy-easy, super-delicious, and far cheaper than if you get them when you’re dining out.
But they’re intimidating: How do you get that crispy crust without burning the delicate mollusks? And how do you get them done just medium-rare in the middle, so they’re moist and flavorful, not rubbery and bland?
Recalling a previous year’s cooking lesson from Gordon Ramsay (he taught me how to cook delicious, tender scrambled eggs), I went to the same place I’d found Gordon: YouTube.
It’s truly surprising how much teaching is available on YouTube — and cooking lessons are no exception. I searched for scallops and came up right away with a 2008 video made by Bill King, who was then the executive chef at McCormick and Schmick’s seafood restaurants. (Searching for clams, mussels, oysters, or any other shellfish is similarly rewarding.)
King had a mouthwatering recipe for pan-seared scallops with sweet Thai chili and udon noodles. The video’s production value wasn’t that great, but I wasn’t there for a visual spectacle. The images and audio were clear, the instructions simple and basic, and the demonstration smooth.
I watched it, took notes, and watched it again. Then I went out and bought the ingredients: sweet Thai chili sauce, sesame oil, fresh sea scallops, and a couple packages of precooked udon noodles. (You can also get uncooked ones and make them yourself, just like pasta. I went for the easier option.)
It didn’t cost much; in fact, the scallops, which are so often expensive in restaurants, were under $7 for a solid handful that would serve two. (King’s example included three large scallops; I sometimes opt for four if they’re smaller.) The udon-noodle packets were a dollar apiece. The bottles of chili sauce and the oil were a few dollars each, but they’d keep and be available when I made more scallops later. Sure, it was more expensive than a couple of hamburgers, but not far off the price of steak, and much cheaper than lobster for two (even at today’s sea-bottom prices).
All that remained was to emulate a chef with formal training and decades of experience, in my own kitchen.
It didn’t quite work out the first time. Heeding King’s suggestion to have a very hot skillet, I ended up giving everything a nice layer of carbon. But I was learning, and I could see where I had gone wrong by comparing what happened in my pan with what happened in the video. I knew where I’d gone astray; in fact, I had indeed feared I was burning the noodles and the scallops while they were cooking. I hadn’t jumped in to lower the heat or stop the cooking earlier because I was on my first trial run and taking the directions very seriously.
I would not make that mistake again. It turns out — shocker! — that getting the cooking temperature right is crucial to preparing seafood properly (and, yes, other food too). My pan had been too hot, and I had left the noodles and scallops in the too-hot pan for a bit too long.
Still, I enjoyed the flavors, and was able to craft a plan for improving my performance next time.
And that’s perhaps the crucial rule of taking cooking lessons from YouTube: Test it out before you’re on the spot. If you’re cooking for a family gathering, or even just a hot date, don’t have that be the first time you’re trying to follow a video. Do it a couple times, even several, until you get it right.
Sure enough, a few days later, I was back at the seafood counter, buying more scallops, and then into the Asian section to grab some udon.
That time, I got the noodles right, but undercooked the scallops — I was too afraid of burning them and took them off the heat early. But I rescued them by returning them to the heat. (The removal-and-return to the pan meant the golden-brown crust wasn’t perfect, but I was making progress.)
It took a few more times — and a bad experiment cooking on a different stove at a friend’s house — before I felt confident in being able to make this dish reliably. And even now, I occasionally let them cook too long or too short, and have to make do with a substandard dish.
But it’s in my own home, with friends and family, and vastly cheaper than dining out. So I eat with relish! 

Make them yourselfHere’s the recipe; watch the video at:
>>Three to four sea scallops per person
>>One packet of pre-cooked udon noodles per person
>>Thai sweet chili sauce
>>Sesame oil
>>Pat the scallops dry with a paper towel and then put them in a bowl with a small amount of Thai chili sauce atop each scallop, and a thimble-full or two of sesame oil apiece. Gently mix them with tongs or a spoon, to coat evenly. Set aside.
>>Heat a skillet on medium heat (ignore the video’s recommendation to have it very hot!), and lighly coat the pan with vegetable oil.
>>Put the udon noodle cakes in — only as many as will fit comfortably. Don’t pack them too close together. Now, don’t move them.
>>Cook them for 3-5 minutes, until you can see a golden-brown crust forming on the underside. You can peek carefully if you want to, or just flip them over and cook on the other side as well.
>>While they’re cooking on the second side, put a dab of the chili sauce on top, as well as a drop or two of sesame oil.
>>When they’re cooked through (they become more translucent and flexible), remove them from the heat and set them aside.
>>Wipe the pan with a dry paper towel, just to remove any debris or residue from the noodles.
>>Now return the pan to the heat (still medium) and put the scallops in.
>>Here’s the trick to getting the right crust on the scallops: Don’t touch them once they’re in the pan. Let them sit right where they are, sizzling, for about 2 minutes. (Three minutes if they’re much thicker than an inch.)
>>Then flip them over, revealing the very nice crust, and cook them for another two minutes on the other side.
>>Remove from the pan, and serve immediately.