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A potato, a scallop

[one_half][I]t occurred to me at some point that watching Jacques Pépin work is an awful lot like watching my Dad. First, he looks like my Dad. They are exactly the same age and build. For as long as I can remember, Dad has kept his hair parted on the side, spatters of grey peeking out behind a home dye-job, carefully combed into place with a spare application of Three Flowers Brilliantine Pomade. Like Dad, Jacques occasionally pauses to audibly slurp saliva that has accumulated at the corners of his mouth. Both men move with fluidness and deliberation. But what I think reminds me most of my father is the way that Jacques approaches even the seemingly trivial task of chopping an onion with an almost pathological degree of meticulousness. I remember the Rhau household being home to perfectly pattern-matched wallpaper, seams disappearing even over outlets and circular wall plates. Fitted sheets were folded into flat rectangles of uniform thickness. Written driving directions always included an accurately scaled map, drawn freehand. I would try to learn how to do things the way he did, but with my kid hands, I could never get things quite as tight, even, or square as my Dad.

So you might understand why I continue to watch, with childlike wonder, footage of Jacques, his hands a blur of activity, cutting an onion into a mound of uniform squares in seconds. Wanting to learn how to properly handle a knife, I wasted no time getting Jacques Pépin’s Complete Techniques. The book needs no introduction to many of you. If it does, and you’re serious about cooking, go get it. It’s an invaluable and extremely thorough collection of step-by-step photo tutorials, presented in the charming, black and white style of an auto repair manual. It also contains a recipe that was new to me, and has since become a go-to move in the Babychili kitchen. I present it to you, with pictures of my hands instead of Jacques’s. Taking a page from Donna Ruhlman’s playbook, key technique photos are presented in black and white, as color does not contribute information in this case.

* * * * *

We last made this dish at a luxury dinner party of another sort, as a shout-out to a different chef: Richard Blais. I really felt for Richard, and what he might feel upon reviewing his decision to make banana scallops for the second time in a single season of Top Chef (three total, in case you missed it). My concept was to make “scalloped” potatoes, where seared sea scallops were paired with soap-shaped, roasted potatoes of roughly the same size, shape and colors. We were so pleased with how they turned out that we decided to make them again.


Pommes savonnettes (soap-shaped potatoes) from Jacques Pépin’s Complete Techniques

5 large, starchy potatoes (Idaho russets work well here)
2 T butter
1 1/2 T neutral oil (grapeseed or vegetable oil)
3/4 C water

I was a bit nervous about making these for a shoot, since Erin had previously been the one executing this dish. The first step does take a bit of practice and patience. It’s important to remember that a mistake is not the end of the world. Potatoes are relatively inexpensive, and imperfectly cut ones can be used for many things (mashed potatoes, home fries, etc.).

Peel and rinse the potatoes, then shape them into cylinders. Carving out the cylinders is by far the trickiest step. Three things I learned here:

1. Use a narrow bladed knife. Like a jigsaw, it is easier to turn and maneuver.

2. Trim the ends of the potato to be square with its long axis. Do this first. The flat ends will provide visual references as you trim the curved body of the cylinder.

3. Angle your knife to make a shallow first cut. If you start cutting too deeply, you will be trimming more potato than is necessary. Observe:

My first cylinder was really skinny as a result. Contrast this with my third potato, starting with flat ends and a shallower cut:

This time, the trimmings were dramatically thinner. It’s easiest to use a sawing motion with the knife, turning the potato to cut along a curve. Try to achieve a rough cylinder, going back a second or third time to refine. For me, this quickly became a fun game, where my goal was to lose as little of the potato as possible while still achieving a nice, clean cylinder. Note the vast improvement that resulted from these few, simple adjustments:

Next, slice each of these cylinders into disks about an inch thick. Optionally, you can bevel the edges, which makes them look a bit less like scallops and more like pieces of hotel soap. The beveling also makes things look a bit cleaner after cooking, since the edges can fray.

Arrange the potato disks into a single layer in a large, nonstick, oven-safe skillet, with the nicer looking sides facing down. Add butter, oil and water. I find it’s convenient to combine these items in a pyrex measuring cup and melt the butter in a microwave. The mixture can then be poured evenly over potato slices. If the surface of the skillet is covered with the potato slices (as it should be), the liquid will come up to about 3/4 of the height of the slices.

Bring to a rolling boil over high heat, then place in a preheated, 475 degree oven at the lowest position (preferably the floor of the oven). Cook for 35 to 40 minutes, until potatoes are soft. The tops of the potatoes should be blistery, and slightly brown.

Allow potatoes to rest at room temperature for a few minutes, then flip them over. The bottoms should be beautifully browned, and the act of turning should allow the potatoes to absorb most of the remaining butter and oil.

Sea scallops with cilantro gremolata and ginger lime beurre blanc

I made the full recipe for the gremolata and beurre blanc, but prepared only a dozen scallops to feed 4. For reasons I have discussed previously, I used freshly cracked black pepper instead of white pepper.

Presentation is always a matter of personal taste, but I chose to plate two potato slices with one scallop.



(Photo: Jason Ezratty)


71 replies on “A potato, a scallop”

Very nice, Ben. I like the quality of the post; the black and white images are great and the tutorial is very clear. Way to go earning yourself a spot on the next challenge. 🙂

Ben – thanks for your kindness towards my father…..and the photo of him – and the one of your father, well, I do see what you mean! All the best to you and yours. Cheers!

Claudine, what an honor to have you comment on my blog. Thank you. Glad you enjoyed it. It was actually harder for me to find pictures of my Dad, who is even more camera-shy than I am. But he looks even more like Jacques when his hair is longer.

Hey Ben,

It was really great meeting you at BlogHer. And thank you for tweeting my pear mixer! LOL. They actually called and told me to pick it up but thanks for the tweet!

I love the black and white photos and the transition to colored when you started cooking the potatoes. Well done!

Ben, if you ever need a single post to summarize this blog, this should be it. It’s got everything – wonderful story about your dad, beyond gorgeous photos, and very precise and clear explanation of a technique. I never thought about doing food photos in BW before and you’ve opened my eyes. I already loved your other posts for this PFB business but with this, you’ve officially BRUNG IT – it’s ON! ^_^

Thanks. I’ve always thought there was something magical about b+w that made even bad pictures look better. Couldn’t put into words until I read Donna’s post about it. She is so bang on; have to give her credit.

Beautiful. The words, the photos, all of it. I especially love the black and white, and the story about your dad and Jacques Pepin. I used to love watching him teach Claudine how to cook – my dad taught me too. Cheers to dads everywhere!

Ben, another beautifully woven narrative! Your father’s attention to details and meticulous manner reminded me of my father’s obsession with organization and planning (even though he was beyond skillful while in the OR, he was completely lost wielding a chef’s knife:)
I enjoyed watching Jacques Pépin cook when I first discovered food on TV.
Excellent choice in pairing the “scalloped” potatoes with scallops!
Good luck in the contest!

My own dad has long since given up in the kitchen. He used to pan fry a chuck steak past well done with the idea that it would tenderize. If only he had an immersion circulator…
Thanks for the support!

So good to meet you this weekend at blogher and enjoy the power of Ruhlman – us lucky last-minute locals.
Beautifully written and photographed piece Ben. I so respect and admire Jacques and have gotten so much from La Technique. My husband found me an old first-edition used, not in mint condition but obviously used as a hands-on teaching/learning tool (which is what it was meant to be), and I appreciate it so much more that way. It’s not hyperbole to say that I learn something every time I watch Jacques on television, even if only for one brief segment of his PBS show.

Happy Birthday Jacques! (His 75th birthday is this week.)

Thanks, Rachel. We should eat bacon together again sometime. Never did get around to that bacontini (to those who weren’t there: i’m not kidding).

Yes, the bacon-tini was real (made with bacon-flavored vodka named “Bakon” and the glass rim was coated with candied bacon), as was the stomachache I had after I drank said ‘tini.

What, no cupcakes?! I kid, I kid!

Simply put, I’m blown away by this post. The photos, your words and the emotions behind them – beautiful beyond words. You and your blog are a treasure, Ben, and I’m honored to have spent time in your company this weekend. Rock on to the title, man, you deserve it!

Don’t make me cry, Tara. That breakout session with Penny De Los Santos tapped out my quota for the next 5 years. But thanx for being my #1 fan. 🙂

Ben, Ben, Ben. It’s like I don’t know where to turn. There’s the beauty of the post, the fact that you not only nailed it, but nailed it with potatoes, and the fact that you had my BlogHer ticket and got to meet my longtime blog-buddy Tara. I am sighing audibly as I type.

BTW I didn’t mention it before, but when we did the ticket deal, you weren’t the first one to reply to my posting, but yours was the blog I liked best. You haven’t disappointed and that’s an understatement.

I love it. A velvet rope where the bouncer is judging blog posts is possibly the only one I may ever cross. To exclusive NYC night clubs: Up yours!

The first paragraph, detailing the resemblance between your Dad and Jacques Pépin, is pure perfection. It’s funny and very endearing. At the same time, I kind of feel for you, it must be a bit daunting at times to have a Jacques Pépin look-alike in your kitchen – I know this would make my hands shake! 🙂 Evidently, yours are very steady as your scalloped potatoes testify. I admit I’ve never had a copy of Mr. Pépin’s Complete Techniques in my hands but it sure seems like a good idea! Just added in my (10-pages-long) wish list! Great job on this post, love the black & white turning into color to showcase your beautiful plating. Reminds me of Bourdain’s Rome episode perfection.

First of all, Blais blew it by repeating the banana scallops. By the finale I was screaming “AGAIN?! ARE YOU SERIOUS!?!” at my TV set.

That aside, this dish is entering my “to cook” list. Your plate looks so neat and perfect. Scalloped potatoes is such a classic dish, I’m impressed with your update. Good luck this week, voting for you!

Lick My Spoon

I came back to read the rest of your comments and now I’m blown away that you had The Daily Spud’s ticket! Wow, as big as the food blog community is, it continues to feel like a small world.

As for the crying … I burst into tears all over again when describing Penny’s session to my husband. You’re in fine company, Ben! 🙂

Omg I always say Jaques Pepin reminds me of my dad, too! Yours totally does look like him though. Fabulous step-by-step; your photos are beautiful! Good luck 🙂 🙂

I absolutely loved the black and white photos. They capture the intensity of working without all of the “Glam.” And, I’ve been a huge fan of Jacque for more years than I would like to admit. My Everyday Cooking With Jacque Pepin have pages that need to be gently opened, given the amount of fallout that fell in it while I cooked a meal, so many times. You totally have my vote. Great work!

Thanks for your nice comments and the voting. I’ll add that sometimes the color versions are not glamorous at all. Really depends on the picture, but I do like being able to simplify a story with b+w.

Hey Faux-Blaise…ehmm, I mean Ben. Nice job! So creative!!! The b/w pics make it look very cook book-y and I think that is cool. Extremely professional. I mean, I think you could get a spot on Top Chef just with the photos;)

I remember the first time Blaise made the “scallops” I was like, “what? a damn banana?” but once I saw the finished dish, I saw how innovative he was. I really like him.

Anyways, Ben, you are definitely some competition. I enjoy every one of your posts: the writing, photos and your creative twists. Certainly, someone to be worried about…

You liked that gross pink fondant? I guess it was gross to me because it was so grainy. The color wasn’t sooo bad. Thank you for your sweet comment.

(sorry this is like a book) But I have to say, I watched Jacques all the time on PBS when I was a kid and when you said the thing about saliva-slurping, I died laughing! I always thought that was so funny and endearing. Remember the shows when he would have his daughter on there? Bless her heart.

Guess what? I figured out how to turn on the name/website thingy! I am so glad you said something because I didn’t even know that I could! so much to learn. Thank you, dear.

beautiful tutorial! Your plating is just lovely. And your photographs are fabulous as always. Nicely done. Scallops are such a treat, and these look mouthwatering. I voted for you yet again!

Good luck! Hope to see us both in round 5!!! =)

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