Welcome to Out of the Bottle: The Scented World! Once a month, I'll be writing about fragrant food and plants, interviewing perfumers, artists, scientists, and other people who use scent in their work, and reporting on exhibitions and lectures related to scent. I'm currently in the process of gathering topic ideas and contacting prospective interviewees, so if you think there is something deliciously smelly I should go eat, a person I've just got to talk to, or you're wondering how those magazine people out in Brooklyn who let an artist bomb their offices with oak moss are doing (and I intend to find out), please make suggestions in the comments. You can also contact me by email: alyssa at nstperfume dot com.
Four years ago, a few heady months after I discovered Now Smell This, I wrote a grateful fan letter to Robin in which I confessed I'd developed a slight (ahem) case of fragrance addiction. I also tried, with my new perfume vocabulary, to describe the scent of the Meyer lemons I had just harvested from the tiny tree in my backyard.1 So I thought we'd begin with a dish featuring those lemons — pan fried scallops with Meyer lemon glaze — accompanied by a champagne cocktail made with gorgeously fragrant elderflower cordial.2 Please put on your garden hats and white linen Gatsby trousers now.
Cocktail first. You want well-chilled champagne or prosecco, good but cheap enough to make you feel relaxed. Dry is better, since the cordial is sweet. If you are thinking ahead, chill the cordial too. Either way, pour no more than a measure (about 2 Tbsp) of cordial in the bottom of a tallish, thinnish glass, less cordial for smaller glasses. Now pause and lean over the glass to sniff the amazing scent of passion fruit and magnolias and — what else? Sniff again to find out. Violets, maybe. Add the wine, stopping a good two fingers from the top. Stir gently. Violent fizzing will occur. When things calm down, sip. Ah. If too sweet, drink a few sips and add additional champagne, or amend with a slice of Meyer lemon, which you might want in any case. Or a twist of Meyer lemon skin. (Oh yes, do that.) If you prefer martinis, try the cordial with Hendrick’s gin, and Lillet Blanc, shaken, very cold. It tastes like spring, and the purest water, and will knock you for a loop in five minutes. Everyone sipping? Good. Let's talk about fruit.
Believed to be a cross between lemons and mandarin oranges, Meyer lemons are sweeter, rounder, juicier, and more thin-skinned than regular lemons. When fully ripe they are deep golden color, just to the yellow side of orange. Most importantly for our purposes, they smell like heaven’s idea of a lemon. All the sharp, bright, soapy notes that make lemons say “clean” are gone, and in their stead are floral notes, hovering somewhere between apples, orange blossoms and honey, that smooth and sweeten the citrus into something delicate and intoxicating. The fruit of a Meyer lemon tree smells almost exactly like the flower, and its juice is only slightly more astringent than its skin.
Meyer lemons can be used in any recipe featuring lemons save those that depend on the high acidity of regular lemon juice (as in ceviche). These scallops are, as Nigella Lawson says, more of a suggestion than a recipe, but they are delicious nonetheless. Simply fry your scallops3 in a small amount of butter (you need some fat to amplify the flavor of the juice in the glaze) over moderately high heat. When they’re done, remove them to a serving dish and squeeze your Meyer lemons directly into the still-hot pan, using your hands to filter out the seeds, or fish them out of the pan afterwards, as I did. The juice will bubble up with the butter, and scallop juices and the whole will smell fantastic. Inhale deeply through your nose, but stay alert — the juice will reduce into a sticky, caramelized glaze within seconds. When it does, pour it onto the scallops and remove the pan from the heat (but don’t wash it until you’ve read the next paragraph). I had a pound of scallops and used approximately 2 Tbsp butter and two lemons which was just fine. Better than fine. You can certainly use more juice and add additional butter to the glaze if you like (or some of the champagne or cordial, but that’s another recipe).
If you have enough scallops to make a meal, or are using them as an appetizer, bon appetit. If, like me, you can never afford as many as you want, try putting them, still warm, on top of a pile of butter lettuce, letting the juices dress the tender leaves. Top with a few slivered almonds, or some chopped basil, or some thin strips of the Meyer lemon skin (oh yes, do that) and a grind of pepper. Or you could do as I did and swirl some freshly made angel hair pasta, still dripping wet from the boiling water, through what’s left in the frying pan and use that as your base with the same additions. I’m sure other possibilities are occurring to you right now: grilled sourdough with a bit of crumbled bacon, basmati rice with a few drops of orange blossom water, or a few bright slices of strawberry. Whatever you try I urge restraint: let the Meyer lemons take the starring role. They were the point, after all.
I ate my scallops on my pasta, unadorned, my hands still fragrant with oils from squeezing the lemons. Every time I lifted the fork to my mouth, that distinctive, floral citrus perfume came wafting off my skin to my nose. It was wonderful.
1. Supposedly, Meyer lemon season runs November-March, but they're still available in my market.
2. I use St. Germain's. If you know of a better one, do say so.
3. Scallops make me nervous. I love them, but they are expensive, and turn bitter when cooked too long, so I often undercook them. Don’t do this — they lose half their sweetness. The key is to give them plenty of space, in a hot, flat pan, so they caramelize instead of steaming in their own juice. Let them sit undisturbed until you flip them, and cook until just opaque. They'll continue to cook for awhile after you remove them from the heat. It will not harm anything to cut into one and check for doneness, and if you take them out too soon it’s not such a horror to put them back in the pan.