I love my maman, but if there's one thing she didn't inherit, it's the modesty gene—at least not the culinary modesty gene. "Nobody makes fish soup like I make fish soup," she proclaims. Come to think of it, my mémé didn't inherit it either—at all. Modesty must be recessive.
The thing my mother brags about the most in her French kitchen are her Coquilles St. Jacques. "Vermouth," she winks, as she flicks her cigarette toward the ramekin she uses for an ashtray. "Those little scallops were so drunk, they didn't know what was coming to them." What was coming was a heavy dose of cream, some mushrooms, and a very hot oven. Maybe the Vermouth was a form of mercy.
The interesting thing about this family legend is that I have never actually tasted my mother's Coquilles St. Jacques. I believe the last time they were spotted was in 1983, right around the time I started trading mushy peas for solid, round ones. They were never seen again. I think the hype got so big that my mom was frightened the real thing would now fall short of public expectation. Or maybe scallops are to her what diamonds are to the DeBeers family. Keep them scarce, keep them expensive, keep them wanting more. Either way, twenty-six years later, and my dad still closes his eyes and shakes his head in nostalgic delight at the mere mention of "your mother's scallops."
What are Coquilles St. Jacques?
Coquilles St. Jacques are a French classic: sea scallops squatting in their own half shell beds, blanketed in a cozy, creamy sauce flavored with shallots and mushrooms and maybe some white wine. They wear a bread crumb cap, and are broiled until crisp and bubbly and ready to be picked apart. Whoever said that seafood and dairy do not match was probably assassinated by Coquilles St. Jacques.
Aside from being very drunk on my mother's Vermouth, Coquilles St. Jacques are also very pious. They are named for Saint James, who, it is said, intervened on behalf of a drowning knight, and saved him. The knight emerged from the sea covered in the scallop shells of Saint James.
French With an American Twist
Though I've never tasted my mother's Coquilles St. Jacques, I have heard them mentioned often enough to know exactly how to make them. To reinvent them for French in a Flash, I've converted them into something still decadent and French, but also familiar, reassuring, and American: the pot pie. That's what my cooking philosophy is about, anyway: elevating the basic, and grounding the elevated. That way, food is always unexpected and fresh and whimsical.
These scallops are nestled in groups of five in little individual gratin dishes, coated with a creamy shallot and mushroom béchamel, and topped with a lid of the French: puff pastry, known as pâte feuilletée, which translates literally to "pastry in sheets," decorated with herbaceous garden details, and cooked until the golden crown reveals just a peek of the steaming cauldron beneath. The pastry replaces the breadcrumbs for crunch, and helps soak up that flavorful béchamel studded with sweet shallots and earthy wild mushrooms, drunk on seafood stock, white wine, and of course, maman's Vermouth.
A Note on Some Ingredients
Scallops: You could certainly replace large sea scallops with little bay scallops.
Mushrooms: I take help from the store on these. My supermarket sells a 4-ounce package of pre-sliced mixed mushrooms, which includes cremini, shiitake, and oyster. However, you can feel free to use any mushrooms you like, except for portobello, which are too meaty for this dish. If you buy them pre-sliced, go ahead and chop them a bit more into mushroom rubble.
Fish Stock or Clam Juice: I prefer fish stock, but, for me, it's hard to find, and can be expensive. I used clam juice, and you should too if you run into the same difficulties. But if seafood stock is accessible and economical where you are, use it!
Vermouth: When you are cooking with liquor, as opposed to wine or beer, especially with an open flame, you want to take some precautions. Pour the amount you need directly into a measuring cup, or other cup. Cork the bottle and put it down. Then pour the liquor into the pot.
Puff Pastry: There are purists out there who insist on making homemade puff pastry, or at the very least, buying a "nice" brand like Dufour. I use Pepperidge Farm, and I know Ina Garten does too (she's my puff pastry enforcer). The difference between Dufour and Pepperidge Farm is $8 per packet, and in this case, you don't need to spend the extra money.
Lemons: The fun little addition to this recipe is that the lemons are broiled alongside the pot pies. This makes them sweet and warm, and a bit out of the ordinary, and special.
Pepper: Especially for this recipe, where you want to go a bit heavy on the pepper, use freshly cracked black or white pepper, please. It makes a big difference here.
- 20 sea scallops
- 2 tablespoons butter, plus 1/2 tablespoon
- 2 shallots, sliced
- 1 clove garlic, chopped
- 4 ounces of mixed, chopped mushrooms, including cremini, shitake, and oyster
- 3 tablespoons flour
- 1/3 cup dry vermouth
- 1/2 cup dry white wine
- 1/2 cup fish stock or clam juice
- 1 cup half and half
- 1/3 cup chopped fresh flat leaf parsley
- 2 sheets thawed frozen puff pastry
- Egg wash, made from 1 egg and 2 tablespoons milk, beat together
- Herbs for decorating the pastry, including a few leaves of: sage, basil, chervil, parsley, thyme, or whatever you like
- 2 lemons
- Olive oil for drizzling
- As always, salt and pepper
In a sauce pot, melt 2 tablespoons of butter. Add in the shallots, garlic, and mushrooms, and season with only pepper--not salt just yet. Adding salt now would cause the mushrooms to weep their moisture (wouldn't you, if you were salted and in a hot pot?), and if they weep, they won't caramelize and maximize their flavor. Cook the vegetables on medium-high heat for about 5-7 minutes, until the mushrooms really start to sear and caramelize. Then, season them with salt.
Add the remaining 1/2 tablespoon butter to the pot, and then the 3 tablespoons flour. Whisk to combine, and scare away any lumps. Lower the heat to medium-low, and stir to make a mushroomy roux. Cook for 1 minutes, to chase away that raw flour taste.
Decant in maman's vermouth, and stir until the flour absorbs it. Add in the wine and clam juice next, and finally the half and half. Whisk like you mean it. Season again with salt, and a good bit of black pepper. Cook over medium heat until the sauce thickens.
The way to tell if a béchamel sauce has thickened is to dip a wooden spoon into the sauce. Run your finger down the back of the spoon. If you leave a distinct stripe, the sauce is thickened. If the sauce just pours back over the spot you touched, it is still too loose. If you find that your sauce never seems to want to achieve its maximum béchamel potential, make a beurre manié, or "handled butter," by combining 1/2 tablespoon butter with one tablespoon flour with a fork. Stir it into the sauce, and that should help it thicken up.
Meanwhile, grease 4 individual gratin dishes. I use nonstick cooking spray, but if you're not lazy, you could use butter. Place 5 scallops in each of the gratin dishes, and season with salt and pepper.
Roll out the puff pastry just slightly, and use a saucer to cut out rounds that just fit over the tops of the gratin dishes, with a slight bit of room to overhang.
Pour one ladle full of the hot mushroom cream sauce into each gratin dish, smatter with the grassy parsley, and then cover with one circle of puff pastry, gently pushing the pastry onto the gratin dishes, sealing in the scallops. Take a paring knife and cut 4 little steam vents apple pie-style into the center of the pastry. Brush the pastry with egg wash, and arrange whole fresh herb leaves on top to decorate, as pictured.
Set the pot pies onto baking sheets. I also like to serve roasted lemons with the pies. I cut off the extremities of the lemon, and then cut the lemon in half. I sit them on their smaller flat sides on the baking sheets with the pies, their broader flat sides facing up, and drizzle them with just a kiss of olive oil. Bake at 425°F for 15 minutes, until the pastry is puffed and golden and the sauce is bubbling like a cauldron underneath.