Sweet, meaty sea scallops are best in winter, and like many other luxury foods, they tend to appear in abundance during the holiday season. Though it doesn’t come cheap, the splendid sea scallop is exceedingly easy to prepare.
To find the best product for your money, get yourself to a good fishmonger. Ask for fresh large or medium day-boat scallops, also called dry-packed — frozen scallops do not qualify here. (Frozen scallops, instead of browning, just weep in the pan, flooding it with their juices; most are dipped in a preservative solution before freezing.)
When you have scallops that are freshly harvested, you can serve them raw for a delightful first course. Make a scallop crudo, thinly sliced and adorned with just a speck of coarse salt, a dribble of extra-virgin olive oil and a drop of lemon. Or use raw diced scallops to make a ceviche, doused very briefly in lime juice and sparked with hot green chile, onion and cilantro.
When cooking your scallops, pan-seared or grilled is the tried-and-true method. Getting the surface of the scallop crisp and brown helps emphasize its natural sweetness and provides a textural contrast to the luscious tender interior.
Some cooks sear scallops nearly entirely on one side, turning them over for only a minute or so to finish. Many like their scallops rare in the center; I prefer to cook them all the way through, keeping them juicy, but not overcooked.
For this quick recipe, I take cues from the saucy, peppery French classic, steak au poivre, usually made with beef tenderloin and pan-cooked. Reimagining the scallops as miniature filets mignons makes sense, non?
The dish gets a boost from three types of peppercorns: green and black (both true pepper), and rose or pink peppercorns (not really pepper — they are the fruit of a different plant — but peppery nonetheless, and pretty too). Crush the peppercorns in a mortar or grind them very coarsely in a spice mill.
Sherry and crème fraîche make a rich pan sauce.CreditKarsten Moran for The New York Times
The whole affair comes together in less than 30 minutes. The scallops are generously dusted with the three-pepper mixture and sautéed on both sides in butter over medium-high heat. A splash of sherry and a good dollop of crème fraîche make a rich pan sauce; use brandy and heavy cream if you prefer.
To add brightness, a shower of citrus zest and fragrant mint just before serving tempers the lavish sauce. To add cheer, may I suggest a crackling fire and a bottle of bubbly?