About 15 years ago I read a food essay in the New York Times about a man wanting to impress his girlfriend by making a romantic dinner. He chose to make risotto for her, and in his essay he described so vividly and passionately each step in the cooking process that it changed my whole outlook on making food for people. You see, up until that point, I thought being a good cook entailed accumulating recipes, having innate talent, and learning technical skills; it seemed to me I’d never be able to pull off an impressive dish without an inordinate amount of stress and luck. But I learned then that with dishes like risotto — and actually with lots of dishes — it’s more about the love you put into it than anything else. I wish I could find that Times essay now, because I often think about how it altered my whole attitude in the kitchen.
This approach is never more true than when you are preparing a special romantic dinner for your mate. The dish I’ve made here has a whole lot of love, plus comforting rice tenderly cooked in white wine, warming vanilla, spirit-lifting saffron, and accompanied by golden-seared scallops. Oh, and finished with a natural aphrodisiac garnish of chives. This is love on a plate! And it doesn’t require any fancy techniques, just your full attention at the stove.
Vanilla-Saffron Risotto and Pan-Seared Scallops
6 large scallops, rinsed in cold water and patted dry
1 1/2 cups uncooked arborio risotto rice
4 cups chicken stock
1 vanilla bean, sliced lengthwise, seeds scraped out and reserved with pod
A pinch of saffron threads
1 shallot, finely chopped
1 Tbs. olive oil
1 1/2 cups dry white wine
3/4 cup shredded parmesan cheese
1-2 pats of unsalted butter
Salt & pepper to taste
Chives (4-6, chopped or kept whole for decoration)
Do some prep work first: Rinse and pat dry the scallops and set aside. Chop the shallot and set aside. Shred the cheese and set aside. Pour 1 1/2 cups of rice and set aside. Pour 1 1/2 cups of wine and set aside. Prepare 4 cups full of hot chicken stock, and add the vanilla bean (seeds & pod) and saffron threads; set aside. Gather ingredients close to the stove, if possible. Set up a flat-bottomed pan (with at least 2-inch high sides) for the risotto and one for the scallops.
Cooking directions: Warm the risotto pan over medium heat and add the olive oil and chopped shallot; cook until nearly translucent, 2-3 minutes. Add the uncooked rice and stir; let it lightly toast in the oil among the shallot pieces, another 1-2 minutes. Add just one cup of the wine to the pan and stir well, letting all the rice soak in the liquid. After a few minutes, when the liquid has been absorbed, add a 1/2 cup of the chicken stock mixture (with the vanilla and saffron mixed inside); stir and wait and let this be absorbed. Repeat and continue like this, stirring nearly constantly and letting the stock get absorbed 1/2 cup at a time. (It will take a full 20 minutes, give or take a few, for risotto to be fully cooked)
When you are used to the rhythm of the risotto, use the time between adding stock to cook the scallops (keeping an eye on and stirring the risotto when necessary). Heat the vegetable oil in a pan over medium to high heat. Lightly salt & pepper one side of the scallops. When oil in pan is nearly smoking, place the scallops face down and spread out around the pan. Let cook undisturbed for 3-4 minutes if they are thick & large. When dark golden brown, flip and cook for another 2-3 minutes. When they are beginning to look done (no longer translucent, starting to show some cracks as they cook through, and dark on both sides), drizzle one teaspoon of the chicken stock mixture over each scallop and let steam briefly. Transfer scallops to a plate.
When risotto is nearly done (just a slight al dente bite to it), add the final 1/2 cup of wine instead of the stock. Once absorbed, add a little more stock and mix. When rice is just soft, turn off the heat and add butter in small pieces and the shredded parmesan and mix well. Garnish with chives and the seared scallops and eat with spoons. Pairs nicely with a dry white wine, or your wine of choice. Serves two.