Saturday, January 02, 2010
Diver-Caught Scallops? Yeah, Right...
My first job of the day on the starters section was washing and picking three hundredweight of lettuce - about enough to fill 23 Volvo estates. There were four types of leaves – rosso, oak leaf, frissee, and radicchio. I’d pick each leaf off, carefully rip it into strips, and throw away the spine.
The lettuce had to be washed three times until the water was clear, then dried in a salad spinner. It was a dreadful job in winter – the water was so cold that after an hour your hands would go completely numb and you’d lose all sensation in your fingers, and if you ever got caught skimping on the washing, there’d be trouble.
Once my tubs were filled with endless prepped leaves, I’d move on to the terrines, soups, and whatever else needed doing. Every few days, Greeny would pop down with a wild salmon for my gravlax. I don’t know if he was still getting them from the poacher we’d met in the pub. There were rumours he’d bought himself a snorkel and a speargun and was doing it himself.
The fillets were cured with salt, sugar, lemon and lime zest, and wrapped tightly in clingfilm, and kept in the fridge for three days. The curing mixture was washed off and they were covered in finely chopped dill, and kept in the fridge for another day for the herb to penetrate the flesh. The skin would be leathery by then. I’d slice the flesh and serve it with blinis, made from buckwheat flour, fresh yeast, beer, eggs, salt and sugar. I’d make fresh blinis for every service and keep them warm in a tea towel under the lights.
The scallops that came in varied in quality. Sometimes they were small and grey, and looked like they’d been on the boat for a couple of days. Other times they were beautifully sweet and pearl white. After two bad batches in a row, we started buying them in the shell and shucking them ourselves. Sometimes they were so fresh they sprang back as you prodded them.
Stewie, who as you might remember had studied a marine biology degree and had intellectual pretensions above "just being a chef", knew all about scallops and how the boats that caught them wrecked the seabed. He grimaced as he showed us the shells, and the chips round the edges caused by dredging. He said that was how you could always tell whether they had been diver-caught or not. We were still describing ours as 'diver-caught', so one day I put a copy of the menu in front of Stewie just to watch his reaction.
He immediately became incensed and yelled at the restaurant manager to change it. “If these are diver-caught,” he screamed, holding up the battered shells like a court exhibit at the Old Bailey, “then I’m a monkey’s fucking uncle!”
We served the scallops with a vierge sauce, which is very easy to make, and in my humble opinion is the best way to serve them. You dry roast coriander seeds in a pan and crush them with the end of a rolling pin, releasing a wonderful aroma. You add olive oil, white wine vinegar, finely diced red onion, tomato concasse, and chopped garlic, parsley and chives.
The vibrant pink and green sauce looks great with the scorched, golden-brown scallops. The trick with cooking them is coating them in rust-red scallop dust (dry scallop roes under the lights and blitz them in a grinder). The powder caramelises as they cook and gives an intense flavour. The other trick is not to overcook them, or as Keith Floyd liked to point out, "they become like rubber bullets".
To get away from the madness on the other side of the kitchen, and the need to fight for space on the stove, I used an induction cooker on my station. The beauty was it'd get a pan spitting like a trapped cat in seconds, and gave out no residual heat so you could put lettuce nearby without it wilting. I’d fry the scallops in a sizzling hot pan for 30 seconds on each side, so they were caramelised on the outside and marshmallow soft in the middle.
After a couple of weeks, I tinkered with the vierge sauce recipe and added a few crushed fennel seeds. Underbelly of aniseed, and thoughts of France, I mused in a rare moment of pleasure. I was so proud of the addition that in a moment of madness, I told Jules.
“Who told you to change it?” he snapped.
I bit my lip. He was just like all those other robots that come out of Michelin star restaurants - a complete cunt.
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