Recipe: Fried Sea Scallops with Peperoncino Pesto
I arrived on Block Island wanting nothing but to stare at the waves and eat fried seafood. Well, I got my wish. Maybe I overdid it a bit with the fried fish, but I couldn’t help it. Fried seafood of any kind has always been just about my favorite thing to eat anytime, any season, anywhere. I love all the little cruddy fried fish counters at seaside resorts, with their sometimes disgusting but occasionally sublime fried clams, oysters, soft-shell crabs, shrimp, and cod. If they fry it, I’ll eat it. But I think my all-time favorite is fried scallops. And they are a Block Island specialty.
Block Island sea scallops are enormous. They are a perfect seafood to fry, since they have enough heft to remain moist and juicy while taking on a good crisp crust. Sometimes small things like shrimp or clams fry up as all coating, with a dry, anonymously fish-scented center. But scallops, unless the cook goes off for a few sea breezes, should stay beautifully tender. At those fish counters you sometimes get ten or more, plopped on top of a big, pillowy bun to soak up any excess grease (a nice touch, I think). Who could eat that many? When they’re lightly coated and deftly fried they’re so delicious I almost could eat that many. (When I bought an order I offered a few to some raucous seagull friends. I really love seagulls. I find them really cute but also a little scary, since they’re so loud and they get so close and their beaks look like can openers.)
The Oar, a good place to eat fried fish on Block Island
I encountered all sorts of batters and coatings for those scallops at places on Block Island. A fancy restaurant we went to served them sheathed in a coat of armor. I couldn’t figure out exactly how they achieved that. Maybe it was just flour and water, but it cracked off in one big shell, exposing a lovely translucent scallop that unfortunately went skidding across the restaurant floor. Then there was the thick spongy batter, usually made with eggs and baking powder. Not a favorite of mine. I prefer a light coating of either flour or breadcrumbs. What I finally decided I loved best was plain old cornstarch. It gives you lightness and crispness and brownness. God, I ate a lot of fried scallops.
When I got back to stinky and steaming Manhattan, I thought I’d gag if I had to eat another fried anything, but here I am already messing around with a bag of Citarella’s scallops and a pot of dangerously hot oil. I can’t help it. I really want you to try these. What I’ve realized was missing from my Block Island scallop extravaganza was a good homemade chili sauce. Trappey’s was ever-present, but it just doesn’t zero in on my true desire. Now I get the chance to make my own, with a little Calabrian flair.
Fried Sea Scallops with Peperoncino Pesto
For the pesto:
1 red bell pepper
2 fresh hot red chilies, such as peperoncini or ripe red jalapeños
1 garlic clove, roughly chopped
1/3 cup lightly toasted sliced almonds
The grated zest from 1 lemon
2 to 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Oil for frying (I like using half olive oil and half vegetable oil)
6 large sea scallops, the side muscles removed
½ cup cornstarch
½ teaspoon sugar
A small bunch of chicory, frisée, or puntarella, torn into pieces
1 scallion, cut into thin rounds, using some of the tender green part
Several lemon wedges
Place the sweet and hot chilies under a broiler, and let them blister and blacken all around. Let them cool a bit, and then rub off and discard as much charred skin as you can (run them under cool water briefly if you’re having a hard time). Seed them and give them a rough chop.
Place the chilies, garlic, almonds, and lemon zest in the bowl of a food processor. Add some salt and about 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Pulse until you have a rough paste. If it seems too crumbly, add a bit more olive oil. Transfer the pesto to a little bowl.
Place the greens and the scallion in a small salad bowl. Lay out two salad plates.
Get out a wide pot with high sides, and fill it about 3 inches deep with half olive oil and half a neutral vegetable oil. Turn the heat to high. Test the oil. If it sizzles quickly when you add a few drops of water, it’s hot enough.
Place the cornstarch in a shallow bowl, and season it well with salt, the sugar, and the black pepper. Dry off the scallops, and then add them to the cornstarch, coating them well. Shake off any excess.
Dress the greens with a squeeze of lemon juice, a little olive oil, salt, and black pepper, and divide them onto the two plates.
Drop the scallops into the oil. They should all go in at once, since you’re cooking only enough for two. Let them get good and brown on one side, and then give them a flip and let them brown on the other side. Try not to move them more than once. The cooking should take about 2 to 3 minutes total, depending on their size. With a large strainer spoon, lift the scallops from the oil and onto paper towels. Place three scallops on top of each salad. Top with a generous spoonful of the pesto, and garnish with the lemon wedges. Serve right away.
If you have leftover pesto, add it to a tomato sauce for spiciness, or stir it into summer minestrone for a little kick. It’s also nice as a topping for ricotta-slathered bruschetta.