Red Turnips, Scallops, and Pasta

I continue to grovel for nearly killing Fred last week, and yesterday some some scallops offered a chance for redemption. (They came from Walking Fish, our community sponsored fishery, which I’ve raved about so much in this blog that they need to start paying me.)

My first thought was to serve them over pasta, with a side salad that included this bunch of red turnips, picked up at the Durham Farmers’ Market on Saturday and so in desperate need of eating.

The turnips are white on the inside, laced with red, and with a thick scarlet ring around the edge when sliced. They would have been beautiful in a salad, especially with their greens mixed in. Unfortunately, though, they tasted like–turnips. Really sharp turnips. So cooking was in order, and I considered serving them mixed with the scallops.

But I dispensed with this idea when I saw the scallops, just a few hours out of the ocean.  They were everything you hope for in a scallop–sweet, buttery, tender little pillows that needed only a quick visit to the skillet. They deserved star billing, not to be sullied by any association with pasta or, God forbid, turnips.

Thus the turnips, with their greens, ended up on top of the pasta. The idea was inspired in the vaguest sort of way by a visit to Liguria, Italy, in 1994, when I first had potatoes and pasta with pesto–the moment I came to understand that anything, even another starch, could be served pasta and it would be good.

My scallop technique comes from Cook’s Illustrated’s book The Best Recipe, though really the only technique you need for scallops is not to overcook them. The recipe includes a nice sauce made from the pan juices, and it occurred to me that a variation on that sauce would be good with the turnips. (“Variation” may be the wrong word here, since I left out everything in the recipe except butter, white wine, and parsley and added turnips, garlic and turnip greens.)

The meal below looks more complicated than it is. I’ve written out the recipe in some detail because the timing is critical–but the whole thing took only 30 minutes from the moment the ingredients came out of the refrigerator.

And it’s worth it. Fred declared this one of the best meals we’ve had–though he thought the addition of sausage might help. Only the fact that I put him in the emergency room last week kept me from killing him right there.

Scallops, Red Turnips, and Pasta

Serves 2

14 medium to large scallops
1 – 2 tablespoons butter
Salt and pepper

Turnips and Pasta
6 small red turnips, washed, greens and ends trimmed, sliced into 1/2″ wide strips
Greens from turnips, stems trimmed, washed, dried, and cut into 3″ wide strips
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1 – 2 tablespoons butter
1/2 – 1 cup white wine
Fresh chopped parsley for garnish (about 1/2 cup)
1/2 lb penne pasta
Butter and salt for pasta

This recipe goes quickly once you begin cooking, so it is important to have everything ready.

1. Prepare vegetables and set aside.
2. Set scallops out on a plate and salt and pepper to taste. Set out additional clean plate, with foil to cover, for cooked scallops.
3. Put salted water for pasta on to boil. (Follow package directions.)
4. Heat large skillet on medium high heat for about 2 minutes. Once skillet is heated, add butter and swirl until bottom of skillet is coated. Cook until butter is lightly brown, a few minutes.
5. Add scallops quickly, one at at time. Cook for 1 minute. Turn individually and cook for an additional minute. You want to undercook the scallops a bit, as they will continue to cook a little on the plate. Turn off heat and transfer scallops to plate. Keep in warm place until ready to serve. (Covered on top of or near the stove is fine, or in a warming tray on the lowest possible heat.)
6. Watch the pasta water while you are preparing the other ingredients and add pasta to water once it comes to a boil. Cook according to package directions and keep an eye on it so it doesn’t overcook. When pasta is done, drain it, return to cooking pot, add butter and salt, and cover until ready to serve.
7. Return heat on skillet to medium. Add 1 – 2 tablespoons butter until melted. Add wine, enough to cover bottom of the pan, and scrape bottom to remove brown bits. Add turnips and salt to taste. Cover and cook until just tender, about 5 minutes.
8. Add greens. Cook an additional 2 – 3 minutes, covered, until greens have just wilted.
9. Remove lid from turnips and continue cooking just a few minutes more. Serve turnips over pasta and garnish with parsley, with scallops on the side.

In which I nearly kill Fred

Last week, Fred triumphed in a marital victory of epic proportions. On Wednesday morning, he pointed out to me a red spot on his waist, just at the top of the thigh bone, about an inch or so across.

“I think I need to go to the doctor about this,” he said. “It looks like it’s getting infected, and I think my lymph nodes are swollen.”

I peered at the spot. “Oh for heaven’s sake,” I scoffed. “It’s just an infected mosquito bite. That’s why your lymph glands are swollen. They swell up even for regular mosquito bites. If it starts to spread go to the doctor.”

“Are you sure?” Fred said.

I rolled my eyes and made the sort of face you might make at a small child pestering you to fix a scratched finger. “Of course I’m sure. You’ll be fine.” I am always sure, since I am always right.

That was the end of the story, I figured–except, of course, for getting a good laugh out of it with my female colleagues at work. What big babies men are! we said. Running to the doctor over a little infected mosquito bite! HAHAHAHAHA!

That night, as we were getting into bed, I said smugly to Fred, “I take it your bite hasn’t gotten any worse?”

“It still itches,” he replied, “but I haven’t checked it since this morning.”

“Let’s take a look at it then.” I figured we might as well put an end to this.

Fred pulled down his waistband. “It looks like it might be a little redder,” he said.

In that moment it dawned on me that Fred is no baby. The spot was not “a little redder.” It had grown about a half inch in diameter and turned a fiery scarlet. Worse, a pinkish swelling, about a foot or more across, had spread across his groin, waist, and thigh.

In that moment I remembered the inch-long splinter Fred had left in his thigh for over a month, which got infected and which he treated only when I made him go to the doctor.

“I guess I should go to the doctor tomorrow,” he said.

“No you will not! We are going to the emergency room right now!”

We’d recently had a friend hospitalized for just this sort of thing–a rapidly spreading redness on this skin that quickly developed into a nasty MRSA infection (a superbug that is resistant to multiple antibiotics). Fred, it turns out, had the same thing that set off our friend’s MRSA infection–cellulitis, a bacterial infection of the skin that can spread rapidly. The bite, which Fred later revealed had been there for a couple of weeks and had been growing steadily worse, probably came from a spider.

We were lucky to get  in and out of the emergency room in a little over three hours. I felt terrible for dismissing Fred’s worries earlier. I felt even worse thinking about the bill we would get for the emergency room visit. I felt still worse thinking that if I’d listened to Fred, we would be out only a $30 co-pay for a visit to urgent care and would not be sitting in Duke’s emergency room at 2:00 a.m.

As the doctor was writing out the prescription for some powerful antibiotics, I tried to think of something that would get me out of a lifetime of groveling, that might somehow indicate that I had not pooh-poohed Fred’s troubles in vain.

“So if we didn’t treat this,” I offered, timidly, “would it just resolve itself? I mean, is this the sort of thing that might clear up without going to the doctor?”

The doctor looked up from his paperwork. “Oh no,” he replied cheerily. Clearly, he was on Fred’s side. “He would die. The infection would get into his bloodstream and become septic. That’s why antibiotics were such an important development. This used to kill people all the time!”

Happy to have set our minds at rest, he handed us his paperwork and breezed out of the room.

Fred is recovering well, and he is too kind to gloat. But let’s just say he’s getting fed very well these days. I had intended to post a recipe for the lamb dish I made for him the next night, but frankly it didn’t turn out very well. But there will be plenty more, since I will be paying for this for the rest of our life together. And since I’m awfully glad he’s here.

Pupuseria y Taqueria Orellana

Fred pretends to be adventurous. After all, he’s the artist–the one who moved to New Mexico on a lark to make his life as a painter; the one who likes to horrify me by wearing white athletic socks to social events; the one for whom “CD investments” means spending too much money on jazz recordings in the late 1990s.

But the truth came out on a recent Sunday venture after church, when we decided to eat out before running some errands. Driving away from the service, I said, “Why don’t we stop at one of those little Mexican restaurants on Roxboro?”

Fred squirmed–actually squirmed–moving back and forth in his seat. “Which one?” he said, fear coming in to his eyes.

“I was thinking about that little place right after the church on the left.”


“You don’t want to go,” I said. “Why?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s just outside my comfort zone.”

“What do you mean? Are you afraid you’ll order something that tastes bad?”

He thought for a minute. “I’m afraid there won’t be anything I recognize on the menu.”

“They’ll have carnitas,” I scoffed. “All Mexican restaurants have carnitas, and you always like that.”

Poor Fred was trapped, and he knew it. If he refused, he’d lose his cachet as the zany artist, the free spirit eager to seek out new experiences. I had him.

Thus we found ourselves pulling in to the parking lot of Pupuseria y Taqueria Orellana (5300 N. Roxboro Rd; 919-471-3299).

To be fair to Fred, it’s a stretch to describe this place as a restaurant. The dining area is in the back of a convenience store featuring Mexican and Latin American products. It consists of an order window, several colorful plastic booths, a large-screen TV, and a fascinating stone fountain with potted plants set up along the back wall in an empty refrigerated case, shelves and doors having been removed. With the exception of the fountain, it’s a lot like the fast food places you’ll find attached to a gas station at an Interstate exit.

Unlike a fast food joint at a gas station, though, the food here was fresh, clearly prepared to order. Much to Fred’s horror, there were no carnitas on the very short menu, which kindly offered some English translations. But he found comfort in a miraculous sandwich, a torta de carne asada. This featured thin slices of spiced meat on an enormous bread roll good enough to be homemade: white on the inside, dark brown and crusty-soft on the outside. It also included generous amounts of mayonnaise, lettuce, tomato, jalapenos, and “a special cheese”–a soft, mild white cheese I’m afraid I can’t identify.

The sandwich calmed Fred. Here were recognizable items–meat, bread, jalapenos, cheese–and he wasn’t being forced to speak Spanish. With his anxieties under control, I was able to turn my attention to my own order–tacos with tongue (lengua), cabeza (pig’s head), and al pastor (spiced beef).

These were wondrous creations. Each was covered in neatly diced onion, cilantro, a slice of avocado, and fresh limes. The salsa–a sauce in the traditional Mexican sense, not our American tomato-based tortilla dip–was thin, sharp and vinegary. The meat was tender and nicely seasoned. (There were, by the way, plenty of offerings for the less adventurous: chicken, carne asada, chorizo).

We also enjoyed a tamale, which resembled a giant hush puppy with a moist, cake-like interior, and a pupusa de queso. There’s a nice description of the pupusa here: it’s a Salvadoran dish consisting of a corn tortilla stuffed with a variety fillings, such as meat or cheese. The pupusa de queso here included Salvadoran and mozzarella cheeses. I’m sure mozzarella is not native to El Salvador, but it worked nicely in combination with the slightly sour Salvadoran cheese.

Fred was happy when we left. His response the next Sunday was predictable. “Can we stop at that place again?”