A mid-April dinner was all planned: the onion-mushroom tart I wrote about a while ago (but made with delicious over-wintered leeks) for a first course, then duck breast with southwest French flavors and duck-fat sauteed potatoes. The day before, I cooked the leeks, made the pastry for the tart and did whatever other advance preparation I could. Everything was on track.
Until the next morning, when I went to the farmers market to buy the hen-of-the-woods mushrooms. I saw asparagus! Thin of stalk, but asparagus nonetheless. Owing to the curious weather we’ve been having, the stalks had made their appearance weeks earlier than usual. I couldn’t very well not buy a big bunch, could I?
Having done so, I had to figure out a way to incorporate asparagus into our menu. Could it be somehow shoehorned into the main course, as another side dish? That didn’t seem to give it the prominence it warranted as the first asparagus of the year; so perhaps it should be the first course, steamed, cooled and served with a simple vinaigrette and maybe chopped hard-cooked egg? Classic and lovely.
If the asparagus was going to be the first course, what about that bunch of leeks I’d cooked and the pastry I’d made? Hmm.
Wait a minute: Look here! The fish guy has scallops in their shells, alive: not something we city dwellers see every day. I had to buy some. I’d think of some way to use them.
The brainstorm occurred just after I walked away from the fish stand: If I jettisoned the duck’s southwest French seasonings (garlic, herbs, chilies, all in moderation) in favor of something more neutral (salt, pepper and thyme), I could also ditch the potatoes and serve a wedge of leek-mushroom tart with the slices of medium-rare duck breast. That would leave me free to cobble the asparagus and scallops into a light, springlike first course.
That’s what I did, and it could hardly have been simpler: asparagus salad topped with barely cooked scallops.
Mid-afternoon, I shucked and rinsed the scallops, dried them and put them in the refrigerator. Nearer dinner time, I prepared the asparagus. I used only the top third of the skinny stalks (the rest would be made into soup for the next day). I left the tips intact, and the remaining couple of inches I cut into shorter lengths; the thicker ones I also halved lengthwise for even cooking. I steamed the asparagus for just one minute, then laid it out on a towel to cool (to room temperature) and dry.
For the dressing (just a little bit in this case), I used toasty-flavored walnut oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper and some whole yellow mustard seeds that were staring at me in the fridge; a week or two earlier I had put them to soak in a mixture of water and lemon juice. These would add crunch and a little intermittent zip. If I hadn’t had those, I would not have added prepared mustard to this dressing; it would have been too uniformly mustardy, and I wanted pure asparagus flavor with just the odd mustard seed popping between our teeth as we ate.
With the asparagus cooked, dressed and divided among four plates, I seasoned the scallops and cooked them in a fairly hot skillet slicked with clarified butter. Just one minute on the first side, then I flipped them and turned off the heat, letting them warm on the second side for 30 seconds or so. Timing depends on the size of the scallops, of course.
I set two scallops on each portion of asparagus, sprinkled the dish with snipped chives (optional), and that was it. The fresh bitterness of the asparagus, heightened with the occasional crunch of mustard seed, was a nice foil to the sweetness of the scallops, and the walnut oil contributed its particular aroma. It was a light first course, as planned, and left plenty of room for duck and leek/mushroom tart — and even for second helpings.