When planning a party menu, sometimes it's easier to focus on the main course (Pork roast with fennel? Poached salmon with dill?) and treat the starter as a mere afterthought. But to me, the purpose of a first course is to gracefully ease the diner into the main event.
Even a few lightly dressed lettuce leaves with a scattering of toasted walnuts and gorgonzola will do! But for special occasions -- whether it's a festive dinner party or diner á deux -- Madrona Manor Executive Chef Jesse Mallgren has an opulent solution for getting things off to a great start: seared scallops with meltingly rich leeks, a mound of buttery pumpkin and a few drops of tangy-sweet aged balsamico.
The recipe, below, nods to only one of Mallgren's masterpieces. Under his rule, the romantic Victorian restaurant near Healdsburg recently received a well-deserved Michelin star. That's one good reason to visit the historic landmark inn. Another? To experience Madrona's cheese course, lovingly served up by Maitre d' Joseph Bain. His love of cheese -- and the French language -- is positively infectious.
Madona Manor is open Wednesday through Sunday year round. Reservations are recommended (call 707-433-4231).
SEARED SEA SCALLOPS WITH LEEKS, SAGE AND PUMPKIN
Adapted from a recipe by Mallgren, this rich, opulent starter is easy and impressive. The pumpkin is optional, and the leeks can be prepared in advance. So, set the table, pour a glass of wine and relax!
Serves 4 as a first course; 2 for lunch or supper
2 medium-small leeks (about ½ pound)
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 fresh sage leaves
1 tablespoon heavy cream, optional
1 cup cooked pumpkin puree or cooked sweet potato puree (optional)
1 tablespoon light olive oil or safflower oil
8 sea scallops (about 1 pound)
Sea salt, to taste
1 tablespoon best-quality aged balsamic vinegar
Fresh sage, to garnish, optional
- Trim leeks, reserving white and pale green parts. (Save the trimmings for soups or stews). Slice leeks in half lengthwise then place in a bowl of cold water and let stand 20 minutes to clean. Repeat if necessary; drain, then pat leeks dry.
- Place leek stalks cut side down on a cutting board then slice crosswise into very thin ribbons. You should have about 1 to 1 ¼ cups finely chopped leeks.
- In a small, heavy skillet over very low heat, melt 3 tablespoons of the butter. Add the leeks and 1 sage leaf. Place a sheet of aluminum foil directly over the leeks and cook very gently and very slowly, stirring occasionally, for 20 to 30minutes or until very soft but not brown. Add cream, if using, and stir to mix. Cover to keep warm and set aside
- Place the pumpkin and 1 tablespoon of the butter in a small saucepan or microwave-proof bowl and heat until warmed through. Stir to blend and set aside.
- Melt the remaining tablespoon butter with the olive oil and remaining sage leaf in a large, heavy skillet over medium-high heat. Pat the scallops with paper towels, then sprinkle scallops with salt. When butter and oil are sizzling, add scallops and cook 2 minutes on the first side or until rich golden brown, basting them with butter and oil as they cook. Turn scallops and cook 1 to 3 minutes longer or until scallops are opaque in the center. Remove from heat, cover and keep warm.
- To serve, divide the leeks among 4 warm plates. Place a spoonful of warm pumpkin puree beside the leeks. Place 2 scallops on each plate-either on or beside the leeks--then sprinkle each plate with about 6 to 7 drops of balsamic vinegar. Garnish with sage, then serve immediately.
Wine recommendations: The snappy 2005 Ferrari-Carrano Fume Blanc or a chilled glass (or two) of the beautifully balanced 2006 J Vin Gris. Both wines have enough acidity and body to complement this rich, buttery dish.
All photographs by Sarah Belk King.
Visit Sarah at SarahBelkKIng.com.