Why I’m (Almost) a Grinch
And…. (deep breath): the holidays are upon us.
Putting it that way reminds me of a short story I used to read for public speaking competitions as a high school student, The Lottery. Spoiler alert: the last sentence of Shirley Jackson’s piece is “…And then they were upon her.”
Jackson was referring to something more sinister than the holidays. But I’ll admit that this time of year fills me with dread almost as much as what happens in the story. When the holidays “are upon us” it feels dire. But why?
Allergic to holiday crowds
Last week, in a concession to tradition, we took our kids to see the windows at Printemps department store, which is close to my school. Avoiding weekends around there was a priority for us, even in non-Covid times – I guess both of us are allergic to holiday crowds.
So when I suggested the idea to my Frenchman of bringing the kids over to that side of town, the only reason he got behind it was as an excuse to eat a plateau de fruits de mer at the classic Art Nouveau-style restaurant Mollard. (It could also have been an excuse to eat roasted chestnuts.)
Hi! I’m Allison, and I’m an Edutainer working in French food, culture, history, and art. If you’re a gastro-curious traveler or learner, I’m here to show you the A to Z of French food and culture!
Flying pastry bags
Seeing the shop windows through my kids’ eyes was fun – even I can admit it was a wonder. And the one with mice-elves flying through the air on pastry bags was a delight. But the windows designed around Chanel perfumes or Prada handbags? Not so much. We skipped past those, because at age 4, my kids don’t need exposure to luxury products. And this is what I dislike at the holidays: the rampant consumerism and pressure to buy things.
Even this invitation on a plate to spend time off-line: is it sincere? Or another marketing ploy? Maybe off-line really is the new luxury.
French “fast” foods
I used to pretend to like the holidays, because that’s just what you do, right? And who wants to be The Grinch? “But time makes you bolder…” That’s what I’ve been hearing in Parisian shops and restaurants lately since many have been, quite strangely, airing Fleetwood Mac. What’s up with that?
So now, instead of faking it, I just ignore the parts of holiday-making that I don’t like, and focus on the glorious French foods I love. Because really, the only thing that gets me excited around the holidays is the food. There are the “fast” foods that require no cooking: foie gras, oysters, smoked salmon with blinis, Champagne.
Scallops with Champagne Cream Sauce
And then there are the restaurant “fast” foods too, like the ones we enjoyed at Mollard after seeing the shop windows. More oysters, shrimp, dog cockles (amandes), and mussels, and the kids tried everything! They loved the oysters, and those thin slices of brown bread served slathered with butter, both salted and unsalted. And we all enjoyed the Art Nouveau decor.
Eating and drinking in France
It might seem fussy, but if you take the time to make this recipe, you’ll see why it’s worth it. The sauce isn’t hard to make, but it tends to be a little long, what with the different steps in reduction. But reducing just means letting a liquid boil to concentrate its flavors, so there’s nothing inherently technical about it.
There’s nothing like eating and drinking in France, but for preventing Grinch-like behavior at the holidays, these scallops will definitely do the trick!
Scallops with Champagne Cream Sauce
note: Since Champagne is expensive, I usually prepare the sauce with crémant or any not-too-dry sparkling wine. Just ask your local caviste, or wine-shop owner, for a bottle of semi-dry sparkling wine. If you can only find dry sparkling wine, that’s okay, but you’ll want to eliminate the lemon juice in the recipe since the acidity from the wine will be enough for the sauce.
- ½ bottle (375 ml) semi-dry sparkling wine or Champagne (see note above)
- 1 medium shallot (about 1 ounce or 30 g), minced
- 20 fresh sea scallops, cleaned and blotted gently with paper towels
- 1 cup (240 ml) fish stock or clam juice
- 1½ cups (360 g) heavy cream
- ½ teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 4 tablespoons (½ stick; 60 g) high-quality unsalted butter, cut into cubes and well-chilled
- ⅛ cup minced fresh chervil (or any other herb you like; dill is also good)
for cooking the scallops:
- 1 tablespoon butter
- ½ tablespoon olive oil
- In a small to medium saucepan, bring the wine and shallots to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium, and let the wine boil, reducing for about 25-30 minutes or until there’s almost no liquid left at all. Make sure to stay close by during the final few minutes to avoid burning.
- In the meantime, rinse the scallops well, and drain. Place them on a plate lined with paper towels. Drying the scallops is important if you want them to sear nicely.
- Add the fish stock or clam juice to the wine mixture, and bring to the boil again over medium heat. Let the mixture boil for about 5-6 minutes, skimming as necessary.
- Remove the saucepan from the heat, and slowly whisk in the cream. Bring this mixture back to the boil, and continue reducing (boiling) for about 15 minutes, whisking from time to time.
- Add the herbs and leave the saucepan in a warm place.
- Melt the tablespoon of butter in a wide skillet or non-stick pan, or two of them if needed, and when it starts to foam, add the oil. Swirl the fats around the pan, return to heat for about 1 minute, and add the scallops, spacing them generously.
- After about 3 minutes, check the underside of a scallop – if it is nicely browned, you can turn over all the scallops quickly. Remove the skillet from the heat source entirely, cover the pan well, and let the scallops sit while you finish the sauce.
- In the meantime, add the lemon juice and salt to the sauce.
- Remove the saucepan from the heat, and add the butter cubes a few at a time, whisking well as you go.
- Add the herbs to the sauce and stir.
- Spoon the sauce first onto slightly warmed plates, and then place 5 scallops on each plate. If you like, garnish with extra herbs.
4 main course servings; sauce makes about seven ¼-cup servings