This recipe was inspired by a dish we had many years ago in Ajijic, Mexico. The name of the restaurant has been forgotten, but the taste of seared sea scallops with a smoky charred tomatillo salsa verde has stuck with us. We have recreated it many times. While the ingredients are all Mexican, we have been able to make it just about anywhere thanks to widespread the availability of tomatillos and chili peppers.
Salsa verde is really just a generic name for “green sauce” and many cultures have their own versions. Mexican salsa verde is based on tomatillos and usually also includes chili peppers, onions, and cilantro. Salsa verde is easy to make and versatile to use in many recipes, or to just eat on its own with a bowl of tortilla chips.
Not familiar with tomatillos? One of the most common species of husk tomatoes, they look like small green tomatoes covered with a papery husk. In Mexican markets they can simply be called tomate verde. Tomatillos are related to tomatoes, but they are not the same. They are more tart, less juicy, with small edible seeds. Tomatillos are native to Mexico and also found all over the Americas.
There are many variations of salsa verde recipes using tomatillos that are either raw, boiled, sauteed, or roasted. To pair with the sweet nutty flavor of seared sea scallops, we prefer roasting or grilling the tomatillos and peppers, which concentrates and caramelizes the sugars and softens the acidity. Charring on the grill also adds a nice smokiness.
You can adjust the spice level of your salsa verde by changing up the type of peppers that you use. Poblanos are very mild and we use them mainly for their unique flavor and to add body to the salsa. We add some Sweet Cubanelles when we can find them because we like how the sweet pepper balances the acidity of the salsa. The heat of jalapeños varies from pepper to pepper depending on how they were grown. If you really want your salsa to have a kick, add some spicy serranos.
Charred Salsa Verde
We like to make a big batch of this salsa verde because it is so versatile and it freezes well. Once the grill is hot, it just makes sense to pile the veggies on. This recipe makes about 6 cups, much more than you need for the scallops. Scale it down as desired if you don’t want extra.
Grill the whole peppers over a high flame until the skin turns black, turning frequently to make sure all sides are charred and blistered evenly. Place the grilled peppers in a paper bag or a heat resistant bowl covered with aluminum foil and set aside to steam in their own heat until they have cooled enough to handle.
When cooled, remove the skins, stems, and seeds of the peppers. You can leave the seeds in the jalapeño if you want a spicier salsa. Need more details on how to peel and seed roasted peppers?
Tomatillos have a sappy coating over the skin of the fruit, so they need to be cleaned before use. Remove the husks from tomatillos and rinse thoroughly under running to remove the sticky film from the surface.
Using a grill tray, grill the whole tomatillos, onion, and garlic cloves over medium heat until they are softened and charred in spots. Pull the tomatillos off of the grill and into a bowl before they split open so that you don’t lose the juices.
Working in batches, combine tomatillos, peppers, onion, garlic, and cilantro in bowl of food processor or blender and pulse until pureed to desired consistency. Make sure to include any collected juices.
Recombine batches in a bowl. Add the lime juice and salt to taste. Refrigerate until ready to use or keep warm on stovetop to use immediately with scallops.
Seared Sea Scallops
The larger the scallops, the better. We try to get U10’s (10 scallops/lb) but in the end you work with what’s available. Rinse the scallops in cold water. Drain on paper towels and pat dry on all sides with paper towels. Make sure the scallops are completely dry or they will not brown properly.
Sprinkle the scallops with salt and pepper on both sides.
Add butter and oil together in skillet. Swirl the fats together and heat over high until the mixture starts to bubble and brown. It needs to be smoking hot…but don’t let the butter burn.
Place scallops into the skillet. They should sizzle when they hit the pan. You may need to sear the scallops in batches to avoid overcrowding the skillet. You don’t want the scallops touching each other or they will steam instead of browning.
Cook for 2 minutes, or until a nice brown crust forms. Avoid moving them around or they may not brown.
Using tongs, flip the scallops and cook for an additional 1 to 2 minutes on other side. DO NOT OVER COOK! If cooking in batches, remove the finished scallops to a warm plate and tent with foil to keep warm.
Serve immediately with the salsa verde.
Seared Sea Scallops with Charred Salsa Verde
3.5 lbs Tomatillos (about 20 medium size), husked and rinsed
4-6 Poblano peppers
3 Jalapeño peppers
3 Sweet Cubanelle peppers or any other peppers you like(optional)
1 large onion, cut into large chunks
4 cloves garlic, whole
1 bunch (1 cup) cilantro
juice of 1 lime
salt to taste
Large U10 dry sea scallops (4 or 5 per person)
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
salt and pepper
Charred Salsa Verde
- Grill the poblano, cuban, and jalapeño peppers over a high flame. Turn to cook on all sides until entire surface is charred and blistered. Place peppers in a heat resistant bowl and cover with aluminum foil. Set aside. When cool enough to handle, remove skins, stems, and seeds.
- On a grill tray, grill the whole tomatillos, onions, and garlic cloves over medium heat until they soften and brown slightly.
- Working in batches, combine tomatillos, peppers, onion, garlic, and cilantro in bowl of food processor or blender and pulse until pureed to desired consistency.
- Recombine batches in a bowl. Add the lime juice and salt to taste.
- Keep warm on stovetop while cooking the scallops. Extra salsa verde can be refrigerated or frozen for later use.
Seared Sea Scallops
- Rinse scallops in cold water. Drain on paper towels and pat dry on all sides with paper towels until completely dry.
- Sprinkle the scallops with salt and pepper on both sides.
- Combine butter and oil together in skillet over high heat. Swirl the fats together and heat until the mixture starts to bubble and brown.
- Place scallops into the skillet without allowing them to touch each other. You may need to sear the scallops in batches to prevent overcrowding.
- Cook for 2 minutes, or until a nice brown crust forms on the bottom. Avoid moving them around or they may not brown.
- Using tongs, flip the scallops and cook for an additional 1 to 2 minutes on other side.
- If cooking in batches, remove finished scallops to a warm plate and tent with foil to keep warm.
- Serve immediately with the salsa verde.