The first time I tasted Coquilles St. Jacques was in the fanciest restaurant in my small northern BC hometown. It was my first parent-sanctioned date and it was a very big deal for the boy who emptied his wallet to buy us a truly grown-up meal. The restaurant is still a great place for a celebratory dinner, the boy is still a good friend and Coquilles St. Jacques is still a personal favourite.
Sadly, Coquille is another dish on a long list of outdated and cliché menu items, once considered haute cuisine, now just a pedestrian relic. But, like so many of these unfairly maligned foods, it is less about the taste than about over-exposure. It’s a lot like that song that you heard on the radio every two hours one summer that was then relegated to the long-weekend classics play list – you still enjoy it when you here it, you just don’t want to hear it every day. I’m happy to play that old song today… though not the original. Instead I’m going to play a modern cover.
Every time I’ve had Coquilles St. Jacques in a restaurant, and it’s been a goodly long time, it has been small scallops swimming in cream sauce, covered with mashed potatoes and served in a scallop shell. I’ve had a few variations – one with shrimp, another with mushrooms, each with varying quantities of shallots and garlic, but for the most part they have never strayed too far from the theme. This photo from the Impromptu Gourmet website is exactly as I remember that first Coquille.
The funny thing is that Coquilles St. Jacques is generally understood as a specific preparation for scallops but it is actually a medieval name for the scallops themselves. The scallop was the symbol of the Order of Saint James during the crusades and the scallop was so named the “shells of St. James.” The Christian association with scallops is why you will often see them as part of Christmas dinner in France – though you may not see the creamy preparation we are so familiar with.
That’s enough food trivia. The real task is to update this classic. My launching point is the weather. It is far too warm for a bowl of cream sauce and I wanted to lighten the overall dish while maintaining the luxurious elements that make Coquilles so wonderful. Instead letting my scallops swim in a pool of cream, I decided to grill them and let them wade in the shallow end. Second, I traded the mashed potatoes for a ramekin full of Potatoes Anna nestled on a pile of wilted spinach. I’m very fond of mushrooms with scallops and cream, so I grilled a few slices of portabello to finish the dish off.
The sauce is a basic white wine reduction finished with cream and is really open to adaptation. Start by sautéing a finely diced shallot and two cloves of garlic in a couple of tablespoons of butter. Once they’re soft, add a ½ cup of dry white wine to the pan and let it reduce by half. Add a ½ cup of cream and salt and pepper to taste. A little grated nutmeg is a nice touch and tarragon is a fantastic addition. Heat the sauce through and reduce until thickened a bit.
The scallops are beyond easy though susceptible to overcooking – be careful. I like mine dusted with a little salt and pepper and seared in a cast iron pan with about a tablespoon each of butter and olive oil. Make sure your oil is good and hot and that your scallops are dry before you put them in the pan. A large scallop will take about 2 minutes per side.
Potatoes Anna is just thinly sliced potatoes layered with butter and salt. I usually do mine in a cast iron pan, but I thought I’d give the ramekins a try this time just to get that nice little disc. Use russets or another high starch potato. Peel and slice them very thin – no more than a ¼ inch thick – this is a good time to pull out your mandolin. For two people, you’ll need one medium sized potato and about 4 teaspoons of melted butter. Butter the ramekin generously. Fill with potato slices, drizzling a little butter and salting between each layer. Bake in a 450 degree oven for about 45 minutes or until tender.
The spinach is pan sautéed in olive oil with a bit of garlic, salt and pepper.
So there you have it. A classic starter turned into an elegant dinner. It has all of the elements of the traditional Coquille St. Jacques but with an added depth flavour from the pan seared scallops and the roasted potatoes. I still love the old version, but I think if more restaurants offered up a modern variation, Coquilles St. Jacques could enjoy a renaissance of sorts.