Capesante scottate alla Caprese
Sea scallops in the style of Capri
I have never been to Capri; although, often dreamt of it. After a few years of budgeting and setting money aside for a family vacation, we decided it was time. So, we booked a three-week sabbatical in Italy for next May. Capri was the final destination on this trip. “Abbiamo bisogno di due biglietti per il traghetto per Capri, per favore.” Even memorized the phrase needed to purchase tickets for the ferry.
The moment that final Airbnb in Sorrento was reserved, along comes my wife with an anxious look on her face and a positive pregnancy test in her hand. Looks like we’re going to need to postpone that trip a little longer.
Let’s close our eyes just for a moment and picture ourselves on the terrace of that mountainside trattoria: The sounds of the surf crashing onto the beach and smell of sea spray fill the air as we lazily enjoy cracked seafood cocktails alongside refreshing aperitifs and stare out across an infinite blanket of deep blue glistening with millions of diamonds.
Wow…sounds like somebody’s been into the wine. Anyway, back to reality. What does this have to do with scallops? Well, not a whole lot—except that if we were soaking up the Mediterranean sun and sipping Limoncello on this perfect sun-kissed afternoon at the aforementioned Caprese patio café, then this is an ideal way to present the world’s most succulent bivalve mollusk. “Un altro bicchiere di rosato, per favore.”
Dry > Wet
In the seafood business, there are two ways scallops are prepared for the market: wet and dry. Wet scallops are soaked in a bath of phosphates. They absorb the liquid and swell, therefore increasing their weight and lowering the net cost to the processor. If you buy wet scallops, you are paying for the additional water weight. The absorbed liquid, by the way, evaporates when they are cooked—rendering a smaller, tougher, and less flavorful final product.
Dry is the seafood industry term for natural scallops. Natural scallops have a slightly tan or vanilla color. They are superior because they caramelize beautifully, as they are not giving up all of that added moisture. Additionally, their flavor is sweeter and more pronounced; whereas processed (wet) scallops have a muted, washed-out flavor that tends to be slightly soapy or even bitter. High-end restaurants exclusively buy dry-packed scallops.
For these reasons, only buy them dry-packed from a local fishmonger or restaurant supplier. When treating yourself to something as delicate as this, it is worth it to spend a few extra dollars. Purchased from a reputable supplier, dry-packed are often the same price per pound (or in the neighborhood) as the far inferior product found at the local grocery.
The U designation stands for “under”. U8, therefore, indicates under 8, meaning it takes eight or fewer scallops to equal a pound. Shrimp and prawns are measured using the same designation, where anything U12 and under is considered colossal. My local market, Sammy’s Seafood, regularly stocks a wide variety of the highest quality fresh seafood. Their inventory includes U8s and U10s for the same price per pound as supermarkets charge for the processed U15s-U20s. That’s before calculating what you lose to water weight. Do the math: If your local seafood purveyor requires a minimum buy, then include a few friends and everybody wins.
- Preheat an oven to 400ºF.
- Gently toss the cherry tomatoes and onion slices in a non-reactive bowl with 3 tablespoons olive oil, 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves, and roughly ½ teaspoon each coarse sea salt and freshly-cracked black pepper
- Pour the tomato mixture into an oven safe dish or onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Roast for 20-25 minutes until tomatoes soften and both tomatoes and onions begin to caramelize.
- Toss the olives with a few tablespoons of olive oil, half of the Calabrian chilies, a lightly smashed garlic clove, a few sprigs of thyme, and the lemon zest. Place this mixture into a small baking dish and set aside.
- Heat a sauté pan over high heat. Be sure to pat your scallops dry with a paper towel, then season them with some sea salt. When the pan is hot, add a few tablespoons of oil and bring it almost to the smoking point.
- Gently add 3-4 scallops to the hot oil, one at a time, being careful to not overcrowd the pan. Note that one side of each scallop will generally be wider than the other. Lay each scallop face down on the side with the most surface area.
- Sear the scallops undisturbed until you notice a dark crust form on the area being seared and the middle of the scallop turns an opaque milky white, about 4-6 minutes depending on the heat of your range.
- As the scallops approach the desired doneness and become nicely caramelized, turn them over in the pan and add 2 tablespoons of butter, 3 sprigs of thyme, and a smashed clove of garlic. For the next 90 seconds, allow the other side of the scallop to sear while tilting the pan slightly and spoon basting the scallops with the herbed brown butter. Remember, scallops are perfect medium-rare with an internal temperature of 130ºF. Less is more.
- Remove the scallops gently from the pan with tongs and lay them on a plate lined with a paper towel. Repeat the process until all scallops are finished.
- About 5 minutes before you remove the tomato mixture from the oven, add the baking dish with the olive mixture to the oven.
- When all scallops are seared, continue heating the pan. Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil and the minced shallots. Sweat the shallots 30-40 seconds, then deglaze the pan with the white wine and 1 tablespoon lemon juice. As the wine cooks down, remove the tomato and olive mixtures from the oven.
- When the wine has reduced to a syrupy consistency, add 3 tablespoons butter and 1 tablespoon thyme leaves, whisking until incorporated. Reduce the heat to simmer.
- Arrange the scallops on a serving plate. Pour the tomato mixture around the scallops, then the olive mixture, discarding the thyme sprigs. Gently reheat the scallops by drizzling them with the warm wine reduction.
- Garnish with torn basil leaves, caperberries, arugula, and if desired, the remaining Calabrian chilies. Adorn the entire dish with a light drizzling of good quality olive oil and a squeeze of fresh lemon, or optionally, with a few drops of aged balsamic.