Every culture, every city, every family, and even every person has their own definition of comfort food. In Greece, it’s Baklava; Jamaica has its Jerk, London loves Chicken Tikka Masala, and Venezuelans venerate their Arepas. By definition, comfort food is a dish that nostalgically soothes the soul, elicits memories of far away times, and masks the unfathomable angst of today.
I’ve a friend whose maladies are always erased by a French delight known as Coquilles Saint-Jacques. Light sparks in her eyes at just the mention of the name. Her well being is miraculously restored at the mere whiff of the bubbling sherried cream blanketing fresh bay scallops. “Heaven.” she is likely to whisper at its appearance. Today is her birthday, but alas, she is on a Paris sojourn; otherwise, it would appear on the menu this evening...
It is a simple dish, brought to the United States by the then still unknown Julia Child, and recognized for bringing French cuisine to the American public with her debut cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and her subsequent television programs, the most notable of which was The French Chef, which premiered in 1963.
For generations of adventurous American cooks, Julia opened doors to a culinary world that was both simple and sophisticated, aristocratic and every man all at once.
Coquilles Saint-Jacques, aka Coquilles St-Jacques, simply translates as Saint James’ Scallops, a rich mixture of butter, cream, mushrooms, and Parmesan cheese, baked in a scallop shell.
The scallop shell is the emblem of Saint James the Greater. The saint’s association with the scallop shell is based on a legend that he once rescued a knight covered in scallops; a variation on the tale is that, while his remains were being transported to Spain from Jerusalem, the horse of a knight fell into the water and emerged covered in scallop shells.
As a result, Medieval Christians making the pilgrimage to the shrine of Saint James in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, often wore a scallop shell symbol on their clothing.
Coquilles Saint-Jacques is a great dish for entertaining, as it may be prepared in advance. It is rich, but the portion is small, and it is always elegant when severed in a scallop shell half, which is easy to find.
Time: 1 hour
Yield: 6 servings
Special equipment: 6 scallop shells or individual ovenproof gratin dishes
Variations: scallops may be replaced by an equal amount of crab, shrimp, wild mushrooms, or a combination of any.
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
¼ cup all-purpose flour
1 ½ cups seafood stock, clam juice or low-sodium chicken stock
1 cup heavy cream
¼ teaspoon curry powder
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
3 large shallots, peeled and diced, approximately 1 cup
12 ounces cremini mushrooms, cleaned, stems discarded, sliced
¼ cup brandy or Cognac
1 ½ cups fresh bread crumbs (approximately 6 slices white bread, crusts removed, finely chopped or pulsed in a food processor)
¼ cup minced flat-leaf parsley
5 ounces Gruyère cheese, grated
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 pounds bay scallops, or quartered sea scallops, abductor muscles removed
Set a saucepan over medium heat, and melt 4 tablespoons of the butter in it. When it foams, add the flour, and cook for approximately 4 minutes, whisking constantly. Add the stock, and whisk again, until it is smooth and thick. Add the cream, curry powder, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Bring the sauce just to a boil, then lower heat and simmer for approximately 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Set aside.
Put 3 tablespoons butter in a large sauté pan set over medium heat. When it melts and foams, add the shallots, and cook, stirring occasionally, until they are clear and tender, approximately 5 minutes. Add the sliced mushroom caps, and cook for 8 to 10 minutes, until they have released their liquid and are just starting to brown. Add the brandy or Cognac, and cook for 1 to 2 minutes, until the alcohol has mostly evaporated. Add a teaspoon of salt to the mixture and 1/2 teaspoon of pepper, and stir again to combine. Add mushroom mixture to the cream sauce, and set aside.
Combine the bread crumbs, parsley and Gruyère in a large bowl, stir to combine, then moisten the mixture with the olive oil, stirring again to combine.
Use last tablespoon of butter to grease 6 1 1/2-cup scallop shells or gratin dishes. Divide the scallops evenly among them and top with equal amounts of the cream and mushroom sauce. Top each gratin dish with a handful or two of the bread-crumb mixture. Place dishes on a sheet tray, cover gently with foil or plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator for up to a day.
When ready to cook, preheat the oven to 400. Remove cover from sheet tray, and place in the oven for approximately 20 minutes, or until the tops are lightly browned and bubbling and the scallops are cooked through.