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Home with the Lost Italian: Seared scallops are flavorful gems of the sea

Sea scallops are seared to seal in the flavor.David Samson / The Forum1 / 3
Butter is added to the seared sea scallops. David Samson / The Forum2 / 3
Seared Sea Scallops with a white basil pesto cream sauce and carmelized red onions. David Samson / The Forum3 / 3

We're sharing another great seafood recipe this week that is perfect for a meatless Friday, or any day of the week. Tony's Seared Sea Scallops are a great way to forgo meat without sacrificing flavor, especially when they're served with Basil Pesto Cream Sauce and Caramelized Red Onions.

Scallops were one of my all-time favorite foods when I was young, until I developed an allergy to shellfish at the age of 13. I haven't had one since, but that doesn't mean I don't still enjoy them.

The fragrant smells wafting from our kitchen as Tony prepared this succulent dish brought me right back to where I first discovered scallops — at the Stone Hearth restaurant on Rose Lake, near Vergas, Minn., circa 1980. It's now known as Spanky's Stone Hearth.

On my first visit, I ordered the scallops, and after one bite they became my mainstay at Stone Hearth. I was crushed to learn, after discovering my allergy, that scallops were in the shellfish family and I would no longer get to partake of their savory goodness ever again.

Tony considers sea scallops to be the "beef tenderloin of the ocean," and I second that notion. There is something wonderfully meaty about these gems of the sea, which are mild and mellow with very little "fishy-ness."

When buying scallops, it's important to know what to look for to ensure that you get the best possible product. In this region, you will most commonly find dry and wet, or soaked, scallops, often in the freezer section and occasionally available fresh.

We prefer the dry variety as they have no added water or preservatives, which makes them fresher and more flavorful than their wet counterpart, and ideal for searing. Wet scallops will shrink considerably upon cooking, and can often have a rubbery texture. Locally, we have found excellent dry scallops in the frozen sections at Meats by John and Wayne in south Fargo and at Costco in West Fargo. It's important to thoroughly thaw frozen scallops before using, which can take anywhere from 24 to 48 hours in the refrigerator.

While there are many distinctions given to imply a scallop's size, such as jumbo, bay, large and sea, the best way to identify size is by its weight classification. At Sarello's, we are able to procure U10 scallops, which simply means that there are "under 10" scallops per pound, thus the scallops are large in size. U10 scallops may be difficult to find in Fargo-Moorhead, and we have been very satisfied with the slightly smaller U15 (under 15 scallops per pound) variety that is more commonly available.

When searing scallops, it's important that you don't touch or move them for at least one minute after placing them in the hot pan, or they may not sear properly. Tony sears his scallops for one to two minutes on the top and bottom, until they are a lovely, golden brown on each side. Then he reduces the heat and adds a tablespoon of butter for an extra boost of flavor.

We serve these seared scallops over a basil pesto cream sauce, which is versatile enough to serve with any fish or seafood, as well as chicken. The sauce can be made a day in advance and reheated before serving. Tony also adds some caramelized red onions, and their smooth sweetness is a perfect complement to the meaty scallops.

We have served these seared sea scallops as both a main course and an appetizer, and they are always a hit with our guests. We hope you enjoy them, too.

Seared Sea Scallops with a white basil pesto cream sauce and carmelized red onions. David Samson / The Forum

Tony's Seared Sea Scallops with Basil Pesto Cream Sauce & Caramelized Red Onions

Serves 2 as main course (6 scallops each), 4 as appetizer (3 scallops each)

12 dry sea scallops, thoroughly thawed 2 tablespoons vegetable oil Pinch or 2 of kosher salt 1 tablespoon unsalted butter

Lay thawed scallops out on paper towel and pat tops with another paper towel until dry; leave to dry for 5 minutes. This step removes excess water, which can be hazardous when searing. Once dry, sprinkle the top of each scallop with kosher salt.

Add oil to a medium saute pan and heat over medium-high heat until pan is very hot and oil just begins to smoke. Add the scallops carefully to the pan, one by one to prevent splattering. DO NOT TOUCH scallops for at least 1 minute, or they will not properly caramelize.

After a good minute, use tongs to gently lift the edge of each scallop to check if it has achieved a rich, golden brown color. If ready, turn each scallop over and repeat. If the scallop appears too light, continue searing for 1 more minute, being careful that the scallops do not blacken. If this starts to happen, remove pan from heat immediately and turn scallops over.

Once golden brown on both sides, reduce heat to medium-low and add butter. Melt butter completely throughout pan, lifting pan to spread butter if needed. Once melted, turn each scallop so that both sides are buttered. Serve immediately.

To present, pour the basil pesto cream sauce onto plate or platter and place scallops evenly around dish. Add caramelized red onions between each scallop or in the center.

Tony's Tips

• To thaw frozen scallops, place in refrigerator for 24-48 hours until thoroughly thawed.

• Buy only dry scallops when searing, as wet, or "soaked," scallops have too much liquid.

• Do not touch scallops for a solid minute once they are placed in the pan, or have been turned, as this will prevent proper caramelization.

Basil Pesto Cream Sauce

2 cups heavy cream 2 tablespoons basil pesto (fresh or store-bought) ½ cup dry white wine Pinch of kosher salt and pepper

In a small saucepan over medium, cook the white wine until the liquid appears to be reduced by half; stir in cream, salt and pepper and continue cooking over medium heat until reduced to a sauce-like consistency. When ready, sauce should be thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.

To retain its color, whisk in the basil pesto just before serving. Refrigerate for up to 1 day; reheat before serving. Excellent with seafood and chicken.

Caramelized Red Onions

Half a red onion, cut into ¼ to ½ inch slices (about 1 cup) 2 tablespoons vegetable oil Pinch of salt

In a saute pan over medium-low heat, cook onions in oil until they become soft and caramelized, not fried, about 8 to 10 minutes. Remove from heat and serve immediately, or refrigerate for 3 to 5 days. Reheat to warm before serving.

Tony's Tip

• If onions appear to be frying, reduce heat to low. Low heat allows the slow caramelization of the onion vs. frying them.

"Home With the Lost Italian" is a weekly column written by Sarah Nasello featuring recipes by her husband, Tony Nasello. The couple owns Sarello's in Moorhead and lives in Fargo with their 11-year-old son, Giovanni. Readers can reach them at dine//thelostitalian.areavoices.com.

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