Valentine's Day calls for a special occasion dinner, but "special occasion" doesn't necessarily mean a massive undertaking. In fact, if you want to pay proper attention to your love, getting bogged down in the kitchen isn't the best plan. Instead, think about serving a thoughtful meal featuring a premium ingredient or two that will come together with minimal effort, like this simple leek risotto with seared scallops and a lemony brown butter sauce.
It's important to get the right kind of sea scallops for this dish, which means dry-packed scallops, not wet-packed ones. Your fishmonger will be able to tell you which kind they have. They'll also look different: dry scallops have deeper and more varied hues, while wet ones are much whiter and will leach out milky fluid when cooked. The wet ones are often a few dollars cheaper per pound, but don't be fooled: you'll be paying in part for the liquid they absorb as a result of brining, which negatively affects the scallops' flavor, as well.
We could only find what's commonly referred to as "medium-sized" (U20) scallops when we went shopping for our testing—that "U20" designation means that you'll get about 20 scallops per pound. We prefer "jumbo" scallops (U10), if they're available, as they're easier to sear without overcooking.
The best way to prepare scallops of any size is to keep them cold, dry them thoroughly with paper towels, and salt them 15 minutes before cooking. Do one last pat-down with fresh paper towels right before you put them in the pan. Remember, the drier they are before they go in, the better they'll brown, since water is a barrier to browning.
For the risotto, we favor Carnaroli rice over Arborio, since it holds its texture a little better, but use whichever you can find. We use a classic method here, toasting the rice in extra-virgin olive oil, then adding butter and leeks and cooking until the leeks soften. After hitting the pan with a splash of white wine, we ladle in hot broth in small additions until the rice is cooked.
You can hold the rice at this point until the scallops are cooked and the sauce is ready, then finish it by thinning with additional broth and stirring in grated cheese until the grains are suspended in a creamy, gently flowing sauce.
We decided to add some bright color with sprinkled chopped parsley and sweet red teardrop peppers, though you could use another sweet pickled pepper or omit them entirely.
A little sweetness, a little spice, rich scallops, and creamy risotto—if that's not romance in a dish, we don't know what is.
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