Master and Servant (featuring Grilled Red Pepper Soup with Seared Bay Scallops)
“Hey, will you grab a towel to wipe the edges of these bowls? You know I always dribble a bit.”
I glanced up from my intense soup bowl focus to see my server with a wet paper towel on the ready. She didn’t need reminding, she’s a pro.
The grilled red pepper soup, piquant with a splash of sherry vinegar and a sprinkle of Aleppo pepper glimmered crimson as my hair in the white bowls I had provided for the client. For 7 of the 8 guests, I floated four seared bay scallops on top, drizzled a bit of oil, and sprinkled with chopped cilantro. For the 1 scallop allergy, I kept the garnish simple.
The bowls, evenly portioned, edges wiped for service and set on a few counters due to the limited kitchen space, departed swiftly to the dining room and I shifted my focus to the main course.
Moments later, my server gingerly reentered the kitchen, searching every counter space.
“What’s up?” I asked, not paying much attention because everything was moving so smoothly.
“One more soup?” her eyes squinting, mouth attempting a smile to appease. I’m not a chef who gets angry with my staff because they are rarely the issue. When the shiitake hits the fan, I know it’s me who screwed up and the kitchen becomes a much less fun place to be. My server had good reason to be timid.
“What do you mean? You just took them all out.” My voice had dropped and my breath shortened. The soup pot on the stove was empty and the bowls were gone. 8 bowls. 8 guests.
Except that I can’t count to 8.
I had accidentally pulled 7 bowls from my dish rental storage and never checked my work. I guess I took it for granted that I could count that high.
All of the soup had been served and one guest had none.
Standing in a stranger’s kitchen in my black chef coat and bistro apron I felt as if the Spanish tile had disappeared beneath my feet. It’s a sensation like no other—the freefall of an unrepairable moment, when time’s movement leaves its familiar parameters. I couldn’t think of my next move. I couldn’t freeze time to make more soup. Or go back in time to fill 8 bowls evenly. This second was inflexible. Non-negotiable. And that’s weird for me because I’m kind of a superhero when it comes to time manipulation.
Cape flaps in wind.
I’m wary of this boast because it’s not a power I take for granted. I think each person’s relationship with time is individual. It’s like your relationship with money. It’s deeper than being broke or flush, early or late. Patterns form early and become part of your personality. My dances with time and money are like respectful sambas, rigid and thrilling. It’s master/ servant without ever knowing who’s on top. I never make presumptions about time or money’s power, being cautious enough to have a little safety net for the unpredictable life stuff, and risky enough to make my pulse race.
Life in the kitchen is all about time management. There have been many days where I was certain I wouldn’t be able to accomplish what I needed to, but then minutes seemed to split open on my cutting board and hatch these emancipated spaces for my tasks to become complete. I’m not sure how it happens. This past holiday season, I was positive I would fail – and there were mishaps for sure—but time was both my dictator and my bitch.
The payment for such a thrilling relationship is like speedwalking from a moving sidewalk onto a still walkway. You get thrown. I’ve been catatonic since Christmas. Unable to do much more than mumble simple sentences and walk one square block with my dog. I’m crawling back, but it’ll take some time. Hah, time…there she is again.
On a personal note, superpowers aside, I have the absolute greatest staff in the world, who understand the dance of service much better than I ever will. To Wendy, Melinda, Windie, Libby, Jessica, Alexus, and Brett, I never would have made it through this year without you. I’m beyond grateful.
And to the people we took care of in 2023, get ready, because time and I have a few more tricks up our sleeves.
Here is the recipe for the soup I made that day. I like to grill my red peppers rather than roast them because I think it gives them a smoky boost, but if you don’t have a barbecue handy, just roast them at 450 for 30 minutes.
And just in case you’re wondering what happened that night, Windie and I both went out to the table and explained that I’d miscounted the bowls. Two of the guys offered to split their soup and it was dealt with and forgotten instantly… by everyone but me.
Grilled Red Pepper Soup with Bay Scallops
Serves 4 with big portions or 6 small ones
- 3 large red bell peppers
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 yellow onion
- 5 cloves of garlic
- 14 ounce can of whole tomatoes, preferably San Marzano
- 1 quart vegetable or chicken stock
- 1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
- ½ teaspoon Aleppo pepper
- ½ teaspoon smoked paprika
- 1 teaspoon chopped cilantro, plus a little more to garnish with
- 16 bay scallops (I do 4 a person)
- ½ tablespoon unsalted butter
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Turn on your grill and butterfly the red peppers, cutting down the side, taking the seeds and stems out and flattening the pepper out and lay them on the grill evenly. Give yourself about 20 minutes for this to happen.
- I like to caramelize the onion and garlic so I cut the onion into slices rather than a chop. I slice the garlic as well so that there are big chunks that will get pureed later.
- Heat the oil in a soup pot. Add the onion and garlic, season with a healthy pinch of salt, and saute over medium/ low heat for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. You want the onions to pick up some color from the pan but not get burned.
- The peppers skin should be dark by now. Take them off the grill and slide the skins off. Put them into the pot with the onions and garlic. Add the stock and the tomatoes and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer for 20 minutes. Stir in the sherry vinegar, Aleppo pepper, smoked paprika, and cilantro.
- Pour carefully into a blender or use an immersion blender and puree until it’s smooth. Season to taste.
- Heat the butter in a small saute pan. Using a paper towel, dab the bay scallops dry. Season them lightly with salt and pepper and then toss them into the hot butter and sear about 1 minute a side, 3 minutes total. They will get fat and lightly brown.
- Pour the soup into bowls, place the scallops in the middle, drizzle with a tiny bit of olive oil and some more cilantro.