Monday, October 2, 2017

Ode to Small-Town Charm

What’s cooking? Sea Scallops with Creamed Corn and Tomatoes

The migration south for my hubby and me is once again over. But before we left the Northeast, I spent some time running last minute errands. For me, the best place for that is not our current neighborhood in Jersey City, or even the neighborhoods of Austin. No, the place I prefer is the town we lived in while raising children. My younger son often jokes that I’m the only person he knows who’s crazy enough to drive 30 minutes just to shop for groceries; and as I headed there last week, I thought maybe he’s right.

Afterward, I considered what I had accomplished: hair appointment, manicure, pick up a shirt I’d ordered, shop for toiletries, visit a jeweler, and buy coffee – all at different stores. Six separate establishments within a tight grid of 11 blocks. It wasn’t until I looked at the receipt from the public parking lot where I stashed my car that I realized I’d completed this list of errands – on foot – in  a span of 2 hours and 14 minutes. I’m sure I could have made it all happen in either Jersey City or Austin, but not on foot, and not in that time frame. And the fee for that 2¼ hours? Three dollars. Now I expect those lots are subsidized by the city, but really...

The experience reminded me how much I enjoyed life in a small town. I didn’t think so when we moved there 30+ years ago. I’d been a New York City girl for 10 years, and the idea of living where the population was less than 25,000 and the sidewalks rolled up after 10 p.m. struck me as insanity. But my husband assured me that he didn’t want to raise children in New York City, so that was that. Then we found Summit.

Photo credit: Elizabeth Winterbottom Team, Local Realtor
Originally incorporated as Summit Township by an act of the New Jersey Legislature in 1869, Summit was reincorporated as a city in 1899. It likely got its name from its location on the easternmost edge of the Watchung Mountains, about 20 miles from Manhattan. Back in the 19th century, it was a favorite destination of wealthy of New York City residents fleeing the summer heat. Today, it’s still a popular suburb among financial industry workers and other commuters to Manhattan.

Photo credit: Daniel Case at the English language Wikipedia

It’s a quirk of many New Jersey suburbs that they are divided from each other in fairly random fashion. Depending on how the lines were drawn, you might live in a different town than your neighbors across the street. Suburban sprawl has already taken its toll: Summit’s 6 square miles are tightly constrained by the cluster of other towns on all sides, a vise that tends to push real estate values to impressive heights.

Photo credit: Daniel Case at the English language Wikipedia
But the town’s charm is in its embrace of those confines. The downtown shopping area covers at best 16-17 square blocks, and – by law – there’s no drive-through fast food and no buildings more than three stories high. Most are one or two. It’s hard to spend any time walking around without seeing someone you know, even if you moved away eight years ago. And a few of the merchants still know my name.


Of course, my favorite part of the town remains its farmers’ market. As I said so long on Sunday to friends at the organic farm stand, I loaded up on Tuscan kale, golden beets, and cherry tomatoes. Another stand had corn and zucchini. At the fish monger, I picked up a last pound of sea scallops, then I went home and cooked this most wonderful dish that takes advantage of the season’s best. If you can’t get fresh corn, use frozen, but you must try this dish.

Melissa Clark posted a similar dish in The New York Times not long ago, using shrimp. You, too, could use shrimp. But when you have the freshest sea scallops this side of the Mississippi, that’s what you cook. The zucchini was my own addition, too, and I was so glad. It’s got a very neutral flavor and keeps the corn sauce from being quite so thick and ... well, corny. Any other summer squash would do as well. And I love the salty tang of the feta cheese.

Sea scallops are rich, so 1¼ pounds of scallops is really all you need to feed four people, and the corn-zucchini-feta sauce is filling. I served this once with a salad and sliced peaches (though any fresh fruit would do), and once with a sauté of green beans instead of the salad. The dish makes a beautiful presentation, and it’s easy to make the sauces ahead of time and heat them up while you’re cooking the scallops. So it’s a great dish to serve guests.

Kitchen Goddess note on zucchini: For this dish, look for squash that’s small and firm and heavy feeling. The skin should be smooth and shiny, with no blemishes. If large zucchini is what you have, cut them in half and scoop out the seeds before dicing them. Smaller squash won’t have all those seeds, and what they have will be small and tender.

Sea Scallops with Creamed Corn and Tomatoes

Inspired by Melissa Clark in The New York Times.

Serves 4.

1¼ pounds large sea scallops (12-16 per pound, or 4-5 per person)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cups diced zucchini (½-inch dice)
KG’s latest discovery: an easier way to cut corn off cobs. Upend a small bowl
 inside a larger bowl and slice down the side of the cob. The small bowl
provides a stand for the cob and the larger bowl catches the corn.
3 tablespoons heavy cream
2½ cups corn kernels (from 3 ears)
½ cup crumbled feta cheese
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 small white onions or ½ large, cut in ½-inch dice
2 cups cherry tomatoes, quartered
2 cloves garlic, minced
Dash of Worcestershire sauce
2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
½ teaspoon Aleppo pepper (or a dash of cayenne pepper)
Chiffonade of basil leaves for garnish

Pat the scallops dry with a paper towel, and lay them out on a plate or paper towels, and sprinkle them with salt and pepper.

First make the corn/zucchini/feta sauce. In a large skillet, melt 1 tablespoon of the butter and add the zucchini. Sauté over medium/medium-low heat for 3 minutes. Add 1 more tablespoon of butter and when it has melted, add the cream. Reduce the heat to medium-low, stir in the corn and cook, covered, for 10-12 minutes or until the corn is very soft. Stir occasionally. If the mixture appears to get dry, add a tablespoon or two of water.

Transfer the corn/zucchini mixture to a blender and add the feta, plus1 teaspoon of salt and ¼ teaspoon of freshly ground black pepper. Blend until you get a thick purée. Set aside the mixture and keep it warm until you’re ready to serve.

Next, make the tomato sauce. Wipe out the skillet you used with the corn/zucchini, and put in 2 tablespoons of olive oil. At a medium setting, heat the oil and add the onion. Sauté the onion until pale gold and soft, about 5 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes and the garlic, plus a large pinch of salt. Cook the tomatoes – again adding a tablespoon or two of water if needed – over medium heat for about 8 minutes, until the tomatoes break down into a sauce. Stir in the Worcestershire sauce, the lemon juice, and the Aleppo pepper/cayenne. Set aside the sauce and keep it warm until you’re ready to serve.

Lastly, cook the scallops. Wipe out the skillet again (or use a different one!) and melt in it the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter and the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil. Raise the heat to medium-high. When the surface of the oils shimmers, place the scallops in the oil and DO NOT TOUCH THEM for 3 minutes. (This will allow the natural sugars of the scallops to caramelize.) Using a spatula, turn the scallops over and cook – again without disturbing them – for another minute, then remove the skillet from the heat.

To plate the dish, spoon enough corn/zucchini purée into a wide, shallow soup bowl to cover the bottom. Place the scallops on the purée and spoon the tomato sauce on top. Garnish with ribboned basil leaves.

Enjoy the fall!


  1. Recipe? As always, delicious! "Small town living..."? Well, when the photograph of Main Street features a guy driving a 1969 427 Ford Cobra (current estimated value, $1.1 million) it's an interesting definition of "small town."

    1. Ah, Steve, ever the cynic. I'm impressed that you looked that closely and did the research! But hey, that guy had to drive his car somewhere. And it doesn't take away from my ability to do all six of my errands on foot in just over 2 hours. For $3 parking. Small is a size thing -- some wealthy, some not. Glad you liked the recipe. :-)