Pair your heirloom tomatoes with scallops from the grill

Mario Batali Originally Published August 29, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated August 28, 2013 at 3:41 p.m.
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Sea Scallops Alla Caprese

Q: I have heirloom tomatoes growing in the garden. What do you recommend I do with them when once they’re ripe?

A: On the East Coast, the summer is a time of bounty. Nearly all of our local produce is harvested during the summer, but it doesn’t all bloom at once. Heirloom tomatoes are at their juiciest in mid-August and early September, our reward for having endured a hot and humid summer.

Very little can better than the unadulterated sweetness of heirloom tomatoes. But delicate scallops “alla piastra” offer a lightness that allows the tomatoes to sing.

Whereas store-bought tomatoes are cross-pollinated to lengthen their shelf life, heirloom varieties are open-pollinated, maintaining their distinct characteristics. Heirloom seeds are holdovers from the time before industrial agriculture, when there was more variety in plants and vegetables. Certain heirloom varieties may have been commonly grown at various points in history but are not used in modern large-scale agriculture. Over decades and centuries, the seeds of heirloom vegetable varieties are saved and planted year after year, season after season.

Although they blemish and spoil much more quickly than factory-produced hybrid tomatoes, heirloom varieties are worth the extra care and cost. The thin skin, subtle flavor, unusual colors and eccentric names — Brandywine, Oaxacan Jewel, Pink Ping Pong — yield a remarkably delicious fruit.

Generally, redder tomatoes are sweeter. Darker tomatoes, such as the purple and black varieties, mix sweet and tart. Green and white heirlooms are often more bitter.

Handle your heirloom tomatoes with care, and don’t refrigerate them. Cold temperatures will kill the flavor. When you buy an heirloom, use it within a few days.

I cook the scallops on a “piastra” — a slab of granite put directly over the grill that gets extremely hot. The beauty of using a heat-conductive stone is that you can cook things that might otherwise fall through the grill, and add an incredible caramelized depth of flavor. If you can’t find granite or another stone piastra, you can achieve the same results using a cast-iron griddle.

Scoring the scallops before grilling makes them open up like a flower. And it produces a striking contrast between the golden-brown surface and white interior. As when grilling almost any fish, the trick here is to cook the scallops 90 percent on the first side, until very well seared, and then just give them a quick finish on the other side. I like them medium rare, not entirely cooked through.

This dish is easy enough for a weekday meal and impressive enough for a celebratory barbecue. It is everything I love about summer cooking.

Sea Scallops Alla Caprese

From Italian Grill, by Mario Batali (Ecco, 2008)

Serves 6

Ingredients:

2 pounds mixed great heirloom tomatoes

24 fresh basil leaves

3 medium red onions, cut into 1-inch-thick slices

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

5 to 6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

12 giant diver scallops (about 2 ounces each)

2 tablespoons Maldon salt or other coarse sea salt

1 lemon, cut in half

Directions:

Preheat a gas grill or prepare a fire in a charcoal grill. Place a piastra on the grill to preheat.

Slice the tomatoes creatively (leave very small ones whole, or halve them) and lay out on a platter. Tear the basil leaves over the tomatoes, strewing them about. Set aside.

Season the onion slices on both sides with salt and pepper. Place them on the hot, dry piastra and cook, unmoved, for 7 to 10 minutes, until well-charred on the first side. Using tongs, carefully turn the slices over and cook for 7 to 10 minutes on the second side, until well charred and softened. Transfer to a plate, and let cool slightly; then separate the onion slices into smaller rings, and scatter them over the tomatoes. Drizzle the whole mess with 3 to 4 tablespoons of olive oil.

While the onions cook, carve a checkerboard pattern about 1/4 inch deep into one side of each scallop. Season them all over with salt and pepper, toss them in a bowl with the remaining 2 tablespoons oil, and stir gently to coat.

Place the scallops on the dry, clean piastra, design side down, and cook for 5 to 7 minutes, unmoved, until almost cooked — they should be opaque almost all the way through. Flip them over and sear for just 30 seconds, then remove and arrange on the tomato salad.

Sprinkle the tomatoes with the Maldon salt, squeeze the lemon halves over the scallops and tomatoes, and serve.

Mario Batali is the award-winning chef behind 24 restaurants, including Eataly, DelPosto and his flagship Greenwich Village Enoteca, Babbo. In this column, Mario answers questions submitted via social media and by people he encounters daily in Downtown Manhattan. Keep asking!

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