Black and white, huh?

Here's something that is not-quite-black and very-nearly-white, but will look stunning on a plate amid other monochrome dishes. Squid ink and cuttlefish ink, or nero di seppia in Italian, is a dark blue colour. Octopus ink, so I'm told, is as near black as makes no difference, but harder to find. Cephalopod ink is not poisonous, but has a mild fishy flavour. The ink is there more for the visuals than the flavour or texture it brings.

Some people have suggested that squid ink is Ewwwww! Humph! Think of it as all-natural food colouring, with no additives or chemicals. Feel better?

Word has it that cephalopods use their ink as an anaesthetic, to prevent attack by moray eels. Morays hunt using their sensitive skin to detect movements in the water, so they will normally attack a cephalopod as soon as they get anywhere close. Apparently, after passing through a cloud of ink, a moray will hit a squid with its nose and still not go for the kill. The conclusion from this observation is that the moray's nose has been anaesthetised. I've never heard anyone argue that squid ink anaesthetises the mouth and palate when used in a recipe.

Onto the recipe. Amounts are not that critical, but cooking time is.

You can buy dried pasta coloured with squid ink in delicatessens. It looks grey-black, or a very dark blue. For this recipe tagliatelle is probably best: the long, thin strips of pasta. Cooked al dente, they give just enough bite to this dish.

If you really want to make the pasta yourself, then you can buy whole squid from a fishmonger--it has to be really fresh, mind you--and go through the hassle of cleaning them, cutting out the beak and separating all the different parts, including the ink sacs. Use the ink instead of some of the water used to make the pasta. Personally I'd just buy the dried version.

I'm going to propose using queen scallops (bay scallops) for this dish, because they are almost-white and perfectly sweet and I love 'em. Oddly, in the UK these little creatures are cheaper and more commonly available than the larger-sized sea scallops. Perhaps a more fitting ingredient would be squid rings, or calamari. That will go well, but there isn't the same contrast in textures as you get with scallops, so there won't be the same sweetness and luxurious feel in your mouth.

I suggest using bay scallops partly because they are cheaper, in the UK at least; partly because they are easier to cook and partly because in this kind of quick fisherman's dish, the difference in taste and texture between queens and real scallops does not justify the extra expense. If in the USA, where bay scallops are the most expensive, then use sea scallops, slice them into discs about 1 cm thick and fry them up as if they were bay scallops

The important thing about cooking scallops is to fry or sear them fast and hot to caramelise the sugars on the outside, leaving the insides tender and moist. To achieve that balance, the scallops must not be too thick, or the inside won’t cook before the outside goes tough.

sneff says I like the fact that you have suggested searing the scallops on high heat, but here in Australia, I get huge white sea scallops, 2 - 2 1/2 cm thick, and sear them over incendiary heat for 20 or so seconds each side. They are raw inside, but warmed through. Must be super fresh to do this, and its delicious.

How can you argue with that? But if you are not confident of the absolute freshness of your shellfish, then mebbe cook them longer on a marginally lower heat.

If you want to convert the dish to a fancy appetiser, then use full-sized sea scallops and a small amount of pasta. Cut the scallops in half across the disc, and cook them in a hot pan.

For a really luxurious variation, you might think about adding some wild mushrooms, like morels in spring, or porcini in autumn to the scallop version, they will enhance the flavour. I don't think wild mushrooms go so well with calamari, but I'm willing to be persuaded otherwise. And with mushrooms, eliminate the chilli, OK?

With both scallops and squid, you must not over-cook the flesh. A minute or perhaps two in a hot pan will be enough. Any more and you lose the sweetness and texture of the scallops, while calamari will go tough. Better to undercook them slightly than to over-cook.

What you need:

  • Pasta coloured with squid ink. About that much. Yeah, maybe a bit more. People are going to enjoy eating this. If you insist on having numbers, then 100 grams (4 ounces) per person for a main course; 50g (2 oz) for a starter.
  • Garlic, sliced roughly. A clove or two should be enough for three or four people. This is quite a subtle dish. Don't go for over-kill.
  • Sea food. Enough that you aren't skimping. Five or six queens or one large sea scallop for each starter, twice that for a main.
  • Olive oil. Two or three generous dribbles.
  • A small hot chilli chopped finely; maybe just half a chilli. Again, this is a subtle dish, no over-kill necessary. You are trying to give a little kick to each mouthful, not blow their heads off.
  • Morels (optional): again, no overkill here, perhaps two or three fungi per person. If you use mushrooms, then drop the chilli. It tastes better that way.
  • One large boiling pan filled with boiling water and a hint of oil
  • One mid-sized pan for frying the seafood. Ideally it should be big enough to take all the pasta as well as the seafood, but that's not critical.
  • A bottle of crisp white wine (optional)

What you do

The pasta should take ten minutes or so to cook. The garlic and chilli will need about five to ten minutes in oil at a low heat before frying /searing the seafood at a high heat for a minute or two (absolute max).

It needs to be eaten fresh and hot or the pasta goes a bit claggy and manky, so make sure everyone is seated before getting to the final stage of cooking.

Throw the pasta into the boiling pan. Add oil and/or salt to your taste. If you're new to this, then don't use any salt, but dribble oil on the surface of the water before putting the pasta in. Dried pasta will take ten minutes or so, fresh will be ready after just a minute or two. Follow the instructions on the pack.

After the pasta has been on for three or four minutes, turn up the heat under the garlic and chilli. Real purists will remove the garlic at this point to prevent the bitter flavour of burned garlic, but most of us won't bother. Throw in the seafood and cook for a minute or so. If you over-did the garlic, then throw in a handful of chopped parsley to mellow it down. Meanwhile, start draining the pasta.

Just before serving the dish, you might want to deglaze the sauce dish with a sloosh (half a glass) of white wine, let it bubble for a few seconds and then scrape up all the caramelised residues.

In an ideal world, you will be making the sauce in a pan big enough to take the pasta, so that the drained pasta can be mixed in with the sauce and soak up all the flavoursome juices in the pan. In less professional kitchens, you could keep a portion of pasta back, then drain the sauce over the pasta before using that small portion of pasta to rinse out the sauce pan, and then mixing it back into the main mixture. Or you could just serve up dishes of pasta, and dribble the sauce and scallops over the pasta at table. Depends on how formal you want to be.

Serve. Eat, Enjoy.

Just so that you know, I have never cooked this particular version, but I've cooked stuff very similar. Nor did I copy the recipe from anywhere. It's not rocket science.

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