When I grew up, weekly visits to my grandparents' were as predictable as night following day and most of the time, this meant fun-filled hours of me chasing around the farm with my cousins. But there were those days when we were the only ones going up there and there comes a point where you get incredibly bored with adult conversation and start looking around for things to do... and believe me, there's always interesting stuff to be found in an old farmhouse!
One of the most intriguing finds was the shell of a scallop. I was very little then and had never seen or heard of mussels and other molluscs before, so I couldn't quite figure out what I was looking at. My nan explained that they were "Pilgermuscheln" or pilgrims' mussels. My grandparents were devout Catholics (as you are when you grow up in the deep dark woods of Austria) and while my grandma never travelled further than the 20 km to her cousin's farm near the northernmost border of the country - an endeavour she only undertook once a year, if that often - her husband was widely travelled. Not only from his assignments as an ambulance driver in the second world war, but also through numerous pilgrimages to the most famous Catholic shrines: Lourdes, Medjugorje, Santiago de Compostela - and it was on a trip to the latter that he picked up the shell I was holding in hand. The yearly pilgrimage to Santiago is by the "Way of St. James" and medieval pilgrims would often wear the symbol of a scallop shell of some sort... hence the name "coquille de St. Jacques" in French and "pilgim's mussel" in German, Swedish, Dutch and probably many other languages. Of course, my farming grandparents never had a scallop in their lives and didn't know what they were missing - and little did I know back then that I would grow to love these molluscs so much!
Last weekend, my mother-in-law came to visit and as you do, I sought to make something for dinner that she doesn't usually get to eat very often. Never attempt to cook something for your Mum-in-law (especially not if she is a cookery teacher and renowned cookbook author, like mine) that she has made a million times before and probably has a certain way of doing - which you will never be able to replicate! Rather choose something she doesn't make herself, so to surprise her with flavours she is not that familiar with and therefore couldn't possibly criticise! (Don't get me wrong, I love her dearly and she has never, at least not knowingly, said a bad word about my cooking!)
This time I chose scallops and because I love combining the earth and the sea (or "terre et mer"... doesn't everything sound just so much better in French?), I decided to bed them on a purée of jerusalem artichokes, whose almost smoky flavour I love dearly, and top with some crispy bacon for even more sustanance. A great combination, if I say so myself - I wonder what my granddad would have thought of this... he used to smoke the most magnificent bacon and jerusalem artichokes grew rampant behind the estate, so if the shells he brought home from his pilgrimages hadn't been empty, this could almost have been served at their table, with all the other ingredients provided straight from their farm!
Seared scallops on jerusalem artichoke purée with crispy bacon
(serves 4 as a starter)
6 big fresh scallops (roe removed)
200 g jerusalem artichokes
50 g butter
6 strips pancetta
thyme, to decorate
Clean the scallops thoroughly, removing the membranes and any debris from the shell. Cut them in half horizontally to get rounds of ca. 1 cm thick.
Peel and cook the jerusalem artichokes. Cook them in salt water until they're very tender, drain, add 25 g butter to the pot and cover with a lid. When the butter has melted, mash very finely, then add cream until you achieve a smooth, thick purée. Keep warm.
While the artichokes are cooking, fry the pancetta in a pan (no need to add fat, as the bacon will render enough of it) on both sides until brown. Drain on kitchen paper and leave to crisp up.
When you're ready to serve, melt the remaining butter in a big pan, add the scallops and flash-fry on both sides until starting to brown (1-2 minutes altogether is probably sufficient), but not completely cooked through. Be careful not to overcook them, there's nothing worse than a chewy scallop!
Arrange the scallops on a big spoonful of purée, top with crispy bacon and some thyme (I used lemon thyme (see picture), but the flavour is too strong and not really complimentary) and serve immediately.