"Give my scallop-shell of quiet, My staff of faith to walk upon, My scrip of joy, immortal diet, My bottle of salvation, My gown of glory, hope's true gage; And thus I'll take my pilgrimage."
Sir Walter Raleigh (1618)
This dish started its journey as a rather surprising recipe my father had invented and sent to me for linguine with scallops and leeks which I will post later in the year. It prompted me to research the pairing of scallops with pasta in Italian cuisine and what I found, in what I consider to be my bible of Italian cuisine, "The Silver Spoon", was that of course scallops, like pretty much any food in Italy, find their way into pasta. However, what came as a complete surprise was the inclusion of lettuce in the recipe that was in the book.
I put this recipe to a beautiful Italian friend who loves her cooking and she was bemused by this finding. She tracked down an almost identical recipe for Tagliolini alle Cappesante e Lattuga and was minded to conclude that this must be an old, traditional and regional recipe - the northern regions of Italy are, of course, very distinct in their cuisine from the southern regions. When I first experimented with using scallops in pasta I was removing and discarding the corals because I am somewhat impartial to them. My Italian friend told me that an Italian would never omit the coral, and I must say, in a pasta dish I would now consider them essential. No surprise then that the recipes encountered while researching this dish explicitly direct the inclusion of the corals.
Scallops, dived for year-round, appear on the market stall in abundance in the months around and during the summer when poor visibility in the water is less prone to be a hindrance. Increasingly, tubs of shucked scallop have become available and they are a superb product. Sadly, scallop meats are all-too-often soaked in water to plump them up (read, make them weigh more) but this is a terribly false economy. Scallop meats need to be kept as dry as possible, just as they are in the tubs we can buy from the stall, for them to cook properly. By that I mean, they have to be in a condition that allows them to be fried to caramelised perfection on the outside while remaining almost raw in the middle. Any presence of water will lead to them leaching their delicately-flavoured juice into the pan and result in them stewing to a rubbery and insipid disappointment. Quite simply, if scallops you are about to buy are sitting in any liquid at all, don't bother with them.
Perhaps it is the fact that poor-quality and hence rather flavourless scallops have become all too familiar that such a subtly-flavoured dish seemed, at first to me, quite unlikely to be of much merit. But it clearly had merit at some point in time, otherwise it would hardly have appeared in a compendium of cuisine first compiled in 1950. Although I have included quite a generous quantity of scallop in this recipe (more than the original recipe) I, am convinced it is the full flavour that comes from the scallops being in such extremely good condition, like they would have been decades ago when mass-produced shucked scallops were not on sale in provincial Italy, that is the source of success to this dish. And it is superb.
Scallops do come in different sizes so quantities and cooking times can be a bit of a challenge to suggest for them, but I've put weights as well as quantities in the recipe in the hope that it helps. With regard to the cooking, I have deviated from the original recipe in removing the scallops once seared so that they don't overcook, and I have also cut them into smaller pieces so that they spread more evenly amongst the pasta. The point for me is that I believe a scallop is easily overcooked to disappointment whereas an under-cooked scallop is barely a disappointment at all. So really what I hope can be achieved by following the recipe is for the scallop to be fried only long enough that the outside is lightly caramelised while the centre stays almost raw. The final bit of gentle heating should then result in a "medium-rare" finish.
The recipe below assumes that fresh tagliolini is being used and that it will take roughly 3 minutes to cook once its water comes to the boil. If using dried pasta it will need to go on before starting the recipe. Linguine or tagliatelle would be perfect as an alternative to the tagliolini.
The olive oil used here does not need to be extra virgin. The temperature to which it gets heated is sufficiently high as to compromise the rich flavour of an extra virgin type, so instead I suggest to drizzle a little extra virgin olive oil in at the end such that its flavour is retained in the final dish.
The quantities in this recipe serve two as a main but would equally serve four as a starter, or "primo", which is how it would most likely be served in an Italian meal. Either way, a squeeze of lemon might or might not be needed or preferred, so I have suggesting serving with a wedge of lemon such that the diner may decide for themself.
Tagliolini alle Cappesante e Lattuga
Ingredients (Serves 2 as a main, or 4 as a starter)
150-200g fresh tagliolini, according to appetite
150-200g (about 8-12) shucked scallops, including the corals
1½ tbsp olive oil (does not need to be extra virgin)
1 fat garlic clove, broken or cut into a few pieces
50ml white wine
A pinch of chilli powder
80-100g Romaine (or Cos) lettuce, finely shredded
2 tsp finely chopped flat leaf parsley
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Extra virgin olive oil, to drizzle
Lemon wedges, to serve (optional)
Bring a pan of salted water to the boil ready to cook the pasta in. Separate the corals from the white muscle of the scallops and season both parts.
In a sauté pan or deep frying pan, sweat the garlic pieces, without colour, in olive oil for about 30 seconds and then discard them.
Increase the heat to medium-high and when the oil is hot, add the scallops plus half of the butter. Fry, undisturbed for no more than a minute then turn over and fry the second side for no more than another minute. The scallops should be gently caramelised on both sides. Remove them from the pan and keep aside.
Carefully pour in the white wine (the oil and butter in the pan will now be quite hot), scrape any contents at the bottom of the pan into the wine and allow it to bubble down until it has all but evaporated. Meanwhile put the tagliolini in the boiling water to start cooking, and cut the scallop whites into 3 or 4 pieces each.
Add the lettuce and the remaining butter plus the chilli powder and some seasoning to the pan in which you are making the sauce. Once the lettuce has started to wilt, turn the heat down to low and stir in the scallop pieces plus the parsley and some seasoning.
When the pasta is ready, drain it and combine with the sauce along with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, and a final adjustment of seasoning. Serve straight away with lemon wedges if liked.
"The Silver Spoon", Phaidon (2005, first published in Italian 1950), pp. 282: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Silver-Spoon-Cookery-Phaidon/dp/0714862452
Tagliolini alle capesante e lattuga, Quattrocalici.it, accessed 24 May 2020