Joni Woolf: Stretching our food boundaries

Published 1:55 pm Saturday, October 28, 2017

I enjoy writing about the familiar. I imagine that many readers relate to this: recipes with familiar ingredients, or that we’ve eaten before, either at home or at a restaurant, are comfortable. We don’t become nervous or unsettled when faced with creating a meal with well-known methods and recipes. Sometimes, though, recipes from unlikely sources can challenge us to stretch our abilities and introduce us to tasty morsels we might never have encountered. So, it is with a cookbook Beth Alston gave me last year. Entitled “Rockenwagner,” the name of the restaurant owner in California whose recipes appear within, the book is replete with challenging recipes that sound exotic, difficult — and delicious. One that will appear below, featuring scallops, could be a hearty appetizer, or a complete, light meal on a fall evening. Let’s try this one and see if it pleases.

Seared Scallops with Spiced Tomatoes and Warm Fennel Salad (serves 6)
Fennel Salad
1 ½ bulbs fennel (about ¾ pound)
4 cups freshly squeezed orange juice
2 carrots, peeled and sliced ¼ inch thick on the diagonal
½ pound pearl onions, peeled
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon dry vermouth or Pernod
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 tablespoon vegetable oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
30 jumbo sea scallops

Spiced Tomatoes
2 ½ tablespoons Spiced Oil (see below)
1 large shallot, finely chopped
3 plum tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and cut into ¼ inch dice
Juice of 2 limes
2 tablespoons finely chopped chives

Salad: Core the fennel bulbs, reserving 6 large outer segments for garnish. Thinly slice the remaining portions of the fennel bulbs against the grain. In a medium saucepan, bring the orange juice to a boil. Add the sliced fennel and blanch for 6 or 7 minutes or until al dente. Remove with a slotted spoon and drain. Repeat the process, first with the carrots, blanching them for 3 to 4 minutes, and then with the pearl onions, blanching them for about 7 minutes. All the vegetables should be just tender. Finally, blanch the 6 large outer segments of the fennel for 4 to 5 minutes, and set aside. Add the fennel seeds to the simmering orange juice and reduce to one-quarter the original volume, until about 1 cup of liquid remains. Return all the vegetables to the pan and toss gently. Add the salt, pepper and vermouth. Cool until slightly warm, add the olive oil, and toss to coat well.

Scallops: Heat a large nonstick pan over medium high heat and add the vegetable oil. Season the scallops with salt and pepper, then saute them for about 1 minute, 45 seconds on each side, or until they are golden. (The chef stresses: do not overcook scallops.) Transfer them to a warm plate in a low oven.

Tomatoes: Wipe out the pan the scallops were cooked in, place over medium heat, and add the Spiced Oil. Add the shallot and saute for 2 to 3 minutes or until softened. Add the tomatoes and cook for 1 minute more, then deglaze the pan with the lime juice, stirring and scraping up all the flavorful bits from the bottom and sides. Remove from the heat and stir in the chives. Meanwhile, very gently reheat the fennel salad so that it is barely warm, tossing it again to make sure the vegetables are evenly coated. On each of 6 heated serving plates, place a mound of fennel salad on one half and prop a fennel segment against it with the base down and the concave part of the segment cupping the salad. Arrange 5 scallops in a semicircle opposite the salad and place ½ teaspoon of the spiced tomato mixture on each scallop.

Spiced Oil: (can be refrigerated and stored up to 2 months)
½ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground fennel seeds
½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon hot paprika
Pinch of ground cloves
Combine all ingredients in a jar, cover tightly and shake well. Let stand for 24 hours at room temperature. Strain through a double thickness of slightly dampened cheesecloth into a clean glass jar. Cover and refrigerate.
Now that you’ve gone to all this trouble to create and conquer a new recipe, reward yourself with a simple dessert: Place a couple of scoops good vanilla ice cream in small bowl, pour a  tablespoon of Amaretto or Kahlua over it, add a couple of Pepperidge Farm cookies on the side, and relax. You’ve earned it.
Note: If we wrote down a favorite recipe in detail such as the one above — for instance, a family recipe for Brunswick Stew — it would appear just as difficult to Mr. Rockenwagner as his recipes do to us. Again — it is the familiar we are comfortable with and so we prepare the same foods over and over. New Year’s isn’t really that far away. So perhaps we can begin to think about a resolution that says something like “I will prepare one totally new and unfamiliar recipe each month.” At least one or two next year? Let’s try.

Joni Woolf, a writer and editor, now lives in Schley County, having moved from her home in Macon several years ago. Contact her at