Coastal dreaming

by Chef Tara Davis

Although I absolutely love the Triangle area, I grew up and have spent much of my life on islands — Manhattan and Long, to be exact. Because of this, summer can make me more homesick than usual. When the lure of the ocean and salt air gets to be too much, we pack up and head east to the Outer Banks to visit my husband’s parents.

Upon arrival, we go straight to the local fish markets to source fresh tuna — as in, just-off-the-boat fresh. When dealing with such a perishable item, there is no substitute for the quality and taste that can only be experienced when you get tuna that was swimming in local water only hours ago.

Typically, we marinate these glorious bright red steaks in sesame and soy, sear them briefly on a hot grill, and serve rare. That first bite is an instant affirmation that we are exactly where we’re supposed to be.

After long days at the beach, we often stop to pick up fresh scallops. Although I’ve always loved the little mollusks, it’s taken me years to finally convince my husband of their merit. Scarred by memories of rubbery, ill-prepared scallops smothered in heavy cream sauces, he would always try to steer me toward other selections at the fish market. What finally cemented his own love for them was the manner in which I cooked them.

For me, a perfectly seared scallop — with its golden crust and its buttery, briny flavor — is pure heaven. My husband now is the first one hovering near the stove when I cook them, angling to pick off a few stragglers before they make it onto plates.

My mother-in-law is a phenomenal and adventurous cook, and we truly relish getting in the kitchen together and experimenting. Last summer, we set out to make a corn dish to complement the scallops that we had always enjoyed on their own. We cut the corn straight from the cob; sautéed it with shallots, bell pepper and fresh thyme from the garden; and rounded it out with that sacred of all things porcine: bacon. The result was sweet, salty and smoky, and it paired beautifully with simply seared scallops. The family declared it to be one of our best dishes ever, and with such an emphatic endorsement it since has become a standard on our summer menu. The ragout is full of flavor and can be served with many different proteins like chicken and fish, or — if you omit the bacon — made into a vegetarian side dish.

On a recent humid Chapel Hill day, I decided to make up a quick tuna salad to incorporate some of the Asian flavors that I use with fresh tuna at the beach. By employing some pantry staples with fresh ingredients like wasabi mayonnaise, ginger, scallions, and soy sauce, I have a light, different type of tuna salad with a punch of heat and brightness. I like to serve it with rice crackers or wrapped in lettuce leaves.

When it’s hot, I also like to make a stacked crab salad to cool down and remind me of the ocean. I dress it with a lemon vinaigrette spiked with fresh chives and tarragon. I prefer the lightness of the vinaigrette to mayonnaise for this salad since it allows the crab flavor to really shine.

To compose the stack, I layer it with bell peppers, tomatoes from my garden and avocado. I use a ring mold to ensure the salad holds its shape. I typically serve this as a first course on chilled plates for luncheons and dinner parties and as a composed yet unmolded hors d’oeuvre in martini glasses. The combination of crab and avocado is classic, and this salad actually looks as good as it tastes.

I hope these recipes will bring a taste of the coast to you — or better yet, accompany you to the beach!

Tara Davis is a personal chef, cooking instructor and owner of The Studious Chef in Chapel Hill. She frequently offers group cooking demonstrations and is an active member of Slow Foods USA/Triangle and a supporter of the local farm-to-table movement. Learn more about her at
Summer recipes

Recipes by Tara Davis | Photography by Flint Davis

scallopsSeared Scallops with Corn Ragout
(serves four)

1 pound large sea scallops, with side muscle removed and patted dry
4 tablespoons butter, divided
2 shallots, minced and divided
2 cups fresh corn kernels
1 red bell pepper, seeded and small diced
4 strips of bacon, diced
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, minced
1 tablespoon fresh basil, finely sliced
1/2-cup heavy cream
3 tablespoons white wine
Salt and pepper to taste

For the corn ragout: In a large pan, sauté bacon until crispy, then remove to a paper towel-lined plate. Pour off all but about 1 tablespoon of bacon fat, then return to heat. Add half shallots and pepper and sauté until softened, about 5-8 minutes. Add thyme, cream, corn and bacon, and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove from heat, and stir in basil. Adjust seasoning.

For the scallops: Place scallops on a paper towel-lined plate and season both sides with salt and pepper. Heat a large pan over medium-high heat. Add a tablespoon of canola oil and swirl to coat the bottom of the pan. Add scallops and cook 2 minutes. Add 2 tablespoons of butter and swirl pan to release scallops. Turn them over and cook an additional minute or two until opaque. Remove scallops to a plate and tent with foil. Add remaining shallots to pan. Add wine to pan to deglaze, then quickly reduce wine. Turn off heat, add remaining butter and swirl to thicken into a sauce.

To serve, place corn ragout on plate and top with three scallops, then drizzle with pan sauce.

tunaWasabi Tuna Salad
(makes approximately 2 cups)

12 ounces solid white albacore packed in water, drained
2 stalks celery, diced
1/2 red onion, small diced
3 tablespoons wasabi mayonnaise
1 tablespoon regular mayonnaise
1/4-teaspoon ground ginger
1/4-teaspoon garlic powder
3-4 dashes Worcestershire sauce
3-4 dashes soy sauce
Salt and pepper to taste
Optional garnishes: rice crackers, lettuce, cucumber rounds, bread

Add tuna to a small mixing bowl, gently breaking it into smaller pieces using a fork. Add remaining ingredients and combine thoroughly. Chill to allow flavors to marry. This dish can be used to stuff lettuce leaves, served on cucumber rounds, added on top of rick crackers or added to a sandwich.

crab stackCrab Stack with Tomatoes, Peppers & Avocado
(serves six)

For the Crab:
1 pound lump crabmeat, picked
3 plum tomatoes, seeded and small diced
1 yellow bell pepper, seeded and small diced
1 orange bell pepper, seeded and small diced
2 Haas avocados, pitted and small diced
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
4 tablespoons fresh chives, minced
2 tablespoons fresh tarragon, minced
For the Vinaigrette:
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon white wine or champagne vinegar
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/2-cup extra virgin olive oil
1 small shallot, minced
Salt and pepper to taste

In a mixing bowl, whisk together mustard, vinegar and lemon juice. Then in a slow, steady stream, whisk in the olive oil. Add shallots and season to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside.

In a small bowl, combine tomatoes and bell peppers. Add a small amount of the vinaigrette and a sprinkle of salt and toss gently. Set aside.

In a separate bowl, add crab and gently fold in chives, tarragon, and vinaigrette, saving some of the vinaigrette for garnishing plates. Season with salt and pepper.

To assemble stacks, place a ring mold or biscuit cutter on a chilled plate. Place avocado inside mold and press down gently. Add tomato and pepper mixture, and press down gently. Add crab salad, and press down gently. To unmold, simply press down on the stack with the back of a spoon and pull the ring mold up simultaneously. Drizzle the plate with remaining vinaigrette.