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Asparagus-scallop salad worth writing home about

| Sunday, April 19, 2009

While my culinary assistant and I were getting ready to test recipes in my kitchen last week, she mentioned that she was expecting overnight company in several days. Friends were coming from England, and she wanted to plan a special menu for their first meal on this side of the Atlantic. Although Mary mentioned several dishes as possibilities, she admitted that none seemed exciting. Then, we prepared the first recipe of the day, and her face lit up. After one bite of the pan-seared scallops and asparagus tossed in a sherry vinaigrette, she decided that this simple first course would be perfect to start the evening with her guests.

To prepare it, we assembled a vinaigrette dressing with sherry vinegar, which pairs particularly well with seafood. Next, we cut the asparagus into 2-inch lengths and blanched them, then we halved sea scallops horizontally (which makes the scallops go further and cook more quickly). The scallops were sauteed until golden, then the blanched spears were stirred in and cooked only until warm. Finally, these ingredients were tossed in the skillet with some of the dressing. The vivid green of this spring vegetable made a lovely contrast to the snowy white background of the seared fish.

The dressing can be prepared several hours ahead, the asparagus blanched, and the scallops sliced in advance. At serving time, only a quick saute is necessary. My pal will follow this starter with an orange glazed ham, a potato gratin and fresh peas. You also could serve this dish as a main course for a lunch or light supper accompanied by warm, crusty bread and a platter of cheeses and fresh fruit for dessert.

Pan-Seared Scallop and Asparagus with Sherry Vinaigrette

For the sherry wine dressing:

• 1 1/2 tablespoons sherry wine vinegar

• 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt and several grinds of black pepper

• 3/4 teaspoon Dijon mustard

• 2 tablespoons finely chopped shallots

• 1/4 cup olive oil

For the salad:

• 1 1/2 pounds slim asparagus spears

• Water

• Kosher salt

• 12 extra-large sea scallops (about 1 ounce each, 10 to 12 ounces total)

• Olive oil for sauteing

• Freshly ground black pepper

• 2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley

To make the dressing: Whisk together the vinegar, salt, pepper, mustard and shallots in a small nonreactive bowl. Gradually whisk in the olive oil until incorporated. (The dressing can be made as long as 4 hours ahead; cover with plastic wrap and leave at cool room temperature. Whisk before using.)

To make the salad: Snap the tough 2- to 3-inch bases from the asparagus and discard. Then, cut the spears, on the diagonal, into 2-inch lengths. Bring a large saucepan of water to a boil; add the asparagus and 2 teaspoons salt. Cook until the asparagus is just tender, for about 3 minutes. Put the asparagus in a colander and place under cold running water until cool. Pat the asparagus dry with a clean kitchen towel. (The asparagus can be cooked as long as 5 hours ahead. Cover and refrigerate.)

Remove and discard the tough connective tissue on the side of each scallop. Cut each scallop crosswise in half and pat dry.

Heat enough olive oil to lightly coat the bottom of a large, heavy skillet and place over medium-high heat. When oil is very hot, add the scallops and saute until lightly browned, for 1 to 2 minutes per side. Do not overcook, or the scallops will become tough. Add the asparagus and cook and stir until the asparagus is heated through, for 1 to 2 minutes. Season the mixture with salt and pepper to taste. Remove from the heat and add half of the salad dressing to the skillet, and toss to coat the ingredients lightly.

Divide the salad evenly and mound on 4 salad plates; drizzle each portion with some of the remaining dressing and sprinkle with parsley. Serve warm.

Makes 4 servings.

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