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Coquilles Saint-Jacques, the French name for sea scallops, is also the name of a classic method of preparation in which the scallops are cooked in a white wine cream sauce and then placed in a ramekin, where they are dusted with cheese and breadcr...

SERIOUSLY SIMPLE: Pan Seared Sea Scallops with Tomato Vodka Sauce: A simple dinner party dish

Coquilles Saint-Jacques, the French name for sea scallops, is also the name of a classic method of preparation in which the scallops are cooked in a white wine cream sauce and then placed in a ramekin, where they are dusted with cheese and breadcrumbs and gratineed. While studying at the Cordon Bleu, I prepared the classic version and won high praise for the creaminess of the sauce and for not overcooking the scallops. I wondered how the scallops could still show off their amazing, succulent flavor without being quite so heavy.

Here I have adapted that original Cordon Bleu dish into a tomato-flavored version. I love to make this sophisticated recipe for a quick dinner for family or friends. The tangy tomato sauce, with just a touch of vodka flavor, complements the seared, crisped scallops. The larger sea scallops work best for this recipe because they will sear evenly and won't overcook as quickly as the bay scallops.

Sea scallops have a meaty texture and are wonderful for quickly sauteing. Remember that all scallops are not the same. Look for dry-packed scallops that are chemical-free. Sometimes you can find fresh diver scallops that are usually very large and hand-selected by the diver. Avoid wet-packed scallops that are preserved by a chemical solution. You can also make this dish with the smaller bay variety, but you will have to quickly cook the tiny scallops so that they stay tender and don't become rubbery.

The scallops should be sauteed just before serving. I like to serve this with a pasta like orzo or fusilli with fresh herbs and petite peas. What to drink? Select a Sauvignon Blanc blended with Semillon and a touch of oak, or an Alsatian Pinot Gris. For a red, try a lighter-bodied yet flavorful Pinot Noir.

The clever cook could:

--Use small bay scallops and serve as an appetizer; cook the scallops for a minute on each side. Serve in a small scallop shell or ramekin.

--Omit 1 pound scallops and add 1 pound medium peeled and deveined shrimp.

--Add basil pesto instead of the sun-dried tomato pesto.

Pan Seared Sea Scallops with Tomato Vodka Sauce

Serves 6.

Sauce:

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 leek, light green part and white part, cleaned and finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 cups favorite marinara sauce

2 tablespoons sun-dried tomato pesto (store-bought) or homemade (see below)

3 tablespoons vodka

1/3 cup whipping cream or creme fraiche

Salt and pinch crushed red pepper

To saute the scallops:

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons seasoning salt

Freshly ground black pepper

2 pounds large sea scallops, carefully dried with paper towels

2 tablespoons olive oil

3 tablespoons vodka

2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley, for garnish

1. In a large skillet heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the leek and saute over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until soft but not brown, about 3 to 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook another minute.

2. Add the marinara sauce, pesto, vodka, cream, red pepper and salt. Bring to a simmer and cook for 3 to 5 minutes to make sure the alcohol has burned off. Taste and adjust the seasonings.

3. Combine the flour, salt and pepper in a lock-top plastic bag. Place the scallops in the bag and seal. Shake the bag to evenly dredge the scallops.

4. Heat the oil in a large nonstick skillet on medium-high heat. When hot, sear the scallops in batches for about 3 to 4 minutes per side, depending on their size, until seared on the outside and just cooked and opaque in the center. Put all the scallops in the pan and turn down the heat. Add the vodka and reduce the liquid to a glaze. Add half of the sauce and glaze the scallops, turning them, about 1 to 2 more minutes.

5. To serve, place the scallops on a serving platter or individual plates, spoon over the remaining sauce, garnish with parsley and serve immediately.

Advance preparation: Can be prepared up to day ahead through step 2, covered and refrigerated. Reheat the sauce gently. Taste and adjust the seasonings.

Sun-Dried Tomato Pesto

Makes about 1/2 cup.

2 garlic cloves, peeled

1/2 cup oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, drained (reserve oil)

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh basil leaves

1 tablespoon reserved oil from tomatoes, or olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese, optional

1. With the motor running, add the garlic cloves to a food processor fitted with the metal blade. Add the tomatoes, basil, oil, salt and pepper, and process until a thick paste is formed. If it is too thick, you may need to add a bit more oil. Place the pesto in a covered container and refrigerate. Add the cheese, if desired, just before serving.

Advance Preparation: Can be prepared up to 2 weeks ahead, covered and stored in the refrigerator.

(Diane Rossen Worthington is an authority on new American cooking. She is the author of 20 cookbooks, including most recently "Seriously Simple Parties" (Chronicle Books, 2012), and also a James Beard award-winning radio show host. You can contact her at www.seriouslysimple.com.)


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