How Far We’ve Come in the Kitchen

13 Feb

We do things a little differently for Valentines Day. Each year we spend the day shopping for our favorite meal – Sea Scallops with Madeira and Roasted Peppers. The trek takes us all over Charlotte for jumbo sea scallops, shitake, oyster, and crimini mushrooms, piquillo peppers, wine and some variety of dessert. We’ve done this for the last five years, and finally came to a realization after last night’s meal – my have we come a long way in the kitchen.

In 2007, Christy and I took a cooking class at Arpa (now closed) that would introduce us to the dish. The head chef did all the cooking while we drank wine and sampled what he prepared. We walked out with smiles on our faces and recipes in hand for everything we had just eaten. So when Valentines Day rolled around in 2008, we took our first crack at cooking sea scallops at the house.

Now at the time, we were far from being anything but novice cooks. Our idea of “cooking” was throwing some chicken in a “Shake-n-Bake” bag or browning some ground beef for Hamburger Helper. Actually purchasing ingredients that didn’t come in a neatly packaged box was an almost foreign concept to us.

We quickly realized that not all ingredients could be found at the Harris Teeter down the road. So we jumped in the car and started our search for these “exotic” ingredients we knew little about. Trips to Harris Teeter, Earth Fare, and The Fresh Market finally got us our ingredients, though we aimlessly roamed the aisles of each store clueless where anything was. For once, I was one of the people I loathe in the grocery store – oblivious to anyone trying to get past them. I’m sorry to whoever I may have pissed off that day.

Once we got home, it was time to start cooking…though I just wanted to lay on the couch from all the mental anguish associated with shopping. While cooking we made four key observations…

Observation #1: We bought enough food to serve 4 people (12 large sea scallops!). It never occurred to us to cut the recipe in half.
Observation #2: Scallops don’t take very long to cook.
Observation #3: Cleaning and slicing mushrooms do take a long time. As do slicing garlic, piquillo peppers, and mincing shallots.
Observation #4: Starting to cook the scallops before everything else is completely prepped isn’t a good idea.

So as we began cooking, we already set ourselves up for a tough night. We weren’t familiar with the recipe, which meant we had to read every line three times just to understand it. I don’t know what it is about a recipe, but I can read it over and over and always miss one key step. Fortunately, Christy knew this ahead of time and took the lead to make sure the dish didn’t get ruined.

By the time the scallop had been seared, Christy had to wait on me to finish the prep before moving forward. A long delay and my inability to communicate in the kitchen left Christy wondering if this dish could be pulled off (I had already written it off). When all was said and done, everything worked out and the meal tasted great. But the stress associated with finding the ingredients and then executing the recipe left us with 2.5 empty bottles of wine by the end of the night.

Sea Scallops with Madeira and Roasted Peppers

Finally getting it right

Each year we’ve gotten better and better at preparing the dish. And with each attempt, I know I’m truly amazed at how much better we are at cooking compared to that first try. We looked at the recipe last night after eating and were actually embarrassed that we ever had any trouble with it. There are literally three steps to the dish (not counting the prep), and is actually an easier recipe than many other dishes we make on a regular basis.

Maybe we’re better cooks now? Could it be we’re just comfortable with the recipe after five years? Or perhaps we have bigger things in the world to stress out about than whether a scallop gets properly prepared according to a recipe? Whatever the reason, I don’t ever want to go back to the days where the words “sear,” “Madeira,” “piquillo pepper,” and “deglaze” don’t mean anything – for those words make for a tasty Valentines Day.

Chef Illustration provided by Julien Tromeur

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