2005_07_bittman_cookbook.jpgHow To Cook Everything: Bittman Takes On America's Chefs by Mark Bittman (Wiley, 2005)

Gothamist's been a fan of Mark Bittman--a.k.a. New York Times' "The Minimalist"--for years now, and with good reason. His minimalist approach to cooking is geared towards home cooks who don't want to spend all day cooking but still expect gourmet results for their efforts. With no formal training of his own, Bittman has no trouble thinking like a home cook, because he is one. But now with this book (and the requisite companion TV show on PBS), Bittman's decided to challenge America's chefs to culinary battle (can you say, "Iron Chef"?).

Because we wanted to do a direct comparison of a Bittman recipe versus a chef recipe (so as to gauge Bittman's abilities), Gothamist's decided to make this the first ever two-part version of this column. With Bittman's scallop recipe, we were attracted by the combination of Indian spices and seafood--a combination we had eaten before but never made ourselves. Bittman's directions made it all sound pretty straightforward to prepare, and it was. The sweet-yet-spicy Garam Masala flavoring gave a nice complexity to the straightforward taste of fresh-from-the-farmers'-market scallops.

We also chose to pair this dish with some another farmers' market find, sugar snap peas, which won't be in season much longer. They went well together, especially because we prepared the peas with some lemon juice and zest, which matched with the lemon zest garnish of the scallops-and-lentils main course.

We chose to stick with olive oil for preparing both the lentils and the scallops, all to great effect. In addition, since we didn't have red lentils handy (and our local grocery store doesn't carry them), we substituted standard brown lentils and found the dish suffered not at all (though it did take slightly longer to cook).

But stay tuned: next week, James Boyce's Halibut with White Beans...

2005_07_scallops_lentils.jpgSEARED SCALLOPS WITH CURRIED LENTILS

Makes: 4 SERVINGS Time: 30 MINUTES
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil or any neutral oil, like corn or canola
1 large onion, roughly chopped
1/3 cup peeled and finely chopped carrot
1 stalk celery, trimmed and roughly chopped
2 tablespoons curry powder or Garam Masala
3/4 cup red lentils
2 tablespoons currants or raisins
2 tablespoons butter (or use more oil)
1 1/2 pounds sea scallops
salt and black pepper to taste
approximately 1 tablespoon lemon zest, for garnish

1. Put the oil in a large skillet or casserole over medium-high heat; a minute later, add the onion, carrot, and celery and cook, stirring occasionally, until the mixture starts to take on a little color. Stir in 1 tablespoon of the curry powder, then 2 cups water. Bring to a boil and add the lentils. Bring back to a boil, add the currants, then cover and adjust the heat so the mixture simmers steadily. Cook until the liquid has evaporated and the lentils are tender, about 20 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, put the butter in a large, non-stick skillet and turn the heat to medium-high; begin to dredge the scallops lightly in the remaining 1 tablespoon curry powder. When the butter foam subsides, add the scallops swiftly but not all at once. Turn them individually as they brown, allowing 2 or 3 minutes for the first sides and 1 to 2 minutes for the second sides. Season with salt and pepper as they cook.

3. Uncover the lentils and, if necessary, boil off any excess water. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve the seared scallops on a bed of the lentils, garnishing each serving with a little lemon zest.