Butter + leeks = delicious: Scallops with Melted Leeks and Egg Noodles

by Terry B on April 17, 2012

A recent dinner out brought home a new cooking technique for us—“melting” leeks by cooking them slowly in butter. They’re a sweet complement to sautéed scallops and pasta. Recipe below.

We’ve used leeks any number of ways here. Sautéed, puréed in soups, braised with duck legs, baked into tarts and quiches, even cooked almost whole as a side dish. But melted?

That’s how they were served with a nicely cooked piece of halibut when we ate at Frontier in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood recently. As delicious as the fish was on its own, the melted leeks took it to a whole new place. We knew we’d be trying something with them here soon.

In their simplest, purest form, melted leeks are leeks cooked in butter over low heat for a long time. Unlike caramelizing, where you use higher heat to deeply brown onions or other vegetables, this is more of an extreme sweating process. As you can see with the leeks peeking out from under the scallops above, they barely color. The long, low cooking makes them meltingly soft (hence the name) and brings out their sweetness. A splash of lemon juice at the end balances the butter’s richness. The result is a sweet, luxurious accompaniment perfect for just about any seafood.

There are any number of recipes out there for melted leeks. Some call for boiling the leeks first for nearly half an hour. I think this would just drain them of lots of their flavor, and leeks are already quite mild. Writer Regina Schrambling beautifully describes them as the gentle giants of the onion family. If you’ve never cooked with them, their imposing appearance can be daunting. But their taste is absolutely civilized.

Scallops were Marion’s call as we discussed what to do with melted leeks on the way home from Frontier. As were the egg noodles. In fact, this post might have been hers, but I was the one with more time for the kitchen this weekend. Scallops are always fun to work with. They cook quickly and are practically impossible to screw up (unless you don’t cook them quickly). They’re rich and meaty, with a slight sweetness. And they just look cool, with their drumlike shape. Here, I halved them so they wouldn’t overwhelm the pasta. It also made them easier to eat; you can cut them with just the side of the fork.

The egg noodles work well with this dish because of their shape and scale. You don’t want a long, twirly pasta here, but rather noodles you can jab with a fork, along with scallop bites.

Besides lots of butter, some olive oil, some lemon juice and salt and pepper, the only other ingredient here is parsley. It adds a nice freshness without imposing a bigger herb taste that, say, tarragon or sage might. The stars of this show are the leeks and the scallops.

Scallops with Melted Leeks and Egg Noodles
Serves 2

2 cups sliced leeks (from 2 large or 3 smaller leeks)
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
good quality extra virgin olive oil
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1/2 pound sea scallops (about 4 to 6)

1/2 pound short, wide egg noodles (or other ribbon pasta)

Melt the leeks. Slice the dark green leafy top and root tip from each leek, leaving just the white and pale green parts. Halve lengthwise and rinse under cold running water, fanning layers to wash away any grit. Slice leeks crosswise into 1/8- to 1/4-inch half moons.

Heat a heavy lidded saucepan over a medium-low flame. (Heavy is the key here, a thin-bottomed pan will brown or even burn the leeks.) Cut up butter and add to pan, along with 1 tablespoon oil, swirling to combine. Add leeks to pan and stir to coat with butter and oil. Season with salt and pepper. Add 2 tablespoons water, stir again and cover the pan. Reduce heat to low and cook for 1/2 hour, stirring occasionally and adding water a tablespoon at a time if the leeks seem too dry. I added 3 tablespoons through the course of melting the leeks. The leeks don’t truly “melt,” by the way—they won’t be like a confit or jam. But they will be buttery soft. You can make ahead to this point and keep them covered on the stovetop.

Meanwhile, prepare the scallops. Rinse scallops under cold running water, feeling the surfaces carefully for any bits of sand. Slice off the side muscle from any scallop that still has it—this is a tougher piece of flesh attached to the side (for the second time in one post, I’m saying “hence the name”). Pat the scallops dry with paper towels and halve crosswise. Season both sides with salt and pepper and dredge the tops and bottoms lightly in flour. Lightly is key—you don’t want to bread the scallops, but just give the pan something to brown. Set aside.

Also meanwhile, cook the pasta. You want to time this so the pasta is done just before you’re ready to cook the scallops. The scallops will cook very quickly, and you don’t want to be screwing around with draining noodles while the scallops overcook. Cook according to package instructions. When the pasta is cooked to your liking, drain it, reserving some cooking water. Toss with 2 tablespoons of olive oil, salt, pepper and half the chopped parsley. Cover and set aside.

And finally, cook the scallops. Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium flame. (If the leeks need reheating, put them over a low flame now.) Add a tablespoon or so of oil and a teaspoon or so of butter to the skillet and swirl together. You want enough fat to coat the bottom of the pan well. Add the scallops and cook until just browned, about 2 minutes. Turn and cook for a minute more (the browned side will be the presentation side—the rest of the time is just to cook them through). Transfer scallops to a small plate and tent with foil.

Assemble the dish. Toss the egg noodles once more. If they seem dry, add a little of the reserved cooking water. Divide noodles between 2 shallow pasta bowls (you don’t have to use all the pasta—just put a good serving in each bowl). If you reheated the leeks, remove them from the heat and stir in the lemon juice. Spoon leeks over pasta. In this case, do use all of them—they’re very good. Arrange four scallop halves on each bowl and sprinkle with some of the remaining parsley. Serve.



{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Jill April 18, 2012 at 5:06 am

As usual, I love this recipe. I use leeks all the time and have never “melted” them. And your scallops look divine and perfectly seared. Naturally, I would expect nothing less of you!

kitchenriffs April 18, 2012 at 2:50 pm

My kind of dish — I love to cook this way. I’ve “melted” onions before, but never thought to melt leeks. They must taste wonderful. I know bacon has jumped the shark, but a bit of a bacon garnish might be nice on this dish, too — it goes so well will scallops. But really a perfect dish just as is. Good job!

Anita April 18, 2012 at 5:49 pm

I love leeks when eating out, but whenever I try and use them at home – and this has been considerably more than once or twice – something goes very wrong. I’ve had icky leek soup, burned (should have been roasted) leeks, had to pick them out of the veggie braise, etc., etc. Dare I try to melt them??? (Well, if worst comes to worst, I’ll still have noodles and scallops…)

Terry B April 20, 2012 at 3:05 pm

Thanks, Jill! Do try melting some leeks. Besides working with all kinds of seafood, I could see them complementing a roasted pork tenderloin. Pork plays nicely with anything with a sweetness to it like these.

Kitchenriffs, I’m a huge fan of bacon in almost any form (well, except for the really goofy applications—bacon vodka, I mean you—that have caused us all to say that bacon has jumped the shark). But with this dish, everything is so delicate that I fear bacon would be kind of a schoolyard bully here, taking over all the other flavors. That said, it does go nicely with scallops!

Anita, I admire your sticktoitiveness in continuing to try leeks, but am baffled by your setbacks. I love cooking with them in just about any format. Do give them one last try, and just remember, you want a heavy saucepan and low flame for this.

Anne April 23, 2012 at 3:18 pm

Just discovered your blog…and this recipe was what caught my eye! Was going to serve some lobster tails for our anniversary dinner tonight…but that idea has been nixed…and am going to try the scallops!

Terry B April 24, 2012 at 3:08 pm

Happy anniversary, Anne! I hope the scallops lived up to your expectations—lobster tails are mighty tough competition.

[email protected]://texasfoodandtravel.blogspot.com/ April 27, 2012 at 4:16 pm

Now this is my kind of dish. Thanks for sharing

Anita May 1, 2012 at 12:34 am

ok, I’ll confess – I exaggerated the leek catastrophes, since I’ve made your duck legs recipes several times and it always turned out! But yes, leeks go wrong for me WAY more than they should. Today I finally made this recipe, and though I think that I got scared and as a consequence underfloured my scallops, the mix of flavors was awesome. The leeks are marvelous, and I’d never cooked a scallop before, but it worked. Thank you… I don’t comment nearly as often as I use your recipes, but you have taught me a lot.

Terry B May 1, 2012 at 3:59 pm

I’m so glad you tried this dish, Anita—and that it turned out so well for you. Especially after your (exaggerated) leek catastrophes. Scallops are a wonderful kitchen secret. They’re crazy easy to cook and never fail to impress. Thanks for the wonderful comment!

kitty May 3, 2012 at 12:12 am

wow. what a gorgeous dish!
we might try this one weekend very soon. We’re looking for more additions to our repertoire! Thanks Terry!!

Bettina May 12, 2012 at 2:32 am

Just saw this today & made it tonight with homemade egg noodles. phenomenal! Making scallops at home has been hit & miss for me, also. This one was definitely a winner. Thanks for the great recipe!

Terry B May 12, 2012 at 3:05 am

Hope you do try it, Kitty. It really is easy and delicious.

Glad you liked it, Bettina! I love hearing from readers who’ve cooked my recipes (especially if they like them, of course).

kitty May 20, 2012 at 12:17 am

Hi Terry, we made this tonight!
For some reason my scallops didn’t sear. I think that makes a difference. We bought 2x scallops so left them unhalved.
This is our first scallop recipe ever, and I’m sure we’ll revisit it soon. Thanks so much for sharing!!

Colombe October 9, 2017 at 3:41 pm

Had frozen scallops thawing out, and a nice bunch of leeks. While checking out all kinds of recipes online I finally decided on yours. We loved it!

Terry B October 11, 2017 at 10:20 am

Thanks, Colombe! I’m glad you liked it.

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