I remember the first time I ever heard of Coquille St. Jacques. I have been a voracious reader for as long as I could read. As a young elementary school student, I read this book about a seemingly poor girl named Mazie (sp?) during the Great Depression. Her mother died while she was young, but not without giving Mazie a sister who she named Grace so that “when people said their names together it would sound like “amazing grace.” Mazie’s aunt took her to the big city where her aunt ordered something called Coquilles St. Jacques (which the first-person narrator sounded out phonetically) at a nightclub. I remember that how the girl described the way in which her aunt ate the CSJ made me think it was some fancy oyster dish. It was years before I realized CSJ was an actual dish and quite different from oysters. Though the name of the book is a long-distant memory (if you know the name of the book, please throw the title in the comments below as I have been wracking my brain and Google for days trying to recall the name), the CSJ has stuck with me rumbling around in the back of my mind ever since.
I was recently reading a seafood-themed back issue of Saveur magazine and the CSJ modestly profiled whispered to me. There were many recipes that were exciting and attractive (lookin’ at you, Minorcan Clam Chowder), but we really enjoy scallops in our house. Did I forget to mention CSJ is scallop-based? Yes. Not the oyster one my young imagination envisaged. A bed of pan-flashed sea scallops nestled on a scallop shell. Each one is speckled with with sautéed mushrooms and then blanketed in a punchy Béchamel. Each portion is anointed in the earthy assertiveness of shredded Gruyère. The lot is passed under the broiler to achieve that crispy, golden lusciousness one looks for in a melty cheese topping. It’s also pretty interesting to note how well the cheese complemented the dish as a whole considering it was a seafood dish. Seafood dishes aren’t typically known to have an affinity for cheese.
There are many takes on CSJ in existence, but they all are pretty much recognizable and bear the same basic theme. This particular one (linked in the first paragraph) stems from a tiny set of islands I’d never even heard of until reading the article. These islands are located off the coast of Newfoundland, but ruled by France, so the cuisine is heavily coastal, unalternatively seasonal/local, and heavily French-influenced. Cool and foggy and only accessible by ferry, the local residents must fish and forage for much of their daily sustenance. This has a huge impact on their diet, health, and lifestyle. Not necessarily for the worse either. There’s a rich sense of life, abundance, and community on these little islands that is so hard to come by on the mainland.
The dish is traditionally and beautifully served in a cleaned scallop shell. The name itself literally translates St. Jacques Shells (aka Gratinéed Scallops). However, out of simplicity (and perhaps a touch of frugality or ill-preparedness – no one will ever know which), I chose to serve mine in the individual cocottes that we had received for our wedding almost ten years ago (register wisely, friends). They’ve held up wonderfully over the last decade and really come in handy for individual, lidded casserole-type dishes when you aren’t making whole big portions. This daintier dish would have certainly been lovely on the open scallop shells. For the ‘gram, right? But the jus that pooled at the bottom of the dish… where the scallops swam… that stuff was made for being sponged up by fluffy slices of French bread! I’m not even sure that jus was supposed to be a thing, but as a consequence of my method… our soft pillows of bread sought it out and found it every single time. Spoon? No thanks! Not a single droplet of liquid was left.
Up until this point, the only way we’d ever enjoyed scallops was with a hard sear on the outside and swimming in a pool of risotto. My first time cooking scallops, I successfully seared them to our preferred doneness. Gordon Ramsay, I’ve since learned, has a different standard for serving his. His get a much lighter sear than ours, though we do agree on the texture of risotto. Maybe the level of sear is a cultural or geographical preference or maybe it’s the difference between a homecook and a classically-trained, world-renowned chef. In whatever case, at least I have a husband (and a dear friend) who agrees with me on the proper or preferred sear on a scallop. This dish actaually doesn’t produce a sear on a scallop. The scallops are partially cooked in a small amount of boiling liquid prior to being topped with ingredients and broiled under the protecting blanket of a creamy white sauce and good quality cheese. This ensures the scallop is neither over, nor under, cooked. Hallelujah!
The surprising thing was that there were leftovers! The dish was so rich and unctuous (combined with the Taylor Farms Mediterranean Crunch Salad and fresh-baked French bread) that it was surprising filling. We both only ate half of our individual dishes leaving delicious leftovers for the next day. I was initially worried about reheating such delicate seafood, but this didn’t seem to be a problem. My dish was just as tender and flavorful the second time around. If you’ve ever eaten a rubbery scallop or even any overcooked piece of fish before, you know what I mean here. It quickly loses any appeal and the rest of the meal is tainted by a grossly mishandled protein. No one wants chewy scallops. Like shrimp, they ought to be firm enough to spear with a form, but still maintain that tender chew one looks for in shellfish.
Question: What are some of your favorite shellfish dishes? Any regional ones I need to try?
Currently Reading: Big Wonderful Thing: A History of Texas by Stephen Harrigan
Scripture of the Day: “And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.'” ~Genesis 1:28