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Tim Ma considers his seared scallops over coconut risotto and Thai basil ice cream to be a signature dish, one that he knows would lead to a lot of unhappy diners were he to yank it from the menu. Stark white in appearance, it packs an irresistible juxtaposition of temperature (hot scallops and risotto and cold ice cream), textures (the sear of the scallops versus the creamy rice) and flavors. (Image: Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/ DC Refined)
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Learn how to make Tim Ma's coconut risotto scallops at home

When executive chef Tim Ma was creating a scallop dish at his former restaurant -- Maple Avenue in Vienna, Virginia -- he had one goal in mind. “We just wanted coconut and Thai basil to hit each other,” he says. “We didn’t care about anything else.”

At that time, he didn’t have risotto on the menu. So he started the traditional way, with lots of shallots, garlic and butter, all sautéed with Acquerello risotto, a more resilient variety with an intense pronounced flavor that comes from aging it for seven years.

Then came the twist: coconut râpée, unsweetened shredded coconut flakes typically used in macaroons, along with chicken stock and a ton of coconut milk. But how to incorporate the Thai basil? Marinating the scallops in an infused oil or chopping up the leaves seemed too expected, and an internet search led to unappetizing looking photos.

“We typically finish risotto with butter, cream or crème fraiche,” Ma points out. “Then I had the idea to incorporate Thai basil slowly over time via an ice cream.”

The end result is a dish so popular that Ma considers it to be a signature, one that he brought over to his Shaw restaurant Kyirisan that he knows would lead to a lot of unhappy diners were he to yank it from the menu. Stark white in appearance, it packs an irresistible juxtaposition of temperature (hot scallops and risotto and cold ice cream), textures (the sear of the scallops versus the creamy rice) and flavors.

Because the ice cream starts to melt as soon as it hits the dish, servers instruct guests to stir it into the rice to quickly incorporate the flavor. I much prefer, however, to take a spoonful of ice cream, a bite of scallop and risotto, and repeat.

Buying and preparing scallops can be a bit daunting for the home chef, so I asked Ma for some tips. Dry scallops--so-called because they are not pumped up with a sugar or salt injection to make them caramelize when you sear them--can be hard to come by, and some labeled dry actually aren’t. Ma says that when you go to your grocery store or fishmonger, check to see how much liquid is in the bin with the scallops; if it’s noticeable, pass them over. You may see the term “diver scallops”, which actually refers to the method used to harvest them and not to a particular species. In D.C, home chefs can now buy top-quality scallops at ProFish, a purveyor formerly only available for commercial kitchens.

Once you get them home, brine the scallops for 30 to 60 minutes in a solution of 2:1 salt to sugar, which makes them “taste like the sweet salty sea,” chef says. Rinse and drain them well on paper towels or chix towels (available at restaurant supply stores), then store them in the refrigerator for up to two days before cooking them; you can stretch that length of time a bit if they are really good ones.

Before searing, take the scallops out of the fridge and bring them to room temperature. Sprinkle them with salt, then sear over oil on high heat (he uses a blend of 75 percent canola oil and 25 percent olive oil), and finish them in the oven for a minute. Good ones can be served anywhere from raw to medium rare; if you aren’t sure of the quality or prefer them cooked through, feel free.

And if you can’t find coconut râpée for that risotto, substitute unsweetened dried coconut flakes chopped by hand or with a spice grinder.

Trust me when I say this dish is an absolute showstopper in both aesthetics and a synergistic yet unique combination of flavors. My favorite wine pairing for it is a high acid, aromatic white like grüner veltliner from Austria, trocken Riesling from Germany or Alsace or brut Champagne.

Coconut Risotto
Recipe courtesy of Tim Ma, executive chef and owner, Kyirisan
Makes four servings, with 12 scallops

  • 4 ½ cups chicken or vegetable stock
  • 1 cup coconut milk
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3 tablespoons chopped shallot or red onion
  • ¼ cup unsweetened coconut flakes
  • 1 ½ cups Carnaroli Rice
  • ¼ cup dry white wine
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • ½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  1. In a large pot over high heat combine the chicken stock and coconut milk. Bring to a boil, then immediately reduce heat to low and keep warm.
  2. Place olive oil in a Dutch oven or deep frying pan over medium-high heat.
  3. Once hot, add shallots and stir until soft, about 3 minutes.
  4. Add coconut and rice and continue stirring 1 minute.
  5. Carefully pour in wine and stir until almost absorbed.
  6. Add warm stock ½ ladle at a time; stir until almost absorbed before adding more.
  7. Continue until rice is tender and most of stock is used, about 35 minutes.
  8. Remove risotto from heat; add butter, salt and pepper.

Thai Basil Ice Cream
Recipe courtesy of Tim Ma, executive chef and owner, Kyirisan
Yield: 1 quart

  • 12 egg yolks
  • 1 cup sugar, divided
  • 1 vanilla bean, split and scraped
  • 2 cups milk
  • 2 cups cream
  • 1 cup Thai basil leaves, destemmed
  1. Bring milk, cream, and ½ cup sugar to a simmer along with the vanilla bean. Cover and steep for 20 minutes.
  2. Whisk the egg yolks and the rest of the sugar in a mixer until pale yellow, light and fluffy. Heat basil milk back to simmer.
  3. Temper egg yolks with basil milk and pour tempered egg yolks into basil milk, then heat slowly until the mixture coats the back of a spoon.
  4. Immediately strain over a bowl set over an ice bath.
  5. Once cooled, process in an ice cream maker until consistency of frozen yogurt. Store in the freezer until ready to use.

Seared Scallops
Recipe courtesy of Tim Ma, executive chef and owner, Kyirisan

  • 1 pound dry scallops
  • Salt and pepper, to season
  • 2 tablespoons oil (blend of 75% canola and 25% olive oil, ideally)
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  1. Heat oil in a pan on high heat.
  2. Season scallops with a sprinkle of salt and pepper, then sear them for a minute or until desired degree of doneness.
  3. Add the butter to the pan and flip the scallops to baste them.
  4. Blot scallops on a paper towel, then serve on the risotto.
  5. Top with the ice cream.
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