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French Christmas Dinner: Coquilles St. Jacques

Yesterday JP drove all the way to the Norman seashore to pick up fresh scallops – known as ‘Coquilles St. Jacques’ which he’ll bring back home and freeze until Christmas day.

Smoked salmon and scallops are two favorite starters for Christmas dinner in France, and if you haven’t ever tried ‘Coquilles St. Jacques’ while in Paris, the winter months are the best time to try this dish. Although there are many ways to enjoy scallops, our friends who used to own a restaurant insist that the best way to fully appreciate this seafood is simply by lightly sauteeing the scallops in butter. Add a little garlic or shallots and parsley, a splash of white wine is optional, then serve the scallops over a bed of lettuce. The flavor speaks for itself and needs little else.

In France, you can buy scallops still in their shell. Normally we retain the coral (the orange part of the scallop) – it’s flavor is delicate – and would never be thrown out here. Not only that, the scallops look much more festive on a plate when the coral is included. It helps if you have a friend to help you clean the scallops – if this is your first time making Coquilles St. Jacques – as I discovered last year. Eric taught me how to separate the coral from the tougher part of the scallop which keeps the rest attached to the shell (this is the only part of the scallop which you do need to discard). Read more about cleaning scallops.

Christian Symbolism of the Scallop Shells

It’s somewhat fitting that this dish should be part of the Christmas Day menu because the scallop shell has an important role in Christian history. Medieval pilgrims wore a scallop shall draped around their neck when they made their pilgrimage to the town of Compostela in Spain, resting place for St. James’ relics. The scallop shell was a sort of meal ticket that pilgrims used when they requested food. Those who doled out food to travelling pilgrims were expected only to give as food as might fit into the scallop shell (no second helpings!).

To this day, pilgrims continue to wear a scallop shell during their hike to Santiago even if they can’t expect any free handouts.

Scallop Recipes

If you’re serving scallops as a starter, you will only need four to five of these scallops. Minus the rich sauces, this is a great dish for those who are watching their caloric intake. If you’d rather choose a starter somewhat more ambitious – here’s a Mauritian recipe that retains the healthy aspect of the scallop. Complemented with watercress and pumpkin, this chef’s creation is colorful – and a healthy choice.