Monday, 14 March 2016

Scallop carpaccio with monks beard, winter tomatoes and fennel

I’m so happy that the winter dreariness seems to be lifting as we welcome the first few sunny days of spring. I am often asked what my favourite time of the year is for produce, and although I love the orange and yellow earthy yields of autumn, the vibrancy and freshness of spring fruit and vegetables really take some beating. I always look forward to embracing the colder months with a glut of steaming soups, stews and slow-cooking. Comfort food at its best. But I’ve had my fill, and now even the slightest tickle of the new season has got me craving small plates of delicately-flavoured morsels. Specifically, carpaccio. 

As a fishmonger I am lucky to see this seasonal shift at a hands-on level. At this time of year, although the mackerel seem have performed their annual early spring disappearing act, many UK fish and shellfish are at their peak; nearing spawning time and benefitting in condition from the months of cooler water. I am always really inspired by the fish that we sell every week, and there is always something in particular that really shines out. Recently I was excited about the first proper wild black bream run of the season, and it won’t be long until we see the first sea trout. But last week the things that really caught my eye were the scallops. They were real beauties, diver-caught and still housed in their tightly-clenched shells. They immediately got the old recipe-cogs in my brain turning, and I just had to place a greedy order for some.
When I opened the box I wasn’t disappointed. I really enjoy scallops seared in a stinking hot pan, basted in butter until a burnished crust forms on the outside, encasing a tender, just-cooked middle. But with something so fresh (still very much alive), I almost didn’t want to waste them by adding an element of heat. A simple, tomato-based dressing and a few other seasonal bits and pieces were all that was needed to create a really delicious plate of food.
It’s always best to go to a fishmongers with an open mind, and let them tell you what is good on the day. So if scallops aren’t the thing for this recipe, they can be substituted with other raw white fish such as seabass, bream, or even flatfish such as brill, halibut or sole. The other flavourings will allow whatever fish you choose to be the main event.
Serves 2
5 very fresh hand-dived scallops, in their shells 
1 small bunch of monks beard, roots trimmed 
1 large handful (approx. 300g) of winter tomatoes, such as camone 
1 small fennel bulb, fronds kept 
1 Sicilian lemon, zest and juice 
Extra virgin olive oil

First make the tomato dressing. Take two-thirds of the tomatoes and tip into a food processor. Add a good pinch of salt, the zest of the lemon (and any leaves) and about a quarter of the fennel. Pulse the vegetables until coarsely chopped. Line a fine sieve with a piece of muslin, and position over a bowl. Tip the blitzed vegetables into the sieve and allow the clear juices to slowly run into a bowl for about an hour, without squeezing or pushing through. Once the liquid has been collected, pour it into a smaller bowl and set aside. Discard the vegetables. 

Fill a saucepan with water and bring to the boil. Season well with salt. Fill a large bowl with cold water and have it standing by. Blanche the monks beard for 20 seconds, then transfer straight into the cold water to stop the cooking. Once cold, drain the monks beard and pat dry with some kitchen paper. Tip into a bowl and dress with a good glug of extra virgin olive oil.
Halve the remaining tomatoes and cut into thin wedges. Scoop out the middles and discard. Transfer to a small bowl and dress with more oil and a pinch of salt. 

Prise the scallop shells open with a butter knife, then run a sharp, flexible knife flush to the inside of the flat shell to cut the scallop away. Carefully sever the muscle that attaches the scallop to the bottom shell, then use your hand to scoop up the contents. Run your finger and thumb around the scallop and peel away the frill and roe (this can be used in a different recipe). Repeat until all five are done. On a clean chopping board, slice the scallops into thin discs.
To serve, arrange the scallop slices onto each plate. Spoon over a little of the tomato dressing, then top with the monks beard, fennel fronds and the tomato wedges. Finish with a squeeze of lemon juice, a good drizzle of oil and a sprinkle of salt and pepper.

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