So here’s a food thing I made a while back, when there was still a little warmth left in the weather. On the face of it, it’s a fussy little thing, insubstantial and odd: spicy cucumber salad with seared scallops on top. But for lunch on a sunny and not-scorching day, it’s pretty terrific.
I realize that now is not the traditional time for light, sprightly, small-portion salad meals. But in a season of indulgence, this is the kind of dish that cuts right through the heft and the guilt–ginger and jalapeno and sesame and soy, plus a cushion of golden-crowned scallops on top.
Nothing like what you’ve probably been eating.
The salad itself comes together in a matter of minutes: a little peeling, a little slicing, a drizzle and a toss, and you’re there. Mark Bittman, whose recipe I adapted, suggests using a mandoline for the cucumber, but I did just fine with a sharp knife and a little patience. I also decided to strip alternating ribbons of peel off the cucumber–it just makes the dish look a little more thoughtfully done. The dressed cucumber benefits from a little time to sit–not too much–to let the cucumber soften and the flavoring agents cling.
The original recipe called for an extra step, sauteing some slices of onion in turmeric and adding the golden strands to the salad. I’m not a huge fan of sauteed onion as a standout ingredient, so I left it out and it was decidedly not missed. The seasoning proportions are, as usual, entirely a matter of taste: I found the recipe as written below to be a little on the gingery side, so I’ll dial back on it next time.
The real fun of this dish, for me at least, is finding another excuse to sear some scallops. Searing scallops in a stainless-steel pan is one of my favorite kitchen activities. Get the oil hot enough–dangerously-close-to-smoking hot–and the scallops will hit the shimmering metal and immediately cement themselves to it. But wait–give them time, not much time, just enough time, and eventually their pearly bottoms will turn golden and come unstuck from the pan–voila, they’re ready to turn. It’s one of the closest things I’ll ever do to magic.
I’m putting down an awful lot of verbiage for a really simple dish. This is definitely fussy-without-the-fuss (seared scallops will do that). Not elaborate, not decadent, not weighted with tradition–and that’s really what I crave around this time in December. If you do too, give this a whirl.
Scallops with Ginger Cucumber Salad (serves 4 as an appetizer or small entree)
Adapted from the Minimalist
1 cucumber (preferably the thin-skinned hothouse kind)
1/2 cup unseasoned rice vinegar
1 jalapeno pepper, ribs and seeds removed, minced as fine as possible
1 2-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and finely grated
1 tbsp soy sauce
1 tsp honey
1 tsp toasted sesame oil
1 lb sea scallops
1-2 tbsp peanut oil (or another neutral oil)
If using a regular waxy cucumber, use a vegetable peeler to remove alternating strips of peel, then cut in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds. (Skip this step if using a hothouse cucumber.) Slice crosswise, as thin as you can, and transfer to a bowl.
Whisk together rice vinegar, jalapeno pepper, ginger, soy sauce, honey, and sesame oil. Pour over cucumbers and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes and up to an hour or so.
When you’re ready to eat, pat the scallops thoroughly dry and season lightly with salt. Heat peanut oil in a heavy skillet over high heat, until it just barely begins to smoke. Sear the scallops in batches, about 2 minutes per side, making sure not to overcrowd the pan. Remove the scallops as they’re done and keep warm.
Divide salad among plates, and arrange scallops artfully on top. Finish with a drizzle of sesame oil or a sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds, and serve.