Robert writes: I want to cook Valentine’s dinner for my wife and I. I’m only an s0-so cook, but I’m hoping to make my wife’s two favorite foods: polenta and scallops. I’ve got a couple of days between now and then, but I’ve already picked up the scallops (check out these beauties in the attached pic) and we have some polenta. What else do I need and how would you advise I prepare the meal?
Tony’s take: Robert, as far as your plan goes, polenta and scallops are a fine combination. Texturally, they don’t contrast much which is not a great thing (both are kind of soft), but I like the way the heartiness of the polenta balances out the delicate shellfish. Because it sounds like you’re a little timid in the kitchen, I would suggest broiling the scallops: sauteing them can produce more impressive results (browned crust, creamy interior), but also presents more opportunity for missteps. Broiling is more dummy-proof (forgive the expression), but still browns the scallops nicely. And the quick, hands-free cooking will allow you to focus on the rest of the meal. I’d suggest making a simple flavored butter to go with the scallops. Oranges are in season and, along with some chopped fresh tarragon, would make the perfect accompaniment for the scallops. Mash softened butter with some chopped tarragon (or thyme) and fresh orange zest. Drop a couple pats of the butter on the scallops after they’re done broiling. Then, to go with the scallops, whisk together a batch of polenta with pureed red pepper, grated Parmigiano, and chopped fresh thyme. The result will be …. (wait for it)…. red polenta!! Red polenta for Valentine’s day! Thoughtful, loving, and color coordinated. Add a splash of heavy cream and the mixture will become pinkish (even better!). Spoon the polenta into the center of two warm dinner plates, top with a little mound of lightly sauteed arugula or baby spinach, and arrange the scallops around the plate. Serve with bubbly and something chocolate-y for dessert and you’ll be in the clear for the next year. Good luck!
Serves 2: Prep time: 15 minutes; Cook time: 45 minutes
Roasted Red Pepper Polenta: You’ve got the good stuff for polenta – the slow-cooking stuff, so you’ll want to prepare this first, about 40 minutes before dinner, before focusing on the scallops. Bring 2 cups chicken broth (or water with a sprinkling of salt) to a boil. Whisk in 1/2 cup coarse polenta, reduce the heat to a gentle simmer, and cook, stirring occasionally (about 1x/minute), until the corn meal becomes tender and thick (and releases from the side of the pan when you stir), about 40 minutes. While the polenta is cooking, puree 1 jarred roasted red pepper with 2 Tbs. heavy cream in a food processor. Stir this pureed red pepper mix into the polenta as well as 1/2 cup Parmigiano and 1 tsp. chopped fresh thyme and season with salt to taste.
Broiled Scallops with Orange-Tarragon Butter: Heat the broiler to high and set an oven rack about 4 inches away from the heating element. Make the butter: set 4 Tbs. unsalted butter (1/2 stick) in the microwave and place on the lowest setting for about 1 minute so it just softens. Transfer to a medium bowl and, using a fork, mash with 2 Tbs. chopped fresh tarragon (or 1 tsp. chopped fresh thyme), 1 tsp. orange zest (use a microplane and try to get only the orange skin), and a generous sprinkling of S+P (about 1/2 tsp. each); transfer to the freezer to set for 10 minutes. Rinse the scallops (1/2 lb is perfect for two people), remove the beard (that velcro-y patch also known as the byssus), and pat the scallops dry (this is important as they won’t properly brown if they’re a still a little damp). Set the scallops on large, rimmed baking sheet lined with aluminum foil. Drizzle generously with olive oil (1 to 2 Tbs.) and S+P (about 1/2 tsp. each) and spread so they’re evenly spaced. Broil the scallops until they brown and become mostly firm to the touch, 3 to 4 minutes. If they’re not quite cooked through, flip and continue cooking for 1 to 2 more minutes. Immediately break pieces of the butter onto the scallops so they melt.
Serve the scallops with the polenta and some sauteed greens (infuse a splash of olive with a couple cloves smashed garlic over medium-high heat, add some baby spinach or baby arugula, sprinkle with salt, and saute until just wilted, a couple minutes).