If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s a food trend that everyone suddenly becomes breathless about despite the food already being an undisputed classic. Back in the early aughts, food media went gaga over burgers, bacon, fried chicken, and doughnuts, as if they were resurrecting some long-dead food tradition, which left me asking, “When the fuck did we stop loving doughnuts?”
A similar thing happened a few years before that with crudo—a word that just means “raw” in Italian but often is used as shorthand for Italian-style raw fish preparations. As almost anyone anywhere in the world who lives near the sea knows, eating raw fish is not something new. And yet crudo was hailed as some kind of culinary revelation that was immediately linked to an otherwise unrelated raw-fish preparation: It’s Italian sashimi! said everyone, everywhere (at least in New York City, where I was). But it’s not Italian sashimi any more than pizza is an open-face Italian taco. It’s just raw fish, eaten as fresh and pristine as can be with a restrained-yet-flexible approach to seasonings and condiments, probably just as people living around the Mediterranean have been doing it for thousands of years.
While “crudo” is the shorthand, most often the preparation’s name has a bit more detail given its many possible forms. There’s crudo di tonno (tuna crudo), crudo di pesce spada (swordfish crudo), and crudo di cozze (mussel crudo), for example. When the fish is very thinly sliced, it will also sometimes go by the name “carpaccio.” Here, we have crudo di capesante, or scallop crudo. It is a dish so simple, dressed with little more than olive oil and salt, that there is almost nothing to say about how to make it beyond one very important thing. Can you guess what that thing is? That’s right! Quality of ingredients!
Stressing the importance of ingredient quality is kind of an obvious thing about pretty much any dish—your food will be better if you use better ingredients. Duh. But when it comes to scallops in particular, I can’t stress it enough: This dish will soar or crash depending on what scallops you use, and I hate to break it to you, but most of the scallops out there simply won’t cut it. Not even a little bit.
What you need for delicious scallop crudo are fresh, dry scallops, which means the scallops have not been frozen or preserved in a preservative brine. That brine robs scallops of anything good they might have had in them, both in flavor and in texture, and there is no mystical incantation or miracle of culinary wizardry in all the world that can save them from the awfulness that is the wet, brined scallop. You can recognize dry scallops by their more varied hues, ranging from off-white to light-orange, and by the absence of any kind of milky liquid the wet ones are so often sitting in. More than once I’ve seen fishmongers selling “dry” scallops in an icky little puddle that betrays the fact that they’ve clearly been brined.
Another decently reliable indicator of scallop quality: their price. Good scallops, in my experience, are sold by only the very best fishmongers and do not come cheap, so if you’re looking at a per-pound cost that does anything other than make you shudder, you probably shouldn’t buy them. Beyond that, scallops should be truly fresh, with a lovely aroma that’s both sweet and briny. Any funk at all and you need to take a pass.
Just as you have flexibility in the type of seafood you select for crudo, you also have flexibility on how it’s garnished and seasoned. There’s no right answer, whether for this scallop crudo or any other. Generally, it’s smart to keep it simple and restrained, so that whatever seafood you’re using can shine through. For these scallops, I’ve opted for a light drizzle of good olive oil, a delicate squeeze of fresh lemon juice, some flaky sea salt, and a judicious sprinkle of chile flakes and lemon zest for just a pop of flavor. Some people like to toss some capers on the plate, some add herbs or other spices like black pepper, or reach of a different citrus juice, like orange. Feel free to play, there are no fixed rules.
Except…don’t call it sashimi.
Pristine raw scallops, done up Italian-style with little more than olive oil, salt, and a few drops of lemon juice.
- 12 ounces (340g) very fresh dry-packed sea scallops, sliced horizontally into 1/4-inch-thick rounds (see note)
- Extra-virgin olive oil, for drizzling
- Fresh lemon juice and freshly grated lemon zest, for garnish
- Flaky sea salt, such as Maldon, for garnish
- Good-quality red pepper flakes, such as Aleppo, Espelette, or peperoncino, for garnish
Arrange scallop rounds on individual serving plates. Drizzle lightly with olive oil and a light squeeze of lemon juice. Sprinkle lightly with lemon zest, flaky sea salt, and chile flakes. Serve right away.
Most scallops are treated with a chemical to help them retain moisture before being sold. When buying scallops, look for never-frozen “dry” scallops that are sold as-is from the ocean. If they are un-labeled, look for the telltale milky white liquid: if the scallops have any liquid pooled around them, they are wet scallops and you should not use them. If dry scallops are unavailable, any sashimi-grade fish can be used in their place.